Collateral damage: The murder of Richard Davis
Even by the squalid standards of modern warfare, the murder of US soldier Richard Davis by fellow troops in 2003 was especially brutal. Now, as the story comes to the big screen in a controversial new movie, Rob Sharp reports from California on a case that refuses to die
Tuesday 08 January 2008
High in the desert, a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, a family huddles together at Sunset Hills Memorial Park. Having driven to the cemetery in convoy from their home in nearby Apple Valley, an innocuous town far from the sprawling bustle of LA, they lay flowers at a stone slab set into an area of plastic turf known as the Garden of Valor. As the sun sinks behind the San Bernardino Mountains, they cast long shadows across the grass. The wind musses their hair. A short walk away, other family members lie buried high in the surrounding rock, looking down on the gathered throng.
Across the grave is the simple inscription: "Richard T Davis, born 1978, died 2003." Richard's father, Lanny, a Vietnam veteran, places his flowers on it. He removes his photo-chromatic glasses and observes his family sheltering from the bluster with detachment, clutching his son's army boots. "I'm not cold; this is nothing," he says in a hoarse voice, the result of a Vietcong soldier ramming a rifle butt into his throat, 40 years ago.
Richard Davis has had two funerals at Sunset Hills. The first, in December 2003 and marked by a 21-gun salute, followed the discovery of an incomplete set of Richard's remains, scarred with stab marks from the blade that killed him. The second took place earlier this year, after more parts of his body were released by Georgia prosecutors. Richard's mother, Remy, hopes to hold a third funeral once she obtains the last missing piece of Richard, one of his ribs.
The events surrounding Richard Davis's gruesome death are about to become familiar to British cinema audiences. A Hollywood film inspired by his killing, In the Valley of Elah, is released in the UK on 25 January. With a stellar cast Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones (whose character is based on Lanny Davis) and an Oscar-winning director, Paul Haggis, behind the camera, it was feted on its release in the United States. Jones is being talked about as a potential Oscar-winner for a performance described as the most powerful of his career.
The film follows the story of a man who drives across America after his son, a soldier who served in the Iraq war, goes missing. Faced with an unhelpful military, he tries to wrestle the truth out of those who served with his son. It's an Erin Brockovich-style tale of David versus Goliath; indeed, its title is taken from the location of this biblical battle.
But, while The New Yorker calls it "an American film that convinces you that its protagonist is genuinely a great man", the movie has been criticised by those who inspired it. In fact, Lanny Davis's true story is more harrowing than a fictionalised account could ever be.
Lanny's life has been in turmoil since Richard returned from serving in Iraq in 2003. That year, his son was stabbed and his body burned and buried by a trio of his fellow soldiers. Lanny drove across two states from his home in Missouri to Richard's base in Fort Worth, Texas, and began an investigation into his son's disappearance. Eventually, his son's killers were brought to justice. But one of them is now free, and the others are appealing against their imprisonment. Much was made of the influence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) mental instability provoked by war on their actions.
In this interview, his only one with a British newspaper, Lanny Davis describes the short life and horrific death of his son, who had been a specialist with Baker Company, a prestigious section of the US Army, and of how he is still fighting for the truth.
The story behind Lanny's gradual disillusionment how he went from being a loyal military man who served his country with pride to someone who now speaks of "that bastard" George W Bush and "dickhead Rumsfeld" goes back more than two decades.
Davis, 58, sits in his single-storey Apple Valley ranch house, which is decorated for Christmas. Kitsch nativity scenes sit near a widescreen television set, above which hangs Richard's photograph, adorned with tinsel. Outside, the front door is marked with a yellow ribbon declaring "Bring them home safely"; parked in the garage is Richard's powerful sports car, with a red Christmas ribbon tied to its spoiler.
Sitting in his kitchen, Lanny describes how he volunteered for the army at 20 and served as a sergeant in Vietnam. He met his wife in 1974 when she was a medic in the army and he a senior military policeman.
Richard, born on a military base in Germany, had a more or less uneventful upbringing until the family moved back to Lanny's childhood home in Missouri, where Richard began to be bullied at school. Because Remy is Filipina-American and Richard was mixed-race, their son "got a lot of flak for the way he looked", his father remembers.
"They are backward, uneducated people back there, however you want to say it," Lanny says in his Midwestern lilt, peppering his speech with the "sirs" and "ma'ams" ingrained by his military days. "They try to impress people by picking on things that they think are different."
Richard signed up with the army in 1999, aged 19, to "prove" his allegiance to his country. He was soon sent to Bosnia with an artillery unit, as a United Nations peacekeeper. It was his first contact with the atrocities of war; calling his father, he described the mass graves of women and children he saw there. "Of course that's going to traumatise anybody," Lanny says. "He told me all about it. He said, 'Daddy, how can people do that, just kill women and children?' I said sometimes war does that. He would always be frightened, for the rest of his life, because he'd seen all of that."
Richard returned to Missouri after Bosnia. After failing to get a civilian job, he re-enlisted, this time with the infantry. "I didn't want him to go in to begin with. Because of what I'd been through, because of the crap I'd faced. Vietnam gave me injured arms and kidney disease and PTSD. But after the loss of my son, it don't mean nothing," Lanny says.
The last time his parents saw Richard was in November 2002. After that, Richard was shipped out to Kuwait. He told his father he did not think there was going to be a war, but Lanny disagreed; he'd watched the news reports of armaments being shipped to the Middle East and could sense which way the wind was blowing. "On 14 March, he turned 25. It wasn't even a week later that Bush ordered the war, the dirty bastard," Lanny says.
Richard's unit Baker Company, First Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, Third Brigade, Third Infantry Division (Mechanized) formed "the tip of the spear" that sped up the western bank of the Euphrates to lead the assault on Baghdad. Lanny describes how, when the men crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq, eight or nine people were squashed in together in vehicles meant to carry seven. Every village they came to, they fought through.
Lanny claims (although he is aware of his bias) that whenever the ramp would drop for the men to surge forward for battle, Richard would be the first out to fight. He describes him as a "pro soldier". Mario Navarrete, one of Richard's murderers, later described in court how "he never saw fear in Richard's eyes".
Richard had invested in extra equipment, such as a "speed holster" to enable him to draw his weapon more quickly. He would improvise showers from buckets with holes shot through, and was competent with mechanics and electronics. "He was such a confident man. But he had to fight two sets of people the whole time; the Iraqis and his eventual murderers," Lanny says.
Throughout this period, Richard was being bullied by Jacob Burgoyne, one of his murderers, now incarcerated in a mental hospital. Born and raised in Tallahassee, Florida, Burgoyne had enlisted in the army aged 18 and become a career soldier. By his own estimate, he shot to death more than 100 Iraqis as his convoy stormed into Baghdad. He later admitted shooting women, children, old men, soldiers and civilians, recounting how one of the tricks used by the "enemy combatants" was to put children in the road so the US military vehicles would slow down and could be ambushed. In those circumstances, Burgoyne's Humvee did not slow down.
"He shouldn't have been in the military. He was a nutcase," Lanny says. "He was so bad in training that he put someone in a coma." Davis claims that his son would take regular beatings from Burgoyne. He shows a picture of his son's face taken at around this time. It looks black and swollen.
Fellow infantryman Matt Thompson served with Richard's platoon in Iraq. Speaking shortly before Christmas, he said: "Burgoyne was a bully; he wanted people to like him but he wanted people to know he was top. He wasn't great at listening to orders. When we were back home, he would go out to bars and I was quite good friends with him then. But he needed people to make him toe the line. I stopped him getting into a few tussles. We also got in few too, though.
"He had some big issues. He always told us his mom was dead, and we knew she wasn't. He always wanted to prove himself to other people and a lot of the chain of command was scared of him.
"To tell you the truth, Richard was picked on, but everyone was picked on by somebody. Everyone didn't like someone; that's what it was like over there. Richard was different to other people. He had his own way of doing things. He would go out on his own and find stuff to build things when we were on down time, like cookers to cook food on, make them out of nothing."
Richard's problems intensified after the "official" end of the war in May 2003, when President Bush declared victory from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. For the next two months, the men of Baker Company stayed in and around Baghdad, awaiting their return home.
Lanny says: "They were in the boiling hot sun. [Richard] did not have a change of clothes or even a toothbrush, and had to wear one pair of boots and battle fatigues throughout. There were around 5,000 men in one area for six weeks in hot combat vehicles. At one point, he had to wait three hours to make a long-distance call for five minutes."
When Richard did call, he reversed the charges. "He said, 'We're down to one bottle of water to drink between all the men,'" Lanny says. "So I asked him, 'Where is the supply line?' and he said he didn't know. And he started crying and said, 'Dad, can't you get me out of here?' and I said, 'Son, I didn't want you to go in the first place.' I should have kept him out of there. One of the things he said was, 'Dad, I just want to prove to everyone that I'm American.' And I said, 'Son, you're more American than most.' I'd seen all the crap he'd been through in school."
Richard was begging and crying, saying that he didn't have a safe place "to lay his head". Later, it was discovered that in another bullying episode two members of his platoon, Navarrete and a man called Alberto Martinez, had almost choked him to death.
According to Matt Thompson: "Martinez was a lazy prick. He always tried to sham, trying to get other people to do work for him. You couldn't trust him when we played poker. People got along with him just because they had to. He could be cool at times, but I didn't like him because he was sneaky. He said he wanted to kill somebody. He didn't get to kill anyone out there. I mean, everyone wanted to, that was the whole thing. He kept on saying, 'I'm going to kill somebody,'" Thompson says.
Lanny claims his son approached an army medic after he was attacked and made him promise not to report anything. The last time he spoke to his son, on 23 May 2003, they were cut off in mid-conversation. Lanny asked his phone company for the reason for this, and shows the letter he received in response; it says the call was disconnected for being "unusual".
When Richard's platoon was in Kuwait, ready to be sent back to the US, Burgoyne attempted suicide. Army doctors reportedly examined him and said he was suffering from PTSD and should not be allowed near a weapon. But, trumpeted as a battle hero by his commanders, he was released and rejoined his comrades. Soon afterwards, Richard Davis was murdered.
The next Lanny heard about his son was through an early summer phone call from Richard's platoon sergeant at Fort Benning in Georgia. The sergeant reported that Richard had not turned up for morning formation. It transpired that the army intended to classify him as absent without leave (Awol) as opposed to a missing person, which meant that no official search by military authorities would be made. Lanny says: "I said, 'My son is pro-military. If anyone went Awol, it wouldn't be him.'"
No news was forthcoming for about six weeks. But, on 19 August, Lanny drove 700 miles from his house to the military base in Georgia to look for Richard. "I would have driven halfway around the world. I knew something bad had happened when they called," he says.
Lanny speculated about where his son was. He wondered if he had been picked up by a police officer in a small town and was unable to gain access to a telephone. Or maybe he needed a rest from the war and had taken off for Mexico. But he knew it was out of character for Richard not to contact his parents.
After arriving at the base, Lanny flashed his military identification and was allowed inside. He tried to speak to various members of his son's squad but they refused to answer his questions in the absence of an officer. He suspected they knew his son's whereabouts. "In a war you can't live by yourself, you can't fight with yourself, you got to know something."
Lanny continued asking people in and around his son's base for information but still drew a blank. He approached Military Police officials in Texas. He went to civilian police investigators. Then he came up with the idea of finding out whether Richard had been using his bank account. Through an old military contact, Davis spoke to the FBI, which checked Richard's bank account and discovered that there had been no recent transactions.
In September, Lanny called his congressman, Kenny Hulshof, and eventually began to make progress. Hulshof lobbied the Department of Defense on his behalf and finally, later that month, an official inquiry was launched. Men in Richard's platoon were summoned for interview about his disappearance.
Eventually, one of Richard's fellow soldiers, whom Lanny names as Christian Terry, broke. Terry went "off post" left his station to use a military payphone to contact investigators. He pointed the finger at Burgoyne. It was not long before a group of suspects were rounded up: Burgoyne, Martinez, Navarrete and another soldier, Douglas Woodcoff.
Woodcoff took investigators to a highway in Columbus, Georgia. "He took them out to the road where there was a place where they keep trash. That's when they started finding bits of my son."
In the quartet's subsequent trial, the full, gory details of the fate that had befallen Richard Davis came to light. According to documents lodged with the Georgia Supreme Court (where one of the soldiers is appealing his sentence), on the evening of 14 July 2003 the five men ate and drank at a Hooters restaurant in Columbus before moving on to a nearby strip club. At some point, bouncers asked two of the soldiers to remove Richard because he was visibly intoxicated. After the group left Richard in their car parked outside, they returned to drink more.
It was then that things took a darker turn. Even now, the full details of what took place that night remain unclear. What is known is that, about two hours later, one of the men pulled Richard from the car and began fighting with him. The five then drove away, with Navarrete shoving or punching Richard and another soldier beating him as they drove to a wooded area.
Once the car was off the road, the soldiers, including Navarrete, formed a circle around their victim. Martinez then pulled out a knife and stabbed Richard at least 33 times. The men drove to a convenience store for lighter fluid and matches and then drove back to the murder scene, where Martinez and another soldier poured the lighter fluid on to Richard's body and set it on fire. Several days later, Martinez, Navarrete and a third soldier returned to the scene to bury the remains.
When the case came to trial, an army medic, Edward Wulff, described an incident that had taken place in Iraq. Wulff said that one night Richard had woken him up, needing treatment to a wound on the back of his hand. He was drunk, but told Wulff he had been on a hill, drinking with Martinez and Navarrete, when they had decided to become "blood brothers". Davis told Wulff that Martinez and Navarrete hit and choked him and he thought they were about to kill him.
Martinez and Navarrete were convicted and sentenced to life. Burgoyne pleaded guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 20 years. Woodcoff's lawyers said he simply "caught a ride" with the men in question; he is currently on probation and is now a student in Texas.
"Navarrete and Martinez, the bastards, are up for parole in three or four years and they will probably get it," Lanny says. "They looked at my son as a mulatto, a half-breed. They thought, 'He's just another dead soldier, he had it coming to him.'"
Although Navarrete and Martinez's sentences are nominally "life", the court specified that they should each serve only 14 years in prison.
Burgoyne, who is serving time in Baldwin State Prison, Georgia, refused an interview request. But Mark Casto, the lawyer who represented him at the trial, said in an email: "The other three defendants never said a thing and had no remorse for their conduct or even remorse for the event, regardless of their individual participation. Only Jacob regretted this event.
"I hope you consider the PTSD diagnosis of Mr Burgoyne; how he was given inappropriate doses of medication that leads to delusional and psychotic behaviours; that he had tried to commit suicide because of his extreme emotional state; that the army doctors placed him on restriction status, ordered he be supervised at all times and that he carry no weapons. He was supposed to go to mental health hospital in Germany rather than being returned to the States. Instead, the army negligently brought him here, failed to monitor him, failed to follow up with his mental health issues and completely failed him as a soldier who asked for help, needed help and they knew he needed help.
"Don't forget, despite what Mr [Lanny] Davis thinks, Jacob did not do the actual killing. The testimony at trial clearly showed that defendant Martinez did the killing."
When In the Valley of Elah was released in the US late last year, it was lauded by the critics but it did not prove popular with cinema-goers. Those close to the real events it depicts have weighed in with criticism, too. Matt Thompson says: "It's hard to enjoy the movie because I knew what really happened. People say the real story would have been the better movie. They changed it too much."
Lanny takes issue with a scene in the film that shows the soldier based on Richard getting kicked out of a strip club, something he believes never happened. He is frustrated by the film-makers' suggestion that his son had a hash pipe (a claim he denies), and infuriated by the depiction of his son's killers as fine, upstanding American citizens who were turned into psychopaths by the madness of war; their documented histories contradict this.
The film's screenwriter was Mark Boal. Speaking from set on the final day's shooting of The Hurt Locker (another film about the Iraq war, directed by Kathryn Bigelow), Boal says that crucial decisions needed to be made when Lanny's story was adapted for the screen. "It's a fictional piece, and so at various junctures Paul [Haggis] and I thought we should change Lanny's story to make it feel more universal.
"I guess any audience's reaction is going to be inflected to some degree by what they think about the war. But I hope the film will stand on its own and come across as a human drama that's poignant on some level for audiences, regardless of which side of the political spectrum they fall on.
"I consider it a success. It was very well reviewed, and that makes me think it's a good film. I think the people who saw it found it worthwhile. I've been following the case and the developments and I've been covering the story for a long time. It's a fascinating and horribly tragic story for all concerned."
Now, those concerned with Richard's story are focused on a forthcoming book, Murder in Baker Company, along with a documentary film, by the American author Cilla McCain. Haggis has lent his financial support to the new film. Much of McCain's work discusses how the commander of Baker Company, Lieutenant Colonel John Charlton, was investigated by the military for the shootings of two prisoners of war during a 2003 battle in Baghdad. According to US wire reports, on 11 April that year Charlton shot and killed an enemy soldier rolling on the ground because a soldier next to him had just detonated a suicide-bomb vest and he feared another explosion. Charlton returned to the Iraqi soldier's body and shot him on the ground a second time because he saw "a threatening movement".
But McCain claims that various soldiers who served with Charlton have cast doubt over this account. She says: "He has been described as a 'loose cannon'; indeed, Charlton's favourite motto was, 'There's enough glory for everyone.' It sounds good for the movies, but that's not the way battles are fought you are creating an atmosphere. I believe those two prisoners he shot weren't the only ones. I have been told that."
In addition, there is a suggestion that Richard was involved in guarding some PoWs who were later illegally killed. And McCain also claims, after interviewing various members of Charlton's platoon, that Richard had witnessed the rape of an Iraqi girl by Martinez and Navarrete. She says: "I think that Richard did witness them doing something, and I think at Fort Benning he called them on it. To have Richard, an intelligent man, with these other guys, who were brutish, that night well, it was like a square peg in a round hole."
Lanny Davis sits with his family eating dinner at a restaurant at the side of Interstate 15, one of the continental highways that cross the US. He explains how one of the main manifestations of the PTSD he brought home from Vietnam is anxiety attacks. These often appear through nightmares. In one particularly harrowing dream, the former soldier says, he sees himself back in the Vietnam jungle at night, with a gun in his hand. He can hear the rotor blades of the helicopter that airlifted him into position inside his head. It is completely dark, and the jungle is damp, causing his fatigues to stick to him. The vegetation appears to close in around him. Suddenly, he says, he loses sight of his comrades and is filled with the overwhelming sense that he is about to die. He feels trapped. He wakes up gasping for air.
After Richard was murdered, the nightmares changed. Lanny started dreaming of an anonymous town in the middle of Iraq. In these dreams, Richard's squad is fighting "a lot of rag-tag Iraqi soldiers" down a night-time street. Lanny is there, dressed (inappropriately) in his jungle fatigues, making him vulnerable to attack, and unable to help. Suddenly, he'd see his son bent double in pain behind some rubble. Lanny tries to get to Richard, but something always prevents him. "I ain't never got him yet," he says.
Nowadays, Lanny Davis takes medication to help him sleep. So the dreams, like his son, are gone for ever.
In the Valley of Elah is released on 25 January. For more information, see www.richarddavisforpeace.com
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