Trial comes for Marine accused of killing ‘American Sniper’
STEPHENVILLE, Texas (AP) — Eddie Ray Routh had been talking crazy for a while. So when he showed up on his sister’s doorstep one afternoon two Februarys ago and claimed to have shot two men, she didn’t know what to think.
But when Laura Blevins saw the big black custom pickup truck in the driveway, not Eddie’s Volkswagen Beetle, her stomach tightened. He asked if she was with him “in hell,” then drove off into the fading light.
“I’m terrified for my life,” she breathlessly told a 911 dispatcher. “I don’t know if he’s being honest with me.”
It wasn’t long before she got her answer.
Routh, a 27-year-old Iraq War veteran, is scheduled to stand trial Wednesday, charged with capital murder in the slayings of Chad Littlefield and former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, whose memoir “American Sniper” is now an Academy Award-nominated movie. The two men had taken the ex-Marine to a shooting range in an attempt to help him battle post-traumatic stress disorder and other personal demons besetting him.
Routh’s attorneys are planning to argue that he was insane. Many expect PTSD from his Iraq tour and a relief mission to earthquake-stricken Haiti to be another narrative thread in that defense.
But with Kyle’s personal story the subject of a blockbuster currently packing them in at cinemas near and far, Routh’s defenders wonder whether he can get a fair trial.
Although it appears that Kyle and Routh hadn’t met before that fatal day in February 2013, they had a lot in common.
Both had attended high school southwest of Dallas in the town of Midlothian, the self-proclaimed “Cement Capital of Texas.” Each had played football for the Midlothian Panthers and been involved with the Future Farmers of America, though 14 years apart.
And, most importantly, both ended up in the military and went to war.
After a brief stint in college and a flirtation with rodeo bronc riding, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Kyle joined the Navy and qualified for its elite special forces unit. As a sniper with SEAL Team 3, he would rack up, by his own count, more than 300 kills and earn two Silver Stars, the military’s third-highest honor for valor.
The father of two left the Navy in 2009, following four tours in Iraq. Three years later, he published his best-selling memoir, “American Sniper.”
Routh’s path would be paved with far less glory.
By most accounts, he was a middling student and a bit of a troublemaker. Kc Bernard, a former security guard at Midlothian High, remembers Routh as a decent defensive lineman, but easy to anger.
“He had a chip on his shoulder,” says Bernard, who recalls a heart-to-heart with Routh outside the school gym after the teen had had a falling out with his parents.
“I know for a fact that his home life wasn’t great,” says Bernard, who now teaches social studies in Dallas. “They did not get along.”
But by senior year, Routh knew what he wanted to do with his life. Although a photo in the 2006 Midlothian High yearbook shows a buzz-cut Routh chatting with an Army recruiter, he had his heart set on the Marines.
“I want to be one of the few and the proud,” he told the photographer.
Not long after graduation, Routh — also 6-2, but about 50 pounds lighter than Kyle — was off to boot camp in California. By September 2007, he was in the Middle East.
In a conversation with his parents shortly before deploying, he reportedly expressed concerns about having to use his weapon.
“He said, ‘Dad, how are you going to feel about me if I have to kill somebody?'” his mother, Jodi Routh, told a writer from Men’s Health magazine before a judge imposed a gag order in the case. “Our response was, of course, ‘Eddie, this is a war. You kill them before they can kill you.'”
A few months later, his parents told the magazine, he called home and suggested that something bad had happened while he was out on patrol.
“How would you feel if I shot a kid?” they said he asked.
But family and friends say Routh was more disturbed by what he saw during a later deployment — in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
In January 2010, Routh was attached to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit as part of Operation Unified Response, sent to the island nation. They found a country in ruins, with about a quarter million dead — many of them stacked in rotting piles along the muddy roads.
Routh talked of being forbidden by an officer to give his rations to a starving boy — and of things much worse.
“He wasn’t prepared for what he was doing out there,” his father told London’s Daily Mail for an article published last month. “Fishing hundreds of bodies — men, women, children — out of the ocean, piling them up and throwing them into mass graves.”
Routh left the Marines as a corporal that summer and floated around — a brief stint with a military contractor, doing odd jobs for a real estate agent, cabinet-making, building storage units. He was diagnosed with PTSD the following summer, according to medical records viewed by Men’s Health.
His drinking, which had begun in his teens, got worse.
In September 2012, Routh was transported to Green Oaks Hospital for psychiatric care after his mother told police he’d threatened to kill himself and family. Police had found him wandering — barefoot, shirtless and reeking of alcohol.
“Eddie stated he was hurting and that his family does not understand what he has been through,” the police report said.
His parents and sister have told reporters that Eddie claimed to be a vampire or werewolf, and complained that a tapeworm was eating out his insides.
Routh would go back to Green Oaks at least one more time. On Jan. 30, 2013, his mother took him to the Veteran’s Administration hospital.
Despite her pleas that he be admitted, doctors sent him home.
To the Iraqi insurgents who’d placed a bounty on his head, Chris Kyle was “al-Shaitan Ramadi” — the “devil of Ramadi.” But to Jodi Routh, he was an angel.
In search of another mission after leaving the SEALs, Kyle helped create a program to help rehabilitate wounded and troubled veterans through exercise. Jodi Routh worked as an aide at the Kyle kids’ school, and she asked if he would take her son on.
Kyle and Littlefield — a neighbor and hunting buddy who also volunteered his time with veterans — decided to take Routh shooting. It was Feb. 2, 2013.
In Kyle’s black pickup, they drove to Rough Creek Lodge and Resort, which sits on 11,000 acres of rolling hills scattered with scraggly trees and prairie grasses. In addition to luxury accommodations, it has hunting areas and a 1,000-yard shooting range.
Around 5 p.m., a resort employee discovered the bodies. Kyle and Littlefield lay on the ground amid scattered weapons; each had been shot several times.
About 45 minutes later, Routh pulled up at his sister’s Midlothian home in Kyle’s truck.
Laura Blevins told police that Eddie “was out of his mind saying people were sucking his soul and that he could smell the pigs.” He told her he’d “traded his soul” for the pickup.
He’d killed Kyle and Littlefield, Routh allegedly admitted to his sister and her husband, and later to Texas Rangers. Echoing the advice his parents had given him before he left for Iraq, Gaines Blevins says his brother-in-law told him he’d “killed them before they could kill him.”
After leading police on a brief chase, Routh was arrested on Interstate 35 near Lancaster. In an interview with the Texas Rangers, Routh said he understood what he’d done and wanted to apologize to the men’s families.
“It wasn’t a want to,” he said in a recording played in court. “It was a need to, to get out of that situation out there today or I was going to be the one out there to get my head shot off.”
“You know what you did today is wrong, right?” the ranger asked.
“Yes, sir,” Routh replied.
That evening, police blocked off the street and told Routh’s neighbor Danny Elizondo to stay in his house.
The Eddie he knew was a normal guy who came to neighborhood barbecues and asked if Elizondo, who painted cars, would redo his VW “bug” in camouflage. Routh had complained of flashbacks, but Elizondo had never known him to be violent or delusional.
“Eddie would come to my house and sit out there and talk to me and tell me stuff,” he says. “The bombing and stuff, the bodies on the side … kids, out when they were going through patrols. Kids out there kind of hungry and stuff.”
He figures something out at Rough Creek made him snap.
“I just have a feeling that Eddie went to that rifle range … and he heard the shelling again, and something triggered him off,” says Elizondo.
Many former Marines aren’t buying it, some expressing their doubts in angry, profane online posts. And records obtained by The Associated Press suggest they’re right to be skeptical.
Routh was a small-arms technician, also known as an armorer. Veterans say a support person like that would not have been out on patrol.
Raymond Routh was quoted as saying his son claimed to have helped guard prisoners at Balad Air Base. A 2013 New Yorker article said Routh had “witnessed several mortar attacks on the base; once, while he was on the phone with Raymond, sirens began blaring, and he said that he had to take cover.”
But Marine records indicate that Routh was attached to Combat Logistics Battalion 8, based in Fallujah — more than an hour south of Balad. Haley Carter, who was a 2nd lieutenant with the unit during that tour and helped oversee the morning reports, said Routh’s story makes no sense.
“I don’t know why we would send an armorer to Balad … when there are plenty of MPs who have the training to guard prisoners,” Carter, who left the Marines as a captain in 2013, told the AP. “The whole thing seems funky to me.”
The unit’s command chronology, a detailed official account of the deployment obtained by AP, shows none of its Marines assigned to Balad during Routh’s service. The portion of the chronology covering the first several months of that tour was not available, a Marine archivist said.
As for the Haiti mission, the 22nd MEU chronology shows that while Marines helped distribute food, water and medical aid, there is no mention of burials. It also appears from the narrative that the command element, to which Routh was attached, never left the assault ship USS Bataan.
The only document that mentioned Routh by name was a “debarkation roster” dated April 1, 2010 — the end date of his deployment.
“There’s no information that we have at this time that can confirm or refute his claims of being in those particular locations and doing those particular tasks,” said Capt. Stewart Coles, a spokesman for the II Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
With area theaters showing the Oscar-nominated movie about Kyle’s life — and alluding to his death, in a brief on-screen note and footage from a funeral motorcade — defense attorney J. Warren St. John has expressed concern that Routh can’t get a fair trial in Erath County.
On a recent rainy afternoon, people lined up outside the Cinemark Cinema 6 in Stephenville for tickets to see “American Sniper,” starring Bradley Cooper. That show and the next quickly sold out, and management has been adding an extra screen on weekends to meet demand.
Like others in the crowd, Elby Cato has received a jury summons. He says the movie won’t affect his ability to be impartial.
“Can he get a fair trial here? You bet,” said Cato, 48. “I think a lot of people have military kids here, and they understand what they’re going through. … He’s going to jail, but I feel like he needs to have a lighter sentence because of it — and help.”
Moviegoer Janet Huggins has given a lot of thought to PTSD, and whether a noncombat veteran like Routh has a right to use it as a defense. But she recognizes that it is “a terrible disease.”
“They are all victims,” said Huggins, 56, a collections manager, also called for jury duty. “Eddie’s a victim. Chad Littlefield’s a victim, and so is Chris. And then you’ve got the families. Everybody’s going through their own hell.”
Stengle reported from Stephenville; Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C.
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