SOLDIER'S 'PERSONAL WAR' ALLEGED IN FRAGGING

Sgt. Alberto Martinez of Schaghticoke faces death penalty if found guilty of killing two superior officers

ROBERT GAVIN STAFF WRITER
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Thursday, October 23, 2008

FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- Fearing the end of his career, a National Guardsman from Rensselaer County allowed a long-simmering "personal war within a war" to drive him to murder two higher-ranking soldiers more than three years ago in Iraq, a military prosecutor told jurors Wednesday.


Staff Sgt Alberto Martinez, 41, of Schaghticoke, nearly pulled off the "perfect murder" on June 7, 2005, when he set off a Claymore mine on a base in Tikrit, killing Capt. Phillip Esposito, 30, of Suffern and 1st Lt. Louis Allen, 34, of Milford, Pa., the prosecutor said as the opening statements began in Martinez's court-martial proceeding.


Martinez was even spotted "smiling, laughing, joking around" after the slayings, the prosecution said. The once-frazzled soldier appeared happier than ever before to many soldiers, said the prosecutor, Capt. Evan Seamone. "It was as if the weight of the world had been lifted off Sgt. Martinez's shoulders."


Three years and four months later, Martinez faces possible lethal injection if convicted of killing the men, who were playing the game Risk in the captain's room when the explosions erupted during a sandstorm at the base. They died of their injuries the next day.


In a courtroom packed with uniformed soldiers and family members, Seamone spent nearly 90 minutes outlining Martinez's ever-increasing fury toward Esposito, who had issues with Martinez's performance.


The defendant initially griped and called Esposito unflattering nicknames, but progressed to saying he "wouldn't even shed a tear" if a mortar attack took his commander's life, the prosecutors said.


He said Martinez feared the captain would reduce him in rank and "take away my job back home." Martinez made $2,859 per month as a supply specialist for the Guard.


The frustration morphed into anger, rage and, eventually, to murder, the prosecutor said.


Martinez promised to "burn" and "frag" Esposito, the term for killing a fellow soldier - and then made good on the sinister plan, the prosecutor said.


"This was the final offensive in Sgt. Martinez's personal war within a war," said Seamone, who pointed directly at Martinez, labeling him as the man behind a "coldblooded homicide."


Nearly 40 onlookers attended the court-martial proceeding before Military Judge Col. Stephen Henley on Fort Bragg's sprawling Army base just outside Fayetteville, N.C.


A bespectacled Martinez, clad in uniform, sat silently as the case against him was laid out. Relatives of the victims shed tears or placed an arm around one another as details emerged in what is one of the first alleged cases of fragging in the Iraq war.


Maj. John Gregory, one of Martinez's attorneys, called the defendant a "wrongly accused man," alleging the military investigation was based on preconceived notions of Martinez's guilt. He questioned why no other members of the 93-soldier base were suspected in the deaths.


While the prosecution noted that Martinez was spotted near the explosions and suffered hearing damage, Gregory said their evidence lacked any concrete proof of the defendant's guilt. Martinez's comments were nothing more than "frustration and venting," he said. He acknowledged his client had a penchant for using foul language and jokes, but cast him as an easy scapegoat.


"Sgt. Martinez did not kill Capt. Esposito and Lt. Allen," he said.


The prosecution said Martinez viewed Allen, an Orange County native in Iraq less than four days, as "one of Capt. Esposito's boys." Allen was to help Esposito with supply issues - but Martinez did not want to work for him, ultimately wanting him dead as well, Seamone said.


In the days before the explosions, the prosecutor said, Martinez was seen scoping out the window of Esposito's living quarters at the base, a former Saddam Hussein building known as the "Water Palace." He also visited Esposito's room one night earlier when Esposito, Allen and a friend were playing Risk.


He traced Martinez's history with the 42nd Infantry Division, saying the defendant once sat at his job working on model planes. But that changed because of the war, new responsibilities and Esposito's call for greater accountability, he said.


He said an irked Martinez would tell fellow soldiers of his displeasure at the captain.


He allegedly called Esposito both "Little Mussolini" and "Little Hitler."


"I'll take care of it," he allegedly told 1st Lt. Luis J. Badillo, when asked about an Esposito-related issue.


"What do you mean, you'll take care of it?" Badillo responded, according to Seamone.


"Don't worry," Martinez allegedly replied. "I'll take care of it."


And when Martinez allegedly obtained grenades, Seamone said, he told a soldier: "These will be put to good use."


He alleged Martinez ignited three fragmentation grenades in an apparent attempt to cover up the killings.


Testimony in the trial was halted until today because a juror's father needed sudden hospitalization.


Outside the courthouse, the widows of the slain officers, Siobhan Esposito and Barbara Allen, said they were pleased the proceeding finally got started.


"It's been hard," Allen said.


The trial is expected to last up to three months.


"We'd rather be back with our children," said Esposito. "We're here seeking justice for our husbands."


Robert Gavin can be reached at rgavin@timesunion.com