Nearly seven years after images of four American civilians murdered and mutilated in Fallujah were broadcast around the world, their families say justice for the victims has been denied and has instead favored the controversial private security firm for which they worked as military security contractors, Blackwater.
Following years of legal back and forths in a lawsuit by the families against Blackwater, which they maintained sent their sons undermanned and ill-equipped on a convoy into one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq on March 31, 2004, a federal judge has thrown out the suit because arbitration fees weren't being paid by either side. The families vowed to keep fighting, saying they will appeal.
"Somehow this lawsuit got away from my son being slaughtered and became about who's willing to pay to play," said Katy Helvenston-Wettengel, whose son Scott Helvenston, 38, was one of the Blackwater employees shot dead, set on fire, dragged through the streets of Fallujah and then hung from a bridge. Insurgents filmed the horrific attack, becoming some of the most brutal images from the Iraq war. "There's nothing even remotely close to justice here," she said.
The families said they couldn't afford to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in arbitration fees and U.S. District Judge James C. Fox in the Eastern District of North Carolina closed the case, ruling the families couldn't proceed with their claims in North Carolina state court. The contractors' employment agreements required disputes to be resolved through arbitration.
Helvenston and other families of the victims said Blackwater cut corners protecting the men, failing to provide maps or radio contact with the U.S. military and sending them out on a dangerous mission in unarmored Mitsubishi SUVs instead of heavily armored vehicles.
Under its contract for the mission, there were also supposed to be six men in the detail, three for each car. But video taken by the attackers shortly after the men were killed showed Blackwater sent only two men for each car, leaving the rear gunner lookout post empty.
Blackwater, which changed its name to "Xe" in an effort to rebrand itself after numerous scandals, maintained the men were ambushed on their convoy and said they knew what they were getting into in Iraq.
In a statement to ABC News, Xe said, "The company continues to remember and honor its fallen professionals and shares in their families' grief for all of those tragically lost or wounded while defending democracy in Iraq. The company has no comment on this pending legal matter except to say that the dismissed claims were precluded by law under the Defense Base Act's workers' compensation system, and that the company continues to provide survivors' benefits to the families under that system."
But the families say they've been left without their day in court and that this latest legal setback is another crushing blow.
"I feel like my son's life was not worth anything at all," said Donna Zovko, mother of former U.S. Army ranger Jerry Zovko, 32, who had been hired by Blackwater and sent on the Fallujah convoy. "I am living dead."
Attorney for the families Marc Miles said that while "Blackwater has since done everything in its power to delay this case and prevent it from going to trial," they will appeal the ruling and continue to fight.
"The families haven't had their day in court just because Blackwater has more money than they do," Miles said. "We will take it all the way up to the Supreme Court if need be, to make sure that families have access to justice, not based on how much money they have."
Fighting back tears as she recalled what the last few moments of life would have been like for her son Scott, Katy Helvenston-Wettengel said the case now has nothing to do with money, but about getting justice for her son.
"There's nothing worse for a mother, knowing the way they died and it didn't have to be," she said. "I feel very betrayed. I thought that our country was one to be proud of, that there was justice and accountability. And to find out that's not the case, is just very overwhelming."