As a little boy growing up in a rough New York neighborhood, 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano dreamed of becoming a warrior. But first came prep school, a tour in the Marine Corps and a stint at an investment bank.
After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he was inspired to rejoin the military. Pantano shipped out to Iraq in 2004 with his Marine infantry platoon and within weeks a wave of insurgent attacks rippled through Baghdad.
Combat and force were what Pantano had trained for, but he never thought it could threaten to ruin him or his reputation. The 33-year-old now faces charges of premeditated murder for the April 15, 2004, slayings of two unarmed Iraqis in his custody.
A preliminary hearing in the case begins today at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. The investigating officer will then make a recommendation to the commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division about whether there is enough evidence for a court-martial -- the military equivalent of a criminal trial. If the case proceeds and Pantano is convicted of murder, he could be sentenced to death.
Opinions in the case are divided.
Witnesses to the shooting have described the 30-plus rounds Pantano allegedly pumped into the victims as an overzealous act way beyond the call of duty.
But his attorney disagreed.
"Even if he's wrong, accidents happen in combat," his civilian attorney, Charles Gittins, told The Associated Press. "This was a very stressful situation."
After weeks of ambushes, mortar attacks and enemy fire in the "Triangle of Death" south of Baghdad, Pantano's platoon was, to say the least, in the thick of things.
On April 15, his unit was closing in on a house suspected of sheltering insurgents. A white sedan pulled out and Pantano stopped the two men in the car with the help of a Navy corpsman and a radio operator.
He detained the men and had their car searched. Then word came over the radio that Marines in the house had found a stash of weapons. Convinced the car might be booby-trapped, Pantano ordered the Iraqis to search it themselves.
According to written charges, Pantano ordered his men to remove the suspects' handcuffs and to assume a defensive position with their backs turned to the car.
He then allegedly shot the Iraqis in the back, emptying not one but two magazines -- 45 rounds -- and vandalized their vehicle, the military charges said. Witness accounts and the official charges differed in the number of rounds Pantano fired.
Pantano then hung a sign on the dashboard bearing a Marine slogan: "No better friend, no worse enemy" -- a phrase meaning the Marines can be good friends to the Iraqis but, if attacked, can be a formidable foe.
Pantano doesn't deny shooting the suspects, but he claims he acted in self-defense. In his statement to investigators, he said he told the Iraqis to be quiet several times but they quickly pivoted their bodies toward each other and he thought they were attacking him or may have been trying to detonate explosives remotely. "I decided to fire my M-16A4 rifle in self-defense," he said.
Gittins has said that Pantano didn't intentionally shoot the Iraqis in the back -- though some bullets might have struck them there as they fell and spun. He damaged their vehicle, Gittins said, only to prevent other insurgents from driving it.
Pantano told Time magazine that he shot so many times because, if attacked, it's best to respond forcefully to send a strong message.