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."
The Fateful Day
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.
Friend or Foe: Pantano's Fellow Marines
But the Marines didn't believe his claim of self-defense. The charges of premeditated murder are based in part on Sgt. Daniel Coburn's statement.
Coburn, Pantano's radio operator, claimed in his account of the killings that once Pantano heard there were weapons in the house, he appeared agitated. Coburn said that Pantano seemed like he wanted to teach the insurgents a lesson.
The leadership styles of the two men clashed from the get-go. According to New York magazine, Pantano was tough on his men and hollered Marine slogans to motivate them while Coburn shied away from such zeal. Pantano got Coburn reassigned and "demoted" to radio operator after an incident in the field.
Coburn denies the demotion, but it does overshadow the allegations.
An initial investigation of the incident was cleared at the field level and Pantano continued combat operations. He returned to Camp Lejeune when his tour of duty ended, but the Marines continued their investigation. According to Gittins, Coburn pushed for the investigation to continue. On Feb. 1, the Marine Corps charged Pantano with at least seven violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including two counts of premeditated murder.
"He loves the Marine Corps. He still respects the institution and hopes justice will prevail," said Pantano's wife, Jill Pantano, on ABC's Good Morning America.
Becoming G.I. Joe
Pantano grew up in Manhattan in a gritty working-class part of town called Hell's Kitchen. His father emigrated from Italy and his mother is a Kansas native who is a New York-based literary agent.
From an early age, Pantano could usually be found on the USS Intrepid, a retired aircraft carrier docked near his home, his mother said on the Web site she set up for her son's cause called "Defend the Defenders."
Hard work and financial aid landed Pantano in one of New York City's best private schools. Unlike his fellow students, he skipped college entrance exams and enlisted in the Marine Corps before his senior year. Pantano "wanted to make sure he would have a spot in the infantry when he graduated," his mother says on the Web site. At 17, he was off to boot camp and, two years later, Cpl. Pantano served on the front lines in the first Gulf War. He climbed the ranks within the Marines in record time, becoming a sergeant in less than four years.
"The greatest experience of his life was fighting a war," his father said in the magazine interview.
Back to Civilian Life
Back in Manhattan, Pantano graduated from New York University and joined a prestigious Wall Street firm. As an energy trader at Goldman Sachs, the former Marine raked in the big bucks but soon tired of the grind. He traded power suits for the casual offices of a startup media company. And a year later, at 28, he started his own tech consulting business with media giants becoming clients.
Call to Duty
"Life was beautiful. He was planning to marry a splendid young woman," his mother writes on her Web site. But then came 9/11.
Within hours of the Twin Towers crumbling to the ground, Pantano shed his curly long hair and came home with a buzz cut.
"I am a New Yorker and 9/11 was a pretty significant event for me," Pantano said in an ABC interview while in Iraq.
After a year of officer's training and a steep pay cut, Pantano was assigned as a second lieutenant to Easy Company of the 2nd battalion of the 2nd Regiment of Marines -- 2-2, for short -- in January 2004. In mid-March, he arrived in Iraq. Officially, the battalion was on a peacekeeping mission, but the Marines soon realized that the Iraqi insurgency meant business. Pantano kept close watch on his platoon and, according to published reports, was well-respected by his peers and the military's top brass.
The Marine Corps is not talking, but, according to published reports, it is confident in its case against Pantano.
"My suspicion is that the Marines woudn't have gotten this far without credible evidence," said Scott L. Silliman, a military law expert at Duke University's law school.
Pantano's lawyer believes this trial sets a terrible precedent.
"It will lead to Marines and soldiers wondering what they should do instead of doing it when in a similar situation, and it is likely to get an American killed," Gittins wrote in an e-mail message to ABCNews.com.
As the case gets more coverage, Web sites have popped up debating Pantano's acts. One entry on Military.com's blog reads, "I do not agree that Marines will hesitate to shoot. I've thought about that too. But I know that's not how we're trained. And all of us would rather be tried by 12 than carried by six."
Regardless of the training, Silliman believes that soldiers are also taught discipline. "Just because you are fighting insurgents doesn't mean you follow different rules."
Jill Pantano reiterated on "Good Morning America" that the truth will come out. "I trust my husband's judgment implicitly. He was there to protect his men and he told their mothers he would bring them all home safe alive and he did."
The Marines recently sent Gittins a letter from an Iraqi doctor who allegedly performed post-mortem examinations on the two Iraqis.
The letter, according to Gittins, doesn't prove anything. He says it's dated March 15, 2005 -- nearly a year after the shooting occurred -- the letter is translated by the Marine Corps, and the doctor's statement is very unclear.
"I can't even say if he [the doctor] knows he is talking about the right day or the right bodies."