A U.S. soldier who admitted sodomizing and strangling an 11-year-old ethnic Albanian girl while on peacekeeping duty in Kosovo was sentenced today to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
A panel of officers at the U.S. military court handed down the sentence — the maximum allowable — to Staff Sgt. Frank Ronghi, 36, of Niles, Ohio.
Ronghi admitted Friday to charges of murder, forcible sodomy and indecent acts in the death of Merita Shabiu last January.
Ronghi sat impassively as the verdict was read. Earlier today, in his first public statement since being arrested six months ago, he apologized to the girl’s family, saying, “I don’t know what went wrong that day.”
“I apologize from the bottom of my heart to the family. I ask them for my forgiveness,” he told the court. Reading from a piece of paper and showing no emotion, he added apologies to the Army, his unit and his family “for all the hurt I have caused.”
Ronghi did not try to excuse his actions, but he told the court he had always tried to be a decent person.
“I never did anything wrong before,” he said. “I know what I did was very wrong. That’s why I pleaded guilty.”
The six-officer panel deliberated for less than an hour before returning the verdict. In addition to the prison sentence, the panel handed Ronghi a reduction in rank, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and a dishonorable discharge.
Damning Testimony Before the sentencing, chief prosecutor Maj. Alten Gawaltney said Ronghi had boasted to his platoon comrades that he planned to kill a girl.
He planned to “grab a little girl and rape her, but he would have to kill her to get away with it and blame the Serbs,” said Gawaltney, citing testimony by a fellow soldier from earlier in the trial.
At a pretrial hearing in February, a sergeant told of how a young private under his command alleged that Ronghi had taken him in a Humvee military vehicle to an apartment block, loaded up the vehicle out of his sight and then driven out of town, where they dumped the girl”s body.
The slain girl’s parents and two of her siblings, Kirnete and Sami, also traveled from Kosovo to testify in the case. Earlier today, the parents told the court about how they fled from Serb persecution in the province — and how relieved they felt at being able to return home under the protection of NATO forces.
None of the family’s six children felt more reassured by the international presence than 11-year-old Merita, said her father, Hamdi Shabiu.
“She was very happy because she thought they had come to protect us,” he said.
In the months before NATO’s war to force Serbs out of Kosovo, the Shabiu family’s experience was typical of the harassment ethnic Albanians suffered as the Serbs intensified their campaign against the ethnic Albanian majority in the province.
The family decided to join tens of thousands of others who fled to Macedonia, some 25 miles away. They returned to Kosovo after NATO’s air campaign was halted on June 15.
“She survived only to meet her death at the hands of the man who should have protected her,” Gawaltney told the court.
In Two Minutes
Merita was home alone with Kirnete, her 14-year-old sister, and Sami, her 9-year-old brother, on the morning of Jan. 13 when Ronghi came knocking at their apartment door, Gawaltney told the court. Prosecutors said Ronghi had gone to the building to find a 23-year-old woman with whom he had been flirting.
Prosecutors described how the girls grew uncomfortable at Ronghi’s presence in their apartment, and they left him alone with their brother. But as Ronghi was leaving the building, he encountered Merita, who was persuaded to go with him to the basement.
“She followed him into the basement because she trusted him,” Gawaltney said.
The prosecution described the sexual assault, and said Ronghi killed her to stop her screaming. “The process lasted about two minutes,” Gawaltney said.
According to prosecutors, Ronghi then put the girl’s body in two U.N. food sacks, hid it under the stairs, covered bloodstains on the floor with flour and returned to his platoon. He allegedly returned later, ignoring radio requests to respond to a situation elsewhere in town while he retrieved the body and buried it beneath the snow on a nearby hill top. A private who accompanied Ronghi reported the incident to superiors.
Merita’s mother, Remzije, described how their daughter’s death has destroyed the family. She said she was having trouble sleeping, and that Sami has refused to go to school since Merita’s death.
“Not only Merita died. We all died,” she said.
The parents said they did not blame the U.S. military. “The whole army did not do this to me,” Hamdi Shabiu said. “This was Ronghi’s fault.”
However, he said his daughter had been “massacred” by Ronghi.
While their parents testified, Kirnete and Sami sat in the back of the courtroom with a translator and a military escort. Sami drew in a notebook at times during the morning.
The defense described Ronghi “as an ordinary person” who encountered a culture of excessive violence and abuse of power during duty in Kosovo.
“He stumbled hard. He’ll be the first to tell you that,” Capt. Kerry Suneo said in opening remarks.
Ronghi, sent to Kosovo from Fort Bragg, has been confined in Wuerzburg, 60 miles east of Frankfurt. U.S. military personnel convicted of murder normally serve their sentences in the military’s high-security prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
ABCNEWS’ Kate Bouey, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.