One of the Blackwater guards involved in the shooting deaths of at least 14 Iraqi citizens has agreed to testify against five other guards as part of a secret plea deal negotiated last month but approved and filed last Thursday.
In a stunning admission of his own wrongdoing made public today, Jeremy Ridgeway, 35, agreed to plead guilty to one count of manslaughter, attempt to commit murder and aiding and abetting.
The five other Blackwater guards surrendered to the FBI today in Salt Lake City, Utah to face charges in a 35-count federal grand jury indictment announced by the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Their arraignment has been set before District Judge Ricardo Urbina of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Jan. 6, 2009.
Justice officials revealed shocking new details of the attacks at a DOJ press conference today, which they said included shooting a grenade into a nearby girl's school and the killing of an Iraqi man who has his hands up in the air.
All of the victims were unarmed and none were insurgents, officials said.
"Many were shot while inside civilian vehicles that were attempting to flee from the convoy," said Jeffrey Taylor, the U.S. Attorney. Taylor said the guards knew that they were not allowed to use suppressive fire, engage in offensive military action, or "exercise police powers."
In documents filed in connection with his guilty plea, Ridgeway acknowledged killing at least one civilian, a female doctor, with "multiple rounds" into a vehicle.
Ridgeway, in the document, acknowledged the government evidence would prove he and the others "opened fire with automatic weapons and grenade launchers on unarmed civilians."
He agreed none of the civilians "was an insurgent, and many were shot while inside of civilian vehicles that were attempting to flee."
Ridgeway also admitted one victim was shot in his chest "while standing in the street with his hands up."
Ridgeway also admitted to prosecutors "there was no attempt to provide reasonable warning" to the driver of a vehicle that was first targeted.
Prosecutors said the guards could face a mandatory 30-year prison sentence if found guilty of the "unjustified shootings" of unarmed civilians with machine guns.
The guards told U.S. State Department agents they began to shoot because they were under fire from insurgents and felt their lives threatened.
Witnesses at the scene said there was no hostile fire.
The five former guards indicted by the grand jury were Paul Slough, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nicholas Slatten and Donald Ball.
Outside the courthouse in Salt Lake City, lawyers for the men said they "were innocent and we'll prove it in court."
Blackwater "Disappointed" With Guilty Plea But Continues to Support Other Guards
Prosecutors said only six of the 19 Blackwater guards at the scene of the shooting at Baghdad's Nisoor Square were charged because the others acted "professional and responsibly."
In a statement, Blackwater said it "is extremely disappointed and surprised to learn that an individual independent contractor has said he committed wrongdoing related to his activities on September 16, 2007."
Blackwater also voiced its continued support of the other guards indicted, saying it believes "these individuals acted within the rules set forth for them by the government and that no criminal violations occurred."
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Blackwater should also be held accountable for "creating a culture that breeds this type of reckless and illegal behavior."
"These contractors could spend the rest of their lives in jail if they are convicted, but Blackwater will probably not even receive a slap on the wrist for its role in this and other incidents," Schakowsky said in a statement. "Today's indictments do nothing to solve the underlying problem of private security contractors performing critical government functions."
The bloody incident occurred in September 2007. Civilians at the scene and relatives of the dead told U.S. investigators there was no hostile fire and the shootings were unprovoked, sparking widespread outrage in Iraq over what many considered trigger-happy American security guards who shot at civilians with impunity and no fear of consequences.
Blackwater maintained its guards fired in self-defense after coming under fire as they protected a diplomatic motorcade, and some of the defense lawyers have said their clients, all former decorated members of the military in their 20's, are being used as scapegoats to quell anger at the U.S. in Iraq.