LAKE TAPPS, Wash. – Bypassed for a promotion and struggling to pay for his house, Robert Bales was eyeing a way out of his job at a Washington state military base months before he allegedly gunned down 16 civilians in an Afghan war zone, records and interviews showed as a deeper picture emerged Saturday of the Army sergeant’s financial troubles and brushes with the law.
While Bales, 38, sat in an isolated cell at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.’s military prison Saturday, classmates and neighbors from suburban Cincinnati remembered him as a “happy-go-lucky” high school football player who took care of a special-needs child and watched out for troublemakers in the neighborhood.
But court records and interviews show that the 11-year veteran – with a string of commendations for good conduct after four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan – had joined the Army after a Florida investment job went sour, had a Seattle-area home condemned, struggled to make payments on another and failed to get a promotion or transfer a year ago.
His legal troubles included charges that he assaulted a girlfriend and, in a hit-and-run accident, ran bleeding in military clothes into the woods, court records show. He told police he fell asleep at the wheel and paid a fine to get the charges dismissed, the records show.
Military officials say that after drinking on a southern Afghanistan base, Bales crept away on March 11 to two slumbering villages, shooting his victims and setting many of them on fire. Nine of the 16 killed were children, and 11 belonged to one family.
“This is some crazy stuff if it’s true,” Steve Berling, a high school classmate, said of the revelations about the father of two known as “Bobby” in his hometown of Norwood, Ohio.
Bales hasn’t been charged yet in the shootings, which have endangered complicated relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan and threatened to upend U.S. policy over the decade-old war.
His former platoon leader said Saturday that Bales was a model soldier.
“He’s one of the best guys I ever worked with,” said Capt. Chris Alexander, who led Bales on a 15-month deployment in Iraq.
“He is not some psychopath. He’s an outstanding soldier who has given a lot for this country.”
But family troubles were hinted at by his wife, Kari, on multiple blogs posted with names like The Bales Family Adventures and BabyBales. A year ago, she wrote that Bales was hoping for a promotion or a transfer after nine years stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, outside Tacoma.
“We are hoping to have as much control as possible” over the future, Kari Bales wrote last March 25. “Who knows where we will end up. I just hope that we are able to rent our house so that we can keep it. I think we are both still in shock.”
After Bales lost out on a promotion to E-7 – sergeant first class – the family hoped to go to Germany, Italy or Hawaii for an “adventure,” she said. They hoped to move by last summer; instead the Army redeployed his unit – the 3rd Stryker Brigade, named after armored Stryker vehicles – to Afghanistan.
It would be Bales’ fourth tour in a war zone. He joined the military two months after 9/11 and spent more than three years in Iraq during three separate assignments since 2003. His attorney said he was injured twice in Iraq – once losing part of his foot – but his 20 or so commendations do not include the Purple Heart, which is given to soldiers wounded in combat.
Bales always loved the military and war history, even as a teenager, said Berling, who played football with him in the early 1990s on a team that included Marc Edwards, who would become an NFL player and Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots.
“I remember him and the teacher just going back and forth on something like talking about the details of the Battle of Bunker Hill,” Berling said. “He knew history, all the wars.”
Bales exulted in the role once he finally achieved it. Plunged into battle in Iraq, he told an interviewer for a Fort Lewis base newspaper in 2009 that he and his comrades proved “the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy.”
Bales joined the Army, Berling said, after studying business at Ohio State University – he attended three years but didn’t graduate – and handled investments before a market downturn pushed him out of the business. Florida records show that Bales was a director at an inactive company called Spartina Investments Inc. in Doral, Fla.; his brother, Mark Bales, and a Mark Edwards were also listed as directors.
“I guess he didn’t like it when people lost money,” Berling said.
He was struggling to keep payments on his own home in Lake Tapps, a rural reservoir community about 35 miles south of Seattle; his wife asked to put the house on the market three days before the shootings, real estate agent Philip Rodocker said.
“She told him she was behind in … payments,” Rodocker told the New York Times. “She said he was on his fourth tour and it was getting kind of old and they needed to stabilize their finances.”
The house was not officially put on the market until Monday; on Tuesday, Rodocker said, Bales’ wife called and asked to take the house off the market, talking of a family emergency. Bales and his wife bought the Lake Tapps home in 2005, according to records, for $280,000; it was listed last week at $229,000.
The sale may have been a sign of financial troubles. Bales and his wife also own a home in Auburn, about 10 miles north, according to county records, but they abandoned it about two years ago, homeowners association president Bob Baggett said.
The diverging portrait of the sergeant rippled across the country on Saturday.
“It’s our Bobby. He was the local hero,” said Michael Blevins, who grew up down the street from him in Norwood, Ohio. The youngest of five boys, he respected older residents, admonished troublemakers and loved children, even helping another boy in the area who had special needs.
In Washington, court records showed a 2002 arrest for assault on a girlfriend. Bales pleaded not guilty and was required to undergo 20 hours of anger management counseling, after which the case was dismissed.
A separate hit-and-run charge was dismissed in Sumner, Wash., municipal court three years ago, according to records. It isn’t clear from court documents what Bales hit; witnesses saw a man in a military-style uniform, with a shaved head and bleeding, running away.
When deputies found him in the woods, Bales told them he fell asleep at the wheel. He paid about $1,000 in fines and restitution, and the case was dismissed in October 2009.
Bales’ lawyer, John Henry Browne of Seattle, said he didn’t know if his client had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at the time of the shootings.