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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Soldier's 'mind wasn't right'

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

WHEELER ARMY AIRFIELD The attorney for a Schofield Barracks soldier accused of fatally shooting a civilian contractor in Iraq said yesterday that an Army mental fitness board found that the soldier likely experienced a "short psychotic episode."

Spc. Beyshee O. Velez, 31, a medic and three-time Iraq war veteran, was days away from leaving the country when he allegedly shot civilian contractor Lucas "Trent" Vinson on Sept. 13, 2009, at Contingency Operating Base Speicher in Northern Iraq.

Vinson, 27, worked for Houston-based KBR at COB Speicher with his father, Myron "Bugsy" Vinson and an uncle. KBR provides troops with services such as housing, meals, mail delivery and laundry.

Vinson's family previously told The Associated Press that he was shot three times after offering a ride to an American soldier who flagged down Vinson's vehicle on the base.

Velez, with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment, is charged with two counts of murder, three counts of assault and one count of fleeing apprehension.

An Article 32 hearing similar to a civilian grand jury hearing began yesterday at Wheeler Army Airfield.

Velez's civilian attorney, Philip D. Cave, who is based out of Virginia, said he plans to challenge the Army mental health board's findings. The board found Velez fit to stand trial, the Army said.

Cave did not specify what part of the three-member board's ruling he will challenge, but he said he plans to request government funding to hire an expert forensic psychologist.

The board didn't talk to "critical witnesses," Cave said in court.

Prosecution attorney Capt. Samuel Gabremariam said Velez had an appreciation for the "wrongfulness" of his conduct.

Cave said the shooting occurred in an SUV. Witnesses testified yesterday that Velez then forced a driver out of a 15-passenger van that belonged to KBR and drove erratically at high speed around the sprawling base before getting stuck in a ditch.

The shooting occurred about 8:30 a.m. and a standoff with Velez lasted until about 8 p.m. as he blared the radio, chain-smoked cigarettes and put his M-4 rifle to his head in the van, witnesses and Army officials said.

Col. Thomas Wheatley, a chaplain, said his gut feeling was that Velez was going to kill himself.

"He said, 'I'm a medic, I know how to do it,' " Wheatley said.

A friend of Velez, Spc. Leonel Garciapagan, talked to Velez and was finally able to remove the soldier's rifle. Garciapagan said Velez was confused and was not aware of the shooting.

"He wasn't aware of nothing," Garciapagan said. "When he talked to me, I figured out his mind wasn't right."

Velez's main concern was about a dream he had, Garciapagan said.

"He confused what really happened with his dream," Garciapagan said. "He was talking about his dream."

Garciapagan said Velez started acting strangely several days before the shooting, thinking there were wanted posters with his face and name around the base.

Garciapagan said he spent some time with Velez, but then was busy the next few days before the shooting.

"I tried to explain to him, 'Don't worry about it,' " Garciapagan said.

He said everyone was "stressed" at the time with last-minute preparations to leave Iraq.

The 3,500 soldiers of the 3rd "Bronco" Brigade returned from a year in Iraq in October and November.

Garciapagan described Velez as a "nice person. Real friendly. Disciplined" and not aggressive by nature.

Sgt. Joshua Austin, Velez's squad leader, said Velez "was extremely reliable. He knew his job very well."

Since entering the Army in 1999, Velez had received an Army commendation medal with valor, three Army commendation medals and four Army achievement medals, officials said.

Velez treated 20-year-old Pfc. Christopher W. Lotter for a horrific head wound after Lotter was shot by a sniper while standing in a vehicle on Dec. 30, 2008. Lotter subsequently died.

Other witnesses described Velez just before the shooting as being paranoid that helicopters and people were watching him, but his first sergeant said he had no knowledge of the strange behavior until after the shooting.

The hearing will continue today. An investigating officer will make a recommendation on what charges, if any, Velez will face at court-martial. A murder conviction carries a maximum sentence of life behind bars.