Updated: Friday, 08 Jan 2010, 9:14 AM EST
Published : Thursday, 07 Jan 2010, 2:44 PM EST
NORFOLK, Va. - A Virginia Beach man is facing murder charges in connection with the shooting deaths of two Afghan nationals in Kabul, Afghanistan, last May.
Christopher Drotleff, 29, of Virginia Beach, along with Justin Cannon, 27, of Corpus Christi, Texas, have been charged with crimes including second-degree murder, attempted murder and firearms offenses while working as Department of Defense contractors employed by Paravant LLC, which is a subsidiary of Xe (formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide). The Associated Press reports that both men are military veterans.
A 13-count indictment, returned by a federal grand jury in Norfolk Wednesday, and unsealed Thursday, alleges that on May 5, 2009, Drotleff and Cannon shot and killed two Afghanistan nationals in Kabul and wounded a third. According to the indictment, as contractors, Drotleff and Cannon provided training to the Afghan National Army in the use and maintenance of weapons and weapons systems. Click here to view the indictment.
Both men were charged under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA).
Drotleff was arrested Thursday by FBI agents in Virginia Beach. Cannon was also arrested Thursday by FBI agents in Corpus Christi. Each was charged with two counts of second-degree murder, one count of attempted murder, six counts of using and discharging a firearm during a violent crime, and four counts of murder resulting from the use of a firearm during a violent crime. If convicted, the maximum penalty faced by Drotleff and Cannon is life in prison or the death penalty.
Both men have said in recent interviews with the Associated Press that they were justified in opening fire on a car that caused an accident in front of their vehicle, then turned and sped toward them after they got out to help.
"I feel comfortable firing my weapon any time I feel my life is in danger," Drotleff said to the AP. "That night, my life was 100 percent in danger."
Drotleff and Cannon were among four contractors fired after the
shooting for failing to comply with the terms of their contract
Steve McClain, another former contractor who was with Drotleff and Cannon during the shootings, told the AP he spent about 90 minutes before a Virginia grand jury this week detailing his recollections of what happened.
Drotleff, Cannon and McClain said in separate interviews with the AP over the past month that they were driving along a Kabul road on the night of May 5 when a speeding car slammed into the first vehicle of their convoy, causing it to flip.
Drotleff and Cannon were traveling in another vehicle and got out to help. They both said the car that caused the accident turned and started speeding toward them. Fearing for their lives, both opened fire, with Drotleff emptying a 16-round clip. Cannon was unsure how many shots were fired.
"My conscience is clear about it, but that doesn't really matter," Cannon said. "If someone's got an agenda, then there's nothing I can do about it."
The former workers complained that Blackwater tried to make them a scapegoat. They said the company armed some of its workers in Afghanistan despite U.S. military documents that prohibited them from carrying guns. The contractors were in Kabul to help train the Afghan National Army.
McClain's termination letter from Blackwater cited violation of alcohol policy, and he said that topic was one focus of grand jury questioning.
"I wasn't drinking and I didn't witness (any of the other contractors) drinking that day," said McClain, 25, of California.
A fourth contractor at the scene, Amando Hamid, did not return messages seeking comment.
Thursday night, Drotleff's neighbor Richard Gamble was shocked.
"He's a good young man has a good head on his shoulders," said Gamble.
Drotleff's mother in law told Ten on Your Side the arrest came as a shock to his wife. The couple has a 3 1/2 year old son and 6 week old daughter.
"I'm not surprised a bit I guess he's what you would call a scofflaw," said another neighbor, Mike Hoffler.
Ten on Your Side did some digging and found dozens of criminal charges against Drotleff between 2006 and 2008. Speeding, reckless driving, DWI and resisting arrest to name a few.
"He just is like an adrenaline junkie he just wanted to see how far he could push it how close to the edge he could go," said Hoffler.
Not so said Gamble.
"I'm sure it was a matter of his safety and I'm sure he wanted
to get back here and see his wife and kids," said Gamble.
The arrests of Drotleff and Cannon came a day after Xe settled a series of federal lawsuits alleging that illegal activity by the company led to the deaths of dozens of Iraqis. Those killings and other problems in Iraq have strained relations between Washington and Baghdad and led to the U.S. government's push to increase oversight of contractors in war zones.
U.S. officials have struggled to demonstrate that they have both the legal grounds and political fortitude to hold contractors accountable. Several Blackwater contractors had been charged with 14 counts of manslaughter for their role in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad's Nisoor Square, but a judge dropped those charges last week.
In another case, federal prosecutors have told a Seattle attorney they intend to charge another Blackwater contractor in the killing of an Iraqi guard in 2006.
The killings were among the violence cited by the lawsuits, which accused the company of cultivating a reckless culture that allowed innocent civilians to be killed. Plaintiffs' lawyers filed a motion late Wednesday requesting the seven lawsuits be dismissed after the settlement was reached.
The company said it was pleased with the settlement and ready to move on, declining to release its full terms. Xe declined to comment on Thursday's indictment other than to say that the men were fired and that the company "immediately and fully cooperated with the government's investigation."
Associated Press Writers Mike Baker and Devlin Barrett
contributed to this story.
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