COLUMBUS, Ga. — The body was almost a skeleton when
investigators found it, hidden in the woods for nearly four months
and so decomposed that knife marks etched in its bones were the
only way to tell the man had been stabbed.
Spc. Richard Davis had survived the war in Iraq, where he turned
25 during the march to Baghdad, only to be slain after celebrating
his homecoming at a topless bar near Fort Benning.
With the discovery of his body earlier this month came an even
more disturbing twist. The four men accused of turning on him with
fists and a blade, then hiding his body, had served beside him in
the same infantry unit.
Now the Army is on the defensive, accused by Davis’ family
of writing him off as AWOL instead of quickly investigating his
Some people are also questioning the investigators’
conclusion that the killing was simply the result of a brawl gone
bad, wondering if trauma from the battlefield could have led to
bloodshed at home.
“All of the evidence says there was no bad blood”
between the soldiers, said Mark Shelnutt, a defense attorney for
Pfc. Douglas Woodcoff, one of the accused men. “They’ve
all been to Iraq, they want to have a few drinks. … You
can’t help but wonder. If this had happened a week before
they deployed, would the result have been the same?”
Davis returned from the Middle East on July 12 from his second
deployment since May 2002. His unit — 1st Battalion, 15th
Infantry Regiment of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division —
had spent most of the past 14 months in the region training,
fighting and waiting to go home.
Davis never called his parents to tell them he was back. He had
no wife or girlfriend in Columbus. So he piled into a car with four
other soldiers from his company for a night out to celebrate.
They headed to the Platinum Club, a topless bar.
At some point, Davis apparently insulted one of the dancers and
the soldiers were kicked out, said Lt. Steve Cox of the Columbus
Davis’s fellow soldiers later told police they were upset
about it and started brawling with Davis in the parking lot. They
left and drove about three miles before Pfc. Alberto Martinez
pulled the car over.
Two of the men, Pvt. Jacob Burgoyne and Pfc. Mario Navarrete,
got out and continued their fight with Davis. They told police that
Woodcoff watched without joining in.
Then, they said, Martinez pulled a knife and stabbed Davis
The four soldiers drove to a convenience store and bought
lighter fluid. Then they returned to the bloodied corpse, tried to
burn it and left it in the woods.
The account of the deadly brawl came from Burgoyne, Navarrete
and Woodcoff in police interviews following their Nov. 8 arrest,
the day after Davis’ body was found.
Police don’t believe the soldiers’ combat
experiences were a factor in the killing. Only two slayings have
been linked to the 16,500 3rd Infantry soldiers who deployed to
Iraq from Fort Benning and Fort Stewart, near Savannah.
“There are murders committed every day, and most murders
are committed by people who know you,” Cox said. “We
see best friends killing each other all the time — civilians,
military, all walks of life.”
Davis’ father doesn’t buy that argument. He’s
not sure why his son was slain but insists it wasn’t a
simple, perhaps drunken, argument.
“You don’t go out and stab a guy and set his body on
fire after you beat him half to death because you got kicked out of
a bar,” Lanny Davis said. “You don’t go out and
kill your buddies. There was something else that
Lanny Davis didn’t find out his son was back in the United
States until a soldier from Fort Benning called him in Missouri to
ask if he was home yet.
He traveled to Fort Benning a month later to ask about his son.
The Army had listed him as AWOL, absent without leave, though
he’d left his toothbrush and new clothes in his barracks.
Fort Benning didn’t investigate Davis’ disappearance
until the fall, after Lanny Davis sought help from his congressman,
Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R—Mo).
Col. Steven Salazar, brigade commander for the 3rd Infantry at
Fort Benning, said Thursday that the Army “followed all
procedures necessary … and even took additional
measures” to find out what happened to Davis. After
discovering his death, the Army reinstated Davis’
active—duty status so his parents could receive his death
But the slain soldier’s father remains angry.
“I’ve been screaming ever since that lieutenant
colonel came and told me they found my son’s skeletal
remains,” Lanny Davis said. “We don’t even have
the chance to see my son’s face ever again.”
Investigators have yet to hear the story from Martinez, 23, who
is awaiting extradition from California on murder charges.
A judge last week reduced the charges against Burgoyne of
Middleburg, Fla., Navarrete of San Juan, Texas, and Woodcoff of San
Antonio, Texas, all 24, from murder to concealing a death, a
felony, though District Attorney Gray Conger said he may still seek
Lanny Davis said brawls were what his son hoped to escape when
he joined the Army after high school, where he had endured teasing,
name—calling and fights because he was
“He liked the military because he felt somewhat secure
there,” Lanny Davis said.