VILSECK, Germany — A soldier charged in the 2005 gang initiation beating death of Sgt. Juwan Johnson returned from an Iraq deployment as a member of the Gangster Disciples, Army prosecutors said during Pvt. Bobby Morrissette’s court-martial Tuesday.
Morrissette — one of seven servicemembers accused in Johnson’s death — is facing charges of involuntary manslaughter; conspiracy to commit aggravated assault; conduct contrary to good order and discipline; obstruction of justice, disobeying an order, indecent acts and use of a controlled substance.
Johnson died of multiple blunt force injuries on July 4, 2005, after an alleged initiation ceremony, which took place at a gazebo in a small town near Kaiserslautern.
Similar charges against Morrissette relating to Johnson’s death were withdrawn and dismissed in June 2007 because of legal concerns. The Army refiled charges against Morrissette in June 2008.
At Tuesday’s trial, government prosecutor Capt. Derrick Grace told the court that the evidence would show that Morrissette returned from Iraq as a member of the Gangster Disciples street gang.
Grace presented the court with photographs that, he said, show Gangster Disciples’ graffiti in the barracks building that Morrissette occupied at Camp Speicher, in Tikrit, when his unit — the 66th Transportation Company — was deployed there from 2004 to 2005.
Sgt. Ronald Barnhart, a former member of the 66th who lived in the same barracks as Morrissette in Iraq, told the court he saw several soldiers beating Sgt. Rodney Howell in a latrine at Camp Speicher in April 2004. Howell, who is serving six years’ confinement for his role in Johnson’s death, was jogging on the spot and grunting each time he was hit, Barnhart said.
"I took it as horseplay and walked out of the room," he said.
Another soldier stationed at Camp Speicher at that time, Sgt. John Koerner, described walking in on the same beating.
"There were six people in a circle. I saw a punch thrown," he said.
Another member of the gang, Air Force Staff Sgt. Themitrios Saroglou, told the court that he was treasurer of the Kaiserslautern branch of the Gangster Disciples at the time of Johnson’s death.
Saroglou said he joined the gang in 2004, after surviving his own jumping-in ceremony.
At the time members did not refer to themselves as the Gangster Disciples, although they participated in the gang’s rituals, such as the jumping-in ceremony, which involved members beating an initiate for six minutes inside a six pointed star marked with candles, he said.
The temperament of the gang changed after Morrissette’s unit returned to Germany from Iraq in 2005, Saroglou said.
"After the guys came back from deployment ... that’s when they started calling it the ‘Gangster Disciples,’ " he said.
The gang became more violent, he said.
"We called the gang members who came back from Iraq the ‘Young ‘Uns’. Their behavior was rowdy. They would act without thinking. The entire organization just went more negative. Drugs were used frequently. Fights would start from people looking at each other wrong or flashing gang signs," he said.
"They would say things like: ‘Aw hell no. Get up, Get the [expletive] up,’ " Saroglou said, adding that Morrissette hit and kicked Johnson many times during the ceremony.
If convicted, Morrissette faces up to 55 years’ confinement, a dishonorable discharge, reduction to private and forfeiture of all pay and allowances. The trial was scheduled to continue Wednesday.