Soldier pleads not guilty to killing
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
WHEELER ARMY AIRFIELD — A Schofield Barracks soldier pleaded not guilty yesterday in military court to charges that he murdered a civilian contractor on a U.S. base in northern Iraq.
Spc. Beyshee O. Velez, 32, who served three tours of duty in Iraq, is accused of fatally shooting contractor Lucas "Trent" Vinson at Contingency Operating Base Speicher on Sept. 13, 2009.
An Army mental fitness board previously found that Velez had experienced a "short psychotic episode," but the board also determined that the soldier was fit to stand trial, according to Velez's civilian lawyer, Philip D. Cave.
Maj. Gen. Bernard Champoux, commander of the 25th Infantry Division, brought charges March 11 against Velez, including two counts of murder, three counts of assault and one count of fleeing apprehension, officials said.
"The issue will be, was it a very short psychotic episode, or was he really psychotic — in other words ... more than just a brief psychotic episode?" Cave said after yesterday's hearing.
Cave, an attorney based in Virginia, said it's his contention that Velez is not competent.
Prosecution attorney Capt. Samuel Gabremariam said at a Feb. 16 preliminary hearing that Velez had an appreciation for the "wrongfulness" of his conduct.
Velez faces a maximum penalty of life in prison if he is found guilty of murder. Although he is charged with two specifications of murder, which have differing language, Velez could be convicted of just one of those charges, officials said.
Military judge Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks, who presided over yesterday's hearing, said he wanted to know by July 13 whether Velez wants a trial by a judge or jury. A date of Oct. 12 was set as the likely trial date.
Cave said the government has provided initial funding to the defense for a ballistics and crime scene expert, a forensic pathologist and a forensic psychiatrist to evaluate the case.
Velez, in a green Class B uniform, answered questions promptly from Hawks.
The military judge asked Velez how he was doing, and Velez replied, "I am well." Also in response to questions from the judge, Velez said he was not taking any medications.
Velez correctly answered questions about why he was in court and the roles of the defense and prosecution lawyers.
Velez, part of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment, was days away from leaving Iraq when he allegedly shot Vinson.
The 27-year-old Vinson worked at COB Speicher for Houston-based KBR, a contractor that provides housing, food and other services in Iraq.
Cave, referring to witness testimony at the February preliminary hearing, said the shooting occurred in an SUV after Velez and Vinson got into the vehicle and there appeared to be a struggle.
Witnesses also testified that Velez then forced a driver out of a 15-passenger van and drove erratically 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 a radio, chain-smoked cigarettes and put his M-4 rifle to his head inside the van, witnesses said.
A friend of Velez, Spc. Leonel Garciapagan, said Velez started acting strangely several days before the shooting, thinking there were wanted posters with his face and name on them posted around the base.
Cave said Vinson received gunshot wounds to the hands, arm and side, but suggested there might have been a single shot fired in a struggle causing the wounds.