Hatley family: John's still a hero
Although Master Sgt. John Hatley was sentenced to life in prison this spring for allegedly killing four Iraqi detainees and dumping their bodies into a canal, his family fiercely maintains his innocence.
The former Groesbeck resident and 20-year Army veteran says the men killed were not detainees but insurgents targeting U.S. soldiers, and questions surrounding their mysterious deaths remain unanswered.
In April 2007, Hatley, Sgt. 1st Class Joseph P. Mayo and Sgt. Michael Leahy, as well as members of Company A, 1st Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment, were involved in a firefight with a group of Iraqi insurgents.
During the battle, three members of Company A were killed. The enemy managed to escape but were later found along with a cache of sniper rifles, ammunition and assault weapons. Their hands were tested for gunpowder residue and all tested positive.
The insurgents were taken into custody but were immediately released.
One of the U.S. soldiers involved in the firefight later told investigators that after they were instructed to release the four prisoners, the soldiers instead executed the Iraqis and dumped their bodies into a nearby canal. The soldier reported that he witnessed this through the mirror of the vehicle they were traveling in.
The men Hatley and two other soldiers were convicted of killing were never identified by name and their bodies were never found, and no forensic evidence has been located to support that civilians were killed.
"A door-to-door search in the area where the murder supposedly occurred failed to turn up any missing men," said Darryl Hatley, John's father. "And seven divers searched the canal for bodies. None were found."
Despite the lack of evidence, John Hatley, Leahy and Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Mayo, 27, were arrested and later convicted. During interrogation, Leahy and Mayo confessed to shooting the Iraqis, but Hatley has never admitted that he did anything wrong.
Mayo was sentenced to 35 years in prison after he admitted in court to killing one of the Iraqis. Leahy was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility for parole after he admitted to shooting two of the men. After his conviction, Hatley was taken to Mannheim prison in Germany, and was transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., last week.
Tammy Rand, one of Hatley's four sisters, vividly recalls the day the conviction was announced.
"I was working the day the verdict was handed down," she said. "I was told by my supervisor that I didn't have to come in that day, but I have been working with the same people for almost 18 years and they are family to me. I know that they have been praying for my family for as long as this has been going on. All through the day, as the family awaited a call from my brother or sister-in-law, I was searching the Internet for information on the trial."
"That afternoon, a story came up on my computer that said: 'American Soldier Found Guilty,'" she said. Reading on, she learned that John had been sentenced to life in prison.
" I started shaking uncontrollably," Rand said. "I felt like I was in the middle of a nightmare. My only thought at the moment was, 'I've got to get to my baby sister.'"
When Rand arrived at the residence of Rhonda Saling, the youngest of the four Hatley sisters, the two held each other and cried.
"Then, my sister June (Wietzikoski) came," Rand recalled. "June has always been the one you turn to in a crisis. She just steps in and tends to things. She was trying to decide the best way to tell our parents when her cell phone rang. It was Mama."
"June is crying while on the phone and when she hung up, she said: 'Oh my gosh, she was crying so hard,'" Rand said.
"Gwen (Eakins), my oldest sister, is a lot like my brother John," Rand said. "They are protectors. As silly as it may sound, when I think back on that day, I think of an old Western. Gwyn's actions were of 'circling the wagons.' She takes care of hers, and we are 'hers,' so she was already at my mama and daddy's 'just being there for them.'"
Rand said the family spent the next few days just being together.
In an article published by Stars and Stripes, Kim Hatley, John's wife, said based on what other soldiers in John's company, their wives and their mothers have told her, the dead men were indeed insurgents.
"They were not just regular Iraqi citizens," she said.
The killings took place in 2007 in West Rasheed, the second most violent sector of Baghdad, at a time when attacks on American soldiers were common. Hatley and his troops routinely captured insurgents who were subsequently released for a variety of reasons, including lack of evidence. Often, these insurgents were back on the streets trying to kill U.S. soldiers later that day. Troops patrolling the sector came under small-arms fire almost daily.
Although the convictions of Hatley, Leahy and Mayo will be automatically appealed to a higher military court, Hatley's family has started a clemency campaign for the three soldiers in hopes that Brig. Gen. David R. Hogg could decide to reduce their sentences.
Darryl Hatley said John's lawyers received more than 100 clemency letters within the first 10 days following the trial.
Kim has been using her Facebook and mySpace Web sites to run a clemency campaign and she frequently stays up until 3 a.m. sending and responding to e-mails and updating the Web sites.
"Myself and many others have set what we feel as a reasonable goal of getting our boys -- John, Joseph Mayo and Michael Leahy -- released as soon as possible," she said in the Stars and Stripes article.
Darryl Hatley also has been recruiting friends, family and even strangers to write Gen. Hogg on behalf of his son, Mayo and Leahy. He also has written his own letter to Hogg, saying he now understands how his parents must have felt when his brother, Willie, was a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II.
"My heart aches now for my mom and dad for the agony they must of felt when told that their son was a POW in Germany," Darryl said in his letter. "I feel that the only son I have, after fighting or preparing to fight for the freedom of others all over the world, has become a POW in Germany and worse, a POW in America. His own freedom has been taken from him after serving half of his life in military service."
Darryl closed his letter to Hogg by saying: "I am confident you will do your very best for my child and your soldier -- John Hatley."
Rand said John's ordeal has been devastating for the Hatley family.
"We just want to scream to anyone that will listen: 'You just don't know what a great man he is!'" Rand said. "My brother has so much love for his family, his soldiers, his friends, his country. I could go on and on."
"He is not worried about what he is going through, he is only worried about everyone else," she said. "I am so proud of him. There is no one that I would trust more with the job that he has done for our country than John."
During John's nearly 20 years in the military, he has been deployed to assignments around the world, including Iraq during Operation Desert Storm/Shield, Bosnia, Kosovo, Panama, South Korea, Germany, Saudi Arabia and two tours to Iraq during the current war.
Over the years, he has received dozens of awards and decorations.
Letters of clemency
The family of Master Sgt. John Hatley, a former Groesbeck resident, urges friends, family and acquaintances to write letters of clemency for John and two other soldiers -- Sgt. Michael Leahy Jr., 28, and Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Mayo, 27 -- convicted of killing four Iraqis in 2007.
Letters should be addressed to Brig. Gen. David R. Hogg. Letters should begin with a caption of "Plea for Clemency." Explain how you know John, and thank the general for taking time to read your letter. All letters should be e-mailed to John's attorney, David Court, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John's parents, Darryl and Ann Hatley, and his four sisters, Tammy Rand, June Wietzikoski, Gwen Eakins and Rhonda Saling, all live in the Groesbeck area.