As Robert Bales, an 11-year military veteran with a string of commendations for good conduct, sat in an isolated cell in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Saturday, divergent pictures emerged of the Army staff sergeant accused of gunning down 16 civilians in an Afghan war zone.
While classmates and neighbors from his younger years remembered him as a happy-go-lucky football player who loved military history and watched out for troublemakers in the neighborhood, emerging records and interviews about his past decade reveal financial troubles and brushes with the law. A blog written by his wife suggests the emotional and financial stress they faced as a military family.
Military officials say that after drinking on a southern Afghanistan base, Bales, 38, crept away in the night on March 11 to two slumbering villages, shooting his victims and setting many of them on fire. Nine of the 16 killed were children and 11 belonged to one family.
Bales hasn't been charged yet in the shootings, which have endangered complicated relations between the United States and Afghanistan and threatened to upend U.S. policy over the decade-old war.
Court records and interviews show that Bales, 38, had joined the Army after a Florida investment job went sour, had a Seattle-area home condemned, struggled to make payments on another and failed to get a promotion or a transfer a year ago, according to a report by The Associated Press.
His legal troubles included charges that he assaulted a girlfriend and, in a hit-and run accident, ran bleeding in military clothes into the woods, court records show, the report said, citing legal records.
Months before the Afghanistan incident, Bales was eyeing a way out of his job at a Washington state military base, records and interviews showed.
His wife, Karilyn, hinted at the family’s troubles on multiple blogs with names like The Bales Family Adventures and BabyBales, the AP and the Times reported. She wrote about the daily life of a military wife, raising children alone, going through a 2006 pregnancy without her husband present, the “bad dreams” she woke from after a nap on the day he left in 2009.
In March 2011, she wrote that her husband had not received a promotion to E-7, sergeant first class – a major disappointment, she said, "after all of the work Bob has done and all the sacrifices he has made for his love of his country, family and friends," according to a report by The New York Times. The Times said that appeared to be the last blog post.
Read more about Karilyn Bales' blog posts at The New York Times
She hoped that the Army might allow the family some autonomy in choosing its next location, after Joint Base Lewis
McChord in Washington state, the Times said. She listed her top choices as Germany ("best adventure
opportunity!"); Italy ("2nd best adventure opp"); Hawaii ("nuff said"); Kentucky ("we would at least be close to Bob’s family"); and Georgia ("to be a sniper teacher, not because it is a fun place to live").
Instead the Army redeployed his unit — the 3rd Stryker Brigade, named after armored Stryker vehicles — to Afghanistan.
It was Bales' fourth tour in a war zone since joining up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001. He had spent three years in Iraq during three separate assignments.
Bales always loved the military and war history, even as a teenager, said Steve Berling, a high school classmate in his hometown of Norwood, Ohio, the AP reported.
"It's our Bobby. He was the local hero," said Michael Blevins, who grew up down the street from Bales in Norwood.
They said Bales, the youngest of five boys, respected older residents, admonished troublemakers and loved children, even helping another boy in the area who had special needs.
Bales' golden boy image was not untarnished, however. The AP reported that Bales studied business for three years at Ohio State but did not graduate, then handled investments before a market downturn pushed him out of the business.
Florida records show that Bales was a director at an inactive company called Spartina Investments Inc. in Doral, Fla.; his brother, Mark Bales, and a Mark Edwards were also listed as directors.
"I guess he didn't like it when people lost money," Berling told the AP.
He was struggling to keep payments on his own home near Lake Tapps, a reservoir about 35 miles south of Seattle; his wife asked to put the house on the market three days before the shootings, real estate Philip Rodocker said, according to AP.
Bales and his wife bought the Lake Tapps home in 2005 for $280,000; it was listed this week at $229,000, AP reported, citing records.
The house was not officially put on the market until Monday; on Tuesday, Rodocker said, Bales' wife called and asked to take the house off the market, talking of a family emergency.
The AP reported that Bales and his wife also own a home in Auburn, about 10 miles north, according to county records, but abandoned it about two years ago.
"It was ramshackled," homeowners’ association president Bob Baggett told the AP. "They were not dependable. When they left there were vehicles parts left on the front yard ... we'd given up on the owners."
In Washington state, court records showed a 2002 arrest for assault on a girlfriend. Bales pleaded not guilty and was required to undergo 20 hours of anger management counseling, after which the case was dismissed.
A separate hit-and-run charge was dismissed in municipal court in Sumner, Wash., three years ago, according to records. It isn't clear from court documents what Bales hit; witnesses saw a man in a military-style uniform, with a shaved head and bleeding, running away.
When deputies found him in the woods, Bales told them he fell asleep at the wheel. He paid about $1,000 in fines and restitution and the case was dismissed in October 2009.