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A Navy man largely backs Marine Corps Lt. Ilario Pantano’s version of the events that led to murder charges for killing two Iraqi insurgents, according to an attorney.
Charles Gittins, who represents Pantano, told WorldNetDaily the Navy man was one of two witnesses, along with the accuser, to the April 15, 2004, incident in which the Marine Corps officer shot the two Iraqis after detaining them in an operation to secure a weapon-laden hideaway in the Sunni Triangle.
The only difference in the two accounts is that the Navy man believes the Iraqis were running away, and Pantano believes they were running toward him, Gittins maintans.
The attorney contends the discrepancy is a matter of visual perspective – where each was standing – and argues the bottom line is the Navy officer corroborates Pantano’s claim that the Iraqis disobeyed his order, in Arabic, to stop.
“As far as I’m concerned, that’s the end of the game,” Gittins said, referring to the question of Pantano’s innocence.
The Marine was charged Feb. 1 with two counts of premeditated murder and awaits a March hearing that could lead to a court martial and possibly the death penalty if convicted.
Pantano and the Navy man agree the Iraqis were stopped trying to flee the hide-out in an SUV. The two men were handcuffed, and Pantano set up a security perimeter. He then removed the cuffs and ordered the detainees to tear apart the vehicle to ensure it wasn’t booby-trapped.
At one point, according to Pantano, the Iraqis stopped searching and made a quick move toward him. He ordered “stop,” the men kept moving, and the Marine killed them.
The Iraqis and the vehicle turned out to be free of weapons, but Gittins argued that unarmed men can be dangerous, and in the intense environment of the Sunni Triangle where so many Americans had lost their lives, Pantano had no idea what they were doing.
“They failed to stop when he ordered them to stop,” Gittins said. “If a guy is holding an M-16 on you and he says stop, you stop.”
Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Matt Morgan said he could not discuss details of the case, but Gittins confirmed some of the accuser’s claims.
The accuser, described by Gittins as a “disgruntled” Marine Corps sergeant who served as a radio man, asserts Pantano relieved men who were guarding the Iraqis. The accuser said Pantano sent the guards away so they couldn’t see what he was doing and uncuffed the Iraqis. Then, according to the claim, Pantano shot the Iraqis in the back, left their bodies lying out in the open and put a mocking sign on them in order to “send a message.”
Gittins contends, however, that no one was relieved of guarding the Iraqis or told to turn away, and the Iraqis were shot all over their bodies – their backs, sides and fronts – with many rounds.
No sign was put on their bodies, he claimed, but Pantano put a sign on the SUV with the words, in English, of 1st Marine Division commander Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis: “No better friend. No worse enemy.”
Mattis stirred controversy earlier this month for saying at a conference “it’s fun to shoot” terrorists.
Gittins insists there was no intent to mock, and the message was only for the troops.
“The only thing provocative about it was a general said it, and my client repeated it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Pantano’s mother, Merry Pantano, continues to lead a grass-roots movement of support for her son that has picked up so much momentum her website, www.defendthedefenders.com, crashed because it exceeded its bandwidth capacity.
“The outpouring is phenomenal,” she told WND.
Mrs. Pantano, a literary agent in New York City, said her son remains strong.
“He’s amazing,” she said. “He looks at this as a battle. He analyzes everything very critically and reminds us some days will be good and some will be bad. Move on and stay focused.”
Mrs. Pantano said her son’s commanding officer told him to go home to his wife and two children in Wilmington, N.C., near Camp Lejeune, and prepare his defense.
Among the flood of supportive messages she has received was a phone call from an 80-year-old, decorated World War II veteran who asked for an address so he could send a contribution of $100.
Mrs. Pantano said she launched the website a few days after the charges were brought against her son Feb. 1.
Yesterday, she was assisted in her advocacy activities at her New York City home by Jeffrey Dejessie, who considers Lt. Pantano to be his best friend.
Dejessie, of Belleville, N.J., has remained close since the two men met while serving in the Marine Corps in the first Gulf War in 1991, taking vacations together, joining in family dinners and “being there” for each other in hard times.
He reacted strongly to news of Pantano’s charges.
“I find it hard to believe someone who previously served and had such an impeccable service record could have this happen to him,” Dejessie said. “The kid gave up so much, a lucrative job in the city, the high life, a career in film and broadcasting, leaving his wife and two children behind. He could have watched this [war] on TV every night in the comfort of his home.
After the 9-11 attacks, when Pantano said he wanted to rejoin the Marines, Dejessie tried to talk him out of it, questioning the war and saying, “Come on, we’re in our 30s, this is someone else’s chance to serve.”
But Pantano, according to Dejessie, could not be convinced otherwise and entered the Marine Corps training school in Quantico, Va., to become a commissioned officer.
“He really believed in what he was doing,” Dejessie said. “It’s scary that they would bring charges on such a great man like him. What could they do to the average guy?”
But Dejessie said it’s Pantano who is playing the role of optimist, “keeping everyone else motivated and upbeat.”
“This guy is under the most stress of his life and he’s telling us, you keep your head up.”
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