Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mothers know better than anyone else – video “will” a fake

"Only free people can do this." - Martha Trudo, 264th District Court of the State of Texas, in remarks to the venire from which the jurors were chosen

Belton – She brought him into the world, shared his first smile, his first words, nurtured him, taught him the rudiments of reading long before he ever saw a school.

When he was full-grown, a high school grad, he wanted the Army life, so she let him go there – gracefully, without complaint.

They shipped him home to Grand Rapids, buried him with full military honors, and then his on-again, off-again girlfriend showed up to watch a videotaped last will and testament because Sgt. Ryan Michael Sullivan told his mom and family from the grave they should not watch it alone.

Marked October 7, 2008, only a few days before an assailant literally cut him to pieces and stole his life in his own home, the document essentially leaves everything to Katherine “Katie” Briggs, a woman he met through an escort modeling service who gained 150 pounds and “lost 3 inches of her spine,” according to Sgt. Sullivan's mother, Denah, who testified in 264th State District Court for the prosecution.

The date marked on the video is just not right, she told the Court and jurors.

She knows heart of her hearts for several reasons that the tape had to have been made prior to his first deployment to Iraq with the First Armored Cavalry mechanized infantry outfit where he had gained a reputation as the best and toughest hand-to-hand fighter and the most squared-away non-com in the battallion.

First, he didn't have as many tattoos as he had just before he went to Iraq for the second time. By the time he left in 2007, his arms, shoulders and torso were covered with fancy scrollwork – the kind any self-respecting Roman Legionnaire or veteran of the Le Legion Etrange de Francais would have envied.

Second, his mom said, he was not as “bulked up” as he would be for the 2006 deployment. It was a requirement of the desert warfare, the need for stamina and strength to carry the heavy armor and weaponry, ammo and water it takes to survive the extreme temperatures. Ryan Sullivan had added many inches of muscle tissue to his upper body during the year's stand-down his unit spent in garrison following his first tour.

“I liked him better as his cross-country runner self,” she recalled of the 26-year-old Bronze Star winner's former physique. Ryan could run like the wind, run forever, when he was just a little boy. What's more, he liked to do it, to compete against other boys to see who could run furthest, fastest, with less loss of breath. There were little things, too. He apologized for not being able to help with his little sister's trip to Europe with her high school band class.

By the time October of 2008 had rolled around, the child had been there and returned, according to Mrs. Sullivan. Something was wrong and she and her two daughters knew it.

In fact, the whole family knew better. His half-sister, a woman in her late 30's who helped raise him, Bridget Dochod, and his brother Ben Sullivan came to Killeen soon after the family learned of his murder. Ms. Briggs, who is charged with masterminding the murder for Sgt. Ryan's $100,000 in Soldier's Group Life Insurance benefits along with two medics from his unit, John Valdez and Kyle Moesch.

They had a lot of trouble getting her to come up with two of his prized possessions. There was an almost new Chevrolet Impala he bought new and two Armani suits missing from the closet.

He was very proud of the suits. Ms. Briggs was driving the car and she readily agreed to return it so they could ship it to Grand Rapids, but the arrangements were very difficult to make, Ben recalled. Then there were the video games, the television, the DVD player, “The kind of things you would buy at Wal-Mart,” he testified. Ms. Briggs wanted it all and she was very upset that she might not be allowed to keep it. They finally got the car. He left it to his little sister. They never saw the Armani suits again.

They all gathered at Sgt. Ryan's apartment to separate his personal effects from combat gear that should be returned to the Army.

Someone, he testified he thinks it might have been John Valdez, went out and picked up a pizza. The two of them, Katie Briggs and John Valdez, “flirted with each other” out in the kitchen. After all, they had been living together in Austin. Ben Sullivan said he wasn't sure if he might just throw up, it disturbed him that badly. One of his sisters did throw up, especially when she became disgusted by Ms. Briggs' behavior at the dead soldier's funeral in Grand Rapids.

Sgt. Maxwell Davis, a 15-year-Army veteran and fellow squad leader of Sgt. Sullivan's, recalled that at his funeral, Ms. Briggs giggled while she texted on a cell phone as the casket was lowered into his grave. She never did release his dress uniform so the Army's Mortuary Service could make sure his attire was appropriately tailored and all the correct decorations were affixed to his tunic. She just wouldn't turn it over to the Army, according to his Company Commander, Capt. Justin Michel. Most peculiar, all agreed.

Ms. Briggs' defense co-counsel, Jack Holmes and David Fernandez, engaged in many sharp confrontations during the family's testimony over what was hearsay and what might call for speculation – both of which are precluded by the rules of evidence. It's hard for people not trained in the law to concentrate on their answers when it comes to fond memories and a grieving recollection. Jurors were seen frowning at the exchanges and the argumentation. They were equally disturbed by Sgt. Ryan's mother's testimony. When she broke down on the witness stand, several of the 7 women on the jury panel were visibly upset.

Most poignant were his remarks to the video camera, made in a low and monotonous tone of voice, that “I've always loved you,” as he spoke to Ms. Briggs in what would have been a message from the grave if he had died in combat.

She cried profusely as the 20-minute tape unwound before the court.

The most damning evidence of all – something it's impossible to ignore – is that following the three-day Columbus Day holiday, the unit was scheduled to go to the Soldier Readiness Center and make any administrative adjustments such as changing the beneficiaries to their wills, or their life insurance policy.

When Sgt. Sullivan failed to make second muster at 09:30, the Company Commander sent his soldiers to his home to check on him, then summoned the Killeen Police to get in the apartment and find out what was wrong.

They found his rapidly decomposing body inside, cut 35 times with many wounds that could have been fatal if they were the only ones inflicted.

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