Opening statements in the trial of the former Commander of Guantanamo Naval Base got off to a dramatic start Tuesday, with both sides describing a drunken brawl, an affair and the subsequent death of civilian contractor Christopher Tur in 2015.
Retired Capt. John Nettleton is charged with obstruction of justice and lying to federal investigators during a military investigation into the death of Tur. Nettleton has pleaded not guilty.
Jurors listened intently as Federal Prosecutor Todd Gee described what he called a criminal effort by former Capt. John Nettleton to conceal the incident, stonewall the search for Tur and deceive Navy investigators about Tur’s final hours.
“He kept it quiet to protect himself,” Gee argued.
Though Nettleton’s actions delayed the investigation into Tur’s death, Gee told jurors his death is not the focus of the case.
“That is not what this trial is about, and it is not a mystery that will be solved in this courtroom,” Gee said.
Instead, he said the focus will be “over a dozen false and misleading statements” Nettleton made to investigators and his Navy bosses.
Nettleton’s attorney Terence Lenemon countered that Nettleton did not deliberately deceive anyone. He said that Nettleton chose not to disclose his fistfight with Tur because it was an incident “between two Marines” and “something between two men.” He said Tur had a history of depression and suicide attempts, as well as domestic violence, and that knowledge of those things also played into Nettleton’s decision-making process.
“When you listen to all the evidence and put it all together, it’s going to be crystal clear that he never obstructed justice, that he did not give material false statements, and that he is not guilty of these charges,” Lenemon said.
The first witness called in the case was the former Public Information Officer at Guantanamo Naval Base, Kelly Wirfel. She described a night of heavy drinking at a “Hail and Farewell” party that preceded Tur’s disappearance. She said Tur and his wife Lara fought and that he accused her of having an affair with Nettleton.
“How does it feel to f*ck my wife?” Wirfel said Tur screamed at Nettleton. “She’s nothing but a whore.”
Wirfel said Tur’s wife retorted, “I hate you, you need to kill yourself.”
Wirfel testified that Tur and Nettleton had to be physically separated.
Wirfel, who was close friends with both Turs, described searching for Chris Tur for hours after it became clear he was missing. She fought back tears as she testified about when Chris Tur’s body was found floating in Guantanamo Bay two days after his disappearance.
Jurors also heard from former Chief Warrant Officer Randall Barger, who witnessed the confrontation between Nettleton and Tur at the officers’ club and later searched for Tur. He noted that Tur had a history of disappearing when angry. “If he got mad, he would wander off for a day or two.”
Barger also testified that when searching for Tur, he asked Capt. Nettleton if he could search in and around his house, and Nettleton refused.
“I asked him if I could look around in the backyard and in the house area, and he said no.”
In less dramatic moments Tuesday, a last-minute change in the jury’s makeup made it even more female and more aligned with the military.
After one juror, a naturalized U.S. citizen expressed concern about his English skills, District Judge Timothy Corrigan and lawyers for both sides agreed to swap him with one of the four alternates. The resulting jury is now composed of 11 women, nine of whom have either served or who has a close family member who served in some branch of the military.
Early in the day, District Judge Timothy Corrigan addressed what he called “high feelings” about the case. Addressing family members of Christopher Tur and John Nettleton in the courtroom, he said “everyone is welcome in the courtroom” but urged them to keep their emotions in check.
“People feel strongly about it and I certainly understand it,” Corrigan said but noted “we have to have a certain decorum. I’m confident that will be the case and I will appreciate your cooperation in that regard.”
Several key witnesses are expected to testify Wednesday, starting with Nettleton’s daughter Julia. She was a teenager in 2015, and witnessed the fight between her father and Tur. Some of what she witnessed is memorialized in text messages she sent to friends.
Also scheduled to testify Wednesday is Tur’s wife at the time, who now goes by the name Lara Sabanash.
Court resumes at 9:30 Wednesday morning.