RALEIGH, N.C. — A pair of former Blackwater contractors charged with murdering two people in Afghanistan had checkered pasts with the military before getting hired to work overseas, according to service records disclosed in recent U.S. court hearings.
The troubled backgrounds of the two men – including instances of violence, drug use and disregard for authority – are a first sign that Xe, the company formerly known as Blackwater, was staffing its war-zone work force with contractors who might not be suited for the job.
The military typically keeps its detailed service records confidential. That makes it difficult to verify the conventional perception that Xe has long filled its rosters with decorated special forces personnel. In the cases of Chris Drotleff and Justin Cannon, prosecutors brought up their records while arguing at hearings this month that both men should be jailed pending their trials.
Drotleff's three-year service in the Marines ended with an other-than-honorable discharge in 2001 and a military record that included offenses for seven unauthorized absences, two failures to obey an order, assault, disrespect toward a noncommissioned officer and falsely altering a military ID card. Before his service with Blackwater in Afghanistan, the 29-year-old also faced a number of state convictions for reckless driving, disturbing the peace, assault and battery, resisting arrest and DWI.
Cannon, 27, was discharged from the Army after going AWOL and testing positive for cocaine. He later petitioned successfully to have his military records officially changed to an honorable discharge.
Both men were indicted by a federal grand jury in Virginia this month on two counts of second-degree murder, attempted murder and weapons charges in a 2008 shooting along a Kabul road. They had been in Afghanistan working for Xe subsidiary Paravant under a Department of Defense contract to provide weapons training to the Afghan National Army.
Their records were detailed in exhibits and arguments at detention hearings in Virginia and Texas this month. Cannon, of Corpus Christi, Texas, and Drotleff, of Virginia Beach, Va., have been ordered held in custody, with the federal judge in Drotleff's hearing citing his "decade long pattern of refusing to obey laws orders and regulations."
"The court finds that the defendant is a danger to the community based on the nature of the charged offense, his history of alcohol abuse and criminal and military history which include crimes of violence," U.S. Magistrate Judge Tommy E. Miller wrote.
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, said he was surprised to hear that Myock, N.C.-based Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide, would hire workers with questionable pasts when the company is struggling to overcome the 2007 Nisoor Square shooting that left more than a dozen Iraqis dead and the subsequent perception that its staff is undisciplined. He said the evidence suggests that Blackwater's standards aren't even as high as those of the U.S. military.
"Why would you take a chance with people who have had other-than-honorable discharges or criminal records?" Thompson said. "The fact that people with spotty records were still in the Blackwater Afghan work force long after the blowups in Iraq suggest that the company needs to pay closer attention to the character of the people it hires."
Xe spokesman Mark Corallo said the company "screens and vets applicants pursuant to U.S. Government requirements." Defense Department guidelines require contractors to certify that their personnel are not prohibited from possessing firearms under U.S. law, but instructions released by the department do not discuss how to address specific criminal or military violations.
Drotleff's wife, Gina, conceded Monday that her husband had troubles in his past.
Still, "they're dredging every single little thing up," she said of prosecutors. "They're ruining our family, our situation and his character. He's a good person, a wonderful father, a great husband and a patriot."
Neither Drotleff nor Cannon has entered a plea. Drotleff has an arraignment set for Wednesday.
Both have said in interviews with The Associated Press that they were driving along a Kabul road on the night of May 5, 2009, when a speeding car slammed into the first vehicle of their convoy, causing it to flip. Both said they got out of their car to help before seeing the car that caused the accident speeding toward them, leading the men to open fire and saying later that they feared for their lives.
Two other contractors who were at the scene have not been charged. All four were fired, with one receiving a termination letter from Xe that cited violation of alcohol policy.
(This version CORRECTS year of to 2009)