RALEIGH, N.C. — A federal judge has tossed a lawsuit that blamed the security company formerly known as Blackwater for the deaths of four contractors killed in a grisly 2004 ambush on the restive streets of Iraq.
U.S. District Judge James C. Fox said court-ordered arbitration fell apart because neither side was paying the costs of that process, so he decided to shut the case nearly seven years after the killings. Katy Helvenston, the mother of contractor Scott Helvenston, said Tuesday the families couldn't afford the costs, and she fears the case is over. The lawsuit was filed about a year after the men's deaths.
"It's pretty much destroyed my life," Helvenston said. "I haven't known one moment of joy since Scotty was slaughtered. I think the worst part is the betrayal from my country. I feel so betrayed."
Insurgents killed the four contractors, then mutilated the bodies, dragged the charred remains through the streets and hung two of the corpses from a bridge. Images from the scene were relayed around the world, and the event triggered a massive U.S. military siege known as the Battle of Fallujah.
Survivors of the contractors contend Blackwater failed to prepare the men for their mission and didn't provide them with appropriate equipment, such as a map. Helvenston, Jerry Zovko, Wesley Batalona and Michael Teague were sent in Mitsubishi SUVs to guard a supply convoy. Their survivors argued they should have been given armored vehicles.
A congressional investigation concurred with that view, calling Blackwater an "unprepared and disorderly" organization on the day of the ambush.
Blackwater, however, argued that the men were betrayed by the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and targeted in a well-planned ambush. The company said the result of the ambush likely would have been the same even if they had stronger weapons, armored vehicles, maps or even more men.
Following a 2007 shooting in Baghdad, Blackwater changed its management, name and eventually its ownership. USTC Holdings, an investment firm with ties to founder Erik Prince, acquired the company that's now called Xe Services in December. The deal includes its training facility in Moyock, N.C.
Daniel Callahan, an attorney representing the survivors, said they plan to appeal the ruling. Helvenston said she doesn't expect success from further appeals. Donna Zovko, the mother of Jerry Zovko, said she wants to keep pursuing the lawsuit and believes the claim will eventually hold Blackwater responsible.
"It hurts very much. It's a very sad day. But this is just another bridge to cross," Zovko said.
In Hawaii, an attorney for Batalona's widow told The Honolulu Star-Advertiser said the family will appeal.
Marc Miles, a Southern California attorney who represents June Batalona told the newspaper, "The families had lost their case against Blackwater because they were not wealthy enough."
Xe declined to comment on the legal issues except to say that a government insurance program known as the Defense Base Act precluded the lawsuit claims. That program, which offers benefits to injured federal contractors and their survivors, prohibits those eligible for benefits from filing lawsuits against companies covered by the insurance.
"The company continues to remember and honor its fallen professionals and shares in their families' grief for all of those tragically lost or wounded while defending democracy in Iraq," Xe said in a statement provided through an attorney.