Robin Sage Trial Ends First Week
The trial growing out of the 2002 shooting of two Fort Bragg soldiers by a Moore County deputy is expected to take at least another week.
Attorneys for Sgt. Stephen Phelps, who was wounded in the same shooting that killed 1st Lt. Tallas Tomeny, ended the first week of trial in Greensboro Friday with testimony by a mother, an uncle and a fellow Special Forces soldier.
The federal lawsuit, brought by Phelps against the Sheriff's Office and former Deputy Randall Butler, grew out of a split-second decision that Butler made amid great confusion when a military role-playing exercise went bad on a chilly Saturday seven years ago in northern Moore County.
Tomeny and Phelps were taking part in a 19-day Special Forces training program called Robin Sage. How they performed would determine whether they would get their Green Berets, have to repeat part of the qualification course, or wash out entirely.
That war game has been played out for decades across Moore and other N.C. counties as student soldiers infiltrate a mock country called "Pineland," playing out the five phases of unconventional warfare one last time before going to war for real. They organize civilian volunteers (who play Pinelanders) to fight against an occupying force. Soldiers taking part in the training are taught to regard any civilians they meet as potential enemies.
That exercise turned bloody on Feb. 23, 2002, when Butler -- an experienced officer originally from Sanford who is now chief deputy of Lee County -- stopped a green pickup driven by civilian volunteer Charles Leiber, with Phelps in back and Tomeny in the passenger seat.
Butler was on road patrol in the Robbins area, on the lookout for intruders who had been breaking into houses on weekends when people were away from home. What happened during what the court ruled was a legal traffic stop depends on whether the jury believes Phelps or Butler or Leiber.
Butler, unaware of the exercise and finding himself surrounded by armed men, shot both Phelps and Tomeny. Tomeny died. Phelps nearly did, according to testimony Friday by two emergency workers who got him to Moore Regional just in time.
Distances in Dispute
Phelps's mother told of watching her son fight for recovery and praying it could have been her instead lying in that hospital bed connected to life support and pain medicine by tubes and IVs. Her brother told of racing up from Florida and camping out at Phelps' home in his camper, going back and forth to the hospital.
Capt. Alan Sessoms of the Robbins Police Department told of responding to Butler's call for assistance. He said he arrived at the parking lot of Acorn Ridge Baptist Church, off N.C. 705 north of Robbins, with blue lights flashing, racing to the aid of a fellow officer he'd just had lunch with.
He saw the body of one man on the ground next to a green pickup. He saw Butler opposite, posed at the back of his patrol car with his gun drawn. As requested, Butler joined the deputy there, noticing on the way another man -- Phelps, as it turned out -- lying on the other side of that patrol car.
How far away that man was is at issue in the trial. Various sworn statements by Phelps and Sessoms taken not long after the event have him on the pavement 6 to 8 feet away from Butler's vehicle.
That supports Butler's accounts, given then and now, that he shot Phelps first as he saw him going for a bag that Butler had tossed away after seeing it held an assault weapon.
Phelps, on the other hand, has testified that he raced from the truck after Butler began pepper-spraying Tomeny, that he grabbed that bag only because soldiers are trained never to give up their weapons, and that he was running for the tree line. He testified that he turned and slipped when he heard two quick shots, landing almost on all fours, and was then shot himself.
Phelps' account is supported by a 2005 telephone deposition Sessoms gave Phelps' lawyer and later signed. It has the distance at 20 feet. Under cross-examination Friday by Butler's attorney, Sessoms said his earlier memory would be more reliable.
Excessive Force Alleged
The suit alleges that the deputy acted unreasonably and used excessive force. It seeks damages for medical costs, pain and suffering and punitive damages. Butler has sued the U.S. Army, claiming it was the Army's neglect to inform law-enforcement agencies and to properly train Robin Sage participants that caused the trouble.
The Army has since changed its procedure.
On Friday, an FBI special agent who was in the same Robin Sage exercise as Phelps and Tomeny told of assigning them to carry out a "recon" mission to check out a railroad bridge that Saturday.
He said he told Tomeny that if he encountered any civilian law-enforcement, to first try to talk their way out, then to try bribery (with fake Pineland cash that looks like Monopoly money) and that if that didn't work, to accept capture.
That would set up a later training scenario that would mount a combat mission to free them, one like what he'd taken part in that morning.
Under cross, he admitted that in other circumstances, soldiers who could neither talk nor bribe their way out were authorized to "kill" the law officer. All that assumed the officer would be a volunteer player taking part in the war game, as is done in Robin Sage to this day.
Testimony for Phelps continues the first part of this week, with the civilian volunteer Leiber expected to be on the stand for some time. A firearms expert will testify. Then, when it is the turn of the defense, Butler will have a chance to tell his story.
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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