Prosecutor seeks 3-year sentence for soldier in BB gun case
SEOUL — South Korean prosecutors say a U.S. soldier accused of firing a BB gun at pedestrians and hitting a police officer with his car should get a three-year prison sentence on top of military punishment that will see him kicked out of the Army and serve time in a military prison.
“Because you are a soldier, you violated the trust of the Korean citizens and you should be punished severely,” a prosecutor told Pvt. Christian Lopez-Morales last week in Seoul Central District Court during the last hearing before he will be sentenced.
The prosecutor added that Lopez-Morales, 25, had made “excuses” about the incident, which began shortly before midnight on March 2. He and Pfc. Wendy Fuentes, 22, allegedly fired BBs at a crosswalk in the crowded Itaewon entertainment district before driving away, triggering a high-speed chase that led to a third soldier being shot in the chest by a South Korean policeman.
The incident drew outrage here over the perceived ongoing misbehavior of U.S. Forces Korea troops. It was particularly sensitive in a nation where gun ownership is largely illegal and shootings of any kind are rare.
Both soldiers, who were on trial, have also been court-martialed.
Lopez-Morales — formerly a staff sergeant and Fuentes’ superior— pleaded guilty in a general court-martial in May to military charges of dereliction of duty, adultery, four specifications of making a false official statement and three specifications of failure to obey an order or regulation, according to the Eighth Army. He was sentenced to eight months’ confinement, busted in rank to E-1 and given a dishonorable discharge, which will not be final until an Army appeals court reviews his case. He is on administrative leave until then.
Fuentes pleaded guilty in June during a summary court-martial to two specifications of failure to obey an order or regulation and was sentenced to a one-month forfeiture of $1,266 in addition to reduction in rank from a specialist, the Eighth Army said.
Fuentes, who told authorities she fired several BBs “for fun,” testified last week that she targeted a South Korean man as he sat and smoked on a sidewalk near the Hamilton Hotel. When the man approached the car and started yelling, she handed the BB gun to Lopez-Morales, who drove toward the hotel.
According to Fuentes, Lopez-Morales began firing at people in the crosswalk in front of the hotel.
However, Lopez-Morales claimed that after Fuentes fired, he asked for the BB gun, opened the chamber and emptied it. To clear the gun completely, he said pulled the trigger while aiming at the ground.
As pedestrians approached the car — one jumped on the hood — Lopez-Morales said he planned to stop but got nervous, made a U-turn and drove away.
“As a soldier, it’s pretty hard to admit, but yes, I was scared … everything that happened was because I was scared,” he said.
A South Korean police officer jumped in a taxi and chased the soldiers’ car for more than seven miles. The pursuit ended in an alley, where Lopez-Morales reversed his car several times, striking the officer. The officer fired several shots and hit a private riding in the backseat.
Investigators have said Lopez-Morales drove away, dropped Fuentes off at a hotel and went with the private to U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan, where they told military police that Arabs shot at them.
Lopez-Morales said during last week’s hearing that he did not know a police officer was in the taxi because he had glass in his eye from a car window that was broken during the melee in front of the hotel.
Fuentes, however, testified Lopez-Morales knew that two people who banged on a car window were police officers and that he appeared to have no vision problems while driving.
The prosecutor recommended a suspended eight-month sentence for Fuentes, essentially putting her on probation.
In a hearing in July, the officer, Im Seong-mook, said he believes Lopez-Morales recognized he was a policeman and intentionally tried to hit him with his car. The taxi driver supported his statement.
Both soldiers, who will be sentenced Sept. 13, apologized during last week’s hearing.
Lopez-Morales, who served in Afghanistan and had been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, has been stationed in Korea three years. He said he extended his tour because he liked the country.
“It feels safe,” said the soldier, who has a 4-year-old son. “I honestly love Korea. That’s why I feel ashamed the most.”
Stars and Stripes’ Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.