The Wasilla Army Killer's Dark Past

Jeremy Morlock, the Army specialist made notorious in a grisly photograph showing off a dead Afghan civilian like a hunting trophy, pleaded guilty to three murders and faces up to 24 years in prison. Morlock's friends from Alaska tell Shushannah Walshe about his Army experience, his father's death—and his temper.

03.23.11 10:42 PM ET

Spc. Jeremy Morlock looks into the camera and smiles, lifting the hair of a dead Afghan man, in a gruesome photograph. The image, along with others published this week by Der Spiegel, sparked an international outcry and triggered an apology from the U.S. Army, which called them "repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the United States."

At a court-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Wednesday, Morlock pleaded guilty to the murders of three unarmed Afghan civilians in Kandahar province in 2010 and one count each of illegal drug use, obstructing justice, and conspiracy. In exchange for the guilty plea, the military judge gave the Wasilla, Alaska, native a maximum sentence of 24 years, but his defense attorney says he will be eligible for parole in as little as seven.

The judge asked the 22-year-old if the plan was to shoot at civilians to scare them, or if the plan was to kill. Morlock replied, "The plan was to kill people." He is the first of five soldiers to be court-martialed for the war crimes, and his attorney said he will testify against the other five members of his platoon. The men have been described as a "kill team" and "rogue platoon," and Morlock is accused of being their leader in the killings.

Hockey coaches, friends, and others in Wasilla in close contact with Morlock, who joined the Army after graduating from high school in 2006, are stunned. In conversations with The Daily Beast, they describe a boy who always wanted to follow in his father's footsteps into the military, a hardworking hockey player from the age of 6, and a son completely devastated by his father's death, by drowning, in July 2007. But a cold-blooded killer? It's hard for the small suburb of Anchorage to imagine, even as some describe him as an aggressive guy with a temper.

Jamie Smith has known Morlock since the second grade. Smith taught him physical education, but he spent much of their close relationship as Morlock's hockey coach. (Morlock also played youth hockey with and was a friend of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's son Track.) Smith traveled to Washington on Wednesday to testify as a character witness on Morlock's behalf, and the coach is one of the only people who has stayed in touch with him while he's been in military custody. Morlock has been writing letters to Smith, mostly about their relationship, but the letters also reveal his mental state, and Smith says he knows what might have happened in Afghanistan.

“It’s like being in the middle of nowhere and the government said, ‘Goodbye. You are on your own. Go find the enemy and kill them,’” said Morlock's defense attorney.

"He's mortified, no question about it." Smith told The Daily Beast. "I know if he was given an order, he was gonna follow through and do what he was supposed to do. He was always like that… I'm certain when you put a 19- or 20-year-old in the middle of Afghanistan, and you are given orders, you follow through."

Smith added that he doesn't believe Morlock "acted on his own," something the defense has also insisted. Morlock's lawyers say he was pressured by a commanding officer.

Both Smith and his assistant coach describe Morlock more as a hard worker on the ice than a natural talent, and Smith says his father's death did affect his mental state. Richard Morlock was shuttling his daughters across Lake Louise and had dropped them off when a wave hit his boat. He was thrown overboard wearing heavy hip boots and was only able to get one off. The Morlocks had gone through an ugly divorce before Richard's sudden death, and Smith said Jeremy, the second of eight children, "dreamt about being an Army ranger his whole life" because his father was one. The boy was "devastated" and had "a tough time dealing" with his father's death, Smith said.

Asked if Morlock had a temper, Smith said, "He's an aggressive kid, no question about it."

The aggressive side is something people in Wasilla who don't like Morlock also point out. During the 2004-05 hockey season, he got into an altercation in the locker room. Another player, who played hockey against Morlock and knows him from the community but asked not to be identified, saw the fight said Morlock had been kicked off the ice for shooting pucks at another player. The witness said that during the fight Morlock grabbed the player by the throat, shoved him against a wall, and elbowed his face.

Morlock's defense attorney, Geoffrey Nathan, told The Daily Beast that negotiating his client's plea deal took six months and that his co-attorney is implementing the deal with the military judge. Nathan said they decided to plead guilty when a video of Morlock admitting to the murders and naming Sgt. Calvin Gibbs as the ringleader was obtained by ABC News. Nathan said the videos "prove guilt more than innocence." In the video, Morlock tells investigators: "And so we identify a guy. Gibbs makes a comment, like, you know, you guys wanna wax this guy or what?"

"He's fricking lucky, and it's because the armed services court is the ultimate kangaroo court. I mean just getting any justice in there, leveling the playing field is almost impossible. The rules are stacked against you," Nathan said. "The kid is lucky he's gonna see the light of day in what should be about seven years. He should be out and he's lucky on that and he knows it."

Nathan blamed the Army and Gibbs, who would have "executed him at night" had Morlock not gone through with the murders. The lawyer described Morlock as "stable" and "friendly" and said he speaks to him every other day. At the time of the killings, Morlock was about to be medevaced out of Afghanistan after "multiple blast injuries," Nathan said.

"It's sort of like a bank robbery. Once you're involved in a bank robbery, if you back out you wind up with a bullet in the bank of your head," he said. "They didn't sleep at night because they all thought they were going to blow each other away… the assault and battery is just the start of it. You're afraid you are going to get whacked."

Nathan also accused the military of abandoning its soldiers in Afghanistan.

"The soldiers know what the risks are, but all the guys are left in an outpost and they are abandoned. It's like being in the middle of nowhere and the government said, 'Goodbye. You are on your own. Go find the enemy and kill them,'" Nathan said. "Morlock was taking s— in his pants, he was too afraid to use the latrine. How long can that go on before you lose a sense of reality? I would suggest not that long."

The Army declined to comment on the case.

While stationed in Washington, Morlock got married and had a child. Reached by phone, his wife, Danica, said the two were no longer married and hung up. The Seattle Times reports that Morlock was charged with assault after allegedly throwing a glass at his wife and pressing a lighted cigarette against her chest. He was convicted of a lesser charge and paid a fine.

In happier times, Morlock traveled back home to Alaska with Danica for an Wasilla ceremony.

Morlock's assistant hockey coach, Dudley Boehm, said the soldier talked to him about serving in Afghanistan at a Wasilla event he attended with Danica.

"He said it was tough, it was tougher than—it wasn't what he had expected," Boehm, who has known Morlock for 16 years and described him as "respectful," told The Daily Beast. "I think he had more of a littler rosier idea what the military life was going to be vs. [being] in it, and obviously it's not a good situation for the soldiers."

Jake Henkel, a high school friend and hockey teammate, described Morlock as a "really good people person."

He would "strike up a conversation with anyone and relate to them," Henkel said. "He was really respectful to parents, all the parents liked him."

Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.