Due to a difficult security situation, Army investigators waited three weeks before visiting two villages where Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly killed 16 Afghans.

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD — Due to security concerns, Army criminal investigators waited three weeks to collect evidence from the mud-walled compounds in two villages where Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly killed 16 civilians and wounded 6 others, according to testimony Wednesday.

The morning of the March 11 killings, a crowd of angry Afghans gathered outside the outpost where Bales was stationed.

When Afghan soldiers made a trip to the crime scene that same day, they got in a firefight that killed one of their men and wounded two, according to Special Agent Matthew Hoffman, who served as an Army criminal investigator on the case.

“They (Army leaders) were fully expecting an ambush if we tried to go out there at that time,” Hoffman testified in the third day of a preliminary hearing that has offered the first public accounting of the investigation into the worst U.S. war crimes case to emerge from the war in Afghanistan.

In the days that followed, Army officials reviewed the security situation with Afghan army and government officials. Then, on April 2, Army investigators finally visited the two villages, each less than a mile from Camp Belamby where Bales was based. They arrived with extensive security that included Afghan soldiers, mine-sweeping equipment and U.S. helicopters.

By then, Hoffman said U.S. Army investigators had already received photos of the crime scene from Afghan soldiers who had been in the villages, as well as bags of shell casings gathered by those soldiers.

During their April 2 visit, U.S. Army investigators found a few more shell casings and used swabs to gather evidence of the blood that still stained some walls and floors.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com