Testimony begins in a pretrial hearing on charges Staff Sgt. Robert Bales killed 16 Afghan civilians in the early hours of March 11 in Afghanistan's Kandahar province.

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD — It was 2 a.m. March 11, and Sgt. Jason McLaughlin was roused from sleep when the lights were switched on in his quarters in Southern Afghanistan. He was startled, he testified, to find Staff Sgt. Robert Bales by his bed.

On Monday, the opening day of Bales’ pretrial hearing on charges of killing 16 Afghans citizens — most of them women and children — McLaughlin described that strange predawn visit. He said Bales told him he’d just killed “military-age’ males” in a nearby village, and he urged McLaughlin to smell his gun, which had been fired.

McLaughlin didn’t believe Bales had been away at a village, he testified, even after Bales left and returned a short time later to announce he was headed to a second village.

“Then he takes my hands, and says ‘take care of my kids,’ ” McLaughlin testified. Less than an hour later McLaughlin woke again for guard duty and discovered Bales had left the outpost. Bales didn’t return until shortly before 5 a.m.

The Army preliminary hearing that began Monday at Lewis-McChord laid out for the first time publicly some of the evidence against Bales. If the presiding officer finds it warranted, Bales will then have a general court-martial in which the 39-year-old Lewis-McChord solder could face the death penalty.

Prosecutor Lt. Col. Joseph Morse, in his opening statement, said DNA evidence found on Bales’ boots, pants, underwear and gear matched the blood of one of the female victims.

Capelike garment

Morse sought to portray Bales as “lucid and coherent” when he returned to the outpost that second time in blood-soaked pants and wearing a blue garment tied like a cape around his neck.

His return from the second village was captured by video cameras that were hanging from a surveillance balloon. The video, which was played in court, shows a caped figure making his way through trails and fields until he is apprehended by soldiers outside the outpost.

Taken into custody by two other soldiers, Bales’ first reaction, Morse said in his opening statement, was: “Are you [expletive] kidding me!”

Bales then turned to one of the soldiers and asked, “Did you rat me out?” Morse told the court.

In testimony from several soldiers Monday, Bales was portrayed as a soldier who was using illegal steroids and drinking alcohol in violation of Army regulations. He was described as sometimes quick to anger in the weeks leading up to the killings. He told others he was frustrated with what he viewed as an inadequate response to a March 5 bomb attack that cost another soldier his leg.

“He wanted to do more to find the people who were responsible,” testified Sgt. 1st Class Clayton Blackshear. He said Bales woke him the night of the 10th to talk about those concerns and also about problems in his family life.

Defense attorneys honed in on incidents that showed Bales’ conduct had changed for the worse in the weeks leading up to the killings. One soldier testified that Bales lost his temper and lunged at an Afghan who had inadvertently hit him with a box while off-loading a truck.

Bales’ unit was attached to Special Forces that operated out of the outpost in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. Some soldiers at the outpost — both from Special Forces and Bales’ infantry unit — were involved in drug abuse and illegal alcohol use, according to Monday’s testimony.

Blackshear said he had trouble sleeping and would often have a couple of drinks before bedtime. He said he also would grind up and snort Valium.

Jack Daniels, Diet Pepsi

On that Saturday evening before the civilians were killed, Bales sipped Jack Daniels and Diet Pepsi with two other soldiers — McLaughlin and Cpl. David Godwin.

They consumed the rough equivalent of two mixed drinks each, sharing the alcohol equally as they passed it around in a green glass used for protein shakes, McLaughlin testified.

They also watched a video, “Man on Fire,” Godwin said. The movie features Denzel Washington as a former CIA operative turned bodyguard who goes on a revengeful rampage.

McLaughlin testified that after the movie, he went to bed and slept until Bales woke him. Less than an hour later, he woke again to report for guard duty.

At about 3 a.m., McLaughlin said, another soldier who was going off duty reported he’d heard gunshots outside the outpost during his watch.

About five minutes later, Afghan soldiers arrived with an interpreter. They told McLaughlin a U.S. soldier had come back to the outpost and then left.

It was then, McLaughlin said, that he remembered his conversation with Bales at 2 a.m. He feared Bales was the soldier gone from the outpost.

“I ran to see if Staff Sgt. Bales was in his room,” McLaughlin testified. He found the door open, and the light on.

“Staff Sgt. Bales wasn’t there,” McLaughlin testified.

Capt. Daniel Fields, a Special Forces officer, testified he thought perhaps Bales was sleepwalking off the post.

But as he contacted another, larger base nearby, he heard that villagers were reporting shootings. And when Bales returned — his clothing soaked in blood — Fields realized sleepwalking was not the problem.

Godwin testified he was one of the first to meet Bales outside the gate when Bales returned.

Godwin described Bales’ demeanor as “kind of like he got his hand caught in the cookie jar.” He quoted Bales as saying: “I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought I was doing the right thing.”

Godwin said Bales’ response “… was kind of surreal. I kind of thought that Bob [Bales] thought … he was doing this to better us.”

Bales’ wife, Kari, attended the hearing Monday, and the couple briefly embraced before it started.

The hearing is expected to continue into next week.

Austin Jenkins, Olympia correspondent for public radio Northwest News Network, contributed to this report.

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