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Sunday, November 16, 2003

Ledger-Enquirer | 11/16/2003 | Struggling for answers

Posted on Sun, Nov. 16, 2003

Struggling for answers
Staff Writer

ST. CHARLES, Mo. - The card with the floral bouquet on its cover is postmarked July 3, 2003.

Dear Rich,

How are you? Iraq is dominating the news... the government realizes you guys need to come home. The military analysts say, 'The military is undermanned and over committed.' Please be patient and take care. Never let your guard down. We are looking forward to your safe return.

Much love and prayers, Mom, Dad, and Lisa.

(P.S.) I'm sorry to see you in this position. I wish you will have children and grandchildren to tell your war stories to some day and to bake some 'wartime' cookies with. Stay strong for mom, OK?

A little more than a week after that postmark, having returned from Iraq, 25-year-old Army Spc. Richard T. Davis would be lying dead in a wooded area, 40 yards off a busy commercial strip in Columbus, killed not by the Iraqi enemy, but by his fellow soldiers, police and military investigators allege.

He had been stabbed multiple times, his body doused with lighter fluid, then set on fire.

Nearly four months later, on the afternoon of Nov. 7, investigators found his remains beneath a piece of blackened log scattered among some leaves. Davis was later positively identified by his dental records.

Three of his fellow soldiers, all originally charged with murder, remain jailed on $25,000 bond each on charges of concealing the death of another. They may still face indictment on murder charges, according to the district attorney's office. A fourth soldier, who is being extradited from California, awaits a preliminary hearing on a murder charge.

The Army brat

On Thursday, at her home in St. Charles, Mo., Remy Davis' hands shook as she tried to stuff that card, the one postmarked July 3 and returned unopened, back into its envelope.

He was her baby, her only son.

A child of military parents -- his mother a medic at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.; his father a retired military police sergeant and 20-year veteran -- Rich Davis wound up carrying the "Army brat" mantle.

Born in Germany where his father, Lanny Davis, was stationed at the time, Rich Davis would attend schools in Kansas, Missouri and California before settling in the early '90s with his parents in the city of St. Charles, Mo., population of about 200,000 at that time. The family bought a three-bedroom, ranch-style brick home in the oldest city along the Missouri River.

Though he didn't especially like school, he excelled in reading and painting. Photo albums showcase his accomplishments: the "Junior Author" blue ribbon from sixth grade, for example, and the A+ he got for a drawing project at Francis Howell Central High. He was suspended for a day after some classmates scribbled obscenities on that drawing project, said his mother.

"Back then, there weren't many kids like him in town," said Remy Davis, 53, who is of Filipino-Chinese descent. "He looked different."

In high school, Rich Davis went through the normal rebellion period, spending his after-school hours with the skateboarding crowd and his cousins. Dyeing his hair with blond streaks, wearing pants that swept the floor. Racking up speeding tickets in his pride and joy -- the electric-blue Honda Civic that still sits in the driveway of the family's home.

At 16 he joined Weekend Warrior, a reserve program that entailed training a few weekends during the year. He also worked part-time. Remy Davis remembers when he came home one afternoon, ecstatic over a promotion he got at the Gingham Restaurant, a family diner nearby.

"Mom, Mom, guess what!" he screamed to her. "I got promoted!" The raise was from dishwasher to busboy, Remy Davis recalled last week, sighing.

Upon high school graduation, Rich Davis joined the Army. After training at Fort Jackson, S.C., he was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, in a field artillery unit. In the late '90s, he served in wartime Bosnia as a driver for the battalion commander and as a machine gunner.

Rich's entry into the Army brought pride to the family, relatives said. "Richard knew it pleased his dad, and knowing that it did made him happy," said Martha Green, Rich's aunt. Green recalled a visit home after he'd been in Bosnia, when Rich arrived at his Uncle Tom's home and introduced his father.

"They came in together, with their arms on each other's shoulder," Green said. "You know, my brother Lanny is not the affectionate type. And then Rich, holding his dad's shoulder, announces, 'This is my best friend.' Lanny just smiled and said, 'We've been talking.' "

When his son came home from Bosnia, Lanny Davis, 54, says, he noticed a change in him. There was hurt in his son's eyes.

"Dad, how can people treat people like that -- babies, women and children -- and just throw them in graves," Lanny Davis remembers his son asking. A veteran of three tours in Korea and a year in Vietnam, Lanny Davis said he tried to sympathize with his son.

By Sept. 11, 2001, Rich Davis had decided to leave the Army. He went home, but it didn't take long before he got restless. He rejoined the Army and by January 2002 had arrived at Fort Benning.

Last year, as the United States prepared for war with Iraq, he was sent to Kuwait. His unit -- the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment -- returned home in the fall of 2002. Rich returned to Kuwait in November 2002. During the next several months his unit would engage in some of the bloodiest battles in the Iraq war.

'Mom... Mom... Mom'

In February 2003, the Davises received a card from Rich. It would be the last they received from him. On the cover of it was a cartoon of a smiling camel with a holiday recipe inside, titled "How to Stuff a Camel."

Inside, Rich wrote:

"I live in a 60-man tent with no heat or electricity... get to take a cold shower every 4 days. It is only going to get worse from here. They don't know when we're coming home. Rumor is we're moving north on Feb. 12. All I'm doing now is training, that is all we do. The only thing keeping me going is watching all the REMFs complain about the living conditions. You can send me a package no bigger than a shoebox. Well that's all for now."

His parents got no more mail from Rich, but they did get three phone calls.

The first one, on May 5, lasted a few minutes, Remy Davis recalled. It was 12:49 p.m. in St. Charles and she was home taking care of Lisa, Richard's 21-year-old sister who has Down syndrome. "They had just reached Baghdad," Remy Davis recalled. She remembers doing most of the talking, but Rich talked about coming home in 10 to 15 days.

Two days later, on May 7 at 2:23 p.m., another call came. Her son seemed more talkative, Remy Davis said. "He was talking about his car, about his trip from Kuwait to Baghdad, that he was wearing the same clothes and had not taken a bath from the beginning of his trip from Kuwait to Baghdad and to the end of the war," his mother said. "I think it was something like 25 days. They just got used to each other's smell."

Morale, he told her, was very low. They were still eating MREs and sleeping in the dirt.

"He said that when he got home all he wanted to do was work on his car," Remy Davis said. When she told her son she would meet him at Fort Benning, Rich said that wouldn't be necessary.

"He said he'd just fly home and then I could bring him anywhere I wanted," Remy Davis said. She planned on a trip to her native Philippines, where Rich had expressed a desire to visit.

The lengthiest call came May 20, around 6 p.m. This time Lanny Davis was home and able to talk with his son for about 30 minutes while his wife listened in on another line in the bedroom. The call was markedly different from the first two, each parent said. Richard sounded "in distress" and was talking "irrationally," they said.

They were now going to be in Iraq indefinitely, Rich told his parents. He talked about holes in his boots, said he could no longer stand the MREs and that they were waiting for drinking water. His rucksack, which had been hanging outside a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, was blown up by a rocket propelled grenade. Rich mentioned seeing a lot of dead bodies, his father said.

"Everyone was quiet and keeping to themselves," Lanny Davis recalled his son saying. "He said he didn't trust friendly people -- I didn't know if he was talking about Iraqis or his fellow soldiers."

When the Davises told their son that Saddam Hussein still hadn't been found, he was in disbelief. At one point during that third phone call he cried, pleading with his father to "get me outta here."

A brief exchange of goodbyes and I-love-yous followed. It was the last time Lanny and Remy Davis would speak to their son.

On May 23, the couple got a letter from MCI threatening to disconnect their long-distance service. Lanny Davis did not understand. They had not been late on any bills and had received only a handful of calls from overseas. A few days later, their long-distance service was interrupted. It took a week before MCI restored the service.

In the meantime, two more calls came -- they believe were from their son -- but the connection was cut, Remy Davis said. During the last call she picked up, she heard a voice saying, "Mom, Mom, Mom," before the line went dead.

After that, there were no more calls from Rich.

Despite their son's wishes, the Davises planned for a surprise visit to Fort Benning for Rich's homecoming. They continued to follow national coverage of the war, scanning the news ticker on CNN for news of the 3rd Brigade's return home.

'It's about Richard'

On July 14 or July 15 -- they aren't certain -- the Davises got a call that was noteworthy only for its brevity and for the unknown person on the other end. It was a woman's voice. She called in the morning, sometime between 9 and 10 a.m.

"Hello, is this Mrs. Remedios Davis?" the woman asked.

Thinking it was a telemarketer, Remy Davis answered with a curt "yes."

"It's about Richard," the woman began. She sounded anxious and nervous, Remy Davis recalled.

"I said well, 'What about Richard?' " Remy Davis said. "Richard is not here."

Annoyed at what she thought was a sales call, Remy Davis then hung up, believing that her son was still in Iraq with the rest of his unit.

In fact, he had returned to Fort Benning a couple of days earlier, and may already have been dead.

A diary begins

It was July 21 before the Davises heard any more about their son. That's when Remy Davis started a diary. Inside a green notebook, she began making daily entries of times, dates, names and phone numbers. All of it documenting the Davises' effort to find Richard.

It was around 9 a.m. that day when a sergeant from Fort Benning called their Missouri home.

"Where's Richard?" he asked Lanny Davis.

"Richard?" Davis responded. "He's in Baghdad Airport. That's the last we've heard from him." Lanny Davis explained he knew this with some certainty since his son had called on May 20 after borrowing a phone from a group of reservists guarding a water purification plant in Baghdad.

It was then that the Davises learned their son had already returned to the United States. The sergeant told them the group had returned July 13 and that their son was last seen on July 14.

As of July 16, he was listed as AWOL, absent without leave, they were told.

"I thought he probably went and blew some steam off, called a girlfriend or whatever," Lanny Davis said. "They had just come back from a war, so that wouldn't be that surprising. I've done it myself."

It wasn't until the next day, July 22, that Lanny Davis began to feel uneasy. During a conversation with another sergeant, he learned that his son was last seen on July 14, shopping at the PX on post. His clothes, his toothbrush, his shoes -- all remained untouched inside his room. His father wondered, why would he go AWOL without all these things and the stuff he had just bought?

He wasn't the type to leave the military, his father reasoned. Plus, he hadn't called home, hadn't asked about his car or his mother, with whom he was extremely close.

"He would've called or contacted us in some way, even if it was just a card," Lanny Davis said. It was beginning to look like a missing person situation, he thought to himself.

The Davises made a slew of calls to Fort Benning, then to the Veterans Administration. Lanny Davis asked if anyone had checked the hospital, the morgue, the police station, the airports and bus stations. He asked if anyone had filled out a missing person's report.

On July 30, one sergeant promised him he would file a missing person report with the Columbus Police Department.

"I don't know if he ever did," Lanny Davis said.

Contacted by phone Thursday, Columbus Police Maj. Russell Traino said he believed no report had been made with the department's investigative unit, though any soldier listed as AWOL would have been automatically entered into a national crime database.

The Davises' calls in search of their son stretched into August. Fort Benning officials continued to tell them that Rich Davis was AWOL, and that they had no news of him.

On Aug. 19, a frustrated and very worried Lanny Davis got into his 2000 Silverado pickup truck and drove 700 miles until he reached Fort Benning. There he would spend two days and two nights in search of answers.

Two days, two nights at Benning

Upon arriving on post, Lanny Davis met with a sergeant he had spoken to during previous phone conversations.

"Really nice man," Lanny Davis said. "They were all very nice, very polite fellows."

But the sergeant could offer him nothing new. Rich was a good soldier, he explained, but no one really knew anything about him.

When Lanny Davis asked to meet or talk with anyone who might have known his son, he was told that his son was "a loner." During the two-day visit, everyone he asked to see -- any squad leaders, a captain, an executive officer, a platoon sergeant, assorted squadmates or roommates -- seemed to have been unavailable or busy. "So they're going to tell me that he's been there since last year, with them in Kuwait then in battle in Iraq, and no one knows him?" Lanny Davis said. "You don't go through combat with people and not become close if you're under life-and-death situations. It's just part of human nature."

Though the sergeant said he would try to find someone Lanny Davis could speak with, no one in a position of authority ever materialized.

"I guess it didn't matter that I was retired military and a concerned parent who drove 700 miles to find out about my son," Lanny Davis said. "Maybe they thought I just fell off a turnip truck and didn't understand."

One conversation stood out, Lanny Davis said.

Spotting a corporal standing near a row of offices on the first day of his visit, Lanny Davis approached.

"Do you know my son, Specialist Davis?" he asked.

"You mean Richard?" the corporal asked. "Well, yes of course, sure." The corporal began to tell Lanny Davis what a good man his son was when a voice from the first sergeant's office rang out.

"I need to see you in here," the voice urged.

"Then the corporal double-times it over there and the door is closed behind him," Lanny Davis said. "Just like that."

The exchange only reinforced the uneasy reception Lanny Davis felt he was receiving at this point.

On the second day of his visit, Lanny Davis stopped by the military police unit, then placed a call to the Army's Criminal Investigations Division from the station. On both counts, he said, he was told that no investigation had been started. According to a computer check, his son was still listed as AWOL. Furthermore, no one was available at CID to talk to him.

Because of privacy rules, Fort Benning officials could not release his son's personal effects for Lanny Davis to inspect. A sergeant instead promised to re-check the items and look into whether there was any activity on his son's bank account.

Appeals for assistance

On Aug. 23, Lanny Davis was back at home in Missouri. A couple of weeks later, after driving 127 miles to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., for legal assistance, and after contacting a local congressman, he appealed to a friend in the FBI.

From him, Lanny Davis learned a bit of worrisome information: His son's bank account had remained untouched in recent weeks.

On Sept. 16, the congressman's secretary placed a call to the Davis family, informing them that the case had been reported to the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C. That same day, Lanny Davis received a call from a CID agent at Fort Benning. After hearing the family's story, the agent told Lanny Davis, "that definitely sounds like a missing person."

Weeks later, on Oct. 29, a second CID agent assigned to the case informed the family that Rich had been placed on a national missing persons' list.

A tip, then a discovery

On Nov. 7, acting on what they learned from an informant, CID investigators called Columbus Police to a wooded area along the 4400 block of Milgen Road.

There they discovered skeletal remains of a young white male in his 20s, believed to have been in the woods for at least a month. He had been stabbed multiple times, said Muscogee County Coroner James Dunnavant. Court testimony would later indicate that his body was set on fire.

Within hours of the discovery, three soldiers were transported from military police headquarters at Fort Benning to the Columbus Police Department. The men -- Jacob Burgoyne, Mario Naverette and Douglas Woodcoff, all 24 -- were from Rich Davis' unit and were the last men he had been seen with.

The knock on the Davis family's door came the following day, Nov. 8. Silver oak leaves on his jacket sleeves indicated the man was an Army lieutenant colonel.

Lanny Davis answered the door. "Is this bad news or good news?" he asked. "They said it was bad news."

The lieutenant colonel told the family he had been contacted by the Secretary of Defense's office and asked to come to their home. Their son was dead, and his body had been found.

The accused

Burgoyne, Naverette and Woodcoff were initially charged with murder. In their first hearing, police detectives said the three men, in addition to a fourth, later identified as Alberto Martinez, had gone with Rich Davis to a Columbus strip club one day in mid-July. All the soldiers were kicked out, detectives testified, after Davis allegedly insulted a dancer. The soldiers fought. Davis was stabbed and died.

Recorder's Court Judge Michael Cielinski reduced the murder charge, but found probable cause to bind Burgoyne, Naverette and Woodcoff over to Superior Court on charges of concealing the death of another. Martinez is in California, and has waived extradition to Columbus, where he's expected to appear in court on a murder charge.

The Army addressed Davis' murder in a news conference Thursday. Col. Steven Salazar, 3rd Brigade commander, expressed "deepest sorrow and condolences" over Davis' death, saying it had a "profound effect" on the 3rd Brigades' 4,000 soldiers. Salazar said unnamed members of the 1-15 "went above and beyond those required by Army regulations" in assisting investigators on the case.

At home, grief

Back in St. Charles, Mo., Lanny and Remy Davis are grieving. They've each lost 30 pounds. Relatives tell them they're loved, but their loss is devastating. They talk of a future without their son, a future without grandchildren. A few days ago, a relative took Remy to a shoe store to distract her. After a few minutes browsing in the store, the relative heard Remy screaming, "My son, my son."

Lanny Davis doesn't know why his son died, but he doesn't believe it was because of an insult in a strip club.

"He wasn't even afforded an honorable death, after going through all that anguish," Lanny Davis said. "Instead, he comes home and is killed like an animal."

Ledger-Enquirer | 11/16/2003 | Struggling for answers

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