Five years ago, a young woman met a sheriff's deputy at a park near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, where she handed him a live anti-tank weapon.
Her boyfriend, former Sgt. Kyle Nespory, had left the M72A5 Light Anti-Tank Weapon with her when he'd moved out of state. Before that, it had been in the closets of Victor Naranjo and former Spc. Anthony Laitta, a so-called "war trophy" smuggled home from Afghanistan by soldiers from the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division after the bloody 2010 Battle of Marjah, according to federal sentencing documents.
Defense attorneys cited combat stress, drug dependency and traumatic brain injury among the reasons for the former soldiers' poor judgment in taking the rocket -- which could have detonated with one wrong move -- off post and then keeping it in their homes.
As of Monday, they have all been sentenced to probation, after pleading down their original indictment for various counts of improperly storing an explosive, possessing an unregistered firearm and possession of stolen government property.
The rocket had originally belonged to the Canadian army and was part of a "battlefield exchange," according to court documents, after 2nd Stryker Brigade's multinational efforts in Marjah. The rocket was capable of penetrating eight inches of steel, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Gruber wrote, and somehow ended up redeploying along with the brigade at the end of 2010.
Laitta decided to get the thing off post, so with help from the unit's supply clerk, he wrapped it in a garbage bag and brought it home in December at the end of his enlistment. Two weeks later, at a party at Naranjo's house in Tacoma, he let slip that the rocket was back at his home and he didn't know what to do with it.
"Ignoring for a moment the explosive force of the warhead itself, even just the accidental ignition of the rocket motor would have produced gases of around 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit," Gruber wrote. "At a minimum, it is safe to say that the apartment building would likely have been destroyed, and anyone in it could very well have been killed, or at least severely injured."
Laitta brought the rocket to Naranjo's house, where the guys took a photo posing with it.
"Mr. Naranjo was not only a friend, but he was also a sergeant to a few of the people involved," his attorney wrote in a pre-sentencing memo. "More importantly, given the bonds formed in combat, he felt a brotherhood toward his friends and wanted to help."
But after a month of trying to figure out how to safely dispose of it, he unloaded the LAW onto battle buddy Nespory, who kept it in the closet of his Steilacoom, Washington, apartment before giving it to his girlfriend when he left town.
She ultimately turned it over in September 2011, and it took investigators three years to piece together where it came from and issue arrest warrants for the men in 2014.
"Unlike his ex-girlfriend, with whom he left this very dangerous military weapon, defendant Nespory knew exactly what it could do," Gruber wrote. "She, on the other hand, likely had no idea of the level of destruction it would reap with the mere pull of the trigger."
All three men struck plea deals to avoid felony convictions and jail time. Nespory was sentenced to six months' probation in February for improper storage of explosives, Naranjo was sentenced to one year probation in March for improper storage of explosives and Laitta received one year probation for improper storage of explosives and possession of stolen government property.
The men faced between six and 16 months in prison for the misdemeanor offenses, but in three separate memos, their attorneys argued that they'd shown bad judgment as casualties of war, facing a multitude of physical and psychological injuries and overcoming dependencies on painkillers and alcohol.
Today they are trying to reinvent themselves, their attorneys argued, pursuing undergraduate and master's degrees, and deserved leniency for their poor past decision making.
Still facing charges of possession of stolen explosives and possession of an unregistered firearm is Keller Bellu, the supply clerk who helped Laitta smuggle the rocket from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.