Gripping, grim story in makeshift Kosovo courtroom

CAMP BONDSTEEL, Yugoslavia, Feb 19, 2000 -- (Reuters) A white-walled room in a prefabricated hut in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo may not seem a promising setting for anything much.

But on Friday, the room at the Camp Bondsteel base was the backdrop for revealing insights into the character of a U.S. soldier charged with murdering an 11-year-old local ethnic Albanian girl and the grisly events leading to his arrest.

The pre-trial hearing into the charges against Staff Sergeant Frank Ronghi of Niles, Ohio, also taught onlookers much about the psychological effect of a tough mission on peacekeepers and about the U.S. military justice system.

Around 10 witnesses took the stand under bright fluorescent lights to first state their name, rank and social security number and then tell their story to the makeshift courtroom, roped off from a small public gallery.

One sergeant told of how a young private under his command had approached him on the evening of January 13, the day the murder in the town of Vitina is alleged to have taken place.

"Can I trust you? Can I really trust you?" the anxious soldier asked the sergeant, who is not named here like all witnesses in the case at the request of the U.S. military.

The private then alleged that Ronghi, 35, had taken him in a Humvee military vehicle to an apartment block, loaded up the vehicle out of his sight and then driven out of town, where the two of them had dumped the girl's body.

The private told investigators later that he had helped Ronghi dispose of the body out of fear.

"He said he was scared. He felt that he was going to be victimized himself," one investigator recalled.

The private drove out to the site on the dark winter night with several sergeants from his company. They found the body wrapped in bags and covered in snow and twigs.

"Oh my God, please don't let that be a sock," one sergeant quoted one of his colleagues as saying as he groped around on the ground. "Oh my God, it's a foot."

The sergeants then confronted Ronghi, who told them he had seen two men entering the apartment block earlier in the day and leave later. He had gone into the building, found the body, picked and decided to dispose of it, he said.

Ronghi was arrested that night and investigators secured the site where the body was found and the cellar of the apartment block, where they discovered bloodstains.

The accused, well-built with short dark hair shaved at the sides of his head and dressed in military fatigues, made no public statement or plea at the hearing, held to help determine what charges and type of trial he should finally face.

The parents of the young victim of the crime followed the proceedings for several hours, with the help of an interpreter.

The hearing ended in the middle of the afternoon and the investigating officer in charge is expected to make a recommendation on the next steps within about a week.

Several soldiers described Ronghi as a cheerful character. "He was always up in spirit," one African American said.

Several also recalled his mood was more introverted on the day of the crime. Asked if he had considered this unusual, one soldier replied frankly: "Everybody in Kosovo gets that way."

Original article