NY Times
Details emerge in Kosovo girl's slaying

By CARLOTTA GALL

February 19, 2000


CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo, Feb. 18 -- As an American staff sergeant appeared today at a hearing on charges of committing indecent acts with an 11-year-old Albanian girl and then murdering her, details emerged about the investigation of a second American soldier linked to the case.

Staff Sgt. Frank J. Ronghi, 35, of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, has been in detention since Jan. 13, when the body of Merita Shabiu was found outside the town of Vitina in southern Kosovo. Today he appeared before an army investigating officer at a preliminary hearing to establish whether he should be court-martialed.

He faces charges of premeditated murder and committing indecent acts with a child, which army officials said precluded a rape charge. If it found him guilty, a court martial could impose death or life imprisonment.

As witnesses gave their accounts, it appeared that a second soldier, a private, had told his commanders that he was with Sergeant Ronghi that day and helped dispose of the body.

The private did not appear at the hearing, but was confirmed by an army lawyer to be under investigation in connection with the murder case.

A separate case involves several soldiers from the same unit, who are being investigated for alleged misconduct and inappropriate behavior toward local people in Vitina.

The victim's parents, Ramzije and Hamdi Shabiu, and her great uncle Rifat Samakova attended the hearing, seeing for the first time the man accused of her murder. Sergeant Ronghi sat impassively, with his lawyers sitting on either side and his back to reporters and the girl's family. He did not testify during the hearing, which lasted some five hours.

Many details surrounding the girl's murder, including the cause of death, have yet to be made public, because the investigation reports have not been completed, Captain Schmittel said.

Yet the evidence given today by 10 people -- including members of the criminal investigation teams, commanders and Sergeant Ronghi's fellow soldiers -- revealed some of the circumstances of the death and the profound impact it has had on the unit.

Military officials requested that witnesses not be identified by name, for their protection.

One sergeant described how the private now under investigation in the case had told him what happened on the evening of Jan. 13.

"He was nervous, really nervous," the sergeant said of the private. "He asked me: 'Can I trust you? Can I really trust you?' "

The private then told him that Sergeant Ronghi had loaded what seemed to be a body into their armored vehicle and driven it up to woods outside Vitina, where it was dumped. The private, who had been manning the automatic weapon in the turret of the vehicle, helped his comrade dispose of the body, according to his and others' accounts.

The witness, his voice shaking, said that he had sought out one of his superiors and that together they had gone to the site. Off the road, he said, they found the body in plastic bags, half-covered with snow.

"I moved a block of snow and saw it was a thigh," he said. "The body was in a fetal position, and I could see flesh through the bag. It looked like it had no clothes."

According to the witness, on their return they woke Sergeant Ronghi, who at first insisted that nothing had happened that day. When they said they had found the body, Sergeant Ronghi calmly told them that he had seen two local men take the girl into a yellow apartment building in central Vitina and that after the men had left, he had gone in to investigate. When he found her body, he said, he panicked and decided to move it.

The witness said the accused then asked, "Can we handle this in a different way?" and added, "I have money."

The sergeant said that his superior refused, and that the criminal investigation department was then alerted.

Another witness who had questioned the private said he had been told that about midday on the day of the incident, Sergeant Ronghi walked up to an armored vehicle, dismissed the interpreter and commandeered the vehicle with the private, supposedly to escort senior officers. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Henry H. Shelton, was visiting Vitina that day.

But according to the private's account, Sergeant Ronghi instead drove to the yellow apartment building, loaded into it what he said was firewood for local Serbs, and then drove quickly out of town.

The witness added that the private had admitted helping dispose of the body, by suggesting a place to put it, kicking snow over it and pouring antifreeze over traces of blood.

The private told the witness that the accused had warned him to "keep his mouth shut," saying, "It's easy to get away with this in a third world country."

The accused knew this, according to the witness, "because he had done it in the desert."

Sergeant Ronghi did not enter a plea, but in closing remarks to the investigating officer, the defense counsel appeared to be making the case for a lesser charge, arguing that much of the evidence indicated no apparent premeditation.

The investigating officer will now consider the evidence and within a week is expected make a recommendation to a Special Court Martial Convening Authority in Kosovo. That group will then pass on a recommendation to Maj. Gen. John Abizaid, the First Infantry Division commander, who will decide whether to refer the case to a court martial.




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