It was supposed to be a mission like many they had done in Iraq. Ride the Humvees to a position at a building abutting a busy street in Ramadi. Relieve the four Marines on the roof there. Watch for enemy bombers and snipers.
A couple days, that was it, and they'd be back to base less than half a mile down the street.
Except it didn't go that way.
Instead, four Marines lay dead, three shot in the head and the fourth riddled with bullets. One Marine's throat had been slit. The Marines didn't get off a shot. The killings left their buddies and Corps leaders wondering how four elite leathernecks could have been slain seemingly so easily. And it forced one of the Corps' most storied communities — snipers — to take a hard look at how it operates on the urban battlefield.
For the first time since the June 2004 killings, details have come to light on how the four-man sniper team attached to Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, was attacked in broad daylight by killers who got close enough to shoot them at point-blank range.
A copy of an investigation conducted by Naval Criminal Investigative Service, obtained by Marine Corps Times, also revealed that the Corps believes it knows who the Iraqi killers were, but let at least one of them slip away.
The four dead are: Cpl. Tommy Lynn Parker Jr., 21, of Cleburne, Ark.; Lance Cpl. Deshon Otey, 24, of Hardin, Ky.; Lance Cpl. Juan Lopez, 22, of Whitfield, Ga.; and Lance Cpl. Pedro Contreras, 27, of Harris, Texas.
The NCIS inquiry conducted nearly a year after their deaths indicates the team was either caught unaware — possibly some or all were asleep — or that they trusted their assailants enough that they dropped their guard.
Though snipers have said the incident shocked them into change, Marine officials declined to say specifically how lessons learned from the team's demise have changed sniper procedures. Citing "operational security" concerns, training officials issued a carefully worded statement saying they analyze all such incidents and make appropriate tactical changes or adjustments.
But unit commanders with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, who deployed to Ramadi more than a year after the killings did change. They boosted the number of snipers on every team that left the base.
But serious, unanswered questions remain about how snipers from 2/4 were being used in Ramadi. Some of the most pointed questions were raised by the team's leader.
Parker — the only team member who was a trained sniper — told his wife a month before he died that he believed it was only a matter of time before one of the teams was ambushed.
"He said, 'No wonder people are dying,'" Parker's wife, Carla, said in a May 24 interview. "'They're sending us to the same place, by the same route at the same time of day.'"
It was Parker's job to lead the three grunts on their overwatch mission that early summer night.
According to statements from Marines with 2/4 in the NCIS investigation report, Parker's team probably left the front gate of Combat Outpost — a walled compound in eastern Ramadi — around 1 a.m. on June 21 to relieve another team in position on one of three regularly manned observation posts that provided views of the main highway through Ramadi, dubbed "Route Michigan."
The team arrived at the observation post in the dark. Parker, Otey, Lopez and Contreras took up positions on the roof of a two-story house that was under construction just 800 yards east of Combat Outpost.
The house was owned by a local family whose name was removed from the NCIS investigation report obtained by Marine Corps Times through a Freedom of Information Act request. Marines observed Iraqis enter the house during earlier missions, seemingly discussing the final stages of construction.
Once the sniper team was set, they called in a situation report every 30 minutes back to base until at least 7:30 a.m., the last entry made in a radio log found in Lopez's hands after the killings.
Though the investigation does not make clear when the last radio check was made that morning, the report says 51 minutes elapsed without contact from Parker's team before a quick reaction force was dispatched to make sure the snipers were safe.
Typically, if a radio call was missed, the team had two hours to re-establish communications. If it still couldn't call, the team was supposed to make its way back to the command post before a QRF was dispatched.
"Normally [the QRF doesn't] respond until two hours after the last radio call, so I'm not sure if they didn't have anything else to do at the time," said one senior staff noncommissioned officer with 2/4 who was interviewed by NCIS.
"Really, they weren't in quick-reaction mode, it was more curiosity reaction," said the staff NCO, whose name was removed from the report.
A small team from 2nd Platoon, Echo Company, 2/4 — which was already on a foot patrol in the city — arrived at the sniper's observation post around 11:30 that morning.
"I, and probably the rest of the QRF, assumed that the reason the sniper OP had not responded was because of problems with their communications or that they may have fallen asleep on post," a Marine who was part of the QRF that morning told investigators.
After setting security around the building, two Marines went up to the roof. What they found was a scene of carnage.
"There was blood everywhere on the roof," the QRF Marine told investigators. A sketch produced by the senior staff NCO who went to the scene 20 minutes after the team was discovered shows the position where each of the Marines lay dead. The report says the estimated time of the killings was 10:40 a.m.
How enemy forces could have sneaked up on a team of four Marines within 800 yards of their command post in broad daylight and killed them in such a way is still a mystery, though the Marines interviewed by NCIS have their theory.
"The killing of these Marines was definitely an execution," the senior staff NCO told investigators.
There were no Marine witnesses to the attack left alive to tell its gruesome tale, but statements from Marines who participated in the investigation seem to indicate that a "hit" was ordered.
Officials with NCIS were called in because the incident looked like a homicide, said the agency's spokesman, Ed Buice, but later NCIS concluded that the killings were "combat deaths" and closed the case. NCIS began an investigation into the slayings a year after they happened.
"Had we known from the beginning that the Marines killed were casualties of combat, we would not have opened the case," Buice said.
The investigation indicates that in the early morning hours as the sun came up, Parker's team went to 50 percent security — meaning two could sleep while the others watched for intruders and kept an eye on Route Michigan.
Apparently, Otey and Lopez were designated to take watch while Parker and Contreras slept.
Parker's body was found without his body armor vest and without his boots, while Contreras was found "lying on his side, wrapped or covered up with mosquito netting as if he was sleeping and trying to keep the bugs away," the investigation said.
"Most likely, about the time the sun came up ... four hit men were probably posing as construction workers to work on the house, and all four were allowed to come up onto the roof, ultimately taking the Marines by surprise," the senior staff NCO told investigators.
The attackers took the Marines' weapons, including two sniper rifles, four M16A4s, as many as 24 M16 magazines and eight grenades. The attackers also made off with a PRC-119F secure radio and a PAS-13 thermal weapons site.
Investigators learned after the attack that a cell phone conversation had been intercepted authorizing the attack on Parker's team. The conversation, involving several individuals from the "Carbede" family and others whose names were removed from the investigation report, said "they were going to 'do these Marines,'" the investigation stated. The censored report did not say who monitored the call, when it was monitored or when that information was passed along to the Marines.
The senior staff NCO interviewed by NCIS said the four-man hit team had been identified by military officials. One later died in a car accident, the staff NCO said, and another slipped through the Corps' fingers nearly two weeks later.
At a meeting with members of the Carbede family after Parker's team was killed, "the [intel] and [operations] officers pointed out the son who we knew was responsible for the hit on the four Marines and confronted him about it. He denied any involvement and arrangements were made to meet with him later that day," the staff NCO told investigators. "He did not show up for the meeting and left town."
The cold-blooded nature of the killings and the fact that the assailants took the team by surprise in daylight left Marines in Iraq at the time wondering how such an attack could have happened.
Theories swept through camps in and around Ramadi that the team had let their guard down, they had fallen asleep or improperly allowed suspicious Iraqis onto their perch. The senior staff NCO interviewed for the investigation pointed the finger squarely at Parker, for "letting his guard down."
But Parker had complained to superiors before the attack that he and the rest of his sniper team were being used improperly, ordered to take up covert positions and execute a sniperlike mission with infantry grunts unfamiliar with sniper operations and tactics, his wife said.
"He asked [commanders] why weren't the snipers being used the way they're supposed to be used," Carla Parker said. "They weren't supposed to go out in groups of less than two [trained] snipers."
Marine officials claim it is neither improper nor uncommon to use snipers in that way and declined to say if they have changed training or tactics to avoid such a deadly incident again.
The Marine Corps sniper community was shaken by the incident as well. It was one of the first times on record that a team had been killed in this way and garnered worldwide media attention. It was followed by another tragic incident in which a heavily armed, six-man sniper team from the Reserve 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, was killed in Hadithah about a year later.
Snipers who have spoken to Marine Corps Times on condition of anonymity said they've been frustrated for years that the sniper schools have not been able to crank out more students. Though officials at the Corps' Training and Education Command admitted teaming Parker — a school-trained and qualified sniper — with three infantry grunts for such a mission "would be neither unusual nor improper," they did say carving out the time to train more snipers has been tough.
"Formal skills training is the keystone to preparing a Marine and his unit for success on the battlefield," Capt. Teresa Ovalle, spokeswoman for Marine Training and Education Command, said in the written statement. "In our current operations, the tempo of deployments and shortened training time between rotations has made achieving this goal a continuing challenge."
It is unclear whether new training techniques or tactics would prevent such a tragic incident from occurring again. But for Parker's wife, the rumors and innuendo that surround the deaths of her husband and the team he led serve nothing but to tarnish the reputation of a well-trained Marine.
"It wasn't his fault," Carla Parker said. "He wasn't being used in the way he was supposed to be used. It truly bothers me that his memory could be marred that way by saying it was his fault, not only for his memory's sake, but for my daughter's sake."