* Bales described as level-headed, experienced soldier
* Defense team will review medical and personnel records
* Lawyer says family stunned but standing behind Bales
* Bales family owns two ‘underwater’ properties (Adds details of Bales personal and family history)
By Bill Rigby and Peter Henderson
TACOMA, Wash., March 17 (Reuters) - A lawyer representing the U.S. soldier implicated in the massacre of 16 villagers in Afghanistan said on Saturday he and other members of the defense team would spend several days with him in the week ahead.
U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales is in solitary confinement at a military detention center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he arrived late on Friday.
Bales, 38 and a four-tour combat veteran, is suspected of walking off his base in southern Afghanistan on Sunday and gunning down the 16 civilians, including nine children and three women, in a massacre that sent American-Afghan relations into a tailspin.
Bales, whose military unit is based south of Tacoma, Washington, had been held in Kuwait after he was flown out of Afghanistan on Wednesday. He has not yet been charged.
Bales’ civilian attorney, John Henry Browne, said in a statement he was being joined in the defense effort by Emma Scanlan, also a civilian, and a military defense counsel, Major Thomas Hurley.
“Public reports that Sergeant Bales’ supervisors, family and friends describe him as a level-headed, experienced soldier are consistent with information gathered by the defense team,” Browne’s statement said.
“It is too early to determine what factors may have played into this incident and the defense team looks forward to reviewing the evidence, examining all of Sergeant Bale’s medical and personnel records and interviewing witnesses.”
An unnamed U.S. official had told The New York Times the killings were a result of “a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues - he just snapped.”
But Browne has refuted that, saying on CNN that marital problems were “totally bogus.” He said his client had a “very strong marriage and, frankly, we’re all taking offense at that.”
“Sergeant Bales’ family is stunned in the face of this tragedy, but they stand behind the man they know as a devoted husband, father and dedicated member of the armed services,” Browne’s statement on Saturday said.
Bales’ wife, Karilyn, and two young children have been moved into military lodging at Joint Base Lewis-McChord outside of Tacoma, Browne said earlier in the week.
Karilyn Bales works for a local business communications firm, a firm employee confirmed on Saturday.
Jill Heron, director of marketing and client relations for the firm, known as AMAXRA Inc., told Reuters Karilyn Bales is “a valued employee who works remotely” and remained employed by the company in Redmond, Washington.
Heron, visibly upset and nervous at her home in rural Carnation, outside Seattle, said she couldn’t comment further.
Robert Bales, who completed a two-year associate college degree in 1992, joined the Army in 2001, the Army said in a statement late on Friday when it formally identified him for the first time since Sunday’s incident.
His home of record was listed as Jensen Beach, Florida, although Browne has said Bales grew up in the Midwest.
His military training included education in sniper skills, military leadership and a course called “combat life savers.”
The Army statement said Bales had spent a total of 37 months in three deployments in Iraq between 2003 and 2010.
BALES’ HISTORY BEGINS TAKING SHAPE
Bales has had at least one previous minor run-in with the law, records show. In 2002, he was charged with criminal assault, according to Pierce County, Washington, records.
The court deferred the charge for six-months after Bales completed 20 hours of anger management, had no other law violations for six months and paid a $300 fine, the Tacoma News-Tribune said, citing court records.
The court dismissed the charge in February 2003. Reuters could not verify the disposition of the charge.
The News-Tribune also reported Bales was cited for a misdemeanor hit-and-run incident in October 2008 in Sumner.
He received a deferred 12-month sentence, and paid a fine of $250, which led to a dismissal of the charges. Reuters could not verify the report.
Records show the Baleses own two properties, both of which are underwater, meaning the mortgage balances are greater than the value of the properties.
Their main home near Lake Tapps, a white house with four bedrooms about 45 minutes east of Tacoma, was recently listed for sale at $229,000, according to the online real estate service Zillow.com. But Zillow, citing public transaction records, shows they paid for $280,000 for it in 2005.
Another realty website, for John L. Scott Real Estate, promotes the property as a “short sale,” which occurs when a bank is willing to allow a homeowner to sell at a price below what is owed on the mortgage, accepting the loss on the remaining balance.
A smaller second property in the city of Auburn, about 10 miles to the north of their Lake Tapps home, was purchased by Karilyn Bales, then Karilyn Primeau, in 1999 for $99,500. While the property is assessed at $148,000, property records show it was remortgaged for the amount of $178,500 in 2006.
That property is in poor condition and has a “Do not occupy” notice from city authorities, posted in November 2010 due to “lack of sanitary facilities, lack of water to building.”
Three sets of neighbors said on Saturday it has been vacant for a couple of years.
Edith Bouvette, 52, a massage therapist, recalled the couple living there before they had children, describing Robert Bales as helpful and Karilyn Bales as “happy, bubbly.”
“What I really remember is him in his uniform, his pants tucked inside of his boots,” Bouvette said of Robert Bales. “He was crisp, clean, military and very polite military. When you talked to him it was ‘Yes, Ma‘am - just a really, really nice guy, and it’s just a terrible shame.”
“I blame part of this on the military,” Bouvette said. “They never should have sent him back for that fourth tour.” (Additional reporting by Laura Myers; writing By Dan Burns; editing by Xavier Briand and Todd Eastham)