EDITOR’S NOTE: Slightly modified for stand-alone publication, the excerpt (below) from my book, Three Days In August: A U.S. Army Special Forces Soldier’s Fight For Military Justice, provides graphic details of then-Army Sgt. 1st Class Kelly A. Stewart’s time on the run after being wrongfully-convicted by a U.S. Army court-martial panel in Germany.
“So, they find me guilty. It’s late at night. In an instant, my whole life got flushed right down the toilet,” said Kelly A. Stewart, recalling the verdict that changed his life just before midnight on August 19, 2009. “I am smart enough to know that my life is screwed. The rest of my life. No matter what. My life is done.
“Clearly, I felt that I was shafted, and I knew there was no way to fix it,” the career soldier and Green Beret explained. “This is an analogy I use. It might come across as messed up, but this is my analogy, and this is why I chose to do what I did.
“I was not going to have everybody do prison time with me,” said Stewart, recalling his thoughts after a court-martial panel found him guilty of sex crimes against a German woman and handed down a sentence that included a reduction in rank, from E-7 to E-1, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, eight years of confinement and a recommendation for dishonorable discharge upon release.
“I wasn’t going to go to prison and have my kids have to go through having their dad in prison and my wife having to stand by my side and go without a husband for years —- and, at that time, I didn’t know the length of the years,” said Stewart, a Special Forces combat medic and Level One-trained sniper. “I didn’t know the length of my sentence; I just knew that I was found guilty.”
That’s when he made a decision.
“I never thought I was going to prison,” Stewart said. “When I got back after (being convicted), I had a reality check in the hotel room” at the Krystal Inn, the on-post hotel where he was staying near the court building where his trial was taking place at Rose Barracks in Vilseck, Germany.
About the only plans he made took place during the last intermission in the courtroom before his guilty verdict was announced. After calling his wife and telling her he wouldn’t be coming home soon, Stewart also called his bank and transferred all of the money in his account into his wife’s account.
“I already knew what I was gonna do,” he recalled.
Back in their room at the Krystal Inn, Stewart and his buddy, Sergeant First Class Detrick Hampton, laid in their beds and talked most of the night until Sergeant Hampton fell asleep around 5 a.m. Less than an hour later, Stewart began to implement his hastily-crafted plan.
Careful not to wake Sergeant Hampton, Stewart got up out of his bed about an hour later, put on his Army Combat Uniform and low-quarter shoes and collected a few items—including a combat knife and a rubber band—he thought he might need. Oddly, he left his black Army jump boots in the room.
Quietly, he walked out of his second-floor room at the Krystal Inn where, even after he was found guilty, he was not kept under guard — an indication, perhaps, that some in the Army still didn’t think he was as dangerous as the charges, eventual conviction and news media coverage of his case might have indicated. He had, after all, never been deemed a danger to others or a flight risk.
Because he had not planned to go away for a long time, Stewart didn’t prepare by gathering lots of clothes, money and 16 passports. Instead, he ensured only that he had enough money for gas to go where he needed to go to take his own life. And with three combat tours in Iraq and other stints in Kosovo and Macedonia under his belt, he knew enough about medicine to make it happen.
Once outside the hotel room, Stewart walked the short distance to a staircase in the center of the building, down a single flight of stairs and through an open-air hallway out to the parking lot where his rental car, an Audi Q5, was parked.
He drove the SUV a short distance to the Shoppette —- the name the Army and Air Force Exchange Service gives its convenience stores located on military installations -— where he purchased a laundry list of items: three 50-count bottles of Tylenol caplets, one 72-count package of Sominex tablets, two 16-ounce bottles of Gatorade Riptide Rush, some writing paper and a couple of pencils.
“I thought about how other people have killed themselves, and they generally either hurt or make a display for other people, but I didn’t want to do is be found dead somewhere where some kid was gonna see me (and) I didn’t want to get drunk and drive down the road and do something irresponsible where I could injure someone else or another family,” he said. Instead, he tried to pick an out-of-the-way place close by, in the woods, where he knew only an adult would find him. In the end, he opted for a wooded park area at a nearby training range.
After leaving the Shoppette, he knew he had to reach his destination by 6:30 a.m., the time at which the perimeter road that encircled two Army posts and the training range in between them would close so troops could use it for physical training (i.e., “PT”).
Immediately after pulling off the road and parking his car near a trail, Stewart drank about a fourth of the contents of each Gatorade bottle. Next, he used the flat surface of a tree stump and the flat edge of a large combat knife to methodically crush 150 Tylenol tablets (500 mg) and 50 Sominex tablets. Finally, he scooped the now-powdered medicines into the bottles and shook them up.
From his experience in hospital emergency rooms, he knew the crushed tablets, when swallowed, would have a much more toxic effect than coated tablets designed to reach the stomach before their contents were released. In addition, the sleep medicine would simply make it easier for him to endure his passage from life to death.
Next, he used a 12-foot length of CAT-5 cable that he had had in his room at the Krystal Inn to make a hangman’s noose on an A-frame-style deer stand he found in the woods only a kilometer or two away from the court building.
“I measured the CAT-5 so my feet wouldn’t touch the ground,” Stewart explained. “There was a base I could stand on to get my neck in the noose, but the base was high enough that, when I passed out, my feet wouldn’t touch the ground.”
At one point before he put the noose to work, a German forest marshal working on the German-American post drove by, saw Stewart in his vehicle and exchanged pleasantries with him. Upon learning from Stewart that he was “just waiting on doing some training here,” the forest marshal drove away.
In retrospect, Stewart said, “I think that was my divine intervention, telling me, ‘Don’t do it, stupid.’” But he didn’t listen.
As soon as the forest marshal left, around 9:15 a.m., Stewart began consuming the drink in a process he compared to a Selection event—one of the grueling steps he survived en route to the SF Qualification Course. In other words, consuming the drink—and keeping it down—was very difficult.
Trying to hold it down was difficult. Every once in a while, he found himself throwing it back up into the bottle, because it burned so much on the way down.
“Everybody says, ‘I’m gonna kill myself,” he said, “but, to really do it and be successful is an event in itself.”
Why Tylenol, Sominex and Gatorade? It was part of his plan.
“In SF, we have this acronym called a PACE plan—Primary, Alternate, Contingency and Emergency. Everything that we do has a four-step plan in there…a redundancy thing…
“I had a PACE plan, but it wasn’t very good,” he said, noting the fact that he had survived.
“The Tylenol was, I guess, the primary thing,” he said, explaining that he had seen enough Tylenol overdoses in emergency rooms to know that it was an effective, but very painful technique.
“The alternate was the sleeping medicine.
“The CAT-5 cable was the contingency.”
Consuming the toxic cocktail took close to 40 minutes.
“Basically, when I started feeling myself get drowsy, I knew it was time and kind of stood up in this little A-frame deer stand, and I had the CAT-5 cable,” Stewart said. “I had it double-knotted, and I used a Prusik knot.” Similar to a slip knot, it was invented by an Austrian for mountaineering and climbing purposes.
While waiting for the drugs to take effect, Stewart wrote one letter each to his wife and daughters, to his parents and extended family, to members of his SF team, to Judge Kuhfahl and to the members of the court-martial panel. After writing the letters, he put a rubber band around them and placed his Tag Heuer wristwatch, his wedding ring and the money he had had in his pocket on top of them next to his vehicle. Accompanying those items were instructions for whoever found him to make sure the letters were delivered and the watch and ring were returned to his wife.
It was approaching 10:30 a.m., the time the court was set to convene, and Stewart realized people would start looking for him soon. Before he could worry too much about being discovered, however, the drugs began to take effect.
“I get drowsy (and) I realize, ‘Hey, it’s time,’ and said some prayers, because I knew I was gonna black out,” he said. “I had to work my way over to where this hangman’s noose was, because I had to basically kind of climb a little bit on it so that, when I passed out, (it) would catch me” as the contingency and emergency elements of his PACE plan. That was the last thing he remembered.
To read the remainder of this chapter and learn more about Stewart’s life and the events before and after those described above, order the book. Three Days In August: A U.S. Army Special Forces Soldier’s Fight For Military Justice is available in paperback and ebook at Amazon.com.