In Iraq in 2007, 'this was an everyday thing'

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Editor's note: This is the first of a several-part series that will run during March highlighting the case of Raven 23 and Rochester native Evan Liberty, who is wrongly serving a 30-year sentence in a federal prison in the infamous Nisur Square incident in Iraq of 2007.

When Evan Liberty and Raven 23 got a call to assist security for diplomatic personnel near the Green Zone of Baghdad around noon on Sept. 16, 2007, it was just another mission, another day.

After a stint with the Marines, mostly as an Embassy Guard, Liberty had become a security specialist with Blackwater, a top provider of security paid for by the Department of State for the protection of various diplomats visiting the war-torn country formerly ruled by ruthless dictator Saddam Hussein.

These were the Wild West days of Baghdad, with IED and car bombs taking their toll on both the U.S. and Iraqi military along with countless civilians as insurgents sought to disrupt the credibility of the fledgling Iraq government that, itself, was known to be fraught with corruption.

"This was an everyday thing," said Brian Liberty, Evan's dad, recalling his son's retelling of events that fateful day. "A huge car bomb went off, so strong a satellite picked it up. The team that was escorting a diplomat had to get out as fast as it could. Evan's tactical support team went off to block off a traffic circle to keep traffic back (during the first team's escape)."

As what appears to be civilian traffic mostly either slowed or turned back, a white Kia driving on the wrong side of the road approached the roadblock where Blackwater Team Raven 23 was securing the circle.

Brian Liberty said his son told him early that day at a morning briefing they'd been warned about a white Kia suspected of being loaded with explosives driving around looking for targets.

When the white Kia continued to drive erratically toward the Raven 23 positons, the vehicle's occupants were warned verbally then with warning shots before someone from the team killed the driver with a single bullet.

Brian Liberty said that's when what appeared to be Iraqi police began firing at Raven 23, initiating a furious exchange that federal prosecutors later said left at least 14 Iraqi civilians dead and many more wounded.

Brian Liberty said his son was defending himself and his team that was under attack, most likely by insurgents dressed as Iraqi police officers.

Evan Liberty, second from right, with some of Blackwater colleagues during his time in Iraq. (Courtesy photo)

"My son told me there was a kiosk right down the road where you could buy them," said Brian Liberty last month.

Evan Liberty and his security team finally made it back to the safety of the Green Zone.

About 20 minutes later another Blackwater team showed up at the traffic circle, but there were no bodies, no Iraqi police uniforms, little sign of struggle. Blackwater helicopters hovering overhead said they saw Iraqis throwing uniforms over a barrier trying to hide them prior to their arrival.

"This was a typical tactic of war for the insurgents," Brian Liberty said. "They create a diversion, then a tactical team responds and they ambush it."

The U.S. government, however, disagreed. Pressured by Iraqi politicians and police, they began a witch hunt to punish Raven 23 for what they called indiscriminate use of deadly force that killed at least 14 civilians.

However, there were no bodies, no autopsies, Brian Liberty noted.

Evan Liberty, a track and basketball star at Spaulding, "one of the most level-headed guys you'd ever want to know," according to childhood buddy Chris Buslovich, was only 25.

Now he's 33 and living at FCI Schuylkill in Minersville, Pa., a medium security federal prison, saddled with a 30-year mandatory sentence for doing his job, protecting diplomats and his team in one of the most dangerous places on earth in 2007.

It took the federal government seven years to find a judge and courtroom to do their bidding, but in the end, they did it.

On Oct. 22, 2014, four members of Raven 23, including Evan Liberty, were found guilty in what some media outlets had dubbed a massacre of innocent life.

Federal prosecutors proudly announced the news in a press release.

"This verdict is a resounding affirmation of the commitment of the American people to the rule of law, even in times of war," said U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. "Seven years ago, these Blackwater contractors unleashed powerful sniper fire, machine guns, and grenade launchers on innocent men, women, and children. Today they were held accountable for that outrageous attack and its devastating consequences for so many Iraqi families. I pray that this verdict will bring some sense of comfort to the survivors of that massacre."

Brian Liberty, hundreds of Blackwater supporters and the family and friends of the other three who were sentenced do not share the government's sentiment, rather, they are furious that their sons, husband's and brothers must spend decades behind bars for doing their jobs, for which they risked their lives for each and every day, including Sept. 16, 2007.

The four were sentenced on April 13, 2015. Evan Liberty and two others, Paul Alvin Slough, 35, of Keller, Texas; and Dustin Laurent Heard, 33, of Maryville, Tenn.; got mandatory 30-year-sentences for using automatic weapons, which were supplied to them by the Department of State. The fourth, Nicholas Abram Slatten, 30, of Sparta, Tenn., was sentenced to life in prison after two manslaughter trials failed to convict him.

The government prosecution in announcing the guilty verdict noted the evidence showed, "While occupying the southern part of the traffic circle, seven of the 19 members of Raven 23, including the four defendants ... fired their weapons, resulting in the deaths or injury of the unarmed Iraqi civilians there. While leaving the traffic circle, Slough continued to fire his weapon, resulting in additional deaths and injuries."

Brian Liberty, however, said there was no evidence, just perjured testimony, phony jurisdiction, misinterpretation of gun laws and what one defense lawyers' advocacy group called a case of "vindictive prosecution."

Next up: The seven-year torturous trail to trial.

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