On August 6th, two days after the James murder, Bressler took Tira out to celebrate their first wedding anniversary. He drank heavily through dinner, then insisted they go to PT's Showclub, a high-end strip joint near their apartment. By the time they got into the car to go home, Bressler was too drunk to drive. When Tira tried to take the keys, he snapped. "He grabbed my hair and slammed my head against the car door," she says. "I was terrified. At our apartment I went straight to the bathroom and locked the door behind me. But Louis broke in."
In his hand, Tira says, was the .38. "He put the gun to my temple and said that if I didn't kill him right then, he was going to kill me. He kept shoving the gun toward me, saying, 'Here, do it.'" Tira grabbed the revolver out of his hand and emptied the chamber. Then she pushed Bressler out of the bathroom and locked the door again.
Tira was asleep on the couch when, a few hours later, she woke to the sound of her husband vomiting and coughing up blood all over the living room. He had downed nearly 100 pills of Depakote and Remeron — medications to treat his depression and insomnia — and chased them with a fifth of Jack Daniel's. Rushed to the hospital, he fell into an unconscious state that would last a week. While Bressler lay in a coma, his brother Drew flew in from North Carolina to keep vigil at his bedside. But almost no one from Charlie Company stopped by, even after Bressler recovered. For the most part, his superiors no longer considered him a soldier. "I knew he was in the hospital," says Tim Stricklin, the sergeant who had recommended that Bressler see a psychiatrist in Dora. "But after what he pulled in Iraq, I had no desire to talk to him."
Once his condition stabilized, Bressler was transferred to a locked psychiatric ward at Cedar Springs, a private hospital in Colorado Springs. By that point, Fort Carson was shipping its most troubled vets to private facilities at a rate 700 times greater than the average for Army hospitals. "We would send guys to places like Cedar Springs because we couldn't take care of them ourselves," says Cole. "And then we often wouldn't see any records regarding their treatment. They would just disappear."
At Cedar Springs, according to a nurse's summary, Bressler was "demanding, uncooperative and unpleasant." The hospital released him after just three days, when Bastien walked up to the nurse's station and brazenly claimed to be Bressler's sergeant. "He said he was taking Louis to the hospital at Fort Carson," says Tira. "The nurse gave him an attitude, but she eventually let Louis go with him." Bressler's commanders at Fort Carson apparently failed to investigate his release — and Bressler says doctors at the base never inquired about his hospital stay. When Bressler paid a surprise visit to Evans, his psychiatrist readily prescribed refills for Depakote and Remeron — the drugs he had run out of because of the overdose.
Not long after Bressler left the psychiatric ward, he and Drew went trout fishing just below Pikes Peak. As they cast Jitterbugs into the clear, calm water, Drew asked his brother if he really wanted to kill himself. "Louis told me he wasn't a pill popper," Drew recalls. "He was still recovering, but he was a good 90 percent. When I went back to North Carolina, I absolutely thought he would be OK." But at the airport a few days later, as Louis saw Drew off, he was terrified. "There goes my best friend," he thought. "What do I do now?"
Over the next few months, Bressler descended even further into drinking and drugs — and his criminal schemes grew even bolder. "Here's what we do," he told his friend David Nash, describing how they could knock over a bank in Colorado Springs. "We do it tactical, like when we searched a house in Iraq. Bust in the door. Two guys stay in the line of the door, two guys go to the right, at a 90-degree angle. So we have the entire room covered. We hit the tellers, and then we're out. It would take no more than two and a half minutes."
Nash laughed off the suggestion. "I figured he was drunk or high," he says. "Never for a minute did I think he was serious." Actually, Bressler had already started sketching out robberies with Bastien and Kenneth Eastridge, who had returned to Colorado Springs in September, a few weeks after Bressler had been released from the mental hospital. A hard soldier from a hard neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky, Eastridge had slit stoner eyes and a pair of Nazi-style S.S. thunderbolts tattooed on his arm. Women seemed to love the guy, and Bastien wanted to be just like him. "You could tell that he really looked up to him," says Forsythe, Bastien's roommate. "He would pretend to be a badass whenever Eastridge was around."
At the age of 12, Eastridge had shot and killed his best friend while playing a video game and pleaded guilty to reckless homicide. His juvenile record should have disqualified him from service, but the Army — hard-pressed for new recruits to fight in Iraq — issued him a waiver in 2003. According to Cardenaz, Eastridge went on to become one of Charlie Company's top combat soldiers. "I could trust Kenny to lead a squad through a house full of insurgents," he says.
In Dora, however, Eastridge confessed that he was "losing it," becoming consumed with homicidal rage. "He went on missions with one objective," Forsythe recalls. "To find someone to kill." Not long before he was sent home, Eastridge was sitting in the gunner's turret of a Humvee, manning an M240 machine gun, which shoots 600 rounds per minute. He had been ordered to guard a street while the rest of the squad searched a building. Looking out at Iraqi families playing soccer and barbecuing, Eastridge says, he began shooting indiscriminately. He estimates that he fired some 1,700 rounds and claims to have killed maybe a dozen people. The Army later investigated charges that Eastridge had killed Iraqi civilians, but concluded that the allegations had no merit.
Eastridge wound up being court-martialed for far more benign infractions. He was found having sex in his barracks with his girlfriend, and a subsequent search turned up 463 pills of Valium. Around the same time, he lashed out at a sergeant, threatening to kill him and drink his blood. Eastridge was diagnosed with PTSD and sent home.
Eastridge was enthusiastic about Bressler and Bastien's plans regarding a series of robberies. Early on the morning of October 27th, the three men were heading to a pot dealer's house on the north side of Colorado Springs when they saw a young woman walking near an intersection. "Let's rob that bitch," Bastien said.
Bressler swerved and hit the woman with the front end of the Suzuki, and Bastien jumped out, punching the woman in the face before stabbing her with a combat knife. The three friends then took off with the backpack she'd been carrying. When it turned out to contain no money, they burned it in the fireplace at Bressler's apartment. The victim, a 19-year-old student named Erica Ham, lay in the road for 20 minutes before police discovered her, a cellphone pressed to her ear. She had been stabbed six times, and required multiple surgeries for a punctured lung and one huge laceration across her left eye.
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