Later, on the phone with David Nash, Bressler seemed as if he wanted to tell him something. Then he stopped himself. "Nah, I'll tell you when we all get together," Bressler said. It seemed to Nash as though Bressler were saying, "Just ask me, motherfucking ask me what's going on." But Nash never did. "You've got to be careful sometimes what you ask people," he says. "They might tell you the truth."
By this point, Eastridge was broke. He had been selling off sporting goods he had bought with his Army credit card at Fort Carson's enormous PX, but now he was homeless and camping out on Bressler's couch. On the evening of November 30th, he and Bressler left the apartment to discuss plans for a heist. The idea was Eastridge's: They would ram a truck through the cement wall of a sporting-goods store and make off with whatever money they could find. The three men had bought the necessary supplies a few days earlier: Gerber combat knives, three pairs of black leather gloves, three black ski masks, a black plastic flashlight and a blue camouflage-colored gym bag, all purchased with Bastien's Army credit card at the PX. It would be their first real score.
But six hours later, after the murder of Kevin Shields, the three friends were more worried about staying out of jail than breaking into banks. According to Bastien and Eastridge, upon returning home after the killing, Bressler had discovered that his white sweater and jeans were splattered with blood. He stripped and threw his clothes into the fireplace, then stared blankly as they went up in flames.
Eastridge looked over from the couch. Bressler was sitting in front of the fire wearing only his boxers and a single yellow suede sneaker.
"Are you going to burn the other fucking shoe," Eastridge asked, "or are you going to buy another one just like it?"
"Oh, fuck," Bressler said, then threw the remaining sneaker into the fire.
The next afternoon, after discarding the .38 in a ravine, the three friends scrubbed the blood from Bastien's car. It was the last bit of physical evidence linking them to Shields' murder, but they couldn't erase the fact that they had been seen drinking with him that night, so they came up with a story to tell police: After they left Rum Bay, Shields called a girl and asked to be dropped off at her house in Westside. Then they drove straight home. Bastien, ever the schemer, suggested they alter details slightly in their accounts. "When you make up a story, you can't all tell them exactly the same thing," he said later. "Then they know you're lying."
To detectives, their accounts seemed plausible enough. But after Shields' cellphone was found on a Westside street a few days later, police saw the only call he had made that night was to Bastien, who was promptly brought in again for questioning. He soon rolled over on his best friend, fingering Bressler as the triggerman. During an interview with Detective Derek Graham, who thought the Shields murder looked remarkably similar to one he investigated in August, Bastien also confessed his role in the killing of Robert James.
"I thought, 'Shit, what else did you do?'" Graham recalls. "I started listing other cold cases that happened near his apartment, like the Orrenmaa shooting. Then I threw the Ham stabbing at him as well. He's like, 'Oh, yeah, we did that.' He was very cold and matter-of-fact." Bastien not only failed to show remorse for the crimes, he failed to grasp the punishment he faced for having committed them. "What are my chances of getting away with this?" he asked detectives, just before he was locked up in jail.
After admitting their roles in the Shields murder, Bastien and Eastridge cut deals on the other charges they faced. Bastien received a 60-year sentence, while Eastridge got 10 years. Bressler, who refused to speak with police after his arrest, opted to stand trial. No one from the Army spoke as a character witness on his behalf, and his combat trauma was never mentioned in court. "PTSD doesn't work as a reason to escape culpability," says Ed Farry, a former Air Force officer who represented Bressler. "Jurors don't buy it." Farry instead relied on forensic experts to suggest that Bastien, not Bressler, had been the shooter.
The prosecution planned to pin its case on testimony from Bastien and Eastridge; it seemed like a slam-dunk. But last November, just days before he was scheduled to take the stand, Bastien reneged on his promise to testify. Facing life in prison for first-degree murder, Bressler was found guilty only of conspiracy to commit murder. He later pleaded guilty to being an accessory in the slaying of Robert James, and to aggravated robbery in the stabbing of Erica Ham. At a hearing last March, Judge Theresa Cisneros told Bressler he had "caused unimaginable destruction," then delivered his sentence: 60 years — the same as Bastien's.
Sitting at a cafeteria-style table in the visitation room at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex, in the high desert of central Colorado, Bressler no longer resembles the proud, muscled young infantryman who returned from Iraq two years ago. Dressed in a green prison jumpsuit, his face drawn and his blue eyes bloodshot, he nervously chews on a ratty goatee and hunches over, as if he's intensely interested in something on his shoes. On his left bicep is a tattoo of the same musket found on the badge that he was awarded as a combat veteran, a constant reminder of his time in Iraq.
Bressler speaks in the same quiet, calm voice whether he's talking about learning handball in prison or the stabbing of Erica Ham, an assault he claims he did not even participate in. "I was pressured into pleading guilty to that as part of the deal," he says. "I wanted to take that case to trial." He devotes the few hours he's allowed out of his cell each day to working on his appeal in the case, and he continues to insist that he was not the one responsible for murdering either Kevin Shields or Robert James. What pains him most, though, is the way his combat duty, the defining experience of his life, has become evidence of his criminality. "People think, 'He's an infantryman — he was trained to kill, he must be a killer,'" he says. "But if they could still see me in my Army uniform, they would think I'm a good guy."
Above all, he feels betrayed by the institution he sacrificed everything to serve. It's no secret that the military has sorely neglected the health of returning soldiers like Bressler: In February 2007, at the very moment he was experiencing the worst of the war in Iraq, a scandal was unfolding back home over inadequate treatment of veterans at Walter Reed, the Army's flagship medical center. Top commanding generals and the secretary of the Army were fired or forced to resign, but the military still fails to provide the kind of careful monitoring and long-term treatment needed by the more than 300,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who suffered mental injuries in the line of duty. And the problem will likely escalate next year, when some 3,700 troops will begin to rotate back to Fort Carson from tours in Afghanistan. "The post-deployment scenario from that war is going to look very similar to post-deployment Iraq," says Cole. "The trends in violence will continue. Evans Hospital is a ticking time bomb. It's going to be the next Walter Reed."
Even in prison, Louis Bressler hasn't given up on the military — but somewhere along the line, the military gave up on him. Asking for help, he believes, shouldn't mean losing the only job you ever wanted. "The Army can't do anything for me — they let me down," he says. "If I had never spoken with those psychiatrists, I would be with my unit right now in Afghanistan, instead of talking to you in here. They say I had a mental-health problem. I say I did my job."
He shakes his head. "I should have died over there in Iraq," he says, his voice faltering. "I would be a lot better off."
This article originally appeared in RS 1091 from November 12, 2009. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via All Access, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full issue. Not a member? Click here to learn more about All Access.
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