RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – Days after the last U.S. troops left Iraq, a federal appeals court ended a lawsuit over an episode that produced one of the more disturbing images of the war: the grisly killings of four Blackwater security contractors and the hanging of a pair of their bodies from a bridge in Fallujah.
Families of the victims reached a confidential settlement with the company’s corporate successor, Arlington, Va.-based Academi, and the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the suit last week. The settlement was first reported Friday by The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, Va.
The deal ends the families’ hopes that a public trial would expose the events that led to Iraqi insurgents killing the four contractors in 2004 and hanging two of their corpses, said Jason Helvenston of Orlando, Fla., brother of slain Blackwater guard Stephen “Scott” Helvenston.
Images from the scene flashed around the world and triggered a massive U.S. military attack on Fallujah that featured street-by-street fighting.
“The lawsuit coming to an end is no surprise to me whatsoever. It was clear that this was going to be a cover-up from the beginning,” Helvenston said Friday. “You just feel the injustice of this long enough, and see that these people are just so evil, all you can do is pray to God that he’ll take care of it because that’s all you’ve got left.”
Helvenston, who was not a party to the lawsuit, said he read parts of the settlement but doesn’t know all the details. He said the deal includes the company paying the families’ attorney fees and a small death benefit to the heirs. Scott Helvenston’s ex-wife, Patricia Irby of Virgina Beach, Va., confirmed those details but added how much their son and daughter will get hasn’t yet been determined.
“I’m glad it’s over. It’s been a hard fight and the lawyers did a phenomenal job,” she said Friday.
The men’s estates are named as plaintiffs in the case filed in 2005, which said their survivors live in Oceanside, Calif.; Leesburg, Fla.; Statesboro, Ga.; Paauilo, Hawaii; Clarksville, Tenn., and Willoughby, Ohio.
Academi spokesman John Procter declined comment, citing terms of the confidential settlement. The families also dropped a state lawsuit dormant while the federal case was litigated, said Kirk Warner, an attorney representing the company.
Survivors of the contractors contend Blackwater failed to prepare the men for their mission into Fallujah in March 2004 and didn’t provide them with maps and other appropriate equipment. Helvenston, Jerko “Jerry” Zovko, Wesley J.K. Batalona and Michael R. Teague were sent in Mitsubishi SUVs to guard a supply convoy. Their survivors argued they should have been given armored vehicles.
A congressional investigation concurred with that view, calling Blackwater an “unprepared and disorderly” organization on the day of the ambush.
Blackwater, formerly based in North Carolina, countered that the men were betrayed by the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and targeted in a well-planned ambush. The company said the ambush likely would have had the same result even if they had stronger weapons, armored vehicles, maps or even more men.
The lawsuit was appealed after a federal judge in North Carolina dismissed it nearly one year ago.
U.S. District Judge James C. Fox said arbitration efforts fell apart because neither side was paying the costs of that process, so he decided to shut down the case. Courts had previously ruled that employment contracts the four guards signed required that disputes be heard by arbitrators, not judges.
Blackwater hired prominent Washington attorney Ken Starr and fought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing federal and not state courts should hear lawsuits stemming from dangerous deployments by contractors supporting U.S. military operations.
Helvenston’s mother Katy said last year the families couldn’t afford the litigation costs and feared their case was finished. She did not respond to messages seeking comment Friday.
“I guess this chapter is done but this story has not ended. We were outfinanced, outgunned, outmanned in a sad similarity to what happened to Jerry, Wes and Mike,” said Zovko’s brother, Tom Zovko of Timberlake, Ohio. “It’s been an uphill battle the whole time.”
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