Ranger's defense: If I did it, it was political
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEACHLAND, B.C. — Luke Sommer, the former Army Ranger accused of masterminding the takeover robbery of a Tacoma bank in August, stops just short of admitting to the crime. But he says that if he did rob the bank, his motives were political.
"One of the things that the Canadian Extradition Act says is that I cannot be extradited if the reason or the motive for a crime is political," Sommer said. "I'm untouchable, as long as I can prove in court that the reasons that I had were political. And I can. Trust me."
He hopes to use the notoriety from the heist as a platform to expose war crimes by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sommer said during a series of interviews at his mother's home here, where he is under house arrest.
Sommer, 20, also said that the trail of evidence the federal authorities followed to build a case against him and several other men charged in the robbery was purposely left to lead to his arrest — but only after he had time to travel across the border to Canada, where he could outline his political accusations and fight extradition to the U.S.
The U.S. government is not sympathetic.
"There's no motive that would excuse what he's charged with doing in this case," said Michael Dion, the assistant U.S. attorney who is prosecuting the case. "As far as what Sommer did or did not see overseas, I have no comment."
If Sommer's claims seem audacious, so is the crime he is accused of committing with the help of four other Army Rangers who were stationed at Fort Lewis at the time.
With "military-style precision and planning," U.S. prosecutors allege, Sommer and the others, armed with AK-47s and apparently wearing body armor under their clothing, carried out the robbery of the Bank of America branch on South Tacoma Way in under 2 ½ minutes. They made off with more than $54,000.
A total of seven men, including the five Army Rangers, have been charged in connection with the robbery. As the alleged mastermind, Sommer faces numerous charges, including armed bank robbery, conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery, brandishing a machine gun during a crime of violence, possession of a machine gun, three counts of possession of a hand grenade and one count of possession of an explosive bomb.
The charges are a black eye for the Army, particularly since they involve members of its elite Rangers unit. To become a Ranger, a soldier must pass a series of strenuous physical and mental tests over a period of roughly six months of training.
Sommer said he decided to speak out after the government outlined its own theory of the motives for the bank robbery.
A federal grand-jury indictment issued last week alleged that Sommer and at least one of his alleged co-conspirators, Tigra Robertson, who grew up with Sommer in Peachland, planned to use the robbery proceeds to start a "criminal enterprise" in Canada.
Scott Byrne, a fellow Army Ranger charged last week with aiding and abetting the robbery, told FBI investigators that Sommer told him he planned to start a crime family to rival the Hell's Angels for control of drug-running and extortion rackets in Kelowna, B.C., according to court papers.
Sommer said the government, and Byrne, got it wrong. "Everything that comes out after" the government makes charges about things like a crime family, Sommer said, "is a rebuttal, unless you get it out first. And I'm not going to spend the next six months to three years of my life on extradition trying to rebut what everyone says."
Sommer's allegations of U.S. involvement in war crimes stem from incidents he claims to have witnessed while on combat deployments in Iraq in 2004 and Afghanistan in 2005.
Among his most sensitive allegations: Sommer claims he saw an Iraqi woman raped by a member of the Army's elite Delta Force while guarding prisoners in Baghdad in 2004. He said he was outraged and expressed concerns to two superior officers, who told him to forget about it.
He also claims he has proof that a Navy Seal unit executed 12 to 17 prisoners in Afghanistan.
The Army has confirmed Sommer saw combat in Iraq in 2004 and in Afghanistan in 2005. But details of Ranger missions are classified.
Sommer said he will lay out his accusations, and the evidence to support them, in a Canadian court to fight his extradition.
Meanwhile, Sommer is trying to walk a legal tightrope as he discusses his alleged involvement in the bank robbery.
On the one hand, he is not confessing to anything.
"In no way am I admitting direct guilt, or that I was part of or planned the events," Sommer said.
He then launches into a detailed explanation of how he might have recruited the others accused of participating in the robbery; how they might have planned the heist; the roles each allegedly played; and why and how they allegedly left a trail of evidence behind.
He said he didn't tell any of the other alleged bank robbers about his political motives, both to protect them and because he felt he needed to give them each their own reasons to get involved.
According to extradition documents that the U.S. government filed with the Canadian government, Sommer described his role in the robbery to Canadian police the day he was arrested.
"Upon his arrest, Sommer told the [Canadian] officers that he was 'the ringleader for this whole thing,' and that he was the one who got the AK-47s," the U.S. government wrote.
The test will be whether a Canadian court finds merit in Sommer's claims and grants him asylum. Given the nature of his accusations and the charges against him, it's a situation that has no precedent, legal observers say.
Nonetheless, Sommer has a realistic outlook about where the case will go from here. He believes he will end up in prison.
David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published December 6, 2006, was corrected December 17, 2006. A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the last name of Luke Sommer's mother, Christel Davidsen.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company