Ranger: Shooters could not have been 10 yards from Tillman

Updated: July 28, 2007, 9:56 PM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

The Army Ranger who was alongside Pat Tillman when he was shot in Afghanistan told ESPN.com Friday that he remains convinced that the former NFL player was accidentally killed by friendly fire, rather than a target of a malicious act.

Sgt. Bryan O'Neal disputed Army doctors who, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press, voiced suspicions shortly after the 2004 incident about the close proximity of the three bullet holes in Tillman's forehead and tried, initially without success, to get authorities to investigate whether the former NFL player's death amounted to a crime.

The doctors, whose names were blacked out, said that the bullet holes were so close together that it appeared the former Arizona Cardinals safety was cut down by a weapon fired from a mere 10 yards or so away.

"No, there is no way the guy was 10 yards away. That is just completely unlikely," O'Neal told ESPN.com. "If he was there initially, like the way the conspiracy theorists work that he was there to kill Pat, why wouldn't he have killed me? That doesn't work so well. "

"There is no way that was the case [that the Rangers were that close]," O'Neal said. "You'd be able to make out their face. You'd know exactly who was shooting. Yeah, there is no possible way they were just 10 yards away."

The medical examiners' suspicions were contained in 2,300 pages of testimony released to the AP this week by the Defense Department in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Included in the documents was a statement from a doctor who examined Tillman's body, telling Army investigators: "The medical evidence did not match up with the, with the scenario as described." The documents indicate the doctor said he took the unusual step of calling the Army's Human Resources Command and was rebuffed. He then asked an official at the Army's Criminal Investigation Division if the CID would consider opening a criminal case.

Ultimately, the Pentagon did conduct a criminal investigation.

The Pentagon eventually ruled that Tillman's death at the hands of his comrades was a friendly-fire accident.

Investigators also asked soldiers and commanders whether Tillman was disliked, whether anyone was jealous of his celebrity, or if he was considered arrogant. They said Tillman was respected, admired and well-liked.

O'Neal, who was recently promoted to sergeant from specialist, told ESPN.com that he agreed with that assessment of the unit's affection for Tillman.

"I've heard some things why people would expect it -- Pat being against the war, against President Bush, something about him [planning to speak] with Noam Chomsky. A lot of that stuff is new to me, so I could see why someone would think it is a conspiracy," O'Neal explained. "But I don't think anyone would intentionally want to hurt him, unless we got a whole bunch of freakin' actors in our platoon who pretended to adore the guy. We all got along really well together until this happened. And basically everyone turned on me."

Tillman's mother, Mary Tillman, who has long questioned whether her son was deliberately killed by his comrades, said she is still looking for answers and looks forward to the congressional hearings next week.

"Nothing is going to bring Pat back. It's about justice for Pat and justice for other soldiers. The nation has been deceived," she told AP.

According to the newly released documents, investigators pressed officers and soldiers on a question Mrs. Tillman has been asking all along.

"Have you, at any time since this incident occurred back on April 22, 2004, have you ever received any information even rumor that Cpl. Tillman was killed by anybody within his own unit intentionally?" an investigator asked then-Capt. Richard Scott.

Scott, and others who were asked, said they were certain the shooting was accidental.

Among other information contained in the documents:

•  In his last words moments before he was killed, Tillman snapped at O'Neal to shut up and stop "sniveling," a characterization with which O'Neal disagrees.

•  Army attorneys sent each other congratulatory e-mails for keeping criminal investigators at bay as the Army conducted an internal friendly-fire investigation that resulted in administrative, or non-criminal, punishments.

•  The three-star general who kept the truth about Tillman's death from his family and the public told investigators some 70 times that he had a bad memory and couldn't recall details of his actions.

•  No evidence at all of enemy fire was found at the scene no one was hit by enemy fire, nor was any government equipment struck.

The Pentagon and the Bush administration have been criticized in recent months for lying about the circumstances of Tillman's death. The military initially told the public and the Tillman family that he had been killed by enemy fire. Only weeks later did the Pentagon acknowledge he was gunned down by fellow Rangers.

With questions lingering about how high in the Bush administration the deception reached, Congress is preparing for yet another hearing next week.

The Pentagon is separately preparing a new round of punishments, including a stinging demotion of retired Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr., 60, according to military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the punishments under consideration have not been made public. In more than four hours of questioning by the Pentagon inspector general's office in December 2006, Kensinger repeatedly contradicted other officers' testimony, and sometimes his own.

At one point, he said: "You've got me really scared about my brain right now. I'm really having a problem."

The documents also shed new light on Tillman's last moments.

It has been widely reported by the AP and others that O'Neal, who was at Tillman's side as he was killed, told investigators that Tillman was waving his arms shouting "Cease fire, friendlies, I am Pat [expletive] Tillman, damn it!" again and again.

But the latest documents give a different account from a chaplain who debriefed the entire unit days after Tillman was killed.

The chaplain said that O'Neal told him he was hugging the ground at Tillman's side, "crying out to God, help us. And Tillman says to him, `Would you shut your [expletive] mouth? God's not going to help you; you need to do something for yourself, you sniveling ..."

O'Neal told ESPN.com his words did not match the chaplain's recollection. "The way he put it is wrong. I wouldn't say it is entirely inaccurate," he said.

"I just remember a point where I realized what was going on so I said a quick prayer -- help us get through this. And Pat was like, 'Hey, praying is not really going to help you right now.' So he kind of got me back to what was going on, so I was a little more situationally aware," O'Neal said.

O'Neal said Saturday that he knew there were snipers in the convoy that fired at them, but that he can't remember their names. Were they fired at by the snipers? ``Not that I know of,'' O'Neal told the AP.

O'Neal's recollections of the snipers reflected testimony in the transcripts.

One exchange, for example, with Capt. Richard Scott, who conducted the first, immediate investigation, went only so far:

Q: Are you aware whether or not any U.S. forces snipers were at the scene?

A: Scott: They were in serial two.

Q: And, and do you know whose GMV (ground mobility vehicle) they were traveling in?

A: Scott: I don't think they were in a GMV. I think they were in a cargo Humvee.

Q: Okay. Do you know if the snipers fired any rounds during this incident involving CPL Tillman?

A: Scott: I do not, no.

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.