An apparent security lapse enabled a convicted murderer to access Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's sentencing hearing last week where the individual made threatening remarks about the former Taliban prisoner, who has pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehaviour before the enemy.
George Marecek, 85, was only a few metres from Bergdahl last Thursday when he turned to another individual seated in the courtroom gallery and said: "I'll be glad when this crap is over. I got my firing squad standing by".
Marecek's comment was overheard by a Washington Post reporter. Bergdahl's lawyers overheard Marecek make other threatening statements and alerted the prosecution, who in turn notified authorities.
The Army has refused to answer questions about the incident, which alarmed court officers and triggered a security alert at this sprawling military complex outside of Fayetteville, North Carolina, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter.
Bergdahl, 31, faces life in prison, having pleaded guilty this month to charges that stem from his 2009 disappearance in Afghanistan. He was captured by the Taliban and held hostage for five years, routinely enduring torture before his release was secured as part of a controversial prisoner exchange in 2014.
The sentencing hearing began on October 23 with a motion from Bergdahl's lawyers to dismiss the case. They argue that President Donald Trump improperly used his position as commander in chief to interfere in the process when he referred back to inflammatory statements he made during the presidential campaign. Trump, at the time, called Bergdahl "a dirty, rotten traitor" and suggested he should be executed. The judge, Army Colonel Jeffery Nance, is yet to rule on the motion.
Marecek, a retired Army colonel, is a highly decorated Green Beret whose bravery during the Vietnam War earned him a Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star, prestigious valour awards that rank second and third, respectively, behind only the Medal of Honour.
Decades later, in 2000, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison for killing his wife in 1991. Marecek spent three years at a state correctional facility before earning an early release in 2003.
Marecek did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.
At Fort Bragg he was wearing an Army combat uniform outfitted with his rank and Special Forces insignia. In the courtroom he clutched a tightly shaped green beret. It was after the court adjourned, and Marecek had departed, that prosecutors learned about the incident and alerted security, according to a person familiar with the proceedings.
A spokesman for Fort Bragg refused to discuss the matter, confirming only there had been an unspecified "incident".
Bergdahl is escorted to and from the courthouse by at least one armed policeman, with others in the immediate area. But Marecek's threatening remarks, and his ability to access the base despite his criminal history, raise questions about the Army's security measures for the high-profile trial.
Those attending the proceedings must pass through metal detectors and face additional scans from military police via hand-held metal detector wands. The media's movement also is tightly controlled.
Marecek, as a military retiree, can access the base and park his car in front of the courthouse, presenting just his ID card. While those visiting Fort Bragg should have their identification cards electronically scanned and run through a criminal records database, a former military police officer at the base told the Post that the ID scanners often don't function properly, so the gate guards simply check to ensure the ID cards have not expired.
Fort Bragg's military police unit issued a "be on the lookout" alert, but it does not appear authorities are actively searching for Marecek. One soldier familiar with the trial's security operation said military police were instructed to question him if he returns.
Bergdahl's case has sparked a bitter debate within the military and throughout the US between those who believe he endangered the lives of fellow service members tasked with finding him and those who feel his years in captivity are sufficient punishment for his offences.