JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Opening statements and testimony began Tuesday in the case against the former commanding officer of Guantanamo Bay accused in a coverup after the death of an employee on base.
John Nettleton was in charge of the naval base in 2015 when Christopher Tur, a civilian employee at the Naval Exchange there, was found dead in the water. Investigators with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service said Nettleton and Tur got in a fight over an affair with Tur’s wife the night before.
Nettleton has not been charged with Tur’s death. He is on trial for obstruction of justice and lying to investigators.
A jury of 12, most with military ties, was seated Monday. Tuesday, they heard testimony for the first time.
Federal prosecutors began opening arguments in the morning, telling the jury about an alcohol-fueled fight that began at the officer’s club, called Bayview, and ended at Nettleton’s on-base home.
In the narrative, both Nettleton and Tur, a civilian employee on base and former Marine, exchanged punches over an affair between Nettleton and Tur’s wife.
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys agree the fight happened at Nettleton’s home, but they disagree on what happened next and if Nettleton is to blame.
Tuesday was the first time Nettleton’s defense attorney’s told the court his client had an affair with Tur’s wife, Lara Sabinosh Tur.
In his beginning statement, Terrance Lenamon, a defense lawyer for Nettleton, said his client did punch Tur one time to protect himself, claiming Tur was irate, intoxicated and abusive of his wife, Lara.
Assistant US Attorney Todd Gee said investigators never figured out what happened next, leading to Tur’s body floating in the bay the next day. The cause of death was drowning, but an autopsy found Tur had broken ribs and cuts.
Prosecutors said Nettleton never told other staff about the fight, instead claiming Tur was last seen at the officer’s club. That misled search crews, the government contends, who looked for Tur on hiking trails and in the hills near the officer’s club, and Tur’s house instead of near Nettleton’s house.
Defense attorneys painted a different picture, saying Nettleton gave Tur a bag of ice and a paper towel after the scuffle, and that he genuinely thought that Tur went back to the bar after the disturbance. They contest that’s why he led search crews to the other side of the base.
Attorneys also said he didn’t talk about the fight or the affair to protect the careers of Tur and his wife, Lara, who is a family support services department head on the base. Prosecutors said Nettleton told Tur not to tell anyone, including detectives, about the affair.
A key witness was the base’s public relations officer, Kelly Wirfel. She said she was friends with the Turs and her boss, Nettleton, and that she was with them that night. She testified that she tried to diffuse an argument at the officer’s club and that Tur called her later that night after the fight at Nettleton’s home saying, “I just knocked the skipper (Nettleton) out.”
She claimed she didn’t believe the story, taking it as a joke, and she didn’t report it officially until the next day.
Randall Barger, who worked on the base and searched for Tur, also testified. He said he went to Nettleton’s home the morning after the fight and Nettleton denied anything taking place.
Barger said he searched the base for much of the day but did not officially report it. He said Nettleton did not say anything about being involved in an incident, and if he had, he would have escalated the situation.
Jacksonville attorney John M. Phillips represents Tur’s family.
“Certainly it’s hard to judge a movie by the first 15 minutes,” Phillips told News4Jax. “This is going to be a long three week trial, but the prosecution is doing an effective job.”
Phillips said the defense arguments were “scattershot.” He felt confident that Nettleton acted inappropriately and concealed information from investigators.
Tur’s mother, sister, brothers and in-laws watched from the courtroom. They said prosecutors advised them not to make statements until the end of the trial.
Nettleton’s parents and other family members were in court, but declined comment about the case.
The trial continues Wednesday morning with more witnesses from the prosecution. People expected in court include Julia Nettleton, the daughter of John Nettleton; Lara Sabinosh, Tur’s wife; Sr. Chief Anthony Thibodeaux and Chief Chris Vaughn.