JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A jury witnessed an emotional day in court Wednesday as testimony continued in the trial over an alleged coverup of a civilian’s death on Guantanamo Bay.
The case is focused on sex, lies, the military and a mysterious death.
At the forefront, the former commander of the Naval Base, John Nettleton, 56. The decorated Naval officer, who retired in 2019, is charged with lying and obstruction of justice in the investigation into the death of 42-year-old Christopher Tur in January 2015.
Tur, a former Marine, was working as the civilian loss prevention manager for the Naval Exchange on base at the time.
Tur was found dead in the bay a day and a half after he disappeared. An autopsy determined he drowned and had broken ribs and cuts, but investigators never determined how he ended up in the water.
Naval Criminal Investigative Service detectives discovered Tur had been in a fight with Nettleton the night he vanished over an affair with Tur’s wife.
An indictment against Nettleton was unsealed in January 2019 -- the same day he was arrested.
The biggest testimony for the case on Wednesday came from Lara Sabanosh, Tur’s wife, who admits she had an affair with the base commander, Nettleton.
An emotional Sabanosh was questioned by prosecutors and defense attorneys about the night her husband disappeared following an argument at an alcohol-fueled “Hail & Farewell” party at the Bayview officer’s club. She said under oath that Tur had confronted her about her relationship with Nettleton, got physical with her then left.
She claimed Tur had problems with prescription drugs, alcohol and domestic violence. She told the jury she didn’t file a report because she didn’t want it to affect their careers or family life.
She testified she wasn’t overly worried because he’d left many times during disagreements. The next day, she told the jury, she started to look for her husband and reported it to Nettleton, who acted “normal.”
During the course of NCIS’s investigation, before and after she learned of her husband’s death, she denied an affair with Nettleton, but later admitted she lied.
Sabanosh contends that Nettleton did not tell her that Tur was at his home or that there was a fight, but said she would have told investigators about the affair had she known about the fight and circumstances.
She said Nettleton told her about it after he was removed from commanding Gitmo, as it was widely reported on the news.
Sabanosh, who was a civilian department head with Family Support Services on the base, said she and Tur had a rough marriage and were close to splitting up. She acknowledged having sexual relations with Nettleton when they were both in Jacksonville at a leadership meeting in late 2014, months before Tur’s death.
The retired captain has listened to every minute of trial, but has never publicly spoken about the case. It’s unclear if he’ll take the stand to testify in his defense during the trial.
Prosecutors claim that Nettleton lied to his command staff, denying the fight, which caused crews to search for Tur on a different side of the island. Investigators also said Nettleton denied having an affair and advised Sabanosh to not tell anyone about it. They believe that’s enough cause for the charges and that had he spoken up, the investigation would have been handled differently.
Defense attorneys said Nettleton did not break the law and legitimately believed Tur had returned to the bar, hence his call for a search near that area. They admitted that Nettleton did have an extra-marital relationship with Sabanosh.
Earlier Wednesday morning, the court heard from Nettleton’s tearful daughter, Julia, who was 15 at the time. She was upstairs at home and overheard the fight.
She said she listened to a man accusing her father of sleeping with his wife and later came downstairs, seeing her dad face down in the kitchen with a man standing over him. The next day, her father told her that Tur had come to the house, but didn’t give many details.
Another key witness was the base’s public relations officer, Kelly Wirfel. She testified on Tuesday that 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. However, she said she had no reason to believe Tur was in trouble and said she comforted his wife, Lara, after their argument.
On Wednesday, Sabanosh said Wirfel never told her about the fight at the captain’s house, which could have given her more details about what happened surrounding her husband’s disappearance.
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 that if he had, he would have escalated the situation.
Late in the day, several GITMO officials involved in the search for Tur were called to the stand.
They told jurors Nettleton never mentioned Tur had been at his home.
A security officer involved in the search testified that Nettleton dismissed a bloody paper towel found near his dock by saying “That’s probably nothing."
The prosecution presented an email to Washington D.C. to update search efforts where Nettleton never mentioned Tur had been to his home or a fight occurred.
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 government is expected to call two Navy Admirals to the witness stand on Thursday.
The trial before federal judge Timothy Corrigan, with dozens of witnesses and hundreds of pieces of evidence, is expected to last three to four weeks. A 12 person jury, nine of whom have close military ties, will decide the fate of the embattled former commander, who is out of jail on bond during the trial.