JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Several high-ranking Navy officials were called to Jacksonville as witnesses in federal court on Thursday in the case of the embattled former commanding officer of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base accused of a coverup.
Captain John Nettleton, who retired last year, is on trial charged with obstruction of justice and concealing facts from investigators about the 2015 disappearance and death of 42-year-old Christopher Tur.
Investigators say Tur was found in the harbor near the base in January 2015, a day and a half after getting into a fight with Nettleton over an affair with Tur’s wife.
Nettleton was the commanding officer of the entire base at the time. Tur, a Marine Corps veteran, was working on the base as a civilian loss prevention manager at the Naval Exchange. Tur’s wife, Lara Sabanosh, was the director of Family Support Services at GITMO.
Nettleton is not charged with Tur’s death, but is accused of hampering the search for Tur and the investigation that followed. Prosecutors said that he misled search crews looking for Tur and slowed the investigation by NCIS.
Two Navy admirals and a captain testified at Jacksonville’s federal courthouse Thursday about how Nettleton reacted in the hours and days following Tur’s disappearance.
Navy Captain Alonza Ross was second in command at the base, under Nettleton, at the time of Tur’s disappearance. The former executive officer testified that he requested a Coast Guard helicopter stationed at the base to search for Tur after he went missing, but his superior, Nettleton said no. Nettleton argued it was only to be used for urgent situations and he did not want to violate an airspace agreement between the U.S. and Cuba.
A witness for prosecutors, Ross said, under oath, that Nettleton never told him Tur was at his home the night before, that he had an affair with Tur’s wife, Lara, or that there was a fistfight between the two.
“If there was a problem, I would expect him to call and tell me,” Ross said before the jury of 12.
Rear admiral Christopher Gray was a captain and chief of staff for Navy Region Southeast in 2015. He was in contact with Nettleton by phone and email after Tur went missing. He said Nettleton, the base’s commanding officer, made no mention of ever being involved in an argument with Tur.
“The way he described the situation was that there had been no personal involvement in any way,” Gray testified. “(It) seemed to indicate he was getting the info from other people and that he had no prior knowledge.”
Admiral Gray said had he known of the fight between Nettleton and Tur the night before, the response to the situation would have been very different and he would have launched a criminal investigation right away.
Prosecutors showed an email Nettleton sent to his superiors reporting the incident where Nettleton said Tur had been drinking and was fighting with his wife. Nettleton added that he’d disappeared before.
“I’m preparing for the worst and hoping for the best,” Nettleton wrote on Jan. 10, 2015. “Chaplains ready if needed. We will expand the search parties tomorrow morning.”
Nettleton did not mention any personal involvement with Tur.
When his bosses asked Nettleton about the need for more resources to search for Tur, he replied “absolutely not.”
But things changed, investigators said, when someone sent an anonymous tip three days later claiming that Nettleton was having an affair with Tur’s wife and there was an argument at the Bayview officer’s club the night Tur disappeared.
Ross testified that he witnessed the argument between Nettleton and Tur. During the argument outside the bar, Ross testified Tur pointed at Nettleton and said “This son of a b**** is f****** my wife!” before the two went their separate ways.
Nettleton later told Gray, without knowledge of the complaint, that rumors about a fight and affair were false.
Admiral Mary Jackson, who was in charge of Navy Region Southeast at the time, testified Thursday afternoon. She said she was in Jacksonville and Washington, D.C., at the time of the incident, but was in contact with Nettleton.
She testified that Nettleton initially did not tell her about any verbal or physical altercation with Tur. She said her response immediately after the incident would have been different.
“I would have made sure there were additional communications with other people on [Nettleton’s] staff,” she said on the stand. “I would have begun to question whether the CO could be objective in conducting the search.”
Jackson said she later heard from Nettleton that Tur did come to his on-base home the night he disappeared. She said Nettleton denied fighting Tur and assured her he was not having an affair with Tur’s wife, Lara.
She then told Nettleton to speak with NCIS agents and began to think about whether he was fit to command the base, Jackson testified.
Jackson said Nettleton didn’t tell her about verbal altercation until Tuesday, even though it happened on Friday. She said she never heard of a physical altercation until the following Saturday, and that came from NCIS, not Nettleton.
She said she also received information that Nettleton gave information to send search crews in an opposite direction.
She said the issues were enough concern for her to relieve him of his duty.
According to a press release from the Navy in 2015, Nettleton was relieved of duty at GITMO “due to loss of confidence” on Jan. 21, 2015.
Tur’s mother, sister, brothers, in-laws and former co-workers have been in the gallery for all three days of witness testimony. Nettleton’s parents and two other relatives have also watched from the front row. Neither side has commented, saying they do not want to hamper the case.
When asked outside the courtroom, Nettleton and his attorneys said they had no comment.
The trial will not resume until Monday, due to a scheduling conflict on Friday. According to prosecutors and defense, the trial is expected to wrap next week.
The evidence and witnesses brought before the jury and Judge Timothy Corrigan in the first days of the trial have been from prosecutors. Defense attorneys for Nettleton will have their chance to bring their own evidence and witnesses in the coming days.
Nettleton has the right to take the stand in his defense, but it’s unclear if he will.