IRAQ: Families Sue Blackwater Over Deaths in Fallujah

Survivors of four Blackwater Security Consulting contractors who were killed and mutilated last year in Iraq sued the Moyock-based company Wednesday, saying it cut corners that led to the men's deaths.

The families contend in the state civil lawsuit that the workers were sent into Fallujah, Iraq, without proper equipment and personnel to defend the supply convoy they were guarding.

"The fact that these four Americans found themselves located in the high-risk, war-torn city of Fallujah without armored vehicles, automatic weapons and fewer than the minimum number of team members was no accident," the lawsuit said. "Instead, this team was sent out without the required equipment and personnel by those in charge at Blackwater."

The lawsuit alleges that one week before the deaths, Blackwater fired a project manager who had insisted that the contractors use armored vehicles. Eliminating the armored vehicles saved Blackwater $1.5 million, the lawsuit says.

In a statement, Blackwater spokesman Chris Bertelli said the company has yet to be served with a lawsuit. "It would be inappropriate for us to comment on the specifics of the complaint at this time," the statement said.

Bertelli also said the company was "deeply saddened" by the loss of four colleagues to a terrorist act.

"Our thoughts and prayers were with them and their families then and are with them now. Blackwater hopes that the honor and dignity of our fallen comrades are not diminished by the use of the legal process," Bertelli said in the statement.

The attack made worldwide headlines, after frenzied crowds dragged the charred bodies of the four Americans through the streets of Fallujah and strung two of them up from a bridge. Killed were Stephen S. Helvenston, Mike R. Teague, Jerko Gerald Zovko and Wesley J.K. Batalona.

"Had they been provided with the protections, tools and information that they were promised when they signed up for their job at Blackwater, Helvenston, Teague, Zovko and Batalona would be alive today," the 32-page lawsuit charges.

The men's estates are named as plaintiffs in the case; their survivors live in Oceanside, Calif.; Leesburg, Fla.; Statesboro, Ga.; Paauilo, Hawaii; Clarksville, Tenn., and Willoughby, Ohio.

No specific damages are listed , as is routine in North Carolina civil cases.

The lawsuit was filed in North Carolina because Blackwater's headquarters are in the state and because, unlike some other states, North Carolina state law allows financial compensation in civil suits for wrongful death.

Blackwater USA was founded in 1996 by Erik D. Prince, a former Navy SEAL and scion to an automotive part manufacturing fortune.

The company said it has trained more than 50,000 people, including police, military and private security agents.

Local police departments, including Norfolk and Virginia Beach, regularly train at the 6,000-acre facility near the North Carolina and Virginia border.

Blackwater contracted with ESS Support Services Worldwide to provide security for food shipments to U.S. bases in Iraq. According to the lawsuit, the contract called for security teams to have two armored vehicles and a minimum of six personnel, as well as a heavy machine gun that could fire up to 850 rounds per minute.

But the four men who died were sent out in unarmored vehicles, without the heavy machine gun and without a map and got lost, said plaintiffs' attorney Dan Callahan of Santa Ana, Calif. Having not been given time to become familiar with their weapons or routes around Fallujah that other convoys took, they went directly through the violent city.

"If they would have had an armored vehicle and a machine gun, at least they could have gotten out of there," he said.

The lawsuit also claims that the workers were not allowed to ride on acclimation trips with contractors from the company they replaced, Control Risk Group.

This story was compiled from reports by The Associated Press and staff writer Louis Hansen.
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