North County Public Radio has uncovered disturbing details about the Army soldier accused of murdering his wife and a New York State Trooper Sunday night in the town of Theresa, NY.
NCPR has confirmed that Justin Walters, now 32 years old, was accused of plotting to kill students at his middle school in Holland, Michigan. Walters pleaded guilty to conspiracy in 1999, when he was just 15 years old.
Despite that incident, Walters was later allowed to enlist in the Army. He was stationed at Fort Drum in 2007.
A troubled adolescence in Michigan
Justin Walters grew up hundreds of miles from Fort Drum, in Holland, Michigan. From the time he was a young teenager, Walters got into a lot of trouble with the authorities.
A criminal record obtained by WOOD-TV lists more than a half-dozen convictions before the age of 18, including possession of marijuana and property destruction at a local graveyard. "When he vandalized the cemetery it was swastikas and such, desecration of graves," said Michael Beyrle.
Beyrle lived across the street from that graveyard in Holland and he remembers Justin Walters as a deeply troubled kid. "He felt maybe like an outcast," Beyrle said. "He was a very racist kid, growing up, and he was known to not be too quiet about it." Beyrle has a younger brother the same age as Walters. When those two boys were in ninth grade, things took a much more dangerous turn.
Police discover a "die or dead list"
The boys got caught with a hit list, which Walters reportedly referred to as a “die or dead list.”
MLive broke the story Monday evening, based on a Grand Rapids Press newspaper article published in November 1999. Walters reportedly admitted to writing a list of people he didn’t like and some he wanted to kill at Macatawa Bay Middle School in Holland. Walters wrote the list with an emphasis on minorities and people Walters believed to be gay.
This happened months after the Columbine school shooting in Colorado, an event that spawned copycats across the country. Beyrle said Walters was inspired by the mass murder.
Police learned about Walters' list through an anonymous tip and reportedly found evidence at the time that Walters and his friend tried to get their hands on a gun. According to the Grand Rapids Press, their plan was to enter the school cafeteria, start shooting, and then commit suicide.
Beyrle claims that all of this — the gun, the list — was Justin Walters’ idea. He said he wasn’t shocked when he heard about the double murder in Jefferson County, NY. "I was not surprised," Beyrle said, "and the people I know who went to high school with him were not surprised."
We also know from the Grand Rapids newspaper report in 1999 that Walters spent nearly a week in an inpatient mental health clinic, which raises the question: how did Justin Walters wind up in the Army eight years later, stationed at Fort Drum?
A path into the Army?
Brian Sutton, a public affairs officer for the Army’s Recruiting Command in Fort Knox, Kentucky, said he’s not sure exactly how Justin Walters was evaluated. But short of a murder conviction, Sutton said recruiters will consider people who have criminal records. It just might take more time to consider those applications.
"We look at that whole person," Sutton said. "Is the offense indicative of a success or a failure for a future in the Army in that soldier? So everyone has to use good solid judgment to determine whether we'll bring that applicant into the Army."
But the Army does have a history of relaxing its standards for what kinds of convicted criminals are eligible for enlistment in times when there’s a shortage of available troops.
Right before Walters signed up, in 2006, the number of soldiers granted a so-called “moral waiver” had shot up roughly 60 percent over the previous year. The New York Times reported the Army was trying to “expand its diminishing pool of recruits" through waivers, enlistment incentives and other means.
NCPR couldn’t confirm how Walters was able to enlist despite his criminal record, and Army officials with the Human Resources Command in Kentucky wouldn’t release information about Walters’ recruitment.
A decorated soldier, a diagnosis of PTSD
It’s important to point out that based on the information the Army did make available about Justin Walters’ career, he was a successful soldier. Walters rose to become a senior non-commissioned officer, a staff sergeant. He received nearly a dozen awards and commendations over his 10 years in the Army, which included two tours of duty in Afghanistan.
But multiple sources suggested that Walters’ time in the Army and his front-line service in Afghanistan left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"PTSD applies differently in different people," said a soldier who worked with Walters in the Army. The soldier has been granted anonymity by NCPR because talking to journalists without permission from superiors could cause problems for his Army career.
"But the only symptoms I’ve ever seen with him is that loud noises freak him out," this soldier said. "Him showing violence or things like that? Never. Never. Not even talking about it. Always a smiling face. I’m just shocked."
In an interview with a TV news station Tuesday, Walters' mother confirmed that her son had been diagnosed with PTSD and was receiving help.
"His life revolved around his family"
Multiple people at Fort Drum told NCPR they were disturbed by the news that Walters’ allegedly murdered his wife, 27-year-old Nichole Walters, and 36-year-old New York State Trooper Joel Davis Sunday evening.
The anonymous soldier who spoke with NCPR said Walters was a family man who seemed deeply committed to his wife, Nichole, and their young son. Family friends of the couple and a high school friend of Nichole Walters told NCPR that Justin seemed happy with his family.
"His life revolved around his family," the soldier said. "He was a great guy, he is a great guy, and... I don’t know. This is very tragic that this happened."
For now, Justin Walters is behind bars in Jefferson County jail in Watertown, NY, facing first and second degree murder charges.
New York State Police, with assistance from the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, will lead the investigation into what triggered Walters' alleged shooting spree on Sunday — and how all these disparate pieces of the young soldier's life fit together.