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The survivor: Airman escaped murder scene only to fight new battles

Oct. 14, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Jason King, who survived multiple stabbings in the 2004 attack at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., was medically discharged from the Air Force in 2011. He is unable to work.
Jason King, who survived multiple stabbings in the 2004 attack at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., was medically discharged from the Air Force in 2011. He is unable to work. (Courtesy of Jason King)
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Witt (Air Force)

WITT’S DEATH SENTENCE UNDER REVIEW

On Aug. 9, the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals ruled 3-2 to overturn the death sentence of Senior Airman Andrew Witt, convicted for the 2004 murders of Senior Airman Andy Schliepsiek and his wife, Jamie, at their home on Robins Air Force Base, Ga.
The appeals court wrote that the defense had overlooked key evidence that could have persuaded jurors to spare Witt’s life. Chiefly, the court wrote, the defense ignored the possibility Witt had suffered a head injury four months before the murders and did not put on the stand a witness who saw Witt express remorse.
The two dissenting judges said the evidence wouldn’t have altered the sentence, though the sentence was rare. The military has not executed a service member in more than 50 years.
The appeals court ordered the case sent back to the convening authority. The government has filed a motion for reconsideration of that decision.
“If you’re ever going to put someone to death, this is the case,” Jason King, a retired staff sergeant who survived multiple stabbings in Witt’s attack, said in an interview. “This is the guy you put to death. It was vicious. It was personal.”
If the convening authority agrees with the appeals court, King may have to face his attempted killer again at a resentencing hearing after nearly a decade of trying to move forward.
“To have someone sit in an office somewhere ... and determine he doesn’t deserve the death penalty — I think that’s bullshit,” King said. “Now these families have to suffer again. They have to get mad again. They keep having to relive it. Witt gets punished once. The families keep getting punished.”

Jason King faced the months leading up to the capital murder trial of a fellow airman with a single-minded purpose.

The man who stabbed to death Senior Airman Andy Schliepsiek and his wife, Jamie, at their home on Robins Air Force Base, Ga., early July 5, 2004, had nearly taken King’s life, too. King had to make sure the killer never hurt anyone else.

King went over his testimony so much he nearly grew numb to the harrowing details: Andy scuffling with his attacker. Jamie screaming. The searing pain of the combat knife slicing into his back again and again.

When the Air Force prosecutors set up camp in a house on base, King regularly brought them dinner. He had never seen anyone work so hard. They were dogged and meticulous as they built a death penalty case against one of their own.

But when the monthlong court-martial was over in October 2005 — when a panel of 10 officers unanimously sentenced Senior Airman Andrew Witt to die for his crimes — it was not the closure he had hoped for. His nightmare had only just begun.

Nine years later, he continues to battle post-traumatic stress disorder and the anxiety and depression that comes with it. He has fought alcoholism and drug addiction. Along the way, his marriage and his Air Force career ended.

Now, for the first time in almost a decade, King said he has gotten his demons under control. He is ready to talk about what he went through in the hope that it will help someone else.

A brutal crime

The Kings and the Schliepsieks were nearly inseparable in the summer of 2004.

King, wife Paige, and their 3-year-old daughter, Ramsey, lived less than a mile from Andy and Jamie on base. King and Andy, both senior airmen, also worked in neighboring units. But it wasn’t until they got together for a round of golf at the urging of colleagues that they struck up a friendship.

King felt like he’d known Andy all his life. He remembers how Paige smiled and winked at him after she met Jamie. Until then, Paige had struggled to make new friends at Robins. While King and Andy golfed, their wives shopped together and hung out at the nearby pool.

Independence Day, which fell on a Sunday that year, was no different. The Schliepsieks headed to the Kings’ house early that afternoon, where they drank beer and grilled ribs while Ramsey scribbled on the sidewalk with chalk. They talked about going to see fireworks, then decided to stay home. They talked about the Schliepsieks’ upcoming move to Chicago. Andy was leaving the Air Force in two weeks. The Kings had already made plans to visit them there.

Around midnight, Paige went to bed. King and the Schliepsieks stayed up talking and drinking. Around 1 a.m., Jamie disclosed that a fellow airman had tried to kiss her July 3. His name was Andrew Witt.

King had met Witt only once a day before, welcoming Witt to his home because, he’d told Andy, any friend of yours is a friend of mine.

Andy was livid at Jaime’s news. He phoned Witt to confront him.

“I remember a lot of phone calls back and forth,” King said. By 3 a.m, though, they’d dropped the subject.

Witt hadn’t. He would later tell investigators he’d changed into his Air Force fatigues, put a combat knife in his trunk and driven on base. He’d parked down the street from the Kings so they wouldn’t see his car. Then he’d hidden behind some trees and watched them.

Around 3:30 a.m., King, Jamie and Andy headed over to the Schliepsieks’ house. They’d run out of beer or cigarettes — King can’t remember which. Andy went to the kitchen. Jamie went to a back bedroom to get a sweater. She was on the phone with one of King’s friends, so he followed her.

They heard Andy in the kitchen shouting at someone to get out. Witt appeared in the bedroom doorway dressed in his fatigues. King figured he’d come to fight.

“Good,” Witt said. “You’re here, too.”

Then Witt headed toward the living room. King was close behind. What happened next unfolded faster than he could comprehend: Witt and Andy tussling. A sharp pain in his stomach. Backing into the kitchen. Jamie screaming about blood. Realizing Witt had stabbed him. Heading for the door. Struggling with the lock while Witt stabbed him in the back again and again. Running. Tripping over a tree stump. Summoning the neighbors to call 911. Collapsing in their driveway.

The sirens.

Sometimes, King still dreams about what happened inside the Schliepsieks’ house after he left. It’s like he is a fly on the wall.

Either Andy or Jamie managed to dial 911. The recording is brief. Andy pleads for his life. Jamie screams. The line goes dead.

Witt stabbed Andy three times, the second blow severing his spinal cord and paralyzing him instantly. The final blow pierced his heart. As he bled to death, unable to move, Witt kicked in the door of the bedroom where Jamie had retreated. He broke her arm and stabbed her five times — four in the back. Then he removed her skirt.

King said one of the prosecutors believed Witt fled at the sound of the sirens. That if King hadn’t gone for help Jamie might have been raped.

It is the only solace he takes from that night. He still asks himself why he ran.

“I don’t know why,” King said. “It’s something I have to live with. It’s been the toughest thing to overcome.”

Fighting for his life

The seasoned surgeon who operated on King called him his first miracle. He’d lost 4½ liters of blood. Any one of the three stab wounds should have killed him. One partially severed an artery. One narrowly missed his heart. His lung collapsed.

Each day in the hospital, Paige walked in the room and opened the blinds. Each day, he asked about Andy and Jamie. The answer was always the same: “They can’t be here right now.”

Just three weeks earlier, he’d lost another best friend and his wife in a car crash. Through the heavy haze of medication, King began to understand. On the third or fourth day, he said to wife: “They’re dead, aren’t they?”

She stood at the blinds unmoving. Slowly, she turned to him. “Yes,” she said. “They are.”

An Air Force chaplain came by soon after. So did his commander and first sergeant. His room was constantly filled with airmen, both friends and acquaintances.

While he recovered, his group commander stopped by to tell him he’d made staff sergeant. “The support I got from the Air Force during that time was incredible,” he said.

King begged to go to the Schliepsieks’ memorial service. But he was in no condition. When he was finally allowed to leave the intensive care unit for a regular hospital room, he was determined to walk. Connected to IVs and trailed by a nurse with a wheelchair, he did it.

“I was proud of that,” King said. He spent more than two weeks in the hospital. Two weeks later, his lung collapsed again and he contracted a staph infection. It was a second brush with death.

King went from fighting for his life to fighting for a guilty verdict.

“My relationship with the prosecutors in some remarkable way helped me to get through a lot of it,” he said. Then-Majs. Vance Spath and Rock Rockenbach and Capt. Scott Williams made him feel like part of the team.

“That was my goal the whole year leading up to the trial — to be the best witness I could possibly be,” he said. “After the trial, my mission was complete.”

Then it set in. “Things got out of control.”

A breakdown - and a breakthrough

After the murders, King started sleeping on the couch. He felt like he needed to be close enough to a door to hear what was going on outside. The doors had to be unlocked for a quick escape.

Loud noises startled him — a dog barking, a car door shutting. He became hypervigilant. At cinemas, he had to sit in the back row. In restaurants, he asked for a booth and sat with his back against the wall. Crowds agitated him.

Before, King said, “I was a people person. I got along with everyone. Now I don’t care whether I’m around anybody at all. It’s not appealing to me to be out in public. All I want to do is go home.”

He began drinking excessively and became addicted to painkillers. Sometimes, he’d vow to get sober. But it wouldn’t last. When people asked how he was doing, he’d tell them he was fine. The strain on his marriage became too much. In 2009, King and his wife divorced. That same year, while serving in Korea, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“PTSD is horrible. No one understands it. You don’t understand PTSD unless you have it,” he said. “You can decide to to be miserable. Or you can decide to get help.”

At Hurlburt Field, Fla., in 2010, King found himself living alone for the first time in his life. His health also wasn’t what it once was. Each year, he found it harder to pass the physical training test. He was diagnosed with a breathing condition called chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder — likely due to the scarring on his lungs.

Despite his addictions and health problems, King remained a good troop and the Air Force rewarded him for it. Less than a year after the murders, he went to Airman Leadership School and won the John Levitow Award, presented to the top student of an enlisted professional military education course. His commander and his first sergeant were there to cheer him on.

In 2011, he was medically discharged from the Air Force. He went home, to Johnson City, Tenn., where he got a job at the post office. It felt like a second chance. But it didn’t last.

“I couldn’t physically lift things and I couldn’t mentally do it. It was just too much too soon, I guess,” he said.

He fought for — and won — Social Security disability.

“I don’t like it. I don’t like being one of those guys living off the system. I don’t want to be inside, jobless, being a piece of trash,” King said.

He doesn’t see an alternative, at least right now. “I have to live,” he said.

Being back home has been good for him. “I love being here. I love this part of the country. I think it’s probably one of the most perfect places I could come back to. There’s not a lot of high-intensity stuff going on in the mountains of Johnson City. It’s laid back. I’m pretty lucky in that regard.”

He spends a lot of time on the back porch, smoking cigarettes and doing crossword puzzles. “It’s relaxing. I can see everything around me. Just trees and a big field.”

King hasn’t had a drink since May.

“It’s been a struggle. I’m still struggling with the addiction aspect,” he said. “I don’t want to make it sound like I’m blaming everything on what happened that night, although it could probably easily be said that was the reason. But I had a responsibility as well. I take responsibility for my actions and everything that’s happened.

“Right now my state of mind is better than it’s ever been, better than it has been since the stabbing.”

It’s been a long time coming.

King first admitted he needed help in 2010. “I just kind of had a break. Not a mental break. I just kind of realized I can’t do this on my own anymore.”

It wasn’t enough.

“For me personally, you have to get to the point where you truly don’t want to drink anymore or do drugs. Even being in rehab, I knew in the back of my mind I was going to use again. You have to mentally just be exhausted. I was mentally exhausted. It truly became something I didn’t want to do anymore,” King said. “From there, you’ve got to get through withdrawing and detoxing. After that, it becomes a choice. Sometimes it’s a tough choice. Sometimes during the day you want to use. Generally, if you sit down and wait for 15 or 30 minutes, that hardcore craving passes and then you can make a better decision.”

Friends and family stuck by him, offering encouragement when he needed it most. Recently, King went to church for the first time in years.

“I fell far away from God after what happened to Andy and Jamie. People would say, ‘God must have been with you that night.’ I thought, ‘Why wasn’t he with them? They were better people than me.’ I became angry with God. Now I have faith. And having faith is such a strong thing.”

King wants to go back to college. He’d started working on a master’s degree in management while serving in Korea. He knows he has to put a lot more sobriety time behind him. He knows it will probably require another degree. King wants to help people who’ve faced similar struggles. He wants to become a drug and alcohol counselor.

“The message I want to get out there is that in your darkest hour, when horrible things happen to you, when you’re facing life or death, there is always hope,” King said. “If it helps one person — then to me, it was worth it. Maybe this is the reason why I survived.”

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