A former Patriot battery first sergeant will go to court-martial at Fort Hood, Texas, in August as the final defendant in an alleged three-man arms room theft conspiracy.
The battery’s former commander and another senior NCO already pleaded guilty to the conspiracy in May, according to III Corps officials.
Officials provided charge sheets detailing the alleged conspiracy between three senior members of B Battery, 4th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery, to steal 25 red dot sights known officially as M68 Close Combat Optics. The CCOs were stolen in December 2019, shortly before the unit deployed to Saudi Arabia.
The battery commander, Capt. Robin Morales, pleaded guilty to conspiracy, larceny of government property, and making a false official statement. After the plea deal, Morales was confined for 75 days and dismissed from the Army, in addition to a reprimand and pay forfeitures.
Co-conspirator Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Pierce also took a plea deal and was convicted of conspiracy to steal military property, as well as larceny of government property. The 17-year veteran received seven days in jail and a bad-conduct discharge.
But Master Sgt. Rusty Groat, who was the battery’s first sergeant, will go to trial in August, according to court records. He has entered a not guilty plea. Groat is accused of conspiracy, theft, two specifications of obstructing justice, and making a false official statement.
In a statement accompanying the charge sheet, III Corps officials cautioned that “charges are merely accusations and that the accused is presumed innocent unless proven guilty in accordance with the law.”
None of the three soldiers immediately responded to comment requests sent via social media, and Groat’s docket entry did not list an attorney.
How the alleged conspiracy unfolded
According to the charge sheets, the three leaders allegedly decided to steal the CCOs in December 2019.
A soldier familiar with the events told Army Times that the three conspirators believed the optics had “fallen off the books” and were no longer being officially tracked. But the CCOs hadn’t fallen off the books — and investigators came looking for them a few months later.
Morales, Pierce and Groat distributed the optics to junior members of the unit and kept some for themselves, the charge sheets said.
In February 2020, while deployed, Pierce allegedly told a specialist to lie about what had happened to the sights.
A few months later, in May 2020, a colonel was investigating the equipment discrepancies, which led the alleged conspirators to try and cover their tracks, the charge sheets alleged.
Morales reportedly told Groat to delete all of his text messages about the CCOs and instructed Pierce to lie. The two NCOs then told their subordinates to delete their messages about the optics, as well, the charge sheet alleged, with Pierce assuring one sergeant that he should “‘not say anything if anyone asked him about the CCOs because the command team would ‘take care of him.’”
According to the charges, the alleged conspirators took steps to make sure everyone was on the same page — they would tell investigators that the sights had turned up in the unit’s communications closet, and they didn’t know where any missing ones were.
The battery commander, Morales, told this version of the story to the colonel on May 27, according to a false official statement charge.
Pierce reportedly relayed the story he was planning to use to another NCO, telling him that he wanted to “be on the same page” in case he was interviewed.
It’s not clear from the documents how, why or when the cover story failed, but the battalion’s monthly deployment newsletter marked the arrival of a new battery commander in June 2020 — shortly after the alleged conspirators came under investigation.
By fall 2021, at least, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division was looking into the reported theft.
Groat is charged with lying to a CID agent during an Oct. 21, 2021, interrogation when he said, “I didn’t want anything to do with this...I got pulled into this against my will and knew nothing about it...I did not know who all had [the CCOs].”
The former first sergeant’s trial is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 8.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army. He focuses on investigations, personnel concerns and military justice. Davis, also a Guard veteran, was a finalist in the 2023 Livingston Awards for his work with The Texas Tribune investigating the National Guard's border missions. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill.