The former top NCO for a Patriot missile battery at Fort Hood, Texas, has become the third soldier convicted as part of an arms room theft ring, III Corps officials confirmed.

Master Sgt. Rusty Groat was the first sergeant of B Battery, 4th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, when the thefts occurred. He, the battery commander and another senior NCO conspired to steal 25 red dot sights, or M68 Close Combat Optics, in December 2019, shortly before the unit deployed to Saudi Arabia, according to court documents and corps officials.

Although he initially pleaded not guilty, Groat changed his plea in exchange for a deal that saw him convicted of conspiracy to steal government property, larceny of government property and making a false official statement. He was reduced in rank to private first class, issued a formal reprimand and will serve 60 days in confinement.

Groat does not have an attorney listed in Army records.

The battery commander, Capt. Robin Morales, previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy, larceny of government property and making a false official statement. Morales was reprimanded, confined for 75 days and dismissed from the Army.

Co-conspirator Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Pierce also pleaded guilty to conspiracy and larceny of government property in May. The 17-year veteran received a bad-conduct discharge and seven days’ confinement.

It’s not clear whether another NCO whose name was redacted in the court documents also faced charges in the case, but a June special court-martial saw a sergeant convicted on similar charges.

The conspiracy

Ahead of deployment, the three leaders handed out some of the optics to junior troops in the unit and kept others for themselves, according to charge sheets.

A soldier from the unit previously told Army Times the conspirators believed the optics had “fallen off the books” and were no longer being officially tracked in property accountability systems. But that was wrong.

Investigators honed in on the loss in early 2020 during their deployment, leading the troops to try and cover their tracks. A colonel began asking questions, likely as part of a command investigation, in May.

The three leaders reportedly coached subordinates to lie about where they’d found the optics, according to charge sheets. In this version of the story, the sights had turned up in the unit’s communications closet, and nobody knew where any missing ones were.

Each of them faced charges related to the alleged cover-up.

Pierce told one junior soldier to lie about the sights, according to the charge sheet, and explained the cover story to another NCO to “be on the same page.”

Morales told the communications closet story to the colonel investigating the disappearance and instructed Groat to delete his text messages related to the optics, charge sheets stated.

It’s not clear when the battalion decided the story was not true, but the unit’s deployment newsletter announced the arrival of Morales’ replacement in June 2020.

The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division began looking into the theft, as well.

Groat was 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 M68 Close Combat Optics].”

The former first sergeant’s conviction marks at least the fourth among leaders from 4th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery, this year alone.

The battalion’s former top enlisted soldier, Sgt. Maj. Tomas Barrios, was busted in rank to master sergeant and sentenced to 60 days in jail after pleading guilty to fraternization, false official statements and adultery in a June court-martial.

Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.

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