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Sex, power, and fury: the mystery of a death at Guantánamo Bay

His Navy career now over, John R. Nettleton (pictured in 2014) was found guilty on six charges Friday.
His Navy career now over, John R. Nettleton (pictured in 2014) was found guilty on six charges Friday.Mc3 Jacob Goff/U.S. Navy

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It was a Friday night five years ago, and in a basement bar below the officers club at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, two men were getting drunk.

One was the commanding officer, Captain John R. Nettleton, a 49-year-old career Navy helicopter pilot who had risen to run the remote base on the southeast coast of Cuba, best known as the site of the prison and courtroom for detainees in the war on terror.

The other was Christopher M. Tur, a 42-year-old civilian and onetime enlisted Marine who had moved to Guantánamo with his wife and two daughters four years earlier for a job overseeing efforts to prevent shoplifting from the base commissary.

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As the evening wore on, Tur watched with mounting fury from across the bar as his wife, Lara Tur, chatted cozily with Nettleton, who was touching her in a way that struck a witness as inappropriate. At one point, after Christopher Tur remarked that his wife “was acting like a whore,” the base’s public affairs officer, a friend of the couple’s, told the bartender “to stop serving so much to Captain Nettleton and Lara.”

But things continued to spin out of control. Within hours, there would be allegations of adultery and a bloody fight. Christopher Tur would be found two days later drowned in the sea with potentially lethal amounts of Prozac and alcohol in his system, four broken ribs, and a bruise on his forehead.

No one has been charged in his death, but Friday, Nettleton, his Navy career over, was convicted of obstruction of justice for covering up what happened that night.

A jury of 10 women and two men at the US District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Jacksonville found him guilty on six charges, which can be punishable by five to 20 years in prison. A sentencing hearing has not yet been set.

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The liquor-laced tale of sex, violence, jealousy, and power that emerged gradually through testimony and interviews provides a rare, unfiltered view of life among the 6,000 residents of the 45-square-mile outpost behind a Cuban minefield.

Guantánamo Bay, about 500 miles from Miami, has been largely defined for nearly two decades as the site of the secretive detention center, currently holding 40 men as prisoners, and the military courtroom where six of them face death penalty trials.

Yet for people like Nettleton and the Turs, the base is also a small, insular town, with boozy backyard barbecues and a McDonald’s. They bring their families, cars, and fishing boats, and live in suburban-style neighborhoods.

“Everybody seems to know everybody else’s business,” Kelly Wirfel, the base’s public affairs officer at the time and the friend of the Turs’, testified at Nettleton’s trial. “You can never get away from it. Drinking and going out with friends is something that happens quite frequently there.”

On Jan. 9, 2015, the Turs and Wirfel were going together to a Hail and Farewell Party at the officers club to welcome the base’s new second-in-charge, Commander Alonza J. Ross.

As they were getting ready, according to Lara Tur, the director of the base’s social services center, she and Wirfel got on the phone from their homes and each did a shot to get the party started. They lived in the same neighborhood, Caribbean Circle, and socialized regularly.

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Christopher Tur drove them to the club and bought a round of drinks. They then went down a narrow flight of stairs to the Hangar Bar for speeches and a gift exchange. Inside were 25 to 30 people, most of whom were already drinking.

Wirfel had brought a camera to document the evening but quickly abandoned the idea. “There was so much drinking going on,” she testified.

Across the bar, Nettleton and Lara Tur were close, touching and talking in a way that Wirfel found “disrespectful” to Christopher Tur, she testified. Christopher Tur noticed, too. Lara Tur testified that she and her husband later quarreled in an alley outside the bar. “I told him that we were done, and get his hands off me,” she said.

As the party was breaking up, word spread that Nettleton had invited everybody back to his house, up the street. Ross vetoed that idea, in part because Nettleton’s wife was away in Florida. Christopher Tur called Nettleton “a son of a bitch or ass,” Ross testified, and loudly, graphically accused Nettleton of having had sex with his wife, according to both Ross and Wirfel, who heard it.

Nettleton staggered off, Wirfel said, and a “very intoxicated” Lara Tur tried to walk with him until Wirfel stopped her. Ross told Christopher Tur to go home, and watched him walk in the opposite direction.

The details of what happened next are a matter of some dispute, but testimony and trial evidence have established these basic facts: Nettleton returned to his stately, 80-year-old official residence on a promontory above the bay. Christopher Tur showed up there soon after. There was a fight. Then Christopher Tur disappeared.

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Nettleton’s daughter Julia, 15 at the time, was home and at 10:55 p.m. sent a text to a friend. “They are getting into a fight downstairs,” she wrote. “It started with a man coming into my house screaming at my father.” Julia Nettleton, now in college, testified that she heard a “thumping and banging noise — it sounded like things hitting the wall to me, or hitting furniture.”

She had looked down the staircase and saw her father — 6 feet, 3 inches tall and 230 pounds — arguing with a man at the door, and was so scared that she locked herself in a bedroom.

Then it got quiet, so she crept downstairs and saw her father flat on the floor, face down, and a man standing over him using a phone.

Wirfel testified that Christopher Tur called her cellphone sometime after he left the officers club, while she and Lara Tur were waiting for a ride home. Christopher Tur, she testified, told her that he had “knocked the skipper out.” She said she dismissed his remark as a prank because she heard Nettleton say, “Oh yeah, he just knocked me out.”

Taking the stand in his own defense, Nettleton testified Tuesday that Christopher Tur must have come into his house uninvited because the first thing he remembered of the episode was regaining consciousness with “someone shaking me and saying, ‘Wake up, Marine.’ ”

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It was Christopher Tur standing over him, he testified, alternately hostile and friendly, trying to coax Nettleton back to the bar.

Suddenly, he testified, Christopher Tur “just gets this look of rage” and began attacking him — pushing him against a wall, tearing his shirt and lunging at him. “I just throw a quick punch and I hit him” in the nose, Nettleton said, accounting for blood traces from the living room to the kitchen.

Nettleton said he last saw Christopher Tur at his kitchen table with ice and a paper towel to his nose. Nettleton went upstairs to talk to his daughter, and by the time he went down, Christopher Tur was gone.

Lara Tur described her husband as jealous, controlling, and abusive, and said she was planning to divorce him. She had found work at the base’s Fleet and Family Support Center, and had risen to become the director — a more senior job than her husband’s.

In the month before he died, Lara Tur said, her husband demanded she be home at 5 p.m. each day to make dinner with “a smile on my face,” kiss him every time she came and went, and call him frequently.

Months earlier, she said, while they were attending a meeting in Jacksonville, Fla., she and Nettleton had had a sexual encounter. She called it a one-time mistake by “two friends that crossed a line.” There had been flirtation at Guantánamo, she said, and “just kissing.”

Nettleton testified that he chose not to report the fight because he considered himself the victim of an assault, and to report it would have cost Christopher Tur his job. Nettleton also said that he felt he had wronged Christopher Tur because “I had slept with Lara in November — and he didn’t know it, but I did.”

Thirty-six hours after the fistfight, a Coast Guard patrol boat found Christopher Tur’s corpse floating off the coastline.

How Christopher Tur got into the water “is not a mystery that will be solved in this courtroom,” Todd Gee, a federal prosecutor, told jurors. The charges in the case revolve around Nettleton’s failure to report the fight “even though he knew Mr. Tur was somewhere on Guantánamo Bay, drunk, injured, and bleeding,” Gee said, and Nettleton’s continuing lack of candor after Christopher Tur’s body was recovered.

It is unclear why Nettleton never faced Navy charges. He retired in March after wrapping up his career at Naval Air Station Jacksonville.

Before the trial began, Judge Timothy J. Corrigan forbade prosecutors and defense lawyers from speculating on how or why Christopher Tur ended up in the water.

“We don’t want to turn it into a trial on how Mr. Tur died,” he told the lawyers. “It’s not a murder case. I’m going to hold you to it. It’s not a case either about whether he committed suicide. And I’m going to hold you to that.”