Evidence of troubled past for suspect in double murder

Jul 14, 2017

Ft. Drum soldier Sgt. Justin Walters, who has been charged with murder in the deaths of his wife Nichole and New York State Trooper Joel Davis, had a troubling juvenile history in Holland, MI, where he was a student.

One of the people who knew Justin Walters growing up is Matt Militello. Militello was the principal at Walters' middle school in 1999. That year, Walters — a ninth-grader — was caught hatching a plan to kill some of his classmates. A school friend was also involved in the plot.

Justin Walters, then 15, in the 1999 Macatawa Bay Middle School yearbook.
Credit North Country Public Radio

The Plan

Militello said police called him at home after receiving an anonymous tip.

"This was very real," Militello said. "It couldn’t get any more real than being within hours of something tragic happening in a school. This was probably the biggest thing that happened in my career as an educational leader."

This plan to kill fellow classmates came to light after the Columbine school shooting in Colorado. Militello said investigators found two lists: a hit list of people Walters planned to kill and a safe list, naming people Walters did not intend to harm.

According to local news reports from that time, Walters seemed to be targeting minorities. However, Militello said it was not that simple.

"What strikes in my mind was the meetings I had with every single one of the students and their parents," Militello recalled, "and I remember there were quite a few blonde-haired blue-eyed young ladies I had to meet with. So I don’t think he pinpointed minorities or one group — it was really all over the board."

School Response

Militello said school administrators tried to protect the identities of all of their students — both those on the lists and the people who were accused of writing them. They even tried to hide the identity of Justin Walters after he admitted to the conspiracy, but the information leaked to the press.

"As a school district we talked about making sure there was an embargo on any kind of names that were given out," Militello said. "You know, obviously, students knew what was going on and they were talking and giving out names."

At least one local newspaper, the Grand Rapids Press, decided to print Walters’ name in stories about his case, which was tried in family court.

Prosecution

Walters pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in 1999 and served time in juvenile detention. North County Public Radio has not been able to confirm if Army officials were aware of this incident when Walters enlisted in 2007.

In addition, a source has given NCPR social media posts that Walters wrote in the weeks leading up to the shootings. The Facebook messages include a seemingly angry reference to death and mortality.

State police investigating the double murder in the town of Theresa still have not indicated the motive for the alleged attacks. However, the social media posts may help shed light on some of the challenges and pressures Walters faced.

Walters previously served two tours of duty in Afghanistan at the peak of the conflict, including a stint in troubled Kandahar Province. On his private Facebook page, Walters wrote about attending drug or alcohol treatment recently — also about being reassigned to a program for struggling soldiers.

"Death. Death. Death."

A source who knows Justin Walters well sent to NCPR screen captures of private Facebook posts that appear to have been made in the last six weeks. In the posts, Walters said military officials urged him to "self enroll" in the Army's substance abuse program.  

On June 2, Walters announced to friends that he had graduated from that program. But a few weeks later, on June 20, Walters posted something troubling — a profanity-laden rant:

"You don't know the purpose of death. You struggle with the purpose of life? Death. Death. Death. Your decomposing corpse is worth more than anything you will do in your life."  

Credit North Country Public Radio

Re-assignment to "WTU"

On June 29, just 10 days before he allegedly shot and killed Nichole Walters and Trooper Joel Davis, Justin Walters wrote that he was being reassigned by the Army.  

"I've been told I'll be moving soon," he wrote. "I'm heading to WTU."

That's an apparent reference to the Warrior Transition Unit, an Army program for struggling or injured soldiers. WTUs offer a range of services, from rehabilitation to "medical management assistance" for soldiers who are trying to find treatment within the Army's healthcare system. Some soldiers return to active duty after receiving assistance; in other cases, the WTU engineers a "transition" out of the Army. 

There is a WTU located at Fort Drum, but NCPR has not been able to confirm if that is the specific unit Walters was being transferred to, what prompted his transfer in the first place and in what capacity the Army wanted him to be there.

Walters is now being held in Jefferson County jail without bail, facing charges of first- and second-degree murder. Julie Halpin, a spokesperson for Fort Drum, referred all questions to New York State Police, who are investigating Sunday’s double homicide. The state police declined to comment through a spokesperson, citing the ongoing investigation.

Walters (right) used Facebook to share photos from his time on the job and chat with fellow soldiers in Afghanistan.
Credit Walters' Facebook page

What we know about Walters' past

Walters has served in the Army for 10 years, winning nearly a dozen awards and commendations, but numerous sources within the Army have told NCPR that Walters was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, Walters pleaded guilty in 1999 to conspiring to kill several students at his middle school.

It is unclear how Walters was able to enlist in the Army given his background.  The Army has declined to release details of his recruitment or his personnel history.

Halpin, the spokesperson for Fort Drum, declined to say whether the issues Walters described on his private Facebook page were known to the Army or whether they were factors in Sunday night's shooting. 

In an email to NCPR, Halpin wrote, “I am not at liberty to discuss anything that could compromise the ongoing investigation.”