Family members describe Abeer Qasim Hamza al-Janabi as tall for her age, skinny, but not eye-catchingly beautiful. As one of her uncles put it, "She was an ordinary girl." So perhaps it was sheer proximity that made the 15-year-old so tantalizing. Her house was less than 1,000 ft. from a U.S. military checkpoint just outside the Iraqi town of Mahmudiyah, and soldiers manning the gate started stopping by just to look at her. Her mother, who grew concerned enough to make plans for Abeer to move in with a cousin, told relatives that whenever she caught the Americans ogling her daughter, they would give her the thumbs-up sign, point to the girl and say, "Very good, very good."
Abeer's brother Mohammed, 13, told TIME he once watched his sister, frozen in fear, as a U.S. soldier ran his index finger down her cheek. Mohammed has since learned that soldier's name: Steven Green. Last week Green, 21, a former Army private first class who was honorably discharged because of a "personality disorder" a month before the criminal allegations came to light, pleaded not guilty to charges of raping Abeer and killing her along with her parents and 7-year-old sister. Five other soldiers have been charged, four of them for conspiring with Green and one for dereliction of duty for not reporting the crimes. The grisly March 12 slayings--in which Abeer's skull was smashed and her legs and torso set on fire--sparked the military's fifth investigation into U.S. personnel accused of murdering Iraqi civilians. But unlike the massacre in Haditha, where Marines are suspected of shooting up to 24 innocent people in November following the death of a beloved comrade, the butchering of Abeer's family does not appear to be the result of vengeance or confusion. Instead, all signs point to premeditated depravity.
According to an affidavit based on sworn statements from several members of Green's infantry unit, Green and three other soldiers abandoned the traffic checkpoint they were manning 20 miles south of Baghdad, in a region littered with roadside bombs, before heading to Abeer's house. Some of them had been drinking, and all but one had changed out of their uniforms, allegedly to avoid easy identification. A fifth soldier, who remained at the checkpoint to monitor the radio, said that when the men returned in bloodied clothes, each of them told him not to speak of the incident again.
Given that the area was known to be a terrorist stronghold, many former and active-duty officers are wondering how such a small convoy of soldiers--a single vehicle's worth--was left on its own, apparently far from the watchful gaze of a superior officer. "Where were the older sergeants, and the lieutenants and captain who should have prevented this crime from happening?" asks Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star general.