A Marine Iraq war veteran named Bradley Stone, prosecutors say, killed his ex-wife and five members of her family on Monday before disappearing, dressed in military fatigues.
The intensifying manhunt in woodsy townships outside Philadelphia comes just weeks after the capture of war re-enactor Eric Frein, who spent seven weeks on the lam in the craggy woods of northeastern Pennsylvania after allegedly killing one state police officer and wounding another outside a rural barracks.
Mr. Stone was embroiled in a long-running custody battle with his ex-wife, Nicole Hill Stone, friends have said. It’s not clear what sparked a 90-minute rampage that spanned three houses in three towns – Souderton, Lansdale, and Lower Salford – but neighbors say Ms. Stone had stated several times that she feared for her life.
The two had married in 2004 and divorced in 2009. Ms. Stone reportedly became engaged over the summer, according to the Associated Press. Stone has remarried, and reportedly has an infant son with his new wife. But the custody battle over their two daughters remained bitter, according to neighbors.
Stone corralled his two daughters from the crime scene at Hill’s house, and left them with neighbors. They are safe, according to reports, but Stone's 14-year-old niece was killed and his 17-year-old nephew was critically injured in the rampage.
"They've been fighting for years, real bad," a neighbor, Michele Brewster, told the Allentown Morning Call. “He's been tormenting her. She's gone to the police, and she has told everybody, ‘He's going to kill me.’”
While the vast majority of veterans, studies show, resume peaceful lives upon returning from the front, some turn to violent crime at higher-than-average rates.
Middle East war vets who struggle with PTSD and alcohol are seven times more likely than a healthy veteran to engage in acts of “severe violence,” according to a University of North Carolina School of Medicine study done with the cooperation of the Department of Veterans affairs.
According to court records obtained by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Stone had been arrested twice for drunk driving and was taking medications as part of mental health treatment. During his testimony after his 2013 arrest, he claimed to be fully disabled by PTSD, in what he testified was a combat-related ailment. Taking pity on Stone, the judge allowed him to go into a Veteran's Treatment Program instead of going to jail or having to pay a large fine.
While Stone has described himself in court papers “as permanently disabled according to the Veterans Administration,” the Pentagon says it has no record of Stone being injured during his four-month tour of Iraq in 2008.
As a combat meteorologist, Stone’s job was to monitor localized weather to fine-tune artillery targeting.
At 5-foot, 10-inches, Stone has red hair, but has likely shaved it. He’s been known to walk with a cane. Police consider him armed and dangerous.
“Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet,” is one saying on Stone’s Facebook page.
The US has seen the effects of estranged soldiers on the homeland in past war epochs.
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, one of out of five US prisoners were veterans. Currently, about one in 10 of all US inmates have previously served in the military – a total of about 200,000. Research, however, suggests that many veterans who turn to crime have personal issues and problems that predate their military stint.
While it’s been widely reported that the US Veterans Administration has been overwhelmed by veterans seeking help, the US has begun to make strides to help former soldiers whose time at war may have steered them toward violence at home.
The US has established more than 70 Veteran Treatment Courts that try to address underlying problems for veterans in trouble. Moreover, military courts have begun to reexamine whether judges should take a harder look at whether compassion is needed in some cases involving veterans. That may have been the case with Stone's experience in 2013 in a veterans' court.
To be sure, it's far from clear whether Stone’s experiences as a soldier had anything at all to do with his alleged rampage against Ms. Stone and his former-in-laws. Outwardly, Stone was a proud veteran, friends say.
Stone’s extracurricular activities – including hanging out at the local legion hall – were “all about veterans,” Mr. Schafte added.
“He loved life, he loved his country, he went to serve, he was so proud of his babies, especially when he got married to Nicole,” Stone’s friend, Matthew Schafte told the Los Angeles Times.
But other witnesses say they saw a difference in the man who returned from Iraq.
Lisa Andrey, a neighbor of Ms. Stone's mother, Patricia Hill, who also was killed on Monday, told the Philadelphia Inquirer: "He was a great guy and an excellent father. And then he went away to Iraq and came back and was a completely different man."