Killing Up Close

The Death of William Wold

By Kevin Sites

Specialist Adam Zaremba, photographed at the U.S. Cavalry Museum on Fort Riley in Kansas, lost his leg in combat in Iraq. © Nina Berman 

“My brothers will take care of me,” he told Sandi.

“We tried to talk him out of it for hours. ‘Look what the Marines have done to you already,’” she says. She was desperate to keep him from returning to the place she felt had hurt him the most. “Get an education, be what you want to be. Look at where you’re at,” she pleaded. 

But she says it was already too late. “He wasn’t there anymore. The sparkle in his eyes was completely gone. He was hollow.”

Sandi says things went further downhill from there. After he reenlisted, he was made a sergeant in the First Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, but according to her, he didn’t want to return to combat, but rather work as an armorer doing repair of light weaponry. His unit’s respect for his war service evaporated with their realization that he was addicted to OxyContin. 

She claims it culminated one night when, as he told her, three fellow Marines jumped him while he was in his bunk in the barracks and beat him to the point that he developed a stutter.

“He was having a nightmare, and they got tired of it,” Sandi explains.

Wold’s addiction to OxyContin became so obvious the Marines placed him in the Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation Program for intensive inpatient therapy. When he failed to successfully complete the program, he was put in the medical hold unit of the Naval Medical Center pending a medical discharge. In only a few short years, he had gone from a fearless warrior baptized in some of the fiercest combat in recent military history to a brain-damaged drug addict about to be tossed from the ranks of those to whom he had once brought so much honor.

On November 9, 2006, Wold and two of his friends, Joshua Frey and Nathaniel Leoncio, spent the day together, which culminated in a trip to a tattoo parlor. To his seven other tattoos, Wold added one more. On the inside of his right forearm, he got a multicolored design depicting a woman, an eagle, and a banner reading all american bad ass.

They returned to his room around 6:30 that night and planned to watch a movie. According to legal and medical reports, one of the friends watched Wold try to take his medications again, but reminded him he had already done so. By some accounts, Wold would do this quite often, repeating doses of medications he had forgotten he’d taken. Wold reclined on his bed and put a pinch of dip between his lower lip and gum as had become his habit before going to bed when he was deployed in Iraq. At a certain point in the evening, he told his friends he was not feeling well and was starting to get cold. The friends left around 11:30 with promises to return in the morning for a camping trip they had planned for the weekend. 

When Frey and Leoncio came back nine hours later and knocked on his door, there was no response. They contacted the front desk at the medical facility and got security to let them in. They said they found Wold in the same position they had left him the night before, lying on his back in his bed, his dip cup on his chest. But now he wasn’t breathing. Frey and Leoncio began CPR until paramedics arrived and transported Wold to the emergency room of the Balboa Naval Medical Center. He was already cold to the touch. They noticed a pink, frothy sputum in his mouth. 

Despite interventions by the medical staff, they couldn’t get him breathing or his heart beating again. An hour later, at 9:35 AM, he was pronounced dead. William Christopher Wold was 23 years old. It was Friday, November 10, 2006, just two days before the two-year anniversary of the day he had shot the six Iraqi men in the mosque and then spoken to me outside on the streets of Fallujah. 

While I had always remembered my interview with him in Fallujah, I didn’t find out what had happened to him until a year after his death. I had been working with my friend Jeffrey Porter on a documentary about the war in Iraq when he mentioned the footage of Wold he had been screening. We planned to use it in the film but wanted to follow up with him first. Porter made some inquiries with some of the guys from the unit and was told that Wold had committed suicide. We were both stunned. As I knew him, during our short time together, Wold had seemed the very opposite of death—fully alive and animated, conflicted but honest. He was the killer that he was trained to be, but an almost impossibly vulnerable one. As I knew him, Wold did not seem to me like the kind of guy who would take his own life. He had a clearly defined sense of purpose and duty and was too connected to his family. We shelved the documentary project for lack of time and finishing funds and went on to other things. But when I began writing this book, I wanted to revisit the life of William Christopher Wold. I wanted to talk to his family and get more details about what had happened after he returned from Iraq. First, I got copies of the County of San Diego medical examiner’s investigative, autopsy, and toxicology reports. What I discovered seemed in some ways even sadder and more shocking than the thought of his suicide. Wold, it seemed, had died from an accidental drug overdose.