NEW: Staff Sgt. Robert Bales' lawyer says his client has memory problems
NEW: Members of the defense team are in Afghanistan, says attorney John Henry Browne
Bales' wife says he "loves children and he would not do that"
Bales is suspected in the shooting deaths of 17 Afghans, including nine children
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who is suspected in the shooting deaths this month of 17 Afghans, sneaked off his remote outpost twice during his alleged 90-minute rampage in two Afghan villages, two senior U.S. officials told CNN on Monday.
The officials said that, after the March 11 shootings in one village in Kandahar province, Bales sneaked back onto his base. They said Bales was seen at that point by fellow troops.
One official said investigators believe Bales told other soldiers he had just killed military-aged Afghan men. The officials said they did not know whether those troops told anyone else.
Then Bales sneaked out again and headed to the second village; he was apprehended by a search party as he attempted to re-enter the combat outpost the second time, the officials said.
Before this account, an Afghan guard was believed to have been the sole person who saw Bales that night. The guard alerted U.S. troops on base.
“That is an allegation, of course. It’s certainly not proof of anything and, obviously John, I can’t tell you what my client remembers or [doesn’t] remember other than telling you that he has some memory problems about everything that happened that night,” Bales’ lawyer John Henry Browne told CNN’s John King in response to a question about the new account.
Browne said members of Bales’ defense team are on the ground in Afghanistan right now, “gathering information and interviewing witnesses and getting information from the military prosecutors.”
He also said the team will get Bales’ medical records to determine what medications he may have taken recently, or been on in the past. When Bales spoke to Browne, he was unable to recall that part of his medical history, the attorney said.
“I think it’s part of the whole memory problems that he’s having,” said Browne.
The details emerged on the same day the suspect’s wife, Karilyn Bales, told NBC News that her husband would not have committed the murders, whose victims included nine children.
“It’s unbelievable to me,” Karilyn Bales said. “I have no idea what happened, but he would not – he loves children, and he would not do that,” she said in the interview, excerpts of which aired Sunday and Monday.
She said she had not asked her husband if he committed the murders because they had spoken only on monitored phone calls.
“We couldn’t discuss those details,” she said, adding that her husband “seemed a bit confused as to where he was and why he was there.”
She said she will stand by him no matter what evidence is presented.
“I don’t think anything will really change my mind in believing that he did not do this,” she said. “This is not what it appears to be.”
Authorities have said Bales acted alone, leaving at night and turning himself in when he returned.
In addition to being charged with the 17 counts of murder, for which he could face the death penalty, the staff sergeant faces charges of wounding six others.
Over the weekend, the U.S. government paid a total of $860,000 to the families of victims, Afghan officials said – $50,000 for each of 16 dead, and $10,000 for each of six wounded.
There is some confusion about how many died in the massacre, with Afghan officials initially saying there were 16 fatalities and U.S. military prosecutors accusing Bales of killing 17.
The discrepancy has persisted since Friday, when the charge sheet on Bales listed four women among 17 victims, while initial U.S. and Afghan reports listed three women among 16 dead.
A NATO spokesman, Col. Gary Kolb, said Friday only that investigators assigned to the case felt they had evidence to charge Bales with 17 counts of murder.
On Monday, an Afghan police chief denied news reports that one of the victims was pregnant, which had caused some to infer the fetus was the 17th victim.
“What the media is reporting is false. We still have 16 people on our death roster. There was no one that was pregnant,” said Kandahar Province Police Chief Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq.
But the commander of the International Security Assistance Force-Afghanistan put the number of dead at 17. “We should not be surprised, as the investigation went forward, that an additional number was added to that,” Gen. John R. Allen told reporters Monday at the Pentagon. “As the investigation goes forward, we’ll get greater clarity on that.”
Pressed to explain the change in the death toll, he said, “We will have to let that come out in the investigation.”
U.S. officials confirmed that payment to the victims’ families was made Saturday, but would not confirm the amount.
On Monday, two men whose relatives were killed told CNN they refused the money.
“We want justice, we want our courts to make the decision, so the people who are involved are prosecuted. This happened in Afghanistan and we lost our family members here in Afghanistan, so we want these people to be prosecuted in front of us, so we can watch them while they are being hanged,” said Mohammed Wazir.
Eleven members of his family were killed, he said.
He said he doubts the massacre was the act of a single man.
“The Americans insist there was one killer, but we insist there was more than one,” he said. “The Americans should stop lying. They should confess what the reality and truth is. We want justice to be done. We want it from God.”
Mullah Baran, whose brother was killed, said he did not attend meetings with an American representative and officials from Kandahar because he will “never take money from the Americans. I don’t want money, I want justice.”
But the governor of Kandahar, Tooryalai Wesa, said all four families who lost relatives on March 11 sent representatives to the meeting and accepted money.
Bales is being held at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, after being flown from Afghanistan a few days after the killings.
It is not clear whether he will face a military procedure known as an Article 32 hearing, at which military authorities would determine whether to proceed with charges against him, or whether he will go before a group of experts to determine if his mental health may be a factor in his defense.
If and when the case comes to trial, said Bales’ lawyer, it is going to be “extremely difficult” for the prosecution.
“They have no murder scene, no forensics,” Browne said last week. “I’m going to make them prove every claim.”
Military law experts acknowledge that proving the case may be difficult, especially given that there were no autopsies to help prove the cause of death – in part because those killed were buried quickly, in accordance with Islamic tradition – and the difficulty in getting witnesses to testify.
But Gary Solis, a former U.S. Marine Corps lawyer and Georgetown professor, said any bullet rounds recovered from the scene could be tested to see if they were fired by Bales’ weapon – assuming it was “immediately seized” – which would serve as “powerful evidence for the government.”
CNN’s Sara Sidner, Ruhullah Khapalwak, Mitra Mobasherat, Jamie Crawford, Barbara Starr and Larry Shaughnessy contributed to this report.