By Champ Clark
Updated April 18, 2011 12:00 PM

Christopher Winfield loved getting instant messages from his quiet but normally cheerful son Adam, a 21-year-old U.S. Army Specialist stationed in Afghanistan. But the dark IMs he received on Feb. 14, 2010, left the former Marine from Cape Coral, Fla., utterly shocked. Adam told him that soldiers in his unit had hunted and killed a 15-year-old Afghan, lobbing a grenade at him and shooting him simply for sport. “It was some innocent guy about my age just farming,” Adam wrote to his father. “They made it look like a guy threw a grenade at them and they mowed him down.”

And there was more: Adam told his dad that other civilian killings were being planned and, too scared to try and stop them himself, begged his father to help somehow. But Christopher Winfield’s calls to Army brass went nowhere, and now, more than a year later, Adam and three other soldiers in the Army’s 5th Stryker Brigade stand accused of a being part of a rogue “kill team” that staged combat situations to murder three Afghan civilians in cold blood and collected body parts for trophies (a fifth soldier pleaded guilty in March). Photos recently published by Rolling Stone and Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine show several of the accused soldiers posing and smiling with the dead, prompting Afghan President Hamid Karzai to express his outrage: “They killed our youth for entertainment.”

The disturbing shots of soldiers posing with dead bodies, which echo the photos of abused Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, are now part of the evidence being investigated by U.S. Army officials, who vowed in a statement, “We will continue to do whatever we need to as an institution to understand how it happened, why it happened and what we need to do to prevent it from happening again.”

How five young American soldiers, several barely out of high school, came to be accused of such heinous crimes is also a mystery to their families and friends. “Andy is one of those kids that has a smile that just lights up the room, a kid that would give you the shirt off his back,” says Dana Holmes of her son Pfc. Andrew Holmes, 20, of Boise, Idaho. The oldest of the men, Spc. Michael Wagnon, a 30-year-old father of three from Rural Valley, Pa., “had dreams of being a pilot or infantry solider. After 9/11 that’s really what solidified it for him,” says his attorney Colby Vokey. “This is tearing him apart. His little kids don’t understand. They say, ‘Daddy why don’t you come home?'” A fourth soldier, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, 23, of Wasilla, Alaska, “always wanted to be in the Army like his dad,” says his mother, Audrey, through sobs. “He’s a great kid. He loved his hockey buddies and just loved hockey since he was 5.” But Audrey insists the young men in her son’s platoon, dispirited over the combat death of a popular platoon leader, were left in the desert without proper supervision, and now, she says, her son is no longer the happy-go-lucky kid he used to be. “He is constantly looking over his shoulder. He shakes, and he’s taking a lot of meds. I think the Army changes lots of people, and I’ve seen it in my son.”

Morlock, whose father was a retired paratrooper who died in a 2007 boating accident, is the only man to have pleaded guilty. He received 24 years in prison on March 23 after admitting to deliberately killing innocent Afghan men and agreeing to testify against the others. “I lost my moral compass,” Morlock told a military court judge. Army records describe a secret team of soldiers who plotted for weeks-and even joked about luring Afghan children with candy and then shooting them, an act inconceivable to Adam’s mom, Emma. “There were only a few things Adam ever wanted to do; one of them was being a missionary and the other was the military,” she says sadly.

Of the five men, the Army points to Calvin Gibbs, 26, a high school dropout from Billings, Mont., who at 6’4″ and 220 lbs. played defensive end on his freshman football team, as the ringleader. He was a hard-driving and skilled veteran of two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. “He likes to kill things,” Adam told investigators. Tattooed on Gibbs’ leg are skulls, documents show, representing his combat kills. Morlock testified that the sergeant kept his victims’ fingers and “he was going to use the fingers to make a bone necklace from the guys that had been killed in his scenarios.” But Gibbs’ attorney Phillip Stackhouse insists his client “is not a monster.” He describes Gibbs “as a well-liked and strong leader. He is a loving father to his child.”

Still, the Army, after a lengthy investigation including numerous interviews with soldiers, maintains that monstrous acts did occur. The first victim was 15-year-old farmer Gul Mudin, who was working in a field on Jan. 15 of last year when he was killed by a grenade and gunfire. Says Morlock: “We were approached by a single Afghanistan citizen, and that’s when me and Holmes made the decision to go ahead with the scenario that Gibbs had planned and briefed us on.” The second killing took place a month later, with Gibbs, Morlock and Wagnon allegedly shooting Marach Agha in cold blood and then planting an AK-47 on his body. The final slaying occurred on May 2, when Mullah Allah Dad, a religious leader and father of six, had just returned to his home after working his fields. “He wasn’t a threat,” Morlock said. Named in the death are Gibbs, Morlock and Winfield, who three months earlier had contacted his father about the platoon’s alleged plans. Each of the four accused soldiers maintains his innocence and says the killings were partly the result of wartime confrontations and the difficulty of telling friend from foe. “You’re talking about operating in the birthplace of the Taliban,” says Wagnon’s attorney Vokey. “It’s not exactly a spring vacation kind of place.” Andrew Holmes’ mother, Dana, insists her son is stunned to be in this predicament: “He has looked me in the eye and said, ‘I am no murderer.'”

Meanwhile, as the men await their trials later this year, Christopher Winfield can’t help but imagine, “What if?” He says Adam feels he tried to do the right thing, but “now three Afghans are dead, and my son’s life is ruined. It could have been prevented. It’s tragic.”