The Day Chris Kyle Died: Text Messages and Terror in the 'American Sniper's' Final Hours With Killer Eddie Ray Routh
The movie, nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, deliberately left out the death of its hero.
This story first appeared in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
EARLY ON THE AFTERNOON OF SATURDAY, Feb. 2, 2013, a rumbling black Ford F-350 with a lift kit and big tires, tinted windows and a massive Road Armor front grille adorned with a chrome skull pulled up in front of a small house in Lancaster, just south of the Dallas city limits. It was a sunny, unseasonably warm day in North Texas. Chris Kyle, a 38-year-old former Navy SEAL and author of the best-selling autobiography American Sniper, stepped out of the cab and began walking up the gravel driveway. Eddie Ray Routh, 25, tall and bearded, appeared from the back of his house. "You must be Eddie," Kyle said.
The men had never met, but Routh's life was like a distorted mirror of Kyle's. Thirteen years younger, he graduated from the same high school in nearby suburban Midlothian that Kyle had attended. Unlike Kyle, who joined the Navy at 24 after attending college and working as a rodeo rider and cowboy, Routh enlisted in the U.S. Marines at the age of 18 in 2006. He became an armorer, repairing and maintaining small arms, and shipped out to Iraq in 2007. There is no record that Routh went "outside the wire" — seeing combat, in military vernacular. After Iraq, he was stationed aboard the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship, on a seven-month Middle East deployment. Finally, he served for four months in the humanitarian relief effort in Haiti following the horrifically deadly earthquake of January 2010 and came back with harrowing stories, his father later said, of "fishing hundreds of bodies — men, women, children — out of the ocean, piling them up and throwing them into mass graves."
Chris Kyle, author of American Sniper and the most lethal sniper in American military history, was killed on Feb. 2, 2013. He was 38.
By all accounts, Routh returned to civilian life a profoundly changed man. Within a year, his life was falling apart. He had trouble keeping a job and began behaving erratically, having panic attacks and saying crazy, delusional things. At one point he was convinced that an imaginary tapeworm was devouring everything he ate. He talked about killing himself; alarmed, his family members took away his guns.
He was admitted to the Veterans Administration hospital in Dallas for the first time in July 2011 and diagnosed with PTSD. Doctors prescribed a raft of antipsychotic and anti-anxiety drugs, including Risperidone, a powerful antipsychotic medication used to treat schizophrenia. Meanwhile, he steadily self-medicated with alcohol and marijuana. In September 2012, police picked him up walking down the road, incoherent, and he was brought to the VA hospital, suffering from what psychiatrists there called a major depressive illness and psychotic delusions. He was again given medication and discharged. He would seem better for a time, and he even found a girlfriend, Jennifer Weed, whom he had met online. They briefly lived together. She later recalled that he sometimes talked as though he had, in fact, seen action in Iraq, saying: "I've killed before, and I'll do it again." On Jan. 19, 2013, he had another psychotic episode, holding Weed and her roommate prisoner in their apartment while brandishing a knife until police arrived, and he landed at the VA hospital once more. But after a five-day stay, he was released again.
Routh's mother, Jodi, had pleaded with the VA doctors not to release her son. Exhausted and running out of options, she turned to Chris Kyle. His two kids attended the elementary school where she worked, so when he came to pick up his children, she approached him as a last resort. She said that she had heard he was spending a lot of time helping other veterans with disabilities and PTSD and told him about Eddie's deepening crisis. He promised to reach out to her son.
Jodi Routh would later say that Kyle never mentioned that he might bring Eddie to a remote shooting range with an arsenal of pistols, rifles and ammunition.
Eddie Ray Routh as seen in court on Feb.19 for his capital murder trial in Stephenville, Texas.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT — THE SHOCKING, SENSELESS FUSILLADE of 13 bullets that left Kyle and his close friend Chad Littlefield dead and triggered a frantic manhunt for Routh — is the missing reel, the unseen ending to American Sniper. (The filmmakers had considered but ultimately omitted a final scene portraying the killings, partly in deference to Kyle's widow, Taya, and her children.) New details that emerged at the capital murder trial of Routh at the Erath County District Court in the small ranching town of Stephenville, Texas, offer a riveting and disturbing account of the tragedy that befell the man they called The Legend. On Tuesday, after less than two and half hours of deliberation, the jury found Routh guilty of murder and minutes after that verdict was announced, the judge issued a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Before Clint Eastwood's film adaptation of Sniper became a runaway hit ($429 million and counting at the worldwide box office), and before Chris Kyle became a best-selling author (his book has sold 2 million copies), he was already a folk hero in North Texas. After retiring from SEAL Team 3 in 2009, Kyle had returned to Midlothian with his family. Back home, he was revered as much for what he had endured as he was for his exploits as the deadliest sniper in American history.
After four combat deployments in Iraq, Kyle was a physical and emotional wreck, to a degree suggested but largely unexplored in the film. He had been shot twice, had undergone reconstructive surgery on both knees and had dangerously high blood pressure, impaired hearing and floaters in his right eye. He battled insomnia and nightmares and episodes of road rage and was receiving disability benefits for his PTSD. For a time, he drank heavily. He totaled an SUV, was arrested for DWI and for assault after a bar fight and told some far-fetched stories that later proved troublesome (his estate is presently appealing a $1.8 million defamation lawsuit successfully brought by Jesse Ventura). But the ever-resilient Kyle gradually recovered his equilibrium, reluctantly embraced fame, and found that an effective way to prevail in his own struggles was to serve his fellow veterans. The need was dire: In Texas, and across the country, the Veterans Administration was overwhelmed; by 2012, the chronically understaffed VA hospital in Dallas had an annual caseload of more than 13,000 veterans with PTSD. In the time he could spare from building his security firm, Craft International, Kyle began sponsoring retreats and outings where men with shattered bodies and minds could hang out and do a little hunting or target shooting — tapping their "warrior spirit," as Kyle put it.
Routh’s mug shot from 2013 reveals a scruffier, radically thinner man.
During the trial, a battalion of TV remote trucks decamped to Stephenville, 100 miles southwest of Dallas, for Routh's murder trial. Flanked by his three defense attorneys, who entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, Routh sat calmly listening, dressed in a dark gray suit and tie, observing or taking notes, hunched over a yellow legal pad. At the time of his arrest, he was shaggy-haired, bearded and thin. Two years later, the beard is gone, his head shaved, his body much heavier.
On the trial's opening day, Feb. 11, the prosecution's lead witness was Taya Kyle, now 40, wearing a silver cross and her husband's dog tags around her neck. As several jurors wiped away tears, she narrated a slideshow of her husband's career and his life as a husband and father, with shots of Easter egg hunts and vacations together, offering her account of their last hours together.
Spared the prospect of condemning a likely mentally ill veteran to death, the 10 women and two men of the jury were faced with deciding if the defendant and self-confessed killer was guilty of "intentionally and knowingly" (the legal standard in Texas) murdering Kyle and Littlefield and was aware that it was wrong to do so. The alternative was an acquittal on the grounds that Routh was insane, "in the grip of a psychosis so severe," as defense attorney Tim Moore argued, "that he would not know what he was doing was wrong."
Kyle’s widow, Taya, attended the Academy Awards on Feb. 22, where Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Sniper earned an Oscar for sound editing.
Even if he had been acquitted, Routh would almost certainly have spent the rest of his life in a maximum-security mental hospital. But with the guilty verdict, it’s life in a penitentiary with no chance of parole.
The keys to the verdict, and to the puzzle of how and why this tragedy happened, are hidden in the trial's details, exhibits and testimony — and in crucial new information about the fateful events of Feb. 2, 2013, that only now have come to light.
ROUTH SPENT THE NIGHT BEFORE HE MET CHRIS KYLE drinking Texas Crown Whiskey and seesawing between anxiety and wild optimism. Weed, his girlfriend, was visiting, and at one point he surprised her by suddenly proposing marriage. (She accepted.) He apparently got little or no sleep. In the morning, his mood had soured and he quarreled with Weed, ordering her to leave. Weed called Routh's 43-year-old uncle, James Watson, and asked him to drive over and try to calm Routh down.
Watson testified that when he arrived, Weed was gone and Routh was alone with his black Labrador retriever, Girley. Watson and Routh talked about the Bible, and the uncle played a hymn for Routh on his phone. Then Routh got his bong and the men smoked a bowl or two of pot. They were hanging out on the back porch when Watson heard a loud diesel engine in front of the house and the crunch of a man walking down the gravel driveway. Not long afterward, he heard the truck driving away and was surprised to discover that Routh had left without saying goodbye or making sure Girley was secured and his house locked.
Kyle and his good friend Littlefield were killed at the shooting range of the Rough Creek Lodge, an 11,000-acre resort located about 25 miles outside of Stephenville.
Out on the street, Kyle introduced the scruffy ex-Marine to Chad Littlefield, who was riding shotgun in the truck. Kyle's friendship with Littlefield, 35, who worked for a private water-treatment company, seemed to mark a new turning point in his life as a civilian and suburban dad. Littlefield, significantly, had never served in the military — they had met on the sidelines at their daughters' soccer games — but they shared an enthusiasm for working out and guns.
After he climbed into the F-350, Routh spoke briefly on the phone with his mother, who was out of town visiting his father in Abilene, Texas, where he had found a job in the nearby oil and gas fields.
Leaving Lancaster, they took Highway 67 heading west, crossing the Brazos River and rising into the wooded uplands of rural Erath County. The route takes about an hour and 45 minutes, passing through classic Texas ranch country: wide-open space, wooded hills, endless sky. Their destination was a shooting range at Rough Creek Lodge, an 11,000-acre upscale resort 26 miles outside Stephenville, the town where Kyle had attended Tarleton State University and competed in rodeo in the early 1990s before becoming a SEAL. Kyle had helped design a 1,000-yard shooting range in an isolated corner of Rough Creek and was welcome to visit or stay at the lodge with his family, free of charge. Rough Creek, with its spectacular cowboy-movie vistas, offers a peculiarly Texan cornucopia of activities and amenities: horseback riding, hot stone massage, clay shooting, a pistol range, bird and pig hunting, archery, tomahawk throwing, paintball and kennels stocked with 60 hunting dogs.
Littlefield, 35, often worked out and shot guns with Kyle. They had met at their daughters’ soccer games.
In his memoir, Kyle wrote that taking veterans out to hunt or shoot in bucolic settings was relaxing and therapeutic, adding, "As you'd expect when I'm involved, there's a lot of bustin' going on back and forth and giving each other hell." Whatever transpired on the trip to Rough Creek, such camaraderie didn't seem to materialize. At the trial, a police officer said that after Routh's arrest, he had overheard Routh complaining that Kyle and Littlefield "wouldn't talk to me." A forensic psychologist who interviewed the defendant in jail reported that Routh said the number of guns in the truck had made him feel anxious and that he'd become convinced that Kyle and Littlefield were planning to kill him.
And something about Routh's behavior had spooked Kyle and Littlefield, too. At the trial, it was revealed that Kyle, behind the wheel, had texted Littlefield, who was sitting right beside him, "This dude is straight up nuts."
Littlefield texted back: "He's right behind me, watch my six," telling Kyle in military slang to watch his back.
The last time Taya Kyle spoke with her husband, she testified at the trial, was around 3 p.m. She reached him on his cellphone, and he told her they had just arrived at the lodge. But their short conversation left her fretful.
"Usually, he's making their day," she said, referring to veterans he had taken on previous excursions. "I thought he was irritated."
Rough Creek Lodge's general manager testified that Kyle checked in at the resort headquarters and said they'd only be shooting for about 45 minutes. Heading out, Kyle or Littlefield raised a red Bravo flag, warning that the range was in use.
Routh’s former home in Lancaster, Texas, where he initially met Kyle on Feb. 2, 2013, and where a tense standoff with local police occurred later that night.
A couple of hours after their mid-afternoon phone conversation, Taya tried to reach Chris again. He didn't pick up. "Are you okay?" she texted. "I'm getting worried."
Arriving at the range, the party carried several rifles, five handguns and boxes of ammunition and protective earplugs to an open platform, 12 feet wide and sheltered under a corrugated metal roof. Kyle and Littlefield were carrying loaded .45 caliber 1911-style pistols on web holster belts. They began using the range, and investigators determined that a .38 single-action handgun was fired downrange, as was a Colt .45 cowboy-style revolver. Routh later said that it bothered him that Chad Littlefield was not shooting — it somehow made him a threat. At some point Routh armed himself with a 9mm Sig Sauer P226 MK25 pistol, the model used by Navy SEALs, and a Springfield .45 pistol.
Kyle and Littlefield never had a chance to defend themselves. Routh told one of the psychologists who testified that he shot Littlefield first, then Kyle. Littlefield was struck seven times in the back, shoulder, head and hand, with slugs from the 9mm handgun. Kyle was hit six times in the head, shoulder, chest and right arm, by bullets from the Springfield .45. They apparently fell with their sidearms still holstered and with the safeties on.
Littlefield was lying on his back on the shooting platform and Kyle was facedown in the grass nearby. Routh reloaded the Sig Sauer to its full 15-round capacity and took this weapon, along with one of the rifles and Littlefield's cellphone, when he left in Kyle's truck. No one saw him drive away.
Around 5 p.m., a Rough Creek employee noticed the warning flag was still up. A lodge guide was dispatched to the range, and he discovered the two men. Lodge staff and EMS first-responders attempted to revive the victims, but there was no sign of life. As darkness fell, police, sheriff's deputies and Texas Rangers descended on the scene. One of the Rangers arrived towing a horse trailer that had been seized after being used to manufacture meth; it was now a mobile CSI lab.
The murder site was strewn with so many weapons, shell casings, boxes of ammunition, earplugs and other detritus that cops ran out of the yellow plastic tents they place next to items to catalog evidence. With the bodies still in place, they took photographs and set up a Spheron SceneCam, which produces a 360-degree, high-resolution visual record. The next day, autopsies revealed that four of Kyle's six wounds were determined to be "rapidly fatal," and four of the seven wounds that Littlefield received were likewise deemed unsurvivable.
Back in Midlothian, Taya was putting the kids in her car to drive them to a babysitter — she and Chris had made plans to go out to dinner with friends — when local police officer Mark Triebly, a high school friend of her husband's, pulled up in front of the house.
Triebly told her that Chris had been hurt and asked her to provide a description of his truck. She called someone to come over and take the children for the night and prepared to go see her husband at whatever hospital he might have been taken to. A short time later, she received official confirmation that Chris and Chad were dead. Routh was still missing.
Routh’s trial brought media attention — and an intense lawenforcement presence — to Stephenville.
LATER THAT DAY, EDDIE RAY ROUTH'S UNCLE, Watson, said in court, he was napping in his recliner with the front door propped open at his home in Alvarado when he became aware that Eddie was standing there. He was holding a 9mm pistol.
"Check out my truck," Routh told him. "I'm driving a dead man's truck." Watson went outside and saw a big black Ford in the driveway. There was a rifle in the backseat.
One of the prosecutors asked Watson if his nephew's odd pronouncement and inexplicable new possessions indicated to him that something ominous had occurred.
"In retrospect, yes," Watson replied.
Routh left and drove to his sister's house in Midlothian, 15 miles away. Laura Blevins and her husband, Gaines, became terrified when Routh said that he had killed two men at a shooting range and showed them the pistol and a rifle in the truck. Fearing for their lives, they convinced Routh to leave and dialed 911, telling the operator what her brother had said. "He's f—ing psychotic," Laura said during the call. "He was talking kinda babble."
Laura called her mother, Jodi Routh, and told her what Eddie had said. "I had Chris' number in my phone," she testified at the trial, "and I dialed that number praying to God that he would answer." No one did.
Sometime that evening, Routh drove to his home in Lancaster, picked up his dog, Girley, and drove off before police had staked out the location. Yet something drew him back. When Kyle's F-350 pulled up at the house again around 9 p.m., a patrol car was parked outside. More officers rushed to the block on West 6th Street and a standoff ensued, with Routh refusing to exit the truck or roll down the window.
Jesse Chevera, a Lancaster police detective who lived next door to the Rouths and had known Eddie since childhood, attempted to coax Routh out of the truck while officers crawled from behind to position deflation devices under the rear tires. One of the officers was wearing a body camera, and a recording of the conversation between Chevera and Routh was played in court. Chevera had phoned Routh's parents and put them on speaker, but Eddie steadfastly refused to surrender. He also made a number of bizarre statements.
"I didn't get a wink of sleep last night," said Routh. "Everybody just wants to barbecue my ass right now. … It was weird talking to my sister. It was all happening so fast I didn't know if I was going insane. … Is this about hell walking on Earth right now? … Is it voodoo that's upon us? … The f—ing anarchy has been killing the world. … Is the apocalypse upon us right now? … I can feel everybody feeding on my soul right now, Jesse, and that's not good."
Taya Kyle hugged Judy Littlefield, the mother of Chad Littlefield, in court on Feb.11, the opening day of the trial.
After half an hour, Routh started the truck and roared away in a cloud of black smoke. (The deflation sticks did not deploy properly.) During the chase that followed, at times topping 100 mph and captured on several police dashboard cameras, police rammed the truck, and it began leaking fluid. Along a stretch of I-35E, the truck slowed, stalled and stopped. Routh got out with his hands up, lay down on the asphalt and was arrested. An officer retrieved Girley from the cab of the truck and led her away on a leash.
Later that night, in a videotaped interview with a Texas Ranger that included rambling asides about "the wolf, the one in the sky" and pig excrement, Routh confessed, saying he shot the two men before they could shoot him.
"If I didn't take out his soul," he said of Chris Kyle, "he was going to take mine next."
WHAT, IN REAL TERMS, WAS AT STAKE in the trial of Eddie Ray Routh? Most significantly, the verdict determined the facility at which Routh will spend the rest of his life. "In Texas, if an individual is convicted of capital murder, life without parole, he will spend the rest of his life in a penitentiary with little or no mental health assistance," says George Parnham, a Houston-based criminal defense attorney who represented Andrea Yates, a mother who drowned her five children in 2001, in two consecutive trials. By contrast, a successful insanity defense, Parnham says, means that "the individual is sent to a maximum-security mental-health hospital … where he is then treated by psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists and given proper doses of medication."
The evidence that Routh has a grave mental illness — perhaps adult-onset schizophrenia, exacerbated by PTSD — and was likely experiencing a profound psychotic break when he killed Kyle and Littlefield might seem abundant and compelling. But the Texas penal code (which Parnham describes as "archaic") gives juries great leeway in concluding that a mentally ill person still knew what he was doing and that his actions were wrong — and this describes Routh, prosecutors said, whose flight after the killings betrayed an awareness of guilt. Furthermore, the prosecution presented two expert witnesses who had interviewed Routh in jail and flatly declared that he is not schizophrenic, psychotic or afflicted by PTSD, instead portraying him as a manipulative, dishonest, substance-abusing miscreant with a personality disorder who is skilled at citing past trauma and feigning insanity.
As this moral and legal drama played out in Stephenville, it was impossible to separate the trial from the American Sniper juggernaut. District Court Judge Jason Cashon had ruled before the trial that potential jurors would not be disqualified if they had seen the film or read the book and directed the jury that its obligation was to be "the voice and conscience of the community." At the Cinemark Cinema 6, a few miles from the courthouse, Sniper was playing to capacity weekend audiences throughout the trial. On a recent Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., after the first week of testimony, there wasn't an empty seat in the house.