It wasn’t the enemy that killed Lt. Ronald Kielpikowski of Green Bay in Vietnam on Feb. 28, 1969.
It was a fellow G.I., and it was no accident.
That’s about as much as Debbie Piontek knows, and 46 years later, it weighs heavily on her.
Piontek, now 59, was only 12 when news came to report on her brother’s death in Vietnam. Whether her parents or siblings knew Ronnie had been murdered, she can’t say, but she didn’t learn about it until much later.
“I remember the news crew outside the church and the 21-gun salute at Fort Howard Cemetery,” she said.
About five or six years ago, while surfing the Internet, the town of Eaton resident searched her brother’s name and came upon a site that identified his death as a homicide. It was the first she had heard of it.
The Press Gazette reports it sent her on a quest to find out as much as she could, but she got no help from her family. Her parents were gone by then. Her older siblings?
“Well, when I told them what I found out, they just said it’s not going to change anything,” Piontek said.
She quickly found the U.S. military bureaucracy was a labyrinth she couldn’t travel alone. Computer searches were giving her mixed messages, with some sites, such as the National Archives, identifying her brother’s death as being accidental, others saying it was homicide and at least one, the Military Honor Wall at togetherweserved.com, proclaiming it was an accidental homicide.
At her husband’s suggestion, she enlisted an aid of then-Sen. Herb Kohl’s office. Information began pouring in.
Piontek managed to get a copy of the original Western Union telegram, stating “First Lieutenant Ronald L. Kielpikowski died as a result of wound received while in base camp when shot by another individual.”
Another document, called a disposition form, called Ronnie’s death “the result of a non-hostile action” and went on to repeat the information stated in the telegram. It also indicated there was “possible misconduct” involved.
She received another document, not identified by a header but appearing to be some kind of printout, written entirely in capital letters. It refers to a “gunshot wound to the abdomen” and says “AT BASE CAMP STANDING IN CHOW LINE WHEN ANOTHER INDIV CAME UP TO KIELPIKOWSKI AND SHOT HIM WITH AN M-16.” It goes on to explain that Kielpikowski was admitted to the 71st Evacuation Hospital, where he later died, but most of the rest of the document is a jumble of abbreviations and computer code.
The most useful document she received was one identified as “statement of medical examination and duty status.” It came out of the 71st Evacuation Hospital, where it says Kielpikowski died while in surgery for a gunshot wound to the chest — not abdomen, as the previous document stated.
“Officer was shot by another EM with M-16, 1130 hrs 28 Feb 69, at LZ Mary Lou, RVN,” the detail portion of the form states. “SP4 Leon Carter and 1LT Kielpikowski had ridden the convoy from Camp Enari to LZ Mary Lou. Upon dismounting the two individuals had faced each other, then 1LT Kielpikowski had begun to walk away when he was shot and killed by SP4 Carter. A CID investigation and a 15-6 investigation are in progress.”
That’s the last official word Piontek was able to get. No explanation of how he suffered a chest wound while walking away, no reference to what might have been said between the two men, no word on the outcome of the two investigations, and no word on what if anything happened to Carter. It also doesn’t explain how the two could have just dismounted from a convoy, as one report says, and yet been in the chow line, as another of the reports says.
One big break in her investigation, albeit with a different account of the incident, came when she got a phone call out of the blue from a man named David Binder of Prineville, Ore.
Binder was a lieutenant in the same battalion, but a different company, and he claimed to have been a witness to Kielpikowski’s shooting.
Piontek can’t remember quite how she got connected up with Binder, but he sent her a letter spelling out what he saw. Their battalion, having been in fierce fighting for several weeks set up camp near the city of Kontum, to protect it and rest up. The shooting was a day or two after their arrival in Kontum.
Kielpikowski was responsible for doling out pay. He told a soldier (later to be identified as Carter) to report for pay, and “without provocation, the man lowered his M-16 and sprayed Ron and his 2 guards,” Binder wrote.
Binder, who didn’t know Kielpikowski or Carter, had just woken up and left his tent when the gunfire started. He said he saw Kielpikowski and two other men fall.
“I saw the shooter going berserk yelling and running up the road toward the gate,” he wrote.
Binder retrieved his rifle, chased Carter, and they exchanged gunfire. At one point, Binder managed to shoot him, hitting him in the right shoulder. By then, MPs had arrived and pinned Carter to the ground. Binder returned to camp, then sat with the injured Kielkipowski in the infirmary until medics came to take him away in a helicopter. He recalled that Kielpikowski had three bullet wounds in his torso.
“I heard later he died en route,” Binder wrote. “I never heard what happened to the shooter, he probably survived and got a life sentence or death.”
Binder’s account says nothing about a chow line, as referenced in one military document, nor about the two men having just disembarked from one of the trucks in a convoy, as referenced in one of the other military documents. His account also doesn’t match the one listed in the medical report indicating the two men had been facing each other and Kielpikowski was walking away when Carter opened fire.
“I could only tell you this story from my own perspective,” Binder said in his letter to Piontek.
More recently, Piontek got another break in the case. This time it came in the form of a contact from an old family friend. Gary Tremble grew up in the same eastside Green Bay neighborhood as the Kielpikowskis. In fact, Ron used to babysit the Tremble kids, Gary recalled.
Gary Tremble never was in Vietnam and had no first-hand knowledge of Kielpikowski’s death. He remembered when it happened and assumed it was a battle-related incident. But about a year ago, Tremble happened upon one of the same websites Piontek had visited and learned Kielpikowski’s death had been because of homicide.
He contacted Piontek, who remembered him from their childhood, and he agreed to help her continue her investigation.
Tremble made contact with Kirk Ramsey, a Vietnam veteran who is the battalion’s webmaster. Ramsey had no knowledge of Kielpikowski or his death, but at Tremble’s request, he asked around.
Ramsey tracked down someone claiming to be an eyewitness, someone Ramsey wouldn’t identify other than to say he was on the same convoy as Kielpikowski and Carter.
According to the man’s account, he didn’t seem to know either of the men, but the story among the troops was that Carter had been in the 71st hospital’s psychiatric unit previously, and that Kielpikowski apparently believed Carter was faking mental problems to shirk his duties. Kielpikowski went there and forced Carter’s release and return to the unit.
“Carter allegedly told the doctor that he was not ready to return to his unit, and if forced to do so, somebody was going to get hurt or killed,” the man wrote to Ramsey. “Again, allegedly, Kielpikowski talked the doctor into releasing Carter and put him on the transport that day with his M-16.”
The man said Carter’s M-16 was supposed to be unloaded, but Carter easily could have picked up a half-spent magazine from the truck floor.
The man claimed he heard shots just as he was getting off one of the trucks.
“The shots started immediately after I hopped off the truck I was on,” he told Ramsey. People ran for cover and he saw “a man to my left get hit.” That, presumably, was Kielpikowski. The witness also claimed he saw someone named Sgt. Barker get hit in the leg. No one else got hit, although “a spray of bullets came between us and the tent a few feet from us,” the man told Ramsey.
The man said another soldier told him he saw the shooter run off, but surrender when confronted by an officer. That soldier said the shooter’s “eyes were open real wide and he looked deranged.” That soldier said nothing about the shooter having been wounded in the shoulder or of a second sergeant having been injured.
Press-Gazette Media contacted Ramsey, who said, “The eyewitness I found doesn’t want the publicity.” Ramsey acknowledged that the majority of the man’s story was nothing more than hearsay, but the eyewitness portion seems to match at least one of the official versions and contradicts Binder’s account.
“Both had gotten off a truck when the shooting started,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey told Tremble he “would hesitate to put much credibility in the ‘Pay Day’ story and the officer shooting Carter.”
During the Vietnam War, when people were still being drafted into military service, friction often was heated between soldiers and officers and it wasn’t unheard of for that friction to escalate to the point of murder, Ramsey said.
Speaking to Press-Gazette Media by phone, Binder stood by his account. He denied the men had just disembarked from convoy trucks and said that convoy had been days earlier.
“I know for a fact there were no trucks around close by the area,” he said.
Binder recalled a chow line nearby, but neither Kielpikowski nor Carter were in it. Binder said he had no first-hand knowledge that Kielpikowski was the payroll officer that day — that’s what he had been told — but it fit with what he saw: Kielpikowski was standing with two sergeants. It was standard procedure for the payroll officer to be accompanied by two sergeants serving as armed guards for the cash payouts being made, Binder said.
Both sergeants were injured, Binder said. When told no one could confirm a second sergeant was injured, Binder said he definitely saw both sergeants appear to be shot in the legs, but one might have been hit superficially.
Binder had no knowledge of Carter having previously been in the psychiatric unit or of Kielpikowski trying to get him out.
“There is information in there (official documents) about Leon Carter being unstable, so I do know that he was classified as unstable, but why he had a gun, I have no idea.”
He found it doubtful that Kielpikowski would have ordered Carter to carry an unloaded weapon in a battle zone, as Ramsey’s witness claimed.
In any case, “it was a horrible tragedy,” Binder said. Kielpikowski “didn’t deserve to die, and it was because of some goofball that the Army should have flagged . I felt horrible about it. I didn’t know Ron, but I felt just terrible about it.”
Despite his involvement in the incident, investigators never questioned him, nor was he ever required to fill out a report on it.
“I’m surprised they didn’t ask me,” he said. “I thought about that later. Why in the hell didn’t they ask me? Because everybody saw me chasing him.”
Piontek and Tremble say they don’t know which versions to believe. But the real question, they both say, is what happened to Carter.
Piontek’s efforts in the search ended when Sen. Herb Kohl retired in 2013. She hadn’t decided whether to contact Sen. Tammy Baldwin or Rep. Reid Ribble and has so far been content to let Tremble carry on.
Tremble said he kept digging but has hit an impasse: The problem is, nonfamily members can’t typically dig into a soldier’s official military record, especially without crucial information such as a Social Security number. Tracking Leon Carter through unofficial sources has mostly been impossible because the name is too common. Tremble has no idea where this particular Leon Carter is from. He says he found records of three different Leon Carters just in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan.
“I’ll keep looking, and when I find out, I’ll tell you,” he said.
“I would just like to see what happened to that man,” Piontek said. “He should be punished.”
An AP member exchange story.