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Excerpt: Inside the Falluja massacre

  • Story Highlights
  • Blackwater sent personnel to Falluja on March 31, 2004
  • The men were ambushed and fatally shot
  • The bodies were burned, beaten, dragged through the street and hung from a bridge
  • The men's deaths sparked a U.S. military assault on the Iraqi city
By Suzanne Simons
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Editor's note: Below is an excerpt from CNN executive producer and author Suzanne Simons' new book, "Master of War: Blackwater's Erik Prince and the Global Business of War."

Erik Prince testifies during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in 2007.

Donna Zovko, mother of Jerry Zovko, who was killed in Fallujah, testifies at a House hearing.

(CNN) -- March 31, 2004, started early for the four men and the convoy they were escorting. Their differences set aside for the time being, the men hopped into their Pajeros and pulled out, heading to the heart of Falluja.

Westerners would typically avoid the downtown area, opting instead for a bypass route around the city, but that morning, the convoy set out on Highway 10, right through the busy streets of the city.

There were just two men per vehicle. Two of the men who would have provided rear cover in the vehicles had been held back to help with clerical work. Scott Helvenston and Mike Teague were in one SUV, Wesley Batalona and Jerry Zovko in another, as the convoy drove a little over a mile into town. With traffic coming to a halt, the convoy found itself stuck in a growing swarm of traffic and people.

Suddenly, a few armed men emerged from the streets and approached the vehicle that Helvenston and Teague were in. They fired off shots, hitting the Blackwater men in the back of the head, the stricken men's bodies slumping forward in their seats.

Witnesses watched the other Pajero attempting to move out of the way, but it failed to pass through the gathering crowd fast enough. Within minutes of the first attack, Zovko and Batalona were also shot. The crowd began working itself into a frenzy. Locals videotaped as a mob of men and boys began to chant and celebrate, many of them cheering, "Falluja is the graveyard of Americans."

The video showed a chilling display of hatred, as the bodies were burned, ripped from the vehicles, beaten and dragged through the streets to a steel bridge spanning the Euphrates River. The crowd was jubilant, chanting like football fans celebrating a Super Bowl victory. A torso, now decapitated, was tied with electrical cord and hung from the girders. A second body, blackened from the fire, was also strung up for the cheering crowd to see.

It was sometime between 3:30 and 4:30 in the morning in McLean, Virginia, when Erik Prince got the call. In Moyock, North Carolina, Gary Jackson had gotten word of the attack as well. Jackson headed into his office at the Blackwater training facility, where he was joined by Chris Taylor, who had just been promoted to vice president of strategic initiatives, and Mike Rush, the director of Blackwater Security Consulting.

They linked up with Prince by phone, as he arrived at his unmarked office in a McLean high-rise in the dark hours of morning. The details were still sketchy, but they knew that four of their own had been killed.

"I'd been a low-level officer before, but I'd never had anybody under my responsibility seriously injured or killed," said Prince. "That struck home."

It wasn't long before the images began showing up on TV screens. The pictures shown on Arabic networks were incredibly disturbing: the chanting crowd, the burning vehicles, the bodies hanging from the bridge. Even what aired on American networks was disturbing, and those pictures were heavily edited. "It was already on CNN," said Taylor. "We had preliminary information that it was our guys."

It was an outrage for Prince, remembering his trip to the area just weeks before.

"The first thing I thought of when I saw that was Jerry [Zovko] would be the guy to go and sort this out and find the guys who did this," said Prince. By midmorning, the worst was confirmed. The four men were four of their own. Prince, Jackson, Taylor, and Rush knew what they had to do. Jackson was angry but tried to keep his emotions in check.

"I was pissed; you know, I come from the Special Operations community, and I was mainly just pissed," said Jackson. "You've got to understand at that particular point in time, no matter how bad it was, it was going, and we had stuff to do."

The four dead men had listed next of kin information in the company paperwork. The four Blackwater executives packed their bags and headed out to inform the families. U.S. marshals or sheriff 's deputies would be waiting at their respective destinations.

Prince set out for Cleveland, Ohio, to tell Jerry Zovko's parents. Jackson, who had seen Mike Teague less than two weeks before, would be the one to tell Teague's wife and 15-year-old son that Mike wouldn't be coming home.

Taylor headed for a San Diego, California, suburb to tell Tricia Irby, Scott Helvenston's ex-wife, that the father of her children had been killed.

Rush was on a plane bound for Hawaii.

That afternoon, Katy Helvenston was sitting in her home office in a bedroom community just outside Orlando, Florida, when images of the gruesome, chaotic mob scene flashed on her TV screen. She couldn't help but think briefly of the son she called Scotty.

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