DA investigator escaped blast in Iraq

By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer

Keith Bessette was checking e-mails in the early morning hours of March 9 in his fourth-floor room at the Al-Sadir Hotel in downtown Baghdad, a short distance from the square where a statue of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was famously toppled in 2003.

He started hearing volleys of machine gun fire from the roof of his building. That wasn’t too uncommon, he said, but something just didn’t feel right that morning.

Moments later, a garbage truck filled with explosives pulled up near the hotel, and an enormous explosion rocked the downtown district, blowing windows and doors out of the hotel, damaging the Agriculture Ministry building across the street, and setting cars and trucks aflame in the parking lot.

The former Clovis police detective returned from Iraq last month after spending a year training police. He recently took a job as an investigator in the district attorney’s office.

Safely back in the states, Bessette spoke recently about his experiences in Iraq, including how terrorists blew up a massive truck bomb next to his hotel in March.

“(I) saw an extremely bright flash of light and got thrown off to the wall and onto the floor. I don’t remember an explosion. I remember the next thing getting up off the floor and my room was just devastated,” he said. “My window was gone and all my stuff was just blown off.”

A couple weeks earlier, he was sitting in a Clovis courtroom attending a plea hearing for Timothy Burke, who was convicted of shooting Bessette in December 2002 and sent to prison for 32 1/2 years. At Burke’s plea hearing, Bessette said getting shot was the most terrifying experience he had in his life.

“The shooting now drops into number two,” Bessette said this month.

That was life in the “red zone” of Baghdad, Bessette said. He and the other contractors weren’t living under constant guard by American soldiers, like those held up in the fortified “green zone.” The company he was working for — DynCorp — had hired a private Iraqi security force to protect the American contractors. And Bessette himself was armed to the teeth.

“The terrorists looked at us like pets, and you don’t really pet a porcupine too much,” he said. “The more quills you could have out, the better off you were.”

Remarkably, no one was killed in the massive bomb attack, Bessette said, but there were a number of serious injuries. The Associated Press reported about 30 American contractors were injured in the blast, which was carried out by Tanzim Qa’idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, a terrorist group with connections to terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, according to the Associated Press.

“I went back in my room, started packing, started getting my vest on, throwing my weapons on,” he said. “I remember looking outside and just seeing billowing black smoke. Several of our vehicles were on fire.”

Strangely, attacks like that didn’t lower morale much for the Iraqi police Bessette was helping to train. But what did hurt was the difficulty many of the new recruits had getting paid.
“When the Saddam regime collapsed, the economy just collapsed,” he said.

Bessette and his fellow contractors trained the police on building entries, covert movements, open field movements, shooting, assaults, taking care of the injured and evacuation procedures, he said.

District Attorney Matthew Chandler said Bessette has exceptional skills as an investigator, which he wanted to put to use protecting the citizens of Curry and Roosevelt counties.

“He had a high percentage of solved cases,” said Chandler, who knew Bessette when he was a detective at the police department. “Keith is a very mild mannered personality, he doesn’t get rattled. Whatever he faces he seems to handle everything pretty professionally. Whether it’s an individual that’s shooting him, or going to war in Iraq, he’s pretty much the same guy no matter what cards are dealt to him.”

Bessette is currently helping investigate the death of 71-year-old rancher Jimmy “Bo” Chunn, who was found slain earlier this month at his residence in Causey.