The twisted Marine rotting in Goulburn Supermax
When a small group of elite US Marines gather next year for their long overdue, 30 year reunion, they will be minus one. Sergeant Walter Marsh, in Goulburn Supermax, NSW, is unable to attend.
The Marines have watched from afar, appalled but not surprised, as Marsh was arrested, tried and sentenced to life in prison earlier this year for the 2010 stabbing murder of Sydney nurse Michelle Beets.
Members of the Marine Security Guard, who served with Marsh at the Beijing Embassy during 1983 and 1984, remember him as a complex and difficult young man, narcissistic, sometimes personable but also spiteful, lacking empathy and untrustworthy.
He will go to his grave suspected by his comrades of treason after he twice made contact with the Soviets while he was in Beijing.
One of Marsh’s former commanders has revealed that Marsh was put under constant surveillance after he was seen hanging around what was then the Soviet Embassy, and fraternising in Beijing restaurants.
The early ‘80s was a time of strong counter-intelligence threats, yet some of the Marines who served in Beijing wonder if Marsh really traded secrets, or was a delusional sociopath who created elaborate fantasies to give himself a sense of mystery and power.
Many years after he left the Marines, Marsh would tell Chantel Gann, whom he dated in 2006 when both were working as emergency nurses in Seattle, that he had been in three different branches of the US military. He’d only been in one.
Marsh was considered a technically excellent ER nurse in Seattle, when it came to saving lives and giving meds. But he was harsh with patients and had a strange habit of handling them wearing black leather gloves, rather than latex.
Marsh often went overseas to undisclosed destinations, telling Ms Gann he had short-term “contracts” which required him to go overseas to “fight in wars”.
Ms Gann believed him and it is possible that Marsh had a mercenary second life. He maintained supreme fitness and on one occasion she said he came back to Seattle with severe rib injuries he claimed to have received in action.
He told Ms Gann he’d been adopted as a boy from Ireland to the US after his parents were killed in a bomb blast. Now, he did “work” for the IRA. When at home with her, he turned on a strong Irish accent and stayed in character.
She believed that Marsh really was some kind of assassin, and naively thought she could help him by reporting him to the FBI. His response was white anger: he threatened to kill her. She took out a restraining order. The FBI interviewed him about the IRA but he was able to fob them off.
When homicide detectives from NSW visited Ms Gann in Seattle after Marsh’s arrest, they told her that Marsh’s claims about the IRA and his dead parents were fantasies. She is still not sure what to believe.
Marsh crash-coursed in Mandarin while working in China. His boss said he picked up the language in stunning time. Ms Gann said he spoke five languages and nursing staff often saw him conversing fluently to foreigners when they came into emergency.
“He’s a very, very smart man,” says Ms Gann. “He’ll be doing push-ups now, working on his escape plan. He still scares me.”
Thirty years on, all the Marines who served with Marsh have since left the service. But Marines stay Marines. Their motto, Semper Fi, “always faithful”, is very real to them.
Some members of the Beijing guard are anxious not to throw further light on Marsh, because they consider him a disgrace to their uniform.
“In the time I knew him, my impression is the guy had absolutely no empathy and he was a narcissist,” says one former Beijing sergeant.
“Something was going to happen. He had an arrogance about him. We still keep in touch, the detachment. But Walter Marsh, I wouldn’t let him near my family. There was something diabolical about him. We all knew it, we all said it at the time.”
His reaction to Ms Beets’ killing was: “This is the Walt we know.”
According to a limited version of Marsh’s military records, obtained by News Ltd under FOI, Marsh joined the Marines in 1978 and was discharged in 1984, at the rank of sergeant. The reasons for his discharge are not disclosed.
Marsh’s occupation is listed as “anti-tank assaultman”. He was later assigned as a Marine Security Guard in Panama City, Buenos Aires and Beijing, his final posting, between 1983 and 1984.
Marine embassy guards are considered the best of the best. They protect highly classified material and need to be mature enough not to cause embarrassment in sensitive diplomatic posts.
Marsh was good enough but it appears he already had undetected issues by the time he enlisted, in Pennsylvania, at the age of 18. All the Beijing-based Marines could say was that when the talk turned to family, Marsh always stayed silent.
They also rejected claims presented by the Crown during Marsh’s trial that he had used a throat-slashing technique learned in the Marine Corps to kill Ms Beets.
“That’s the biggest crock of shit I’ve ever seen,” says a sergeant. “Where are you going to learn to cut someone’s throat? I never learned any special technique.”
But all described Marsh as someone who stood in the shadows in an otherwise small, tight unit of men. According to one Marine, Marsh was most comfortable with impressionable teenagers and had two relations with minors during his time at the embassy.
Garland “Shag” Laprade, of Alabama, commanded the Beijing Marine Security Guard, overseeing a team of 12, including Marsh.
“I’ve been reluctant to say anything but I’ll just say it: he marched to the beat of a different drummer,” said the former Marine captain.
“I worked directly for the regional security officer and we had suspicions about him. He did try to make contact with the Soviet Embassy. He was a very conniving type of person.”
Mr Laprade says the Marine guards handled very sensitive material but they only transported it, they were not supposed to examine it. “He did make contact a couple of times. We don’t know the extent of it.”
Marsh was put under surveillance but no hard evidence was found. His records hint at a court martial and other Marines say that in 1987, after Marsh had left the service, they received visits from Naval intelligence asking about Marsh’s time in Beijing.
The renewed interest in Marsh was no doubt inspired by the case of Clayton Lonetree, who was a Marine guard at the US Embassy in Moscow at the same time.
In 1987, Lonetree confessed to passing documents to the Soviets and became the first US Marine convicted of spying after he fell for a “swallow” – a beautiful KGB agent. But they could pin nothing on Marsh.
One sergeant said he was shocked to learn that Marsh, whom he believed had no empathy, had gone into nursing in later years. “That was more unbelievable than hearing he’d murdered somebody in cold blood,” he said.
Asked if he had seen any signs of violence in Marsh, another former Marine, Sergeant Carmilo Andrade, said: “How do you answer a question like that when you’re talking about Marines?”
By 2010, Marsh was on a temporary 457 visa in Australia and desperate for a job so as not to be deported to the US, where he would be forced to confront $50,000 in outstanding child-support bills from an earlier marriage. Nor did he want to land on low wages in Vietnam, the home of his latest wife, Samantha.
In the weeks before he killed Ms Beets, Marsh went back to Seattle to stalk and kill his ex-wife, Tammy Leland, with whom he’d had a child. He thought that removing her from the picture would make his child-support bills go away.
It was a warped application of military thinking: remove the obstacle.
The mission supposedly fell apart because Ms Leland was always in the company of her husband, who was armed. Ms Leland is not willing to discuss her life with Marsh, for fear that offering an explanation for Marsh would be painful Ms Beets’ family.
She has vaguely indicated that Marsh stores very painful secrets.
As for Samantha, Marsh emailed her from America after he’d decided he could not kill Ms Leland: “I completely failed. I feel so terrible. I wish I were with you right now. I love you. I will see you soon.”
Samantha’s testimony for the prosecution has saved her from being condemned for her prior knowledge.
Michelle Beets’ problem was that she was right: she had employed Marsh but detected his unsuitability. She stood between him and the job references he needed to stay in Australia.
Another member of the Beijing guard, who declines to be named, offered an insight into Marsh’s thinking on killing Ms Beets.
“Some of us had an identity and some of us were in search of an identity,” he says. “We were competitive but not adversarial. He was adversarial.”
He would break the clips off Captain Laprade’s pens so they wouldn’t sit straight in his pocket. When the others enjoyed sitting around replying to silly Christmas cards from American schoolchildren, Walt was not amused.
Yet he had a fascination with older children that was predatory, or reflected what the Marine called “transference” - what psychoanalysis defines as repeating impressionable, emotionally scarring behavior from childhood.
He did not know how to let things slide.
“He’s a very disturbed person,” said the Marine. “Marines must be comfortable with life and death and the taking of life.
“The fact that he took out someone who was harming his life was in some senses a logical step, even though she was not a combatant on the field. I think he saw her as a threat to his life and needed to remove her from the field of battle.
“That was his departure.
“When you look at the totality of his behavior, he was twisted to begin with.”
Marsh’s Ivan Milat smile, upon being found guilty, suggests he’s gone to a place of no return.
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