On Tuesday night, 5.6 million people tuned in to watch “Private Needham’s War” on 48 Hours. The special told the story of 26-year-old Iraq War Veteran John Needham who was arrested in 2008 after he was found naked and covered with blood next to his girlfriend, Jacqwelyn Villagomez, 19, who he had beaten to death. On the surface, that fact easily makes John the perpetrator or murderer and Jacqwelyn the victim, but as the CBS special showed, both young adults may actually be victims in this case.
What you wouldn’t know just by looking at John that day in 2008 was he had recently come home from the war in Iraq and had been diagnosed with post-traumatic disorder (PTSD). He also “had severe back pain from combat injuries. He was prescribed a fistful of drugs and often downed them with alcohol,” though he had never been a drinker, according to CBS. Though John has never been able to describe why he killed Jacqwelyn, he told investigators that he tried to restrain her during an altercation and something inside of him just “snapped.” This is the account from CBS:
According to Homicide Det. Joe Gaul of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, “There was blood spatter on the doorjamb, the wall, the bathroom door — what we call impact patterns, somebody being struck and the blood spraying off of being struck.”
Det. Gaul learned the bloodshed was sparked by a jealous rage – Villagomez’s. Earlier that evening, Jacque had finally agreed to move out. But just as she was leaving, an old girlfriend — Renee Stoner — showed up to visit John. Soon after, Jacque stormed back in.
“And Jacqwelyn was very upset that Renee was there at the house with John,” Det. Gaul continued. “They got into a physical confrontation over that fact. John had separated both of them. And John was restraining Jacqwelyn while Renee escaped to the bathroom. Eventually John told her to get out of there.”
Once outside, Stoner called 911, where she described Jacque Villagomez as the aggressor, not John Needham.
“At that time [Stoner] didn’t see any blood. She didn’t witness any – beating or assault of any kind. She just left the scene,” said Det. Gaul.
But something happened in the few minutes it took deputies to respond. When they found Jacque Villagomez, she was battered — near death — and would not survive. John Needham was naked, crying and smeared in blood. Deputies say Needham charged them and they had to use a Taser to subdue him.
“There was no evidence to indicate anything other than John’s fists were used to beat Jacqwelyn,” the detective said.
While the facts do suggest John did in fact “snap” that day, additional evidence from his background shows he had been unraveling for quite some time. In addition to the standard mental toll of the war, in June of 2007, his unit was ordered to shoot a man suspected of trying to detonate an improvised explosive device (IED), later than summer an IED killed five of his comrades, and just when he thought he was returning home, his tour in Iraq was extended. To make matters worse, John started engaging in reckless behavior which often landed him in trouble with his superiors, but when it came to treatment for his psychological issues, CBS reports it’s unclear what—if any—help he received.
Hope appeared to be on the horizon when in July 2008, nine months after being medevaced from Iraq, John Needham was given a medical discharge. However days after his paperwork came through, he met Jacque Villagomez, two months after that he was accused of murder, and two years later he would overdose on painkillers, overcome by the threat of 25 years-to-life in prison for murder, a confirmed traumatic brain injury as a result of the war, and excruciating pain from combat injuries. All of which make John a victim too in many people’s eyes.
Check out the full 48 Hours special below. What do you think about this case?
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