WUERZBURG, Germany -- Taking less than an hour to deliberate, a military court sentenced a U.S. soldier on Tuesday to life in prison without parole for killing an 11-year-old ethnic Albanian girl while on peacekeeping duty in Kosovo.
"I don't know what went wrong that day," Army Staff Sgt. Frank Ronghi, 36, of Niles, Ohio, said in an apology "from the bottom of my heart" to the family of Merita Shabiu.
But Merita's mother, Remzije, said the killing was all the more painful because it was at the hands of a NATO soldier sent to protect ethnic Albanians. "Not only Merita died. We all died," she said.
Ronghi, who sat impassively as the verdict was read, pleaded guilty on Friday to charges of murder, forcible sodomy and indecent acts in the Jan. 13 death of Merita.
"I know what I did was very wrong," he told the court Tuesday. "That's why I pleaded guilty."
"I apologize from the bottom of my heart to the family. I ask them for forgiveness," Ronghi said, reading from a piece of paper and showing no emotion.
But the girl's father, Hamdi Shabiu, said through a translator that while they were satisfied with the verdict and the Army's handling of the case, the family would never be able to forgive Ronghi.
"If he had accidentally killed her, we would forgive him on the spot," he said, his distraught wife at his side. "But not only did he do what he did to her, he wanted to hide her body, so that we would not even have a grave for her."
Ronghi was led out of the courtroom to be returned to the U.S. military stockade in Mannheim. An Army spokesman, Maj. Eric Gunhus, said it would probably take a week to 10 days before Ronghi is flown from Germany to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to begin serving his sentence.
In an emotional day of testimony, prosecutors described in painstaking detail how Ronghi lured the girl into a basement where he assaulted her, then killed her to stop her cries.
He came back later for the body, stuffed under a stairway in two U.N. flour sacks, and buried it beneath the snow on a hilltop. A private who accompanied Ronghi reported the incident to superiors.
Merita's parents and two siblings, who traveled from Kosovo for Ronghi's sentencing, had left the courtroom by the time Ronghi apologized.
"We are simple people, but we have seen justice work," the father said.
Ronghi, a weapons squad leader assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment at Fort Bragg, N.C., also apologized to the Army, his unit and his family "for all the hurt I have caused."
The defense opened by describing Ronghi "as an ordinary person who did ordinary things," until he encountered a culture of excessive violence and abuse of power during duty in Kosovo.
"It was while he was in Kosovo that he stumbled," Capt. Kerry Suneo said. "He stumbled hard. He'll be the first to tell you that."
Testifying, Merita's parents described their escape to Macedonia from Serb persecution -- and the relief they felt at being able to return home under the protection of NATO forces after the bombing stopped June 15, 1999.
They stressed that they did not blame the U.S. military for their loss. "The whole army did not do this to me," Hamdi Shabiu said. "This was Ronghi's fault."
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