Chris Kyle’s life has been celebrated in a controversial film nominated for seven Oscars. But now it is his death that has America transfixed.
Chris Kyle’s life has been celebrated in a controversial film nominated for seven Oscars. But now it is his death that has America transfixed. INM

Big screen to Texas court: Next chapter of American Sniper

TWO years ago last Monday, Chris Kyle swung his black pick-up off Country Road 2013, through the gates of Rough Creek Lodge & Resort and into a scorched landscape of brown-scrub fields punctuated by bleached buttes of fossilised coral.

To him it felt like home, if that is what Iraq still meant to him.

The good days for Mr Kyle, who had discharged himself from the Navy in 2009, had started to outnumber the bad ones. He had a successful security firm. A memoir, about his journey to becoming the deadliest sniper the US has ever seen, with at least 160 kills over four tours in Iraq, was a runaway bestseller. Called American Sniper, it had also attracted the attention of Hollywood.

But his real salvation was this. Riding with him was Chad Littleworth, a buddy he'd made in Midlothian, 60 miles away, where he was living with his wife and children, and Eddie Ray Routh, an ex-marine he barely knew.

Helping veterans fit back into civilian life, some physically or mentally harmed, had become a personal mission for Mr Kyle, then 38.

And sometimes the firing range at Rough Creek, a mile and a bit down a track from the lodge, was just the ticket, letting off steam, popping some rounds.

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper.
Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper. Keith Bernstein

If he were still alive, Mr Kyle would hardly recognise the young man who on Thursday took a seat between his lawyers in the courthouse in nearby Stephenville, the county seat, for day one of jury selection in his murder trial.

Mr Routh is accused of fatally shooting Mr Kyle, and Mr Littleworth.

No longer the scrawny man in the mugshots, Mr Routh has filled out, his hair is buzzed almost to the scalp. He looks at us across the wooden divide, but not quite into our eyes.

Alan Nash, the Erath County District Attorney, says this will be just one more murder trial like any other. While it's a capital case, he is not seeking the death penalty "for lots and lots of reasons", he offers, without elaborating.

No one is saying Mr Routh did not kill his two hosts on that February afternoon, not even his lawyers.

They will be arguing, however, that he be found not guilty by virtue of temporary insanity. What Mr Nash prefers not to acknowledge, however, is that all of America will be watching.

It will be the sequel, a very unhappy one, to the memoir and now the film. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, American Sniper has earned $250m (£164m) and is already the biggest war film ever released. It's up for seven Oscars, including best movie.

It has sparked a national debate that still rages today: as it celebrates an American hero, does it also glorify killing and war?

There are no witnesses to the moment that Mr Routh, 27, shot Mr Kyle and Mr Littleworth, at the range. A resort guide found their bodies. Mr Kyle had been shot in the back and in the back of the head.  Mr Littleworth had multiple bullet wounds in his chest. Mr Kyle's pick-up, a Ford, had vanished.

"Chris was a good friend to all of us," Jim Skinner, who speaks for Rough Creek Resort, recalls. Mr Kyle had always been welcome at the range, in a remote corner of its 11,000 acres - he'd helped build it.

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper.
Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper. Keith Bernstein

Some of what happened next is described in police affidavits. Mr Routh took the truck and stopped briefly at a relative's home in nearby Alvarado before driving on to his sister's in Midlothian. He told her what he'd done.

"I sold my soul for a truck," he said.  "We went up to the gun range. I killed them". Questioned by his sister, he went on: "Chris and his friend.  I killed them. I murdered them." 

From there he drove to his home in Lancaster, a southern suburb of Dallas, about 20 minutes away.  His sister had called the police, who were waiting for him. There was a brief chase before he was arrested.

Rising to Marine corporal, Mr Routh had served in Iraq and then in Haiti in the wake of its 2010 earthquake. Such were his torments after being discharged that he had been in and out of psychiatric wards at least three times.

Convinced he was suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, his family had been trying in vain to have him admitted indefinitely or at least until he improved when his mother approached Mr Kyle about helping him, a request that led to the trip to Rough Creek.

Nowhere did the loss of Mr Kyle hit harder than in Midlothian. A gritty town south-west of Dallas, its main roundabout off Main St has the star of Texas inlaid in brick and a large sign proclaims it the "Cement Capital of Texas", a boast borne out by the grey columns rising from nearby factories.

These days it holds an annual Chris Kyle golf tournament. A local teacher has petitioned the state legislature to attach his name to a stretch of the Texas Central Expressway.

One of the first gestures came from George Collins, a Vietnam War veteran who is commander of the Midlothian American Legion. Within weeks of the murders, he had arranged to have the chapter renamed the "Chris Kyle Post", an honour normally reserved for soldiers killed on the battlefield. 

That same spring they had a renaming ceremony and both Mr Kyle's parents attended.

"I can't even talk about Chris without turning into a 300-pound blubbering mess," Mr Collins, 67, says. "I couldn't believe they had been overcome like that. They were beefy, in good shape. Nobody knows what happened, nobody except for Eddie Ray Routh. After all Chris went through in combat. I don't know. He was trying to help."

Bradley Cooper in a scene from American Sniper.
Bradley Cooper in a scene from American Sniper. Keith Bernstein

Altogether, 800 Erath County citizens have been summoned potentially to serve as jurors in the trial of Mr Routh. On Thursday, Judge Jason Cashon began seeing them in groups of 60, telling them straight off that having seen the movie was not a disqualification.

From the first group he dismissed 25. Some couldn't participate for work or personal reasons. Six said they couldn't because they already had made up their minds that Mr Routh was guilty, never mind PTSD or whatever else he suffered from.

"I just feel he is guilty," Chris Conway, 40, a teacher, said outside the courthouse. "The insanity argument, I don't buy it."  By contrast, Garrett Osborne, who cleans milk tankers, wants to serve. He hasn't seen the film or read the book. "I feel I can be impartial. I don't know very much about Mr Kyle personally."

While cautious, talking to a reporter, he does hint at doubts about a defence based on PTSD, however. "It's a very vague term.  If something like this happens once, it can happen again."

Judge Cashon hopes a jury can be seated by the middle of next week. But finding 12 men and women willing to consider the fate of Mr Routh with open minds may yet prove to be difficult.  A fair trial relies on consideration of facts.  Not on emotions. But if you think this case can be stripped of emotion you haven't been to your multiplex lately and watched Eastwood's blockbuster.