LAKE TAPPS, Wash. -- Bypassed for a promotion and struggling to pay for his house, Robert Bales was eyeing a way out of his job at a military base months before he allegedly gunned down 16 civilians in an Afghan war zone. Records and interviews showed a deeper picture of the Army sergeant's financial troubles and brushes with the law.
While Sergeant Bales, 38, sat in an isolated cell at a military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., classmates and neighbors from suburban Cincinnati remembered him as a "happy-go-lucky" high school football player who helped special-needs children and watched out for troublemakers in the neighborhood.
But court records and interviews show that the 11-year veteran -- with a string of commendations for good conduct after tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan -- had joined the Army after a Florida investment job went sour, had a Seattle-area home condemned, struggled to make payments on another, and failed to get a promotion or a transfer a year ago.
His legal troubles included charges that he assaulted a girlfriend and, in a hit-and-run accident, ran bleeding in military clothes into the woods, court records show.
He told police he fell asleep at the wheel and paid a fine to get the charges dismissed, records show.
"This is some crazy stuff if it's true," Steve Berling, a high school classmate, said of the revelations about the father of two known as "Bobby" in his hometown of Norwood, Ohio, near Cincinnati.
Military officials said that after drinking on a southern Afghanistan base, Sergeant Bales crept away on March 11 to two villages overnight, shooting his victims and setting many of them on fire.
Nine of the 16 killed were children and 11 belonged to one family.
The sergeant has not been charged in the shootings, which have endangered relations between the United States and Afghanistan.
His family troubles were hinted at by his wife, Kari, on multiple blogs posted with names like The Bales Family Adventures and BabyBales. A year ago, she wrote that Sergeant Bales was hoping for a promotion or a transfer after nine years stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord outside Tacoma.
After Sergeant Bales lost out on a promotion to E7 -- a first-class sergeant -- the family hoped to go to either Germany, Italy, or Hawaii for an "adventure," she said.
They hoped to move by last summer; instead the Army redeployed his unit to Afghanistan.
It would be Sergeant Bales' fourth tour in a war zone. He joined the military two months after 9/11 and spent more than three years in Iraq during three separate assignments since 2003.
Army officials said over the weekend that Sergeant Bales' combat tours were hardly unusual.
"Lots of soldiers have four deployments, and they're not accused of things like this," said Col. Thomas W. Collins, an Army spokesman.
Sergeant Bales always loved the military and war history, even as a teenager, said Mr. Berling, who played football with him in the early 1990s on a team that included Marc Edwards, a future NFL player and Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots.
"I remember him and the teacher just going back and forth on something like talking about the details of the Battle of Bunker Hill," he said.
Sergeant Bales exulted in the role once he finally achieved it.
Plunged into battle in Iraq, he told an interviewer for a Fort Lewis base newspaper in 2009 that he and his comrades proved "the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy."
Sergeant Bales joined the Army, Mr. Berling said, after studying business at Ohio State University -- he didn't graduate -- and handled investments before the market downturn pushed him out of the business.
He was struggling to keep up payments on his home in Lake Tapps, a community 35 miles south of Seattle; his wife asked to put the house on the market three days before the shootings, real estate agent Philip Rodocker said.
"She told him she was behind in our payments," Mr. Rodocker told the New York Times.
The house was not officially put on the market until Monday; on Tuesday, Mr. Rodocker said, the sergeant's wife called and asked to take the house off the market, talking of a family emergency.
Sergeant Bales and his wife bought the Lake Tapps home in 2005, according to records, and listed it at $229,000.
The sale may have been a sign of financial troubles.
Sergeant Bales and his wife also own a home in Auburn, about 10 miles north, according to county records, but abandoned it about two years ago, homeowners' association president Bob Baggett said.
Now signs posted on the front door and window by the city warn against occupying the house.
"It was ramshackle," Mr. Baggett said. "They were not dependable. When they left there were vehicles parts left on the front yard."
The diverging portrait of the sergeant rippled across the country on Saturday.
"It's our Bobby. He was the local hero," said Michael Blevins, who grew up near him in Norwood, Ohio.
The youngest of five boys respected older residents, admonished troublemakers, and loved children, even helping another boy in the area who had special needs.
In Washington state, court records showed a 2002 arrest for assault on a girlfriend.
Sergeant Bales pleaded not guilty and was required to undergo 20 hours of anger management counseling.