Two former Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island drill instructors — both linked to allegations of hazing and abuse of Muslim recruits — have been identified and will have their cases tried in the military’s highest court.
Gunnery Sgt. Joseph A. Felix and Sgt. Michael K. Eldridge will face general courts-martial at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., on soon-to-be announced dates for charges including cruelty and maltreatment, and drunk and disorderly conduct, the Corps announced Wednesday evening.
Eldridge’s charges stem from a July 2015 incident during which a Muslim recruit was ordered into a clothes dryer and interrogated about his faith and loyalty, according to Marine Corps Training and Education Command spokesperson Capt. Joshua Pena.
Felix’s charges also are tied to that incident and to “allegations surrounding the investigation into the death of recruit (Raheel) Siddiqui,” Pena said.
The former drill instructors, both of whom recently waived their rights to a pre-trial Article 32 hearing, are the fifth and sixth Parris Island Marines to face courts-martial in the wake of Siddiqui’s death. It is unclear at this time if they will be the last. And Wednesday’s announcement prompted strong responses from a congresswoman and the Siddiqui family’s attorney.
Siddiqui, a 20-year-old Muslim American recruit of Pakistani descent from Taylor, Mich., died March 18, 2016, after a three-story fall from his barracks on Parris Island.
Shortly before the fall, a drill instructor allegedly made a reportedly ill Siddiqui perform a series of punitive sprints in the barracks, according to a Corps investigation. Siddiqui fell to the floor during the sprints. The drill instructor slapped Siddiqui, who was nonresponsive, in the face. Moments later, Siddiqui ran out the back of the barracks and reportedly jumped from the third-floor stairwell.
The drill instructor reportedly called Siddiqui a “terrorist” at some point during the 11 days the recruit spent on the island. And that same instructor should not have been supervising recruits at the time, the Corps said, since he was under investigation for his alleged involvement in the dryer incident.
When asked if Felix was that drill instructor, Pena said that he was tied to allegations uncovered by the investigation into the recruit’s death.
“Specifications will be made available at follow on proceedings,” Pena said.
After Siddiqui’s death, three Corps investigations were linked and uncovered widespread hazing and recruit abuse and systemic leadership failings on Parris Island. In September, the Corps announced 20 drill instructors and leadership personnel could face criminal charges or administrative actions for their alleged involvement.
In addition to the six courts-martial, the Corps previously released the names of four high-ranking officers and enlisted personnel who were relieved of command. But the fate of the remaining 10 Marines is unknown.
Last week, Pena said, “All remaining personnel of the 20 have either faced administrative action or are pending decision on administrative or punitive action.” He added that the Corps will not tell the public about administrative actions it takes against some of them because they are not high-visibility leaders.
When asked Wednesday if Felix’s and Eldridge’s courts-martial would be the last two stemming from the investigations, Pena said, “I am not able to confirm that at this time.”
Shortly after Siddiqui’s death, the Corps ruled it a suicide. Siddiqui’s family has continued to dispute that claim. On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., weighed in on the matter.
“As these proceedings move forward, I will continue to work closely with the Marine Corps to ensure those responsible are held to account,” Dingell said in a statement.
“Additionally, since the investigation has given no specific evidence of suicide, I am determined to work with ... all stakeholders to re-examine the autopsy report and get a more fair and neutral finding. ... We will never know what happened that day, but it is very clear to me and others based on the facts revealed in the investigation that it was not Private Siddiqui’s intention to take his own life. I will not stop working ... until the determination is changed to more accurately reflect the events of that day so we can bring some measure of peace to the Siddiqui family.”
In a statement Wednesday evening, Siddiqui family attorney Shiraz Khan called the suicide determination “unsubstantiated” and said the charges against Felix — cruelty and maltreatment, making a false statement, failing to obey an order, drunk and disorderly conduct, and obstruction of justice — were incomplete and inaccurate.
“It is our position that the referred charges do not align with the facts, evidence and history of this case and are indicative of a remarkable deviation from the USMC Command Investigation into the death of Raheel Siddiqui,” Khan said.
“(Siddiqui’s) name was swiftly and urgently tied to an unsubstantiated and unverified claim of ‘suicide’ almost immediately, and despite facts and evidentiary material to the contrary, there are no apparent charges of assault, and no consideration of manslaughter or murder at this time,” Khan said.
“Moreover, it appears that one individual is at the center of these charges when originally, it was reported that ‘20 Marine Corps personnel’ could face possible disciplinary or criminal charges,” he continued. “Where are those other charges?”
Khan said the “physical findings on Raheel’s body tell a story of torture, abuse and suffering.”
Khan shared the same sentiment with Esquire magazine reporter Alex French, who in January wrote that, in addition to blunt-force trauma sustained during the fall, Siddiqui’s autopsy report revealed disturbing details.
“There were ligature marks around Siddiqui’s neck that looked like a pattern of rope ridges,” French wrote. “He had bondage marks on his wrists and ankles. His toes were crushed. And there was evidence of petechial hemorrhaging and bronchial mucosa — common signs of an airway obstructed by manual strangulation, smothering or hanging.”
Felix’s and Eldridge’s trials will be open to the public and the media, Pena said.
Pena said late Wednesday night that he would ask the Training and Education Command about the Corps’ stance on the classification of Siddiqui’s death as a suicide and about the specific evidence the Corps cites to justify that claim.