The public got its first glimpse Monday morning into the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island training platoon that saw one of its members die following an alleged altercation with a drill instructor when former platoon members testified at the court-martial of Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix.
The trial of Felix — the former Parris Island drill instructor of Platoon 3042, to which recruit Raheel Siddiqui belonged before jumping three stories to his death on March 18, 2016 — was in its fifth day at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., but it was the first time the court heard about the training environment inside Siddiqui’s former unit.
While the testimonies from five former members of 3042 varied, they pointed to a pattern of physical abuse at the hands of Felix that went beyond the physical corrections allowable by recruit training policy.
A few former recruits said Monday they witnessed Felix kick a recruit who was holding a foot locker, knocking that recruit to the floor. Another former recruit testified that Felix once grabbed him by the neck and pushed him up against the wall in the shower.
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“My head made contact (against the wall) three separate times,” Lance Cpl. Tyler Stanley told the court Monday.
“He told me he caught me smiling again and I should stop.”
The next day, Stanley recalled, Felix chided another recruit for smiling in the squad bay and implied that Stanley should show that recruit what happens to those who smile.
Stanley fake-choked the recruit.
“I put my hands around (the other recruit)’s neck ...” Stanley testified. “I had an interlocking grip but did not squeeze. ... Felix told me to keep doing it.”
Another recruit, Stanley said, then finished the job before Felix told them to cut it out.
Felix faces multiples charges of violations of military law ranging from drunk and disorderly conduct to cruelty and maltreatment. Regarding 3042, he’s alleged to have hit recruits, kicked them, choked them, ordered them to choke each other and ordered them to choke themselves, according to a Marine Corps charge sheet that outlines the alleged misconduct. Regarding Siddiqui, Felix is alleged to have called him a “terrorist” and asked the trainee if he “needed his turban,” according to the document.
Bryce Herman, who is a former member of 3042 and now a former Marine — no reason was given for his separation from the Corps — testified Monday that he once heard Felix refer to Siddiqui as a “terrorist” during a senior drill instructor talk when the recruits were gathered around Felix.
“(Siddiqui) smells like a terrorist,” Herman recalled Felix saying.
When asked by prosecution about Felix’s demeanor when delivering these statements, Herman replied, “I believe it was very serious, sir.”
Herman also testified that on March 18, 2016, the day of Siddiqui’s death, “I recall Recruit Siddiqui grabbing his (own) neck, but I don’t know why.”
Herman said he saw Felix grab Siddiqui by the shirt, throw Siddiqui to the ground and then yank Siddiqui back up, but he could not remember what happened after that.
Lance Cpl. Marco Assuncao and Cpl. Brandon Yu, however, testified that they remember Felix referring to Siddiqui as a terrorist one time and then only in a joking manner.
Stanley testified that during a mail call Felix told the platoon to include Siddiqui, saying to the platoon, “It’s not like he’s a terrorist or something.”
On the day of Siddiqui’s death, Assuncao testified, Siddiqui fell to the floor while running a series of punitive sprints.
He then saw Siddiqui hold his hands around his neck. Felix, Assuncao said, told Siddiqui to get up, but Siddiqui did not follow the order.
“There were no sounds coming out of (Siddiqui’s) mouth or throat,” Assuncao told the court.
Felix, he said, then said to Siddiqui “I need to know if you’re OK.”
Assuncao then heard, but did not see, Felix slap Siddiqui.
The defense asked several of the former recruits Monday whether Felix had asked them to lie to NCIS. They said he did not.
Siddiqui is one of three Muslim recruits prosecutors say Felix “targeted.” The other men, Lance Cpl. Ameer Bourmeche and former Marine Rekan Hawez, were members of 3rd Recruit Training Battalion Platoons 3054 and 3052, respectively, in 2015. Both have testified that Felix called them “terrorist” and other inappropriate names, and that he ordered them into commercial clothes dryers; Bourmeche said he was burned when the dryer he was in was turned on.
Sgt. Michael Eldridge, a 3rd Recruit Training Battalion drill instructor who was also charged in connection with the Bourmeche case, testified against Felix on Friday as part of a plea agreement.
On Monday, the judge reminded the jury that just because Eldridge intends to plead guilty, it does not mean that Felix is also guilty of those crimes.
Felix is also charged with obstruction, alleged to have told Siddiqui’s platoon mates — potential witnesses to his death — to keep the incident under wraps inside the barracks. Before the trial, a judge ruled to limit discussion of Siddiqui’s death to the obstruction charge, and to explain why the former recruit couldn’t physically be present to testify against Felix as it relates to allegations of maltreatment.
Siddiqui’s death and subsequent investigation soon turned into a hazing probe of 3rd Recruit Training Battalion that has resulted in the biggest scandal on Parris Island since the infamous Ribbon Creek incident, when six recruits drowned on a punitive nighttime march into the marsh ordered by their drill instructor, who’d been drinking.
Siddiqui was on Parris Island just 11 days before he died. Five days before his death he said he wanted to die and said he would jump out of the squad bay window; but he was evaluated with a mental health professional and deemed fit to return to training.
On March 18, 2016, Siddiqui — who was reportedly ill — was trying to get permission to go to medical, but apparently didn’t request permission appropriately. Felix ordered him to run a series of punitive sprints across the length of the barracks. Siddiqui collapsed, clutching his throat. Felix was witnessed forcefully slapping Siddiqui in the face just before the recruit jumped up, ran out the back of the barracks and leapt over the stairwell. He died hours later at Medical University of South Carolina Hospital in Charleston.
The Corps ruled his death a suicide. His family has consistently disputed that classification and filed a $100 million federal lawsuit last month, claiming negligence on behalf of the government and questioning how — and how quickly — their son’s death was classified as such.
A verdict and sentencing in the case could come as soon as Saturday, according to a Marine Corps official. The prosecution expects to hear from its last witness Wednesday. More than 75 witnesses are expected to have testified in this case.