Government prosecutors asked a panel of Marine jurors to send a message that hazing would not be tolerated in the Corps, and the court responded, sentencing Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix to 10 years in prison for abusing recruits in his charge and targeting three Muslim former trainees with cruelty and maltreatment.
Felix, a former Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island drill instructor convicted Thursday of multiple violations of military law, also was slapped with a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and reduction in rank to private.
While the sentence must still be approved by Marine Corps Training and Education Command’s Maj. Gen. Kevin Iiams, Felix will be housed temporarily in the brig at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, where the court-martial was held.
Felix’s wife, Jean, gasped and sobbed when the foreman read the sentence. It’s among the toughest punishments the Corps has given one of its own for hazing and recruit abuse. Felix, 34, has four daughters, has been a Marine for 15 years and is a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The sentence comes more than a year and a half after the death of Raheel Siddiqui, the investigation of which triggered a hazing probe that implicated Felix. The court convicted Felix of punching, kicking and choking recruits; ordering Muslim former trainees Rekan Hawez and Ameer Bourmeche into commercial clothes dryers in July 2015; and visiting other abuse and unauthorized punishment exercises on dozens of other recruits.
When Bourmeche was ordered into the dryer, the machine was turned on intermittently until he recanted his faith.
“In some dreams I see Gunnery Sgt. Felix killing my family,” Bourmeche, now a lance corporal in the Corps, said Friday as he read a statement to jurors before sentencing. “Sometimes I have nightmares and wake up hyperventilating and panicking.”
And Felix was convicted of slapping Siddiqui, also Muslim, moments before he suffered a fatal fall at the depot on March 18, 2016.
Prosecutor Lt. Col. John Norman read to jurors a note from Siddiqui’s mother before they began deliberating Felix’s sentence. “Why did (the Marines) treat (my son) like a terrorist?” Ghazala Siddiqui wrote. “He was born in America and raised here. He was an American citizen.”
“I need justice for my son,” the note continued.
Felix also was convicted of using slur-nicknames such as “terrorist,” “ISIS” and “Kurdish” with Bourmeche and Hawez, the latter of whom hails from Kurdistan and immigrated to the U.S. when he was a baby.
The hazing scandal that resulted in the wake of Siddiqui’s death was arguably the biggest since the Ribbon Creek incident in 1956, when six recruits drowned after a drill instructor consumed alcohol and led their platoon on a punitive nighttime march into a Parris Island marsh. Then-Sgt. Matthew McKeon ultimately received just three months hard labor with the depot’s chaplain’s office and reduction in rank, to private, for that incident.
Former Sgt. Jeffrey VanDyke was sentenced to year in prison in 2014 for making a recruit perform exercises in bleach and not allowing the trainee to change his pants. The recruit had to receive skin grafts after the bleach liquified his skin following the 2012 incident.
The scandal has been a black eye for the Corps, Parris Island and recruit training, one that will not soon go away as the high-profile — and rare — court-martial of a field-grade officer looms. Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon will stand trial in March for allegedly failing to sideline Felix — Siddiqui’s senior drill instructor — while he was under investigation for the Bourmeche dryer incident.
And the Siddiqui family has filed a $100 million lawsuit against the government alleging negligence. They also dispute the Corps’ classification of their son’s death as a suicide.
In an emotional speech to the jury before sentencing, Felix told them how he grew up poor near Florence, Ariz., in a one-room trailer. His family would sometimes just have saltine crackers and ketchup for dinner, he said.
“I can never repay the disappointment I feel you have in me,” he told his wife as he turned around to face her. “I can never repay you.”
The couple suffered a miscarriage after he was sidelined from the drill field in March 2016, he told the court.
His wife and mother-in-law, Janet Palmer — who called from Felix’s Beaufort home, where she was watching their children — described the former drill instructor as a family man and loving father.
He told the court he’d been sober for over two years.
On Thursday, Felix was also convicted of being drunk and disorderly and dereliction of duty.
The maximum possible prison time for the sum of his crimes — classified as federal felony convictions — was more than 20 years. Prosecutors asked for at least seven, while the defense asked for no more than 30 days.
A dishonorable discharge means Felix will not be eligible for Veterans Affairs health care benefits, something he and his family count on. Felix, who’s battled cancer, has to have regular screenings, and his wife has a rare blood-clot disorder.
“Gentlemen, I’m a shattered man that stands here before you,” Felix told jurors before they began deliberating his sentence.
“The girls and my wife, they’re the only things holding the pieces together. ... They’re all I’ve got.”
He sat down, wiped his nose and dabbed tears from his cheeks.
But the jury also heard from prosecutor Col. Jeffrey Groharing before deciding Felix’s fate.
“Marines do not haze and maltreat each other,” Groharing said. “Send them a message with a harsh sentence in this case.”
Felix, Groharing said, “shattered himself, through his own actions.”