Drill instructor charged with hazing "was a good Marine," defense says
A former Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island drill instructor involved in the biggest hazing and abuse scandal at the depot in more than 60 years is now alleged to have singled out and mistreated three Muslim trainees.
Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix has been linked to the death of former recruit Raheel Siddiqui; alleged to have ordered now Lance Cpl. Ameer Bourmeche into a commercial clothes dryer and turned it on; and now, alleged to have told Rekan Hawez, “Hey, ISIS, get in the dryer.”
While Bourmeche reportedly suffered burns in the dryer — it was allegedly turned on intermittently while he was being interrogated about his faith — the machine was never turned on when Hawez was in it.
“You will learn the accused is drunk on power,” prosecutor Capt. Corey Weilert told the eight-person jury at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune as he told of Siddiqui’s death, the clothes dryer incidents and how Felix allegedly has punched, choked and kicked other recruits.
Felix “targeted” the Muslim recruits, Weilert said as he laid out the prosecution’s case Tuesday, Day 1 of Felix’s general court-martial, the highest-level of military trial.
Hawez is no longer a Marine, defense counselor U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Clay Bridges reminded jurors as he briefed them on his case. Bridges said jurors would hear from Bourmeche and other recruits who’ve had a lot of time to “conflate” boot camp stories that have been “blown out of proportion.”
“You’re going to have no idea what happened,” Bridges said at the end of his statement, explaining witnesses’ testimonies would be contradictory.
The trial is scheduled over 16 days at Lejeune, to include Saturdays. More than 75 witnesses are expected to testify. Marines from dozens of commands will take the stand, meaning the trial’s effects will be felt throughout the Corps. At stake is a Marine’s career and the Corps’ reputation, which has been heavily scrutinized in the wake of Siddiqui’s death.
Judge Lt. Col. Michael Libretto is limiting discussion of that death to the obstruction charge Felix faces — that after Siddiqui’s death, Felix allegedly told recruits in Platoon 3042 not to talk about the incident outside of the unit.
Aside from that, Siddiqui’s death will only be referenced to explain why the deceased recruit can’t testify to a count of maltreatment Felix has been charged with.
Felix faces three counts of maltreatment, one each pertaining to incidents involving Bourmeche, Hawez and Siddiqui. Felix also faces nine counts of violating an order; making a false statement; being drunk and disorderly; and obstruction of justice.
Felix’s military occupation is air-traffic controller.
“Gunnery Sgt. Felix has 14 years in the Marine Corps,” Bridges said. “He has a wife, four daughters that he loves very much, and I think that you’ll see that he’s been a good Marine who trained recruits hard, with intensity.”
After Tuesday’s hearings, Bridges said he did not expect any of Wednesday’s witnesses to talk about Siddiqui’s death. He would not discuss why his defense team move to have discussion of the incident completely excluded in the spring.
‘A big mistake’
During the night of the dryer incidents in July 2015, Felix and Sgt. Michael Eldrige allegedly hazed Bourmeche and made him renounce his faith.
When Weilert asked Bourmeche what was going through his head during the incident, the former recruit took a long pause: “That I made a big mistake by joining the Marine Corps.”
A 400-pound “Speed Queen” dryer like the one Bourmeche was allegedly burned in was brought into the courtroom as an exhibit by the defense team.
Bridges said the prosecution would use expert witnesses to show how someone who claimed to have been in such a dryer for “20 to 30” seconds at a time would have had severe burns and visible injuries.
Allegedly present at the dryer incident was Sgt. Michael Eldridge, who reportedly will testify against Felix after reaching pre-trial deal. Eldridge was also scheduled to be court-martialed, something that the prosecution reminded jurors of in opening statements.
Bourmeche’s testimony and cross-examination lasted more than two hours Tuesday morning.
Aside from opening statements and the judge’s reminder to jurors that they not draw inferences of conclusions from Siddiqui’s death, the incident was not mentioned.
When it was, prosecutors cast Felix as a sadist who was singling out Siddiqui, who hated recruits and who, after the death, made sure Siddiqui’s platoon mates knew to keep their mouths shut.
The defense, meanwhile, painted a picture of a struggling recruit whom Felix had several individual meetings with, and whom Felix was actually going easy on.
Biggest scandal since Ribbon Creek
Siddiqui died March 18, 2016, after falling nearly 40 feet from his barracks on Parris Island. A Marine Corps investigation found that he and Felix had had an altercation moments before the recruit leapt to his death. Felix is alleged to have struck Siddiqui in the face after he collapsed during a series of punitive sprints ordered by Felix in the barracks.
The prosecution contends Felix abused Siddiqui.
The defense says that Felix slapped Siddiqui because he saw an unresponsive recruit in distress who wasn’t responding to other attempts to wake him.
Siddiqui’s death and the investigation that followed led to a hazing probe in 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, where Felix was a drill instructor.
Over a dozen DIs were implicated in the probe, some being court-martialed —including one who was acquitted — and others being dealt with administratively, actions the Corps won’t disclose. Just one of those DIs has returned to work on the drill field, according to the Corps. Seven DIs — four of whom were implicated in investigations — will testify at the Felix hearing, Weilert said. Three of those DIs cut pre-trial deals in their own cases and will testify under grants of immunity, he said.
Siddiqui’s death and the scandal it uncovered has been one of the worst instances of alleged hazing and recruit abuse since the infamous Ribbon Creek incident, when six recruits drowned in 1956 after being led on a punitive nighttime march by a DI who’d been drinking.
Regarding the new information about Hawez, the Corps said that instance became known during an ongoing Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation. NCIS could not be reached for comment about the case.
Hawez was allegedly ordered into the dryer just moments before Bourmeche on the same night.
The following night, Felix allegedly made Bourmeche perform a mock beheading of another recruit. During that incident, Bourmeche testified that Felix put a belt around his neck and looped it through a hole in his pants, then tightened, making Bourmeche walk in a hunched position.
And Bourmeche said Felix told him: “‘Muslim’ is a made-up word for ‘terrorist.’ ”
During that night, Bourmeche said Felix took the pointed end of a guidon — a pole that supports a flag — and jabbed it on Bourmeche’s right big toe, holding it there until Bourmeche said, “All Muslims are terrorists.”
The dryer incidents happened during “Marine Week,” the last week of training that leads up to graduation. Bourmeche could not remember whether Felix or Eldridge opened and closed the door to the dryer while he was in it, and who actually turned it on.
Prosecutors questioned why Bourmeche didn’t report the incident earlier. And they reminded jurors that former Marine and former recruit-platoon-mate Jake Weaver reported the incident months later when he was about to be separated from the Corps for failing to train.
Bourmeche had incentive to go along with Weaver — his friend and roommate at their military-occupation schoolhouse in Pensacola, Fla. — and the story, Bridges said.
Weaver’s report spawned an investigation that dragged on while Felix was on a break from the drill field, and when he returned to pick up Siddiqui’s platoon. Felix should not have been supervising recruits, the Corps said, because he was already under investigation.
Siddiqui was a 20-year-old recruit from Taylor, Mich. Siddiqui had been on the island less than two weeks when he died.
His family and their attorney, Shiraz Khan, have filed a $100 million federal lawsuit accusing the government of negligence and questioning how quickly their son’s death was classified a suicide, a point which they contend.
Khan also questions why Felix wasn’t charged with assault.