CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. – A military jury will determine the fate of a former Marine Corps drill instructor accused of singling out Muslim recruits and subjecting them to verbal and physical abuse.
Attorneys for the prosecution and defense delivered their final arguments Nov. 8, in the case against Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix, a Marine since 2002 who is married with children. He could face an unspecified prison sentence over allegations stemming from the apparent suicide of Raheel Siddiqui, a 20-year-old Muslim man from Michigan whose death last year raised troubling questions about the conduct of those who run the Marines’ storied training complex in Parris Island, South Carolina.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has investigated 20 Marine drill instructors, officers and staff members amid allegations of hazing, assault and discriminating against Muslim recruits dating to 2015. Thirteen Marines already have faced some form of discipline, said Capt. Joshua Pena, a Marine Corps spokesman.
Now, only two await their fate: Felix and his former coworker, Sgt. Michael Eldridge, who accepted a plea deal to testify against Felix in exchange for a brief jail sentence.
Felix, a former air traffic controller and Iraq War veteran, is charged with maltreatment and obstruction of justice. He has pleaded not guilty.
The jury will begin deliberating Thursday morning.
Felix was “drunk on power, and sometimes Fireball whiskey,” Lt. Col. John Norman, a prosecutor, told the jury Wednesday. “He wasn’t making Marines – he was breaking Marines.”
The first two Muslim recruits allegedly victimized by Felix were Ameer Bourmeche and Rekan Hawez, prosecutors said. Both testified during his court martial that Felix and Eldridge put them into an industrial clothes dryer. A third Muslim recruit who prosecutors say faced abuse by Felix was Siddiqui, who prosecutors say was slapped repeatedly by Felix before he jumped 40 feet to his death in March 2016.
Numerous witnesses told the court they heard Felix call the Muslim recruits “terrorist” and “ISIS,” which is another name for the Islamic State. A recruit from Siddiqui’s platoon, Lance Cpl. Shane McDevitt, told the court that Felix called Siddiqui a terrorist at least 10 times.
Felix “picked out three Muslim recruits for special abuse because of their Muslim faith,” Norman said in closing. “He put human beings in dryers. Human beings. Fellow Marines.”
Felix’s attorney, Navy Lt. Cdr. Daniel Bridges, said his client did not know the three recruits were Muslim, and that when he slapped Siddiqui, he was trying to give the struggling recruit medical care. Siddiqui complained of respiratory trouble in the moments before his death.
Siddiqui’s family has filed a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against the Marine Corps and the U.S. government, disputing the Marine Corps’ and a South Carolina medical examiner’s ruling of suicide. Rather, they’ve alleged that Siddiqui was driven to his death by his drill instructors.
Felix’s defense team presented only two witnesses during the trial: a mechanical engineer specializing in clothes dryers and a forensic pathologist. Dozens of witnesses, including other drill instructors who worked with Felix and at least 20 former recruits who trained under him, offered testimony for the prosecution.
A central issue is determining the point at which a drill instructor’s conduct crosses the line from being discipline to abuse. The Marines articulate that boundary in a regulations manual that allows drill instructors to make certain forms of physical contact with recruits but outlaws others, such as punching, kicking and slapping.
“Drill instructors must provide leadership by example, foregoing fear and intimidation,” the manual states.
Bridges argued that the order often is violated by drill instructors, who are trying to impart toughness and military values any way they can. He cited one recruit who said Felix had knocked his rifle into him while standing at attention, bloodying his ear.
“Let’s be honest, that’s a drill correction,” Bridges said. “If you scare and surprise, maybe they won’t be lazy next time.”
The military prosecutor countered, saying Felix “had that down to a science.”
“He was very good at scaring them,” Norman said.
Another key component of the trial was the testimony of Felix’s fellow drill instructor, Eldridge, who accepted an immunity deal that compelled him to testify against his former colleague. Eldridge, who was a party to some of the alleged abuse, will plead no contest and spend 60 days in a military jail, Bridges said.
Bridges argued that Eldridge was responsible for putting on recruit in the clothes dryer and turning it on, but said he “jumped on that government gravy train” to save himself at Felix’s expense.
“Sergeant Eldridge took the government for a ride, no doubt about that,” Bridges told the member panel, a jury of Marines of equal or superior rank to Felix.
In his rebuttal, Norman explained why the prosecution relied on Eldridge’s testimony.
“It takes criminals to catch criminals,” he said. “The reason Sergeant Eldridge knew so much about what [Felix] did was because he was standing right there with him.”