Witness: Marine sergeant targeted recruit Raheel Siddiqui before death

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - A drill instructor accused of mistreating recruits targeted "weaker" recruits, including Raheel Siddiqui of Taylor, to force them out of the Corps, according to another member of Siddiqui's platoon who testified at Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix's court-martial as the prosecution wrapped up its case Tuesday.

Closing arguments in the case against Felix are expected to begin as soon as Wednesday. He is accused of mistreating several recruits and calling Siddiqui, a 20-year-old Muslim recruit, a terrorist and slapping him in the moments before his death on March 18, 2016, at the training base at Parris Island, S.C.

In testimony Tuesday, Lance Cpl. Austin Trausi said Felix singled out weaker members of the training platoon as a way to "break them" and force them out, adding that even if one of the "stronger" recruits did something wrong, Felix and his other drill instructors often blamed the weaker ones — a group that he said included Siddiqui  —  even if they performed the exercise or command as ordered.

He said Felix did so "to try to weed them out or to turn people against each other."

Trausi's testimony came just before the prosecution rested its case against Felix. Lawyers for the defense then began their case, attempting to rebut allegations that the drill instructor also ordered another Muslim recruit into an industrial dryer and turned it on, burning him.

►More: A family's anguish: How did Raheel Siddiqui lose his life at Marines boot camp?

Scott Esser, a mechanical engineer from Wisconsin whose company made the dryer used by the platoon in question, indicated that the air temperature entering a dryer when it is turned on, even in a low-heat setting, reaches hundreds of degrees within 30 seconds, suggesting that the recruit would have likely suffered injuries that he denies having.

Prosecution lawyers, however, challenged Esser, getting him to agree that many variables — including the age and condition of the actual 5-year-old Speed Queen dryer, which he did not examine — could change those calculations, as could the length of time it was on, which may be in doubt.

Esser also agreed that  "it would be dangerous to put a human in a dryer" for any length of time. Two Muslim recruits have accused Felix of ordering them into dryers the summer before Siddiqui's death.

The case is being heard by an eight-member panel of Marines.

The defense is expected to continue its case Wednesday morning by calling an expert who may testify to the injuries Muslim recruit Ameer Bourmeche should have suffered if exposed to such temperatures. The defense team has been challenging prosecution witnesses throughout the week-long trial, arguing that Felix's actions were consistent with his responsibilities to train recruits.

The defense has also noted that several recruits and other drill instructors believed Felix was joking when he used the word "terrorist" in regards to Siddiqui and other Muslim recruits and that when he slapped Siddiqui, he did so in an attempt to wake him up after it appeared he passed out.

Siddiqui's death in a three-story fall from his barracks has been deemed by the Marines and a local coroner as a suicide, even though his family has rejected that he would, as a faithful Muslim and son, take his own life. They have filed a $100 million lawsuit against the Marines for negligence.

►More: Family of dead Muslim recruit sues Marines for $100 million

The prosecution says that Siddiqui — who had complained about a sore, bleeding throat after only four days of training with the platoon overseen by Felix — was forced by the drill instructor to run multiple laps in the barracks, eventually collapsing. Felix slapped him  — at least once and perhaps multiple times, according to various accounts — after which Siddiqui ran out a door and leaped over a stairwell, falling to his death.

The manner of Siddiqui's death, however, has gone unmentioned at the court-martial because Felix is not directly charged with involvement in it. On Monday and again on Tuesday, witnesses testified that they heard Felix refer to Siddiqui as a "terrorist" because of his Muslim heritage.

Trausi testified that Felix said in meetings with recruits that he didn't believe that Muslims belonged in the Marine Corps, saying at one point, "We're allowing terrorists in." Felix's lawyers, however, maintained that any references he made to terrorists in Siddiqui's presence were meant as a joke.

A drill instructor who served under Felix in Siddiqui's platoon, Staff Sgt. Shawn McGee recalled how on the morning of his death, Siddiqui was able to only croak his number in line for breakfast, and that McGee ordered him to shout as others did. "I didn't know if he was faking it," said McGee. "I needed a response."

McGee said it wasn't uncommon for recruits to get "frog throat" in boot camp from all the yelling required. Drill instructors still typically require recruits to sound off.  

But it was apparently Siddiqui's inability to shout that, according to the defense, that led Felix to order him to run sprints in the barracks while clutching at his neck, eventually collapsing. McGee and several others said they heard or saw the slap that Felix gave him across the face.

McGee said it got Siddiqui's attention.

"I saw the recruit grab his face," McGee said, adding that Siddiqui turned his head toward him from where he lay on the floor. "He looked like maybe he was crying."

Tuesday's testimony began with another former drill instructor, Christopher Minie, saying he never saw Felix abuse Siddiqui in any way —- either by singling him out for punishment or calling him a terrorist. During Minie's testimony, the prosecutor questioning him, Lt. Col. John Norman, said Minie only wanted to help his friend, Felix, noting Minie is now a civilian.

"You're kind of safe at this point, aren't you?" he said.

McGee, meanwhile, noted that some days before Siddiqui's death, he had made a trip "to medical" — shorthand for what investigators say was a suicide threat made by Siddiqui that he later recanted, saying he only wanted a way out and to not be hit anymore — and that when he got back, Felix told the other drill instructors to "go 50% on him" for the next few days.

"His plan was to ease Siddiqui back into training," McGee said.

Siddiqui's reported suicide threat -- like the manner of his death — is off limits for lawyers and witnesses at the trial. Parris Island medical staff determined that Siddiqui was not a high risk of suicide and returned him to Felix's platoon, according to investigators.

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© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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