Marines to court-martial drill instructor after Muslim recruit's death

Drill instructor to be charged in Michigan Marine's death

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Marine Corps said Wednesday that charges against a drill instructor linked to the death of a 20-year-old Muslim recruit from Taylor will move forward to a military trial, though they will not include the more serious charges the recruit’s family had wanted.

The Marine Corps’ Training and Education Command, based in Quantico, Va., announced that Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix, who served as drill instructor to Raheel Siddiqui, will face a general court-martial on a charge of cruelty and maltreatment. A source with knowledge of the underlying allegations behind the charge said it was related to Siddiqui’s death at the Marines' Parris Island, S.C., training base on March 18 of last year.

Felix, whose name was publicly released for the first time, is accused of slapping Siddiqui just before he fell three stories from a stairwell at his barracks. An earlier investigation found that the drill instructor had verbally and physically abused Siddiqui, including calling him a "terrorist," and that his actions just prior to Siddiqui's death were directly linked to the fall, which a local coroner called a suicide, though his family rejects that.

The charges against Felix come more than a year after his death and exhaustive reporting by the Free Press, which scoured investigative records to show instances where Siddiqui and other recruits were allegedly abused, threatened and demeaned. The Free Press also visited Parris Island to document the unique pressures facing both recruits and drill instructors at the iconic training ground and measures being taken to curb abuses.

Related: Parris Island drill instructors face scrutiny after recruit's death

But Siddiqui's family was disappointed in the charges brought against Felix on Wednesday, with their lawyer, Shiraz Khan of Southfield, saying the charges "do not align with the facts, evidence and history of this case and are indicative of a remarkable deviation from the (Marine Corps) command investigation into (Siddiqui's death)."

"(A) patriotic young American is dead because of what happened to him at Parris Island," Khan said. "The physical findings on Raheel's body tell a story of torture, abuse and suffering. ... (D)espite facts and evidentiary material to the contrary, there are no apparent charges of assault, and no consideration of manslaughter or murder at this time."

Khan also wondered why Felix is the only Parris Island service member charged in relation to Siddiqui's death when the earlier investigation into his death and other reports indicated 20 or more people could be implicated in abuses at the base.

"Where are those other charges? Khan asked. "Raheel's family deserves to know what happened there."

The Marines Corps Training and Education Command offered no additional information about the charges or the timing of a court-martial, saying only that an arraignment for Felix, who also faces charges of failure to obey orders, making a false statement and being drunk and disorderly, will be scheduled at Camp LeJeune, N.C.

A source also told the Free Press that the sergeant will face two other counts of maltreatment related to other instances of alleged hazing, though the Marines' statement did not confirm that.

If found guilty of a cruelty and maltreatment charge involving Siddiqui, a former high school valedictorian who was less than two weeks into boot camp, Felix could face a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and confinement for up to two years. The other charges carry a variety of terms of confinement from six months to five years, as well as other penalties.

The earlier investigation also found that Felix should not even have been attached to Siddiqui’s training platoon, already having been part of an earlier probe into an incident in which he was accused of another Muslim recruit being ordered into an industrial dryer, which was then turned on and burned him.

A second drill instructor, Sgt. Michael Eldridge, also had charges referred for a general court martial related to hazing at Parris Island, including cruelty and maltreatment, making a false statement, drunk and disorderly conduct and failure to obey an order. It was believed that Eldridge's allegations were linked to the earlier incident involving the dryer.

All along, Siddiqui’s family has rejected the finding by the coroner in South Carolina that Raheel's death was a suicide, maintaining that he had shown no previous evidence of mental illness. The earlier investigation found that some days before his death, however, that Siddiqui had talked about committing suicide. He was returned to his platoon — improperly, according to the probe — after recanting.

Siddiqui also had apparently reported that he had been hit and physically abused, but that report was never relayed up the chain of command, the investigation found. In the wake of Siddiqui’s death and the investigation into it and other incidents, more than 20 personnel have been either relieved or suspended related to allegations of recruit hazing and abuse, pending disciplinary action. Four leaders on base have been removed as well.

Last month, the Free Press first reported that the Marines were preparing to hold a preliminary hearing, known as an Article 32 hearing in military parlance, to decide whether the charges against the gunnery sergeant should move forward, but he waived that hearing late last week.

When the Marines confirmed for the Free Press that the gunnery sergeant was being considered for charges that did not include assault as recommended by the earlier investigation, a lawyer for Siddiqui’s family said the Marine Corps’ actions did not seem severe enough.

“The charges appear to be insufficient and do not address the magnitude of the torture, assault, abuse, hazing, neglect and maltreatment” to which Siddiqui was subjected, Khan said at the time.

"I assure you that our office will challenge the manner of death and take all necessary steps to ensure this grieving family gets the answers and justice they deserve," Khan said Wednesday night.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, whose district includes Taylor and who has worked with Marine officials in trying to ensure changes were made and those responsible were held accountable, said she was determined to continue working to get the finding of suicide overturned "since the investigation has given no specific evidence" Siddiqui set out to kill himself. According to the earlier investigation, after being hit by Felix and forced to run in the barracks despite saying he needed medical attention, Siddiqui ran out an exterior door and vaulted over a stairwell rail, his foot catching the railing. He fell about 38 feet to the ground, dying later at a local hospital.

"We will never know what happened that day but it is very clear to me and others based on the facts revealed in the investigation that it was not Private Siddiqui's intention to take his own life," Dingell said.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and who first relayed to the Free Press that charges were under consideration, said Wednesday's announcement underscored the importance that the Marines are "taking action against those who may bear responsibility for abuse or mistreatment" of Siddiqui.

"We must ensure that this never happens again," he said, adding, "It's critical that the Marine Corps continue their  efforts to put an end to (Parris Island's) pervasive culture of hazing."

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Contact Todd Spangler: 703-854-8947 or tspangler@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @tsspangler.

© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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