November 6, 2017 at 7:16 PM
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — Several Marines who were attending boot camp with a Muslim recruit when he died told a military court Monday that before Raheel Siddiqui jumped to his death last year, the drill instructor who allegedly slapped and abused him had also choked, kicked and assaulted others.
The trial of Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix entered its second week with testimony from a parade of active-duty Marines, reservists and civilians who were at Parris Island, S.C., with Siddiqui, who died there March 18, 2016.
Prosecutors say Felix called Siddiqui a “terrorist,” then disciplined and slapped him repeatedly until Siddiqui sprinted out of the squad bay, jumped over a rail and fell 40 feet onto a concrete stairway. He was pronounced dead three hours later.
Felix faces obstruction-of-justice charges along with charges of maltreatment, dereliction of duty, violating orders, drunk and disorderly conduct, and making false official statements. He pleaded not guilty.
The Siddiqui family has filed a $100 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the Marine Corps and the federal government, alleging it was a culture of hazing and abuse that drove Siddiqui to his death. About 20 of Siddiqui’s former platoon mates, many of whom witnessed his last moments, were called by the prosecution to testify against Felix.
Prosecutors asked them about five incidents in March 2016. They allege that Felix choked one recruit in the shower; encouraged others to choke fellow recruits for infractions such as smiling or laughing; kicked a foot locker held by a recruit, who was knocked to the floor; forced recruits to endure unapproved physical discipline in the shower room, such as wall sits and walking lunges; and made them scrub their barracks floor using a “scuzz brush” while crawling.
Lance Cpl. Tyler Stanley testified that one evening he was in the shower room, waiting for the hot water to come on, when Felix “grabbed me by the neck and put me into the wall. My head hit the wall three times as he spoke to me. . . . He told me he had caught me smiling again and I should stop.”
Other recruits said they witnessed that shower incident.
Felix “cocked his arm back, grabbed [Stanley] by the neck, and threw him up against the bulkhead,” Cpl. Brandon Yu said.
Felix “grabbed him by the neck and put him against the wall . . . with a great deal of force,” former recruit Bryce Herman said.
Another former recruit, Lance Cpl. Marco Assuncao, confirmed the testimony of Yu, Herman and Stanley.
The next day, Stanley testified, Felix caught another recruit smiling and told Stanley to show the young man what happens to recruits who smile or laugh. “So I put my hands around the other recruit’s neck,” Stanley said. “I didn’t squeeze. But [Felix] told me to keep doing it.”
On the morning of his death, Siddiqui awoke with a sore throat and wrote a note saying he had no voice. When he failed to address his senior drill instructor properly, Felix had Siddiqui run the length of the squad bay repeatedly until Siddiqui fell to the ground with his hands around his neck, Herman and Assuncao said.
Felix asked him to “get up and keep going, and to respond, but Recruit Siddiqui was not following orders or getting up. He was not making any sound,” Assuncao said. “Gunnery Sergeant Felix then slapped Recruit Siddiqui. I heard it, and Recruit Siddiqui’s head turned to the side.”
Seconds later, prosecutors said, Siddiqui stood, sprinted out of the squad bay and fell to his death.
Several recruits testified that they heard Felix call Siddiqui a “terrorist” and that after his death, when the Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation was underway, their senior drill instructor told them, “What happens in the squad bay stays in the squad bay.”
The investigation into the secretive world of Marine Corps drill instructors on Parris Island began in earnest after Siddiqui’s death in 2016. Twenty instructors, officers and staff members were investigated during the NCIS probe of the Marine training battalion on Parris Island, and 13 faced some form of legal or disciplinary proceedings, said Capt. Joshua Pena of Marine Corps Public Affairs. One was acquitted at court-martial, and the only two still awaiting legal resolution are onetime friends, Felix and Sgt. Michael Eldridge.
In the trial’s first week, prosecutors focused on incidents in July 2015, alleging that Felix and Eldridge put two Muslim recruits, Lance Cpl. Ameer Bourmeche and Rekan Hawez, now a civilian, into industrial clothes dryers and turned on the dryer with Bourmeche in it.
The drill instructors were once close, working 16-hour days together in the squad bays, then blowing off steam after hours by drinking Fireball whiskey in a parking lot outside, prosecutors say. But Friday, after Eldridge cut an immunity deal to testify against his former friend, they faced off as adversaries in the courtroom here.
Felix’s attorney, Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Bridges, said Eldridge played a more active role than Felix did in the dryer incidents. But on Sept. 1, Eldridge’s charges were reduced and prosecutors referred him to a summary court-martial, a lesser military proceeding where he faces reduced charges and a maximum sentence of 30 days in a military jail. In return, Eldridge testified against Felix, the Marine Corps said.
A week ago, when Bourmeche testified against Felix, prosecutors wheeled in a 400-pound industrial dryer, the same model that Bourmeche and Hawez were allegedly forced to climb into, and placed it in front of the military jury.
Bourmeche, now a 23-year-old hydraulic mechanic in Camp Pendleton, Calif., showed the members how he climbed into the dryer as ordered, and how the drill instructors closed the door and turned on the dryer for a few seconds with him inside.
Twice after the dryer stopped, the drill instructors allegedly asked him whether he was still a Muslim, Bourmeche testified, and he answered “Yes.” Each time, he said, they closed the door and turned the dryer back on. After the third tumble, crying and fearing for his life, he said he answered “No,” and the drill instructors let him out.
“I didn’t think they were going to do that to me,” Bourmeche said. “It gets hot in there.”