NAVAL STATION NORFOLK, Va. — A Navy SEAL pleaded guilty Thursday in the hazing death of a Special Forces soldier, acknowledging his role in a case that pulled back the veil of secrecy on a sensitive U.S. military deployment in Africa.
In a pretrial agreement, Chief Special Warfare Operator Adam C. Matthews pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit assault, unlawful entry, obstruction of justice and violating a general order by committing hazing. He had faced additional charges, including felony murder.
Navy Capt. Michael J. Luken, the judge in the case, sentenced Matthews on Thursday to one year of imprisonment, a demotion in rank to special operator second class and a bad-conduct discharge, which will take away most of his medical benefits.
Matthews said that he, along with another member of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 and two elite Marine Raiders, caused the death of Army Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar, 34, by carrying out a “juvenile” late-night plot to break into the soldier’s room with a sledgehammer, place him in a chokehold, restrain him with duct tape and record it on video. The incident happened June 4, 2017, in Mali’s capital, Bamako.
Matthews, who grew up in Northern Virginia, said that he wanted to apologize to “the many I have hurt through my actions” and that there was no justification for them. He had been on the ground in Mali less than two days when he participated in the hazing and should have stopped it, he said.
“I am tormented by my complacency at a time when my teammates required my guidance and the situation required bold, corrective action,” Matthews said as the Melgar family watched from nearby.
The conviction marks a fall from grace for a man who had served at the most elite level in the U.S. military after growing up in a troubled family, according to character witnesses who testified on his behalf.
Matthews first joined the Navy in 2003, earning a Purple Heart after being wounded in a mountainside operation in Afghanistan. He was decorated several times for valor and participated in the rescue of an American who had been held captive abroad, said one of the SEAL’s defense attorneys, retired Rear Adm. Christian Reismeier, the former chief judge of the Navy.
The other SEAL, Chief Special Warfare Operator Anthony DeDolph, and the Marines, Gunnery Sgt. Mario Madera-Rodriguez and Staff Sgt. Kevin Maxwell, still face court-martial. They had been in Mali for months with Melgar when he was killed. All four service members attempted to cover up what happened, Matthews acknowledged.
In his testimony, the SEAL also implicated another service member who has not been charged. Army Sgt 1st Class James Morris, Melgar's team leader in Mali, was consulted before the hazing occurred, approved it and went back to bed, Matthews said. That detail was not included in hundreds of pages of filings previously obtained and reviewed by The Washington Post.
In his interviews with authorities, Morris described there being friction among the men over what the others perceived as Melgar’s immaturity.
Morris could not be reached for comment.
In the hours before the attack, Matthews told the court, Melgar angered the others when he left them behind on his way to a party in Bamako. Melgar was traveling on a motorcycle by himself, raising safety concerns in a country with occasional terrorist attacks, the SEAL recounted.
“It is not, in general, a safe area to transit,” Matthews said.
Melgar's family and friends testified in victim impact statements, recalling him as a gregarious soldier who joined the Army after deciding he wanted to do something more with his life than tend bar and then repeatedly braved enemy fire in Afghanistan.
Melgar’s widow, Michelle, told the court that all she ever wanted was the truth about what happened to her husband. While she said Matthews caused her and her children a lot of pain and confusion, she said that she did not care how long Matthews is confined and that she forgives him.
“The important thing to me is that you are no longer able to do this to another service member and no longer able to wear the SEALs’ Trident, which so many other people do honorably,” she said.
Lt. Cmdr. Benjamin B. Garcia, the Navy prosecutor, argued that Matthews deserved the maximum sentence available under his pretrial agreement.
“Moral courage in a situation like that is more important than physical courage,” Garcia said of the night Melgar died.
Reismeier argued that while there was a “stream of bad decision-making,” Matthews needs medical benefits after years of combat deployments.
“Adam Matthews is a hero, too,” Reismeier said, “and he should be treated as such.”