Ex-drill sergeant of Taylor recruit guilty of abuse

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Camp Lejeune, North Carolina — A military jury has found a former drill instructor at Parris Island guilty of abusing three Muslim recruits including Raheel Siddiqui of Taylor, who fell to his death at the Parris Island boot camp last year.

The jury next will consider sentencing for Gunnery Sgt. Joseph A. Felix Jr., a 34-year-old Iraq veteran, who could face time in military prison, forfeiture of pay, a reduction in rank or a dishonorable discharge.

Prosecutors had said Felix violated orders and maltreated recruits by punching, choking, kicking and verbally abusing them.

They also said he ordered or condoned large amounts of unauthorized “incentive training,” or punitive exercises, such as forcing recruits to “low-crawl” through Gain laundry detergent that had been poured on the floor of the barracks squad bay, causing at least one recruit to suffer chemical burns.

In another instance, he forced his recruits to drink up to six glasses of chocolate milk until they emptied the bladder dispenser, then made them to do more incentive training.

The government alleged that Felix zeroed in on three Muslim recruits, including Siddiqui, for “special abuse” because of their faith, referring to each as “terrorist” and stuffing two of them into an industrial Speed Queen dryer in July 2015.

Other charges related to allegations that Felix left his platoon after “lights out” on two occasions to drink whiskey with other drill instructors in the parking lot (dereliction of duty), and that Felix lied to an investigator who was looking into the dryer incident (making false official statements).

During testimony, Felix’s lawyers challenged the stories of the government’s witnesses, mostly former recruits, saying they contradicted one another and were exaggerated, unrealistic and “outlandish.”

They said Parris Island drill instructors call all recruits “terrorists” and that DIs must sometimes stray from the conduct authorized in their manual to do their jobs.

The defense also argued that another drill instructor who testified against Felix about his alleged misconduct “saved himself” after making a plea deal with the prosecution.

The eight-man jury, which convened Oct. 27, was made up of three Marine officers and five senior enlisted members. To convict, two-thirds of the panel had to agree to a guilty finding.

During deliberations, the jury on Thursday listened back to the testimony of Lance Cpl. Ameer Bourmeche, one of the former recruits forced into a dryer in 2015.

The court-martial the first public prosecution by the Marines involving the case of Siddiqui, who was 20 years old and less than two weeks into boot camp on March 18, 2016, when he died after a standoff with Felix.

Siddiqui had asked to go to the sick bay for a sore throat, but Felix ordered him to run several sprints across the squad bay until Siddiqui collapsed. Felix slapped Siddiqui while he was down — to revive him, according to Felix’s attorneys — then Siddiqui got up and ran out of a door to the stairwell.

This was not discussed in court, per the judge’s ruling, but Siddiqui went over the stairwell railing, his foot caught, and he seemed to tumble over, falling more than 38 feet to the concrete below, according to a report by Marine investigators.

The investigators concluded that “maltreatment” by Siddiqui’s drill instructor team was one of several factors contributing to his death, which was ruled a suicide. Siddiqui’s family has said their son did not kill himself.

His parents, Ghazala and Masood Siddiqui, sued the Marine Corps for $100 million last month, claiming their son was assaulted, hazed and discriminated against because of his Islamic faith, and that military officials were negligent in failing to protect him.

Felix was not charged in Siddiqui’s death, but prosecutors alleged that he obstructed justice by discouraging recruits in Siddiqui’s platoon from talking to investigators, telling them, “what happens in the squad bay, stays in the squad bay.” Felix was found not guilty on this specific portion of the charge.

His superiors replaced Felix at the head of Platoon 3042, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, shortly after Siddiqui’s death, placing him in a supportive position at Parris Island, where he was no longer supervising recruits, according to the Marines.

Felix arrived at Parris Island in 2014 and had served four previous three-month cycles as a drill instructor. His fifth, with Platoon 3042, was his first as senior drill instructor, meaning he was in charge of the platoon.

Felix joined the Marines in August 2002. He served in Iraq and during his career received three Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, according to the Marines.

His trial follows a series of Marine Corps investigations last year that revealed systemic hazing and abuse of recruits within the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion at Parris Island.

The Marines plan to try the former commander of the 3rd Battalion next year on charges including failure to ensure Felix was not supervising recruits while he was under investigation for his role in the 2015 dryer incident.

Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon was relieved of his command a week after Siddiqui’s death. Marine Corps officials have said the decision to fire Kissoon was related to prior allegations and was made before Siddiqui died. Kissoon’s court-martial is set to begin March 12 in Quantico, Virginia.

After the hazing investigations, the Marines said they had identified 20 officers and enlisted members at Parris Island who could face potential administrative or judicial action.

Eleven cases were handled administratively by the Marines, which won’t disclose what action was taken. Seven were referred to a court-martial, including Felix, and another drill instructor was acquitted.

The Marines found no evidence of misconduct for the last two personnel implicated in the probes, according to Capt. Joshua Pena, a spokesman for the Training and Education Command.

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