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Former DI Found Guilty of Hazing Muslim Recruits, Assaulting Others

In this Oct., 31, 2017 photo, U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph A. Felix, his wife, and his lawyers exit a courtroom after testimony at Camp Lejeune, N.C. (Rory Laverty /The Washington Post/via AP)
In this Oct., 31, 2017 photo, U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph A. Felix, his wife, and his lawyers exit a courtroom after testimony at Camp Lejeune, N.C. (Rory Laverty /The Washington Post/via AP)

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- A former Marine Corps drill instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina, is guilty of tumbling a Muslim recruit in an industrial dryer in a liquor-fueled hazing session, and abusing and assaulting a dozen others, a military jury has found.

Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix is guilty of three counts of maltreatment and seven counts of violation of a general order for hazing recruits, including three Muslim recruits in three different platoons. He was also found guilty of drunk and disorderly conduct and making a false official statement to a Marine Corps investigator during an investigation into his own behavior.

He was acquitted on an obstruction of justice charge and an orders violation pertaining to conducting unauthorized physical incentive training with recruits in his platoons.

The decision was reached after 8 p.m. Thursday following 12 hours of deliberations and 10 days of testimony, during which dozens of former Marine recruits and drill instructors testified.

A bright spotlight was turned on to allegations of recruit hazing at Parris Island after the March 18, 2016, death of 20-year-old Raheel Siddiqui, a Pakistani-American Muslim recruit from Michigan who reportedly leapt from the third floor of a squad bay 11 days after arriving at boot camp. A South Carolina medical examiner ruled Siddiqui's death a suicide, but the recruit's family continues to dispute that finding.

After Siddiqui's death, 15 drill instructors and five other senior leaders at the boot camp were removed from their posts.

Felix, 34, was charged and designated for trial in general court-martial after three separate 2016 command investigations into hazing allegations, including one focused on Siddiqui's death. In that investigation, Felix was named as a senior drill instructor who slapped Siddiqui and made him conduct physical "incentive training" as punishment in the minutes before his tragic suicide.

Another investigation made public for the first time allegations of Felix's involvement in a previous alleged hazing incident involving a Muslim recruit.

That recruit, Ameer Bourmeche, reported being woken, made to conduct incentive training in the shower, then being ushered into the "Maytag Room" for a hazing ritual involving an industrial dryer. Bourmeche, who also alleged Felix called him a "terrorist" and told him "I've been fighting [expletive] like you," said Felix ordered him into the dryer and turned it on, opening it at intervals to ask him if he was still a Muslim in a mock interrogation.

Felix was also charged with ordering Bourmeche to simulate chopping off a platoon mate's head while shouting "Allahu Akbar," and tying Bourmeche up with a Marine Corps Martial Arts Program belt.

The Jury found Felix had called Bourmeche a terrorist, tumbled him in the dryer and hazed him in the shower, but found him not guilty of the simulated decapitation ritual and of saying he had been fighting [expletive] like Bourmeche.

The biggest surprise in the 10-day trial came with the testimony of Rekan Hawez, a former Marine recruit from Iraqi Kurdistan who testified that Felix began calling him "ISIS" and "Terrorist" after he discovered Hawez' ethnicity. In July 2015, on the same night Felix is accused of hazing Bourmeche, Hawez testified he told him "Hey ISIS, get in the dryer," and made him sit in the drum, though Felix did not turn it on.

Hawez, whose allegations were not included within the 2016 command investigation, was later contacted by Naval Criminal Investigative Service officials in connection with the Felix case and revealed his account.

Felix had allegedly been drinking Fireball Whisky in the parking lot with other drill instructors prior to this reported hazing ritual, and was charged with dereliction of duty and drunk and disorderly conduct in addition to the hazing charges. During trial, former recruits testified they could smell the cinnamon-flavored liquor on his breath and said he had openly talked about how much he liked it.

Felix was found guilty of all charges related to Hawez.

Hawez' revelations meant Felix was accused of singling out three Muslim recruits, all from different platoons, for special abuse. Hawez was a member of Third Recruit Training Battalion, Kilo Company, Platoon 3052, for which Felix then served as a drill instructor. Bourmeche belonged to a neighboring platoon, 3054.

Siddiqui was part of Platoon 3042, which Felix joined in 2016 on his first tour as senior drill instructor.

Felix, who had served as a drill instructor in four previous three-month training cycles, had begun to persecute Siddiqui even before the day of his death.

"Context is important here," Lt. Col. John Norman, an attorney for the prosecution, said in his closing statements. "He had been calling Siddiqui a terrorist already. In school circles, that's how he was known. [He said] Recruit Siddiqui 'smelled like a terrorist.'"

On March 18, Siddiqui woke up and wrote a note complaining that his throat was so sore he couldn't speak and he was coughing up blood. When he couldn't sound off, Felix allegedly made him start running back and forth in the squad bay. When Siddiqui clutched his throat and collapsed, Felix was accused of slapping his face and screaming at him.

The court found Felix not guilty of calling Siddiqui a terrorist, but guilty of forcing him to run back and forth and slapping him when he fell.

In the course of investigating the accounts of hazing described in the command report, prosecutors turned up even more accounts of recruit mistreatment.

Recruits from both of Felix's platoons alleged he made violent corrections for missteps and training failures. Among allegations that were charged under violation of a general order were accounts of Felix slapping and punching recruits in the face, choking recruits, and forcing recruits to choke each other.

Other accounts of illegal incentive training described Felix pouring Gain laundry detergent on the squad bay deck and forcing recruits to crawl through it until their skin burned and orders to scrub the floor with a "scuzz brush" until the brush's wooden handle disintegrated.

Felix was acquitted of the charge related to the unauthorized incentive training, or IT, allegations, but found guilty of crowding 30-40 recruits into a laundry room and walking on them.

The most stomach-churning allegation to emerge was an account that Felix forced a group of recruits to drink chocolate milk in the depot chow hall until the dispenser was empty, then demanded they complete incentive training, until some of them were vomiting.

"There's only one reason to do that," Norman said. "It's to abuse; to harass."

The jury found Felix guilty of the chocolate milk incident, and of choking recruits on four occasions and forcing one recruit to choke another on two different occasions.

He was also found guilty of striking three different recruits with an open hand and with his fist, push-kicking a locker into a recruit's chest, and ordering a recruit to choke himself with a chain in a scenario that echoes the 1987 film, "Full Metal Jacket."

Felix "bullied and brutalized the recruits of three training platoons," Norman said.

"He picked out three Muslim recruits for special abuse because of their Muslim faith," he added.

Between the prosecution and defense, dozens of witnesses were called over the course of the trial. The thickly built former drill instructor did not testify, but listened to testimony and arguments with a furrowed brow. He stood silent and stoic when his verdict was read.

While prosecutors in the case described Felix as a "bully" who preferred to dominate and torment his recruits rather than train them, the gunnery sergeant's defense team described a very different scenario.

Felix's attorney, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Clay Bridges, scoffed at testimony from former recruits, saying it was so contradictory and in cases overblown that it could not be believed.

He held up testimony from one recruit who alleged he saw Felix choking another and lifting him off the ground.

"Apparently, Gunnery Sgt. Felix is the Hulk," he said.

Bridges said the account of the hazing involving chocolate milk in the chow hall was especially unbelievable, even though 19 former recruits testified to it.

"If the scene from the exorcist is playing out with the chief drill instructor, [senior drill instructor,] everybody [around,] what do you think is going to happen?" he said. "Just because a lot of people said it doesn't mean it's beyond a reasonable doubt."

Bridges described slaps administered to Siddiqui and another recruit, Garrett Issel, on separate occasions, as emergency measures designed to bring them back to consciousness after they passed out. When in situations like that, Bridges said, "you're not in the [recruit training order] anymore."

Regarding Bourmeche and the dryer incident, Bridges said Sgt. Michael Eldridge, a government witness in the case, is also to blame. Eldridge is the last of six Parris Island drill instructors to face hazing charges, and agreed to testify against Felix as part of a plea deal that will send him to an administrative summary court-martial and limit any sentence to 60 days.

Bridges jabbed a finger at Felix.

"Sgt. Eldridge saved himself at his expense," he said.

Five other drill instructors were charged with hazing in incidents unrelated to the Siddiqui and Bourmeche cases: Staff Sgt. Antonio Burke, Sgt. Riley Gress, Staff Sgt. Matthew Bacchus and Staff Sgt. Jose Lucena-Martinez. Gress was acquitted, and the others received various levels of punishment at legal and administrative hearings.

Because of its relation to Siddiqui's death, Felix's case is one of the most high-profile Marine Corps hazing cases in the service's history. The case has been compared in news reports to the Ribbon Creek incident, a deadly case of alleged hazing that also took place aboard Parris Island. In 1956, six recruits drowned, when a drill instructor, Staff Sgt. Matthew McKeon, marched his platoon into the swampy creek after having drunk alcohol.

Ultimately, McKeon was convicted of negligent homicide and drinking on duty, and sentenced to three months in the brig before returning to service.

The sentence for Felix, expected to be handed down Friday, could well exceed McKeon's. For each charge of maltreatment, Felix could face up to a year behind bars. Each charge of violation of a general order carries with it a maximum sentence of two years. Felix also faces the possibility of a punitive discharge and forfeiture of all rank, pay, and military benefits.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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Headlines Marine Corps Military Hazing Military Recruitment Boot Camp Hope Seck

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