The first of a series of court-martials involving Marine Corps drill instructors accused of hazing recruits at boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina began Monday at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, Marine Corps officials said.
Sgt. Riley R. Gress, a former Parris Island drill instructor, is accused of violation of a lawful general order, cruelty and maltreatment, and false official statement. He is being tried in special court-martial, an intermediate-level court for those facing no more than 12 months' confinement.
Gress has pleaded not guilty to all charges, said Capt. Joshua Pena, a spokesman for Marine Corps Training and Education Command. The panel, or jury, hearing the case is made up of three officers and six enlisted Marines and is being presided over by military judge Maj. Rob D. Merrill.
Gress is one of six drill instructors who have been charged so far in connection with a trio of command investigations that substantiated a wide range of hazing incidents, from recruits being forced to conduct excessive physical training in dusty abandoned buildings to a Muslim recruit being stuffed into the drum of an industrial dryer in a mock interrogation. All were said to occur in units within Third Recruit Training Battalion, one of four major training units at Parris Island.
Hazing concerns were first raised last March after Raheel Siddiqui, a 20-year-old Pakistani-American recruit from Michigan, died in a three-story fall that has been determined a suicide. His family continues to contest that finding. An investigation focused on the Siddiqui incident alone found that Siddiqui, who had previously voiced suicidal ideations, was forced to run back and forth and screamed at and slapped by a senior drill instructor just before his death.
The same drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix, has also been implicated in the incident involving the recruit and the dryer.
Gress does not appear to be connected directly to either of those incidents. A third investigation that implicated a number of drill instructors, including Gress, was launched after an anonymous letter was sent to President Barack Obama in April 2016, alleging abuse and hazing of recruits within Third Recruit Training Battalion's Kilo company, platoon 3044. Some 56 recruits and three family members were interviewed for the 50-page investigation.
They alleged, among other things, recruits being forced to run and do push-ups in a dust and debris-covered abandoned squad bay known as the dungeon; drill instructors striking recruits without fear of retaliatory action; recruits being forced to eat large amounts of bread and bagels without water as a punishment; and recruits who were forced to fight each other while drill instructors watched.
Gress' court-martial is expected to continue into Friday, according to an official Marine Corps docket.
Trials are upcoming for five other drill instructors:
- Staff Sgt. Matthew Bacchus is set to face special court-martial at Quantico beginning June 12 on charges of violation of a lawful general order, cruelty and maltreatment, and false official statement.
- Staff Sgt. Jose Lucena-Martinez is set to face special court-martial at Quantico beginning at a yet-to-be-released date in June on charges of violation of a lawful general order and false official statement.
- Staff Sgt. Antonio Burke is set to face general court-martial at Quantico in July on charges of disobeying a noncommissioned officer, failure to obey a lawful general order, cruelty and maltreatment, false official statement, wrongful appropriation, violation of a general article.
- Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix is set to face general court-martial at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina beginning Aug. 7 on charges of failure to obey a lawful general order, cruelty and maltreatment, false official statement, and drunk and disorderly conduct and obstruction of justice.
- Staff Sgt. Michael Eldridge is set to face general court-martial at Camp Lejeune in September on charges of failure to obey a lawful general order, cruelty and maltreatment, false official statement, and drunk and disorderly conduct.
The trial dates may change based on ongoing proceedings. In all, 15 drill instructors were sidelined in connection with the three investigations. It's not clear if more charges are forthcoming.