CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. – A jury has found a former Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island drill instructor guilty of abusing three Muslim former trainees, multiple violations of military law and striking a recruit in the face moments before his fatal fall.
An eight-member panel of half officers, half enlisted men, began deliberating the U.S. government's case against Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix around 8 a.m. Thursday and delivered the verdict more than 12 hours later.
Felix was found guilty of maltreatment of Muslim former recruits Ameer Bourmeche, Rekan Hawez and Raheel Siddiqui. The jury found that Felix ordered Hawez and Bourmeche into industrial clothes dryers in separate instances in July 2015. The jury found Felix turned on the dryer while Bourmeche was in it and, when the machine was turned off, forced him to recant his faith.
Felix was also found guilty of making Siddiqui run punitive sprints and slapping the recruit in the face moments before his death on March 18, 2016.
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The jury found Felix guilty of hitting, choking or kicking around a dozen recruits; of being drunk and disorderly; and of making false statements to an investigator.
Sentencing options in general courts-martial — the highest-level military court — such as this include the death penalty and range widely, to include demotion to the lowest rank, forfeiture of pay, dishonorable discharge and prison time.
The sentencing phase of the trial will begin at 8:30 a.m. Friday, according to judge Lt. Col. Michael Libretto.
Felix was accused of physically abusing nearly 20 recruits, making others perform unauthorized punishment exercises and targeting three Muslim trainees with what prosecutors called "special abuse."
Felix was charged with obstruction of justice for dissuading recruits from talking to investigators in the wake of Siddiqui's death, but was found not guilty. And while he was found guilty of conducting some unauthorized incentive training — punishment exercises — sessions, the jury found he did not order others he was initially charged with.
His court-martial is arguably the most high-profile trial of a Marine Corps drill instructor in more than 60 years, when then-Sgt. Matthew McKeon was found to have consumed alcohol before leading recruits on a punitive nighttime march into Parris Island’s Ribbon Creek, where six trainees drowned.
The allegations against Felix centered on three platoons in Parris Island’s 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, which became the focus of three investigations, which spawned the biggest hazing scandal at depot since Ribbon Creek.
In all, 20 Marines, most of the drill instructors, were scrutinized for misconduct. Just two avoided charges. Seven were referred to courts-martial, one of whom was acquitted entirely. And 11 Marines received administrative punishments, some details of which came out in Felix’s case as his former colleagues testified as part of pre-trial agreements with government prosecutors. Only one drill instructor has returned to his duties, according to the Corps.
The three investigations — two of which included Felix, one of which began prior to March 2016 — were linked in the wake of Siddiqui’s death and moved up the chain of command from Parris Island to Marine Corps Training and Education Command in Quantico, Va.
Siddiqui died March 18, 2016, after falling from the third floor of his barracks. A Marine Corps investigation and multiple witnesses testified they saw Felix, Siddiqui’s senior drill instructor, slap the recruit moments before he fell over a railing near a stairwell.
Felix was reportedly making Siddiqui perform a series of punitive sprints across the length of the squadbay because the trainee failed to properly sound off when attempting to request permission to go to medical. Siddiqui was reportedly sick and had shown at least one drill instructor a note that said he had a sore throat and was coughing up blood.
At some point during the sprints, Siddiqui fell to the floor with his hands around his neck. Some witnesses testified Felix stood over him and slapped him at least once; some witnesses interpreted it as an attempt to revive the recruit, who some said was unresponsive.
Felix was alleged to have called Siddiqui, a 20-year-old Taylor, Mich., native and Muslim-American of Pakistani descent, a “terrorist,” but the jury found him not guilty of that. The jury did, however, find that he called Bururmeche and Hawez derogatory names such as “terrorist,” “ISIS” and “Kurdish.”
The clothes dryer was a focus during the trial. A 400-pound Speed Queen unit, the same type of machine the former recruits said Felix ordered them into, was brought into the courtroom on two separate occasions.
The defense’s two witnesses — a mechanical engineer and forensic pathologist — were dedicated to the dryer, its operation and how badly someone could be burned by it.
Jurors were shown pictures taken by Maj. Meghan Kennerly during her investigation of Bourmeche’s allegations, which began in October 2015, roughly three months after he’d graduated from boot camp. Kennerly photographed her husband, Maj. Steven Allshouse — then the director of Parris Island’s Drill Instructor School — in the dryer to test whether a 6-foot, 165-pound person could fit. He did.
Mechanical engineer Scott Esser took 60 pounds of towels and wet them till they reached 180 pound to test if the machine would still tumble with that much weight. It did.
But the bulk of the trial consisted of testimony from dozens of recruits — the prosecution had over 70 witnesses on its list — who said Felix had punched, kicked, slapped or choked them. One recruit testified Felix implied he choke a fellow recruit, which he faked doing. And other recruits testified that they witnessed these acts.
Still other recruits were less certain of specifics and Felix’s direct role in the incidents.
The jury had to weigh testimony about incidents years ago in a boot camp environment that is designed to confuse and disorient recruits and, arguably, by its very nature blurs the line between hard training and recruit abuse and hazing.
Felix is 34 and a father of four. His wife has been with him in court throughout the trial. He is a 15-year Marine Corps veteran.
His military occupation is air traffic controller, and he served overseas in Iraq. He has multiple commendations throughout his career.
He arrived on Parris Island in 2014. He was a drill instructor for five cycles, including March 2016, when he served as senior drill instructor for Siddiqui’s platoon. It was his only cycle as an SDI, and it ended abruptly after Siddiqui’s death.
Felix should not have been supervising recruits in March 2016 because he was already under investigation for allegedly hazing Bourmeche in July 2015, according to the Corps.
Felix’s former battalion commander, Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, is scheduled to face general court-martial himself in March 2018 for allegedly failing to sideline Felix during the investigation, among other things. Courts-martial of field-grade officers are extremely rare.
Kissoon was relieved of command of 3rd Battalion after Siddiqui’s death. Parris Island officials announced his firing on March 31, 2016, but said the decision was actually made the day before Siddiqui’s death.
Since Siddiqui’s death, two other recruits have jumped from a Parris Island building during their first couple of days on the island. Both were hospitalized. As of June, one remained in a coma.
There have been 22 hazing and recruit abuse investigations at Parris Island since January 2014, according to documents obtained through federal Freedom of Information Act requests by The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette.
Over half of those investigations were substantiated, according to the Corps. The documents highlight alleged misconduct ranging from name-calling to unauthorized physical training to physical abuse.
Each of Parris Island’s training battalions — including the depot’s Support Battalion — were investigated for hazing during that over-three-year period.
Breakdown of charges and findings
Felix was found guilty of eight of nine counts of violation of a general order. The jury found he made inappropriate physical contact with multiple recruits; ordered recruits to over-consume chocolate milk to make them sick during subsequent exercises; conducted unauthorized incentive training and left his post to drink.
He was found guilty of three counts of maltreatment for hazing and abusing Siddiqui, Hawez and Bourmeche, and for calling Hawez and Bourmeche derogatory names.
He was found guilty of one count of making false official statements to Maj. Meghan Kennerly during her investigation of the clothes dryer incident involving Bourmeche.
He was found guilty of one count of being drunk and disorderly for his behavior during the dryer incidents, and others.
He was found not guilty of obstruction of justice.
He was found not guilty of conducting some unauthorized incentive training sessions.