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A combat-wounded Marine accused of defrauding the government as part of a massive embezzlement scheme was acquitted this month after defense attorneys argued during his court-martial that his command took extraordinary measures to ensure he was punished.
The criminal case against Staff Sgt. Anthony Rios Jr., 38, is significant because his legal team tied the aggressive effort to prosecute him to a presentation delivered last year to thousands of Marines around the world from the service's commandant, Gen. Jim Amos. Amos' so-called Heritage Brief took aim at what he saw as a rash of misbehavior in the ranks — everything from sex assault and hazing to monkey business in the war zone — and called for Marines to hold one another accountable when they screw up.
Rios, a forward observer with 3rd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, was charged in 2011 with conspiring to steal $3,000 through bogus travel claims. He was wrapped up in much larger investigation in which nearly 50 members of 3rd ANGLICO, a reserve unit based in California, were accused of embezzling more than $1 million from the Marine Corps. This month, the Internal Revenue Service charged 28 Marines from the unit with related offenses.
Rios deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, while under investigation. He was wounded in a rocket-propelled grenade blast, suffering severe leg injuries.
When Rios returned to the U.S., he asked to be transferred to the Corps' Wounded Warrior Battalion-West, a special unit for sick and injured Marines located at Camp Pendleton, Calif. The request was denied, said Capt. Scott Beimer, one of Rios' defense attorneys. Rios was made to stay at his unit in Bell, Calif., outside Los Angeles, some 75 miles away, Beimer said. That meant long drives — while heavily medicated — to his medical appointments multiple times a week.
"Staff Sgt. Rios testified he would get these green flashes and he would arrive someplace not knowing how he got there," Beimer said. "It got to the point where he thought he would die if he had to keep making these drives."
Eventually, Beimer said, the command listened to his complaints and assigned him a driver to take him to appointments. But they also put up a wall-sized white board in the unit's office on which they charted all his appointments and wrote down private medical information. The board, of which Marine Corps Times reviewed photos, was labeled "SSGT Rios tracker."
"It seems pretty obvious," Beimer said, "that it was an attempt to humiliate him."
New charges added in 2012, including specifications related to alleged domestic abuse involving his then-wife, and a drunk-on-duty rap from a Toys for Tots event. Ultimately, it was charges related to this event and a count of making a false official statement that sent Rios to court-martial.
The abuse charge prompted his command to issue a restraining order that prevented him from seeing his son. Rios protested the order in California District Court, which determined the Marine Corps "in essence usurped the role of the state court," U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins wrote in her June decision in favor of Rios.
But things only got worse for Rios. As the case went to court, Marines alleged the battalion's inspector-instructor, Lt. Col. Sean Collins, sought to prevent them from providing character references for the staff sergeant.
In an email cited as evidence during Rios' court-martial, a sergeant with 3rd ANGLICO said Collins called an all-hands meeting for everyone in the unit except those being investigated. Collins said "You haven't read the things I've read, and some of these reports, lemme tell ya, the things they say ... well ... reading them made me sick to my stomach," the sergeant wrote. "The message was essentially 'don't give a character reference or we'll be pissed with you.'"
Collins did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
And although Rios was charged prior to Amos' Heritage Brief, efforts to convict Rios appeared to intensify afterward, said Capt. Aaron Meyer, his other attorney. "It was wild, desperate punching from the command after March 2012," he added.
Documents obtained by Marine Corps Times indicate Lt. Gen. Steven Hummer, then the head of Marine Forces Reserve, along with Lt. Col. Eric Kleis, the staff judge advocate in the case, signed off on prosecuting the domestic-violence charges despite the investigating officer's recommendation otherwise. The IO said the charges were baseless.
Rios said the jury asked to see him after the Nov. 1 acquittal and offered him a formal apology for what he had been through.
An attorney for the prosecution, Maj. Chip Hodge, declined to comment because the official trial record was not final, but he said the record would provide more perspective on the facts of the case.
The following 27 reservists and one civilian assigned to 3rd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company at Terminal Island, Calif., have been charged with tax-related crimes stemming from the submission of fraudulent travel vouchers:
■ Gunnery Sgt. Michael Cruz
■ Sgt. Allan Armstrong
■ Staff Sgt. Stanley Carranza
■ Sgt. Carlos Q. Chavez
■ Sgt. Markus D. Cooper
■ Staff Sgt. Alfredo Orozco
■ Sgt. Byron Orantes
■ Sgt. Glen Pena
■ Sgt. Kevin William Rea
■ Sgt. Noe Ruvalcaba
■ Cpl. Richard Estrada
■ Cpl. Robert Jackson
■ Cpl. Jose L. Munoz
■ Cpl. Aaron Payton
■ Cpl. Robert A. Peckinpaugh
■ Cpl. Miguel Polanco
■ Cpl. Gabriel Rangel
■ Cpl. Jonattan Robles
■ Cpl. Juan Charles Rodriguez
■ Cpl. Jovanny Cruz Rojas
■ Cpl. Marcos Solis
■ Lance Cpl. Camden Rene Amy
■ Lance Cpl. Christian Flores
■ Lance Cpl. Juan Oliva Pulido
■ Lance Cpl. Octavio Renteria