CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — A Marine Corps drill instructor was a “bully” who punched, choked and kicked recruits, focusing his abuse on three Muslim volunteers he derided as “terrorists,” a military prosecutor said at a court-martial Wednesday.
Eyewitnesses testified of seeing Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix slug recruits in the face and hit others with a rifle, terrorizing recruits sometimes while drunk, Lt. Col. John Norman said in his closing arguments.
“He was drunk on power and sometimes Fireball whisky, and he used that power again and again,” Norman said. “He abused his power to abuse his recruits. He punched them. He kicked them. He degraded their religion, and he put them in industrial appliances.”
Felix did not testify. His chief defense attorney, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Bridges, said the dozens of prosecution witnesses gave contradictory accounts which the government unfairly fashioned into a case against the brawny drill instructor who called all recruits “terrorist.” Young men told investigators fanciful stories including one in which Felix grabbed a recruit by the throat and lifted him off the ground with one arm, Bridges said.
“Just because a lot of people said it, doesn’t mean it’s beyond a reasonable doubt,” the attorney said. “Not credible equals not guilty.”
An eight-man jury at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, starts deliberating Thursday.
Felix was charged after the Marines investigated what drove one of his Muslim trainees at the Parris Island, South Carolina, boot camp to commit suicide in March 2016.
Investigators found unchecked abuse of recruits by junior drill instructors at the training depot. Six drill instructors, including Felix, were charged and the training battalion’s commanding officer fired. A court-martial for Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon is scheduled for March. Eleven others faced lesser, administrative discipline, said Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Joshua Pena.
Witnesses during the previous seven days of Felix’s court-martial included two former recruits who said Felix ordered them into a commercial clothes dryer. One former trainee, Lance Cpl. Ameer Bourmeche, said the dryer was turned on as Felix demanded he renounce his Islamic faith.
Bourmeche testified that after he obeyed and climbed into the dryer, Felix and another drill instructor asked him whether he was a Muslim. He twice confirmed that he was, Bourmeche testified, and twice the trainers sent him for a bruising, scorching tumble inside the dryer. After a third spin, Bourmeche said he feared for his life, and renounced his creed. The drill instructors then let him out, he said.
Pena said Felix was permanently removed from his duties as a drill instructor after the investigation began.
The second drill instructor, Sgt. Michael Eldridge, reached a plea deal with prosecutors and testified against Felix.
Bridges alleged Eldridge had ordered Bourmeche to get inside the dryer. Defense attorneys urged jurors to question the danger posed by ordering recruits into the dryer.
The second of two defense witnesses, a forensic pathologist at East Carolina University’s medical school, testified Wednesday that Bourmeche would have been fatally burned if the dryer had warmed to its normal operating temperature. But Dr. Karen Kelly and a mechanical engineer who worked for the machine’s manufacturer said the actual temperatures reached were subject to many variables, and so were the injuries Bourmeche would have suffered.
Former recruit Rekan Hawez, now a civilian, said Felix started calling him “ISIS” and “terrorist” after learning that he was born in Iraqi Kurdistan. He testified that one night during basic training in 2015, Felix ordered him and other recruits into the clothes drying room. Recruits were ordered to lie on the floor, and Felix and two other drill instructors walked on their bodies, Hawez said. Felix ordered Hawez into the dryer. He complied, but the machine was never turned on, he said.
The judge, Lt. Col. Michael Libretto, blocked most discussion about the circumstances surrounding the death of Marine recruit Raheel Siddiqui. The 20-year-old from Taylor, Michigan, was confronted by Felix, who allegedly slapped Siddiqui’s face. The Pakistani-American then ran to a nearby stairwell and jumped, falling nearly 40 feet.
Felix’s charges include allegedly telling recruits not to talk about the incident outside of the unit.
Siddiqui’s family has filed a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against the Marine Corps.