Four Marines were arrested in January for felony vandalism when a gondola ride at the San Diego Zoo came to a halt shortly after they shook one of the carts.

Sgt. Jacob D. Bauer, Cpl. Brandon G. Cook, Lance Cpl. Brayden S. Posey and Lance Cpl. Marquette A. Williams of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing were arrested Jan. 29 after the zoo’s Skyfari ride was stuck for multiple hours, leaving more than 100 passengers hanging in the air.

A zoo spokesperson told Fox 5 San Diego at the time that the Marines caused the ride to shut down automatically by rocking their cart.

But an investigation into the incident by California-based Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 225, the Marines’ unit within the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, obtained by Marine Corps Times questions the narrative that the four Marines damaged the ride.

Marines in another cart said they felt unsafe from the moment they got on the ride.

And the accused Marines told investigators the ride stopped 30 seconds to 90 seconds after they “jostled” their cart to spook a comrade who was afraid of heights. They also later noticed they were over the cart’s weight limit.

San Diego prosecutors dropped the felony vandalism charges in November “in the interest of justice,” and noted that the Marines paid $18,260 in restitution to the zoo.

The Marine Corps later determined that the payments the Marines had to make in the civilian system were sufficient punishment.

“We hold our Marines to a higher standard and hold them accountable when necessary; in doing so, we also consider civil actions that they face,” 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing spokesman Maj. Mason Englehart said in a statement to Marine Corps Times.

A copy of the command investigation, obtained by Marine Corps Times through a Freedom of Information Act records request, calls into question the zoo’s narrative and says there is not sufficient evidence that the Marines vandalized the ride. The Marines’ names are redacted in the released copy.

The Marines did shake their gondola cart, and the ride did come to a halt shortly thereafter. No one has disputed that.

The question is what caused the ride to stall. Was it, as zoo officials have stated, the Marines shaking their cart? Or was there an underlying issue with the ride, as testimony in the command investigation contends?

Matthew Lopas, the lawyer who represented the Marines in the civilian system, said in a statement to Marine Corps Times, “I am honored to have represented these young gentlemen and wish them a lengthy and rewarding career in the United States Marine Corps.”

He reiterated that prosecutors dropped the charges in the interest of justice but didn’t comment further.

The zoo wasn’t aware of the command investigation, according to San Diego Zoo spokeswoman Jenny Mehlow.

In response to specific questions from Marine Corps Times about the Marines’ testimony to the investigator, she said, “the comments attributed to the individuals involved in the incident are not consistent with our evaluation.”

Mehlow added that the Marines paid restitution to the zoo “for losses incurred as a direct result of the damage they caused, covering repairs and inspection costs and related expenses.”

What the command investigation found

In the investigation, opened days after the incident and completed on March 1, an investigator interviewed eight of the Marines who took the gondola ride on the afternoon of Jan. 29. The investigation appears to have been limited to those interviews.

That day, the Marines were spread out across three consecutive carts at least 50 feet away from each other, according to the investigation report.

A group of Marines in the frontmost cart already were on the ground when the ride came to a halt and they easily disembarked.

The four Marines accused of stalling the ride brought up the rear in the third cart; they ended up stuck in the air when the ride came to a halt.

But much of the investigation centers on the second cart. Marines in that cart told the investigator that they felt something was off the moment they embarked.

The cart “seemed crooked when we got on,” one Marine in the second cart told the investigator.

“[I]t felt off balance, weird, shaky, and felt that way throughout the entire ride,” another Marine in the cart said.

It “felt unsafe,” a third Marine in the cart said, and “shook bad on its own throughout the entire ride.”

They raised concerns to a zoo employee, one Marine in the second cart recounted to an investigator, “and they told us it was OK.”

Meanwhile, at some point during the ride, the Marines in the third cart “jostled” their own cart, as one Marine in that cart put it. The intention was to “joke around with” a friend who previously had said he was scared of heights, that Marine said.

One Marine in the third cart claimed they shook their cart for no more than 30 seconds, and one Marine in the first cart said he saw the Marines shake the third cart for “like two seconds.”

The Marines in the third cart said they didn’t shake it maliciously — and to be convicted of felony vandalism in California civilian court, a perpetrator must be shown to have acted maliciously.

One Marine in the third cart claimed not to have initially noticed the sign forbidding them from shaking the cart.

“If I knew we wouldn’t have shaken the gondola at all,” he told the investigator.

Two Marines in the third cart said that once a zoo employee told them to stop shaking the cart, they complied.

Some time later — one Marine in the third cart said 30 seconds, while another said 60 seconds to 90 seconds — the second cart swung forward violently and froze at an angle, according to accounts from Marines in all three carts.

“It went perpendicular to the deck, (redacted) had to hold me in my seat, and stopped me from falling out,” a Marine in the second cart told the investigator.

That was when the ride stalled, Marines from all three carts said.

“To my knowledge, if it had been our actions that broke the ride, there would have been an immediate shutdown,” one Marine from the third cart said in a statement to the investigator. “However, there was a break between when the zoo personnel instructed us to stop and when the ride actually stopped in its stuck position.”

Zoo employees helped the Marines in the second cart disembark onto a step stool, and then maintenance went to work on fixing the stuck cart, Marines told the investigator.

Zoo staff and San Diego fire-rescue teams spent the next two hours helping passengers get down from the ride, and no injuries were reported at the time.

Right before being helped back onto the ground — where they were arrested — the Marines in the third cart realized something, one later claimed to the investigator: the four of them were about 85 pounds to 90 pounds above the suggested weight limit for the ride.

“After following every known lead, I was able to find testimony that paints a clear picture of the alleged San Diego Zoo incident, as described,” the investigator wrote. “[H]owever, I was unable to find substantial evidence, via testimony or otherwise, to corroborate that these actions were consistent with (the accused Marines) vandalizing San Diego Zoo Property.”

Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.

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