A year after being sentenced to 16 months in the brig for his role in stealing ammunition from the government, and then dumping even more ammo and explosives in a ravine in a panicked attempt to avoid getting caught, a former Marine sergeant says he’s working hard to make good.
Former Sgt. Gunnar Naughton was sentenced in July 2021 by a military judge at Camp Pendleton, California, after pleading guilty to dereliction of duty, wrongful disposition of military property, larceny and obstruction of justice. In addition to time in confinement, his sentence included forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction in rank to private and a bad-conduct discharge. In October 2022, a military appellate court opted not to lessen his punishment.
In exclusive statements to Marine Corps Times, Naughton, 29, said he hasn’t given up hope on the appeals process ― and he’s working to make himself a different person.
“I used to wake up every morning and go to bed every night thinking, ‘I’m a Marine,’” Naughton said.
“Now I wake up in the morning and go to bed at night haunted by the word ‘felon.’”
In the past year, he said, he has graduated from a vocational school, made progress toward a college degree in social science and engaged a life coach through the nonprofit Anti-Recidivism Coalition. He said he’s also become involved in the organization Sheep Dog Impact Assistance, which supports veteran healing through camaraderie, outdoor activities and volunteer work. He traveled with that organization to Kentucky to assist with flooding relief and to Florida to help in the wake of Hurricane Ian.
He was released from the brig in February 2022, having been credited with 147 days’ time served at sentencing.
While he said he has “no hope” of vindication, he plans to ask the Court of Appeal for the Armed Forces, the highest military-specific appeals court, to review his case again in hopes it will grant him the opportunity to request clemency.
Naughton had been assigned as an arms, ammunition and explosives officer with 1st Reconnaissance Battalion ― a role that meant he was in charge of accounting for the unit’s ammunition and collecting and reorganizing unused ammunition at the end of each training day.
In September 2020, Naughton and a handful of troops hatched a scheme that would exploit the trust inherent in that role: They’d pocket some of the ammo instead of returning it to military storage.
Naughton, according to court documents, would then falsify logbook entries to cover up the crime.
While Naughton’s attorney would argue the Marines were filching some 840 5.56 mm rounds and other ammunition so that they could shoot it on their own time, one of the perps, Cpl. Jason Peters, tried to sell some of it online. He was arrested in February 2021.
After learning of Peters’ arrest, Naughton made a desperate attempt to destroy all evidence of the conspiracy. He told one of the troops, Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Arthur Goldsborough, to delete Signal and WhatsApp messages in group chats that might implicate the Marines and hauled several cans of stolen ammo out of the home of another conspirator, Staff Sgt. Brian Newport, so he could hide them off base.
Ultimately, Naughton tried to destroy all the remaining evidence by dumping it into the ravine. He was apprehended, however, in the same law enforcement sting that ensnared Peters and seven more troops.
In his appeal to the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, Naughton alleged that his defense counsel did not effectively defend him. He said they failed to obtain a “substantial assistance” letter from the military prosecutors stating that Naughton’s help in building cases against the other conspirators merited a lighter sentence.
Naughton also argued that his legal team could have taken that same recommendation letter and submitted it to the convening authority ― the general overseeing the prosecution ― to request clemency consisting of a suspended bad-conduct discharge.
In the per curiam appellate ruling, the judges shut these arguments down, finding Naughton’s own actions and responses to his legal team may have had a negative effect on his case.
They write that his civilian attorney, Phil Stackhouse, in a sworn declaration responding to Naughton’s claims, did attest to asking about obtaining a substantial assistance letter, adding that a member of the military prosecution team responded that they’d investigate it, but never followed up further. The declaration also suggests there were reasons the prosecution team didn’t write the letter.
Reached via email, Stackhouse declined to comment on the case.
While Naughton had two post-trial meetings with law enforcement officers, the appellate ruling states, he balked at sharing information about another person close to him who had allegedly been given some of the stolen ammo. This, it states, angered the prosecution team.
It adds that this encounter prompted an email from the regional trial counsel expressing concerns that Naughton might not be complying with his plea agreement.
“Given the circumstances of [Naughton’s] lackluster assistance to law enforcement and the trial counsel’s reaction, we find it reasonable that trial defense counsel did not further pursue a substantial assistance letter because they had no reason to believe trial defense counsel would provide one,” the ruling states.
Naughton said he hopes the higher appeals court takes a broader view of the case.
“What I am seeking is for the higher court to give the Convening Authority the chance to evaluate what I have done to atone for my actions and choose whether to have mercy or not, just like is done for every other court-martialed service member,” he said.
Hope Hodge Seck is an award-winning investigative and enterprise reporter covering the U.S. military and national defense. The former managing editor of Military.com, her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Politico Magazine, USA Today and Popular Mechanics.