Marine Raider is sentenced to four years in prison in Green Beret’s death, says he 'betrayed a friend'
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 7, 2019
NAVAL STATION NORFOLK, Va. — An elite Marine Raider was sentenced Friday to spend four years in a military prison after admitting his role in the strangulation death of a Green Beret, a fellow special operator he described as a friend.
One day earlier, Staff Sgt. Kevin Maxwell Jr. pleaded guilty to negligent homicide, burglary, obstruction and other charges as part of a plea deal with prosecutors to avoid more serious charges, including murder, in the June 4, 2017 death of Army Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar in the Malian capital city of Bamako, where they were deployed.
Maxwell on Thursday took the witness stand, delivering some two hours of testimony that at times was emotional. He described Melgar’s killing as the accidental result of a devious hazing plan that he initially thought was merely a joke launched over late night drinks at local bars.
Maxwell told the judge overseeing his case, Marine Col. Glen Hines, he would never forgive himself for participating in the “ridiculous and harmful, abusive trick” against a buddy he had spent the prior day with enjoying an extracurricular boat trip on the nearby Niger River. From the witness stand, Maxwell turned to Melgar’s widow, Michelle Melgar, in the first row of the courtroom gallery, telling her that her husband was a better man than him and he would never have participated in the kind of act that led to his death.
“Logan would have stopped them from doing that to me. I know that for a fact,” Maxwell said, his voice cracking as Michelle Melgar nodded her head in agreement. “I was weak … 100 percent he would have taken care of me. For me, that moment defines what I am as a man. When I look at myself in the mirror, I am a terrible man. I am a terrible friend. I betrayed a friend of mine, a fellow American. I betrayed his future.”
Maxwell, 29, is one of four American special operations personnel charged in Melgar’s death and the second to plead guilty to reduced charges in the attack. Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Adam Matthews, 33, a former member of the elite SEAL Team 6, was sentenced to one year in prison last month for his role in the killing. Two others — Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Tony DeDolph and Marine Raider Gunnery Sgt. Mario Madera-Rodriguez — face a slew of charges, including murder, for their roles in the Green Beret’s killing. Navy officials said, as of Friday, hearings or trial dates had yet to be scheduled in their cases and they had not been offered plea deals.
As part of their arrangements with prosecutors, Matthews and Maxwell agreed to testify against DeDolph and Madera-Rodriguez.
In addition to the prison time, Hines sentenced Maxwell to a reduction in rank to E-1 private and a bad conduct discharge for his admitted crimes — negligent homicide, conspiracy, hazing, burglary, obstruction of justice and making false official statements. Prosecutors had sought a nine-year prison sentence in the case. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Benjamin Garcia, the lead prosecutor, told the judge on Thursday such a stiff punishment would signal to troops — and especially the special operations community — that the military took incidents of reckless hazing seriously and would not tolerate servicemembers’ lying to investigators.
Maxwell’s civilian defense attorney, Brian Bouffard, asked the judge for leniency, imploring Hines to pass down a sentence “measured in months not years.”
Hines did not provide explanation for his sentencing decision, as is common in military court. But he did question the apparent lack of supervision by officers or Defense Department civilians for the force in Mali of mostly, if not entirely, enlisted troops.
“How can something like this happen in 2017?” the judge asked moments before delivering the sentence. “... The question needs to be answered. If we don’t get to the bottom of it, this is going to happen again.”
From the witness stand, Maxwell identified DeDolph as the primary instigator of the hazing plan, testifying the SEAL had often displayed a sense of “dark humor.” Through most of that night, Maxwell said he believed plans to “remediate” Melgar for perceived slights raised by another Marine — who had been “drinking heavily” and was visibly angry — and DeDolph were simply a drunken, running farce.
Maxwell described a brewing tense — if not toxic — climate among the small community of military special operators serving in Mali, especially between the SEAL Team 6 members and soldiers from the Army’s 3rd Special Forces group, Melgar’s unit, who shared a house in Bamako and whose missions were separate but sometimes overlapped.
The Marine said DeDolph, a member of SEAL Team 6, and another SEAL at times bullied Melgar and often did not get along with Melgar’s supervisor, who were the only soldiers living in the quarters.
Nonetheless, he testified none of the four charged in the soldier’s death intended to kill him that night.
DeDolph “comes up with this just ridiculous, over-the-top idea,” Maxwell said. “We laughed at it … It seemed like everyone was egging it on by laughing at it.”
That was until DeDolph began handing out assignments for the act. Maxwell, for example, was to turn on the lights in Melgar’s room, lift the mosquito netting and then help bind the Special Forces soldier. When DeDolph accompanied Maxwell and Madera-Rodriguez to their separate quarters to retrieve supplies, including duct tape and a sledge hammer, Maxwell told Hines that he was conflicted about carrying out the plan, but he was eager to fit in with his peers who seemed committed to the act.
“It seemed to me at first that it was like a joke, but as the night progressed the reality of what we were going to do stepped in,” Maxwell testified. “Everyone thought it was funny.
“No one stepped in. No one was saying, ‘Stop. No. This isn’t right’,” he added.
Maxwell’s testimony largely matched that of Matthews’ delivered May 16 in the same Norfolk court room at a lower-level special court-martial.
The special operators said the plan was to bust through Melgar’s bedroom door with a sledgehammer, secure his arms and legs with duct-tape while DeDolph, a former professional mixed martial arts fighter, placed him in temporary unconsciousness via a chokehold. A British expatriate who tagged along with the Americans — along with two Malian security guards — was to film the incident with his phone, they said.
Maxwell confirmed Thursday from the witness stand the prosecutors’ accusation that the event was to culminate in a “sexual molestation.” That detail was not revealed in Matthews’ court-martial. The Washington Post first reported this week that one of the Malian security guards was to commit the sexual assault. Specific details about that portion of the plan were not revealed in court.
Maxwell told Hines in court that as DeDolph placed Melgar in a second chokehold — his first attempt did not render Melgar unconscious long enough to carry out the plan -- he saw Melgar was becoming unresponsive. Melgar then went into shock.
“That’s when we all started performing resuscitation procedures,” he said, including CPR and eventually a field expedient tracheotomy before rushing him to a health clinic where he was pronounced dead.
Maxwell admitted the group formed a pact to attempt to cover up the nature of Melgar’s death even as they attempted to revive him. The group agreed to tell investigators and commanders that only the SEALs — Matthews and DeDolph — were involved, and the soldier’s death was the result of a spontaneous wrestling match gone wrong. Maxwell said the servicemembers involved stuck to their lie for more than a year, at times coordinating the mistruths that they fed investigators.
Defense witnesses said the act and the lies told by Maxwell were out of character for the accomplished, 11-year Marine. Maxwell has served in Afghanistan and has been a member of the Marines’ elite 3rd Raider Battalion since 2013.
But Maxwell insisted his actions June 4, 2017 erase any positives that he had done as a Marine, telling Hines he did not deserve to wear the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command badge on the left chest of his uniform that identifies Marine Raiders.
“I am an imposter wearing this right now,” he said. “I’m wearing something I don’t represent.”
Instead, Maxwell heaped praise on Melgar, calling the Special Forces soldier the epitome of what an American special operator should be — a “respectful, respectable, joyful person” who was “so full of energy and passion” and “committed to serving.”
Prosecution witnesses who served with Melgar agreed with Maxwell’s assessment of the victim in testimony Thursday.
They described Melgar, who joined the Army in 2012 and 3rd Special Forces Group one year later, as a fast-riser within the unit who had proven himself in battle in Afghanistan.
“He was very mature for a young Special Forces soldier. He was very professional and [quickly] took over leadership responsibilities, ousting other engineering sergeants,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kevin Strupkus, who commanded Melgar in Afghanistan. “I would say the type of meticulousness, professionalism, candor and excitement Logan brought were extremely rare, even among elite operators. Third Group lost a phenomenal operator.”
Melgar’s wife, Michelle, told Maxwell from the witness stand that she forgave him for his actions in her husband’s death, as she had done weeks earlier at Matthews’ court-martial.
“I’m sorry,” Maxwell told her and her family members hours later from the same stand. “I can’t say it anymore — I just don’t know how words can help. It is terrible. Your husband, your son, your father, your brother — he deserves to be here. He was a better guy than me.”