Marine cleared in death of Romanian gets reprimand
QUANTICO MARINE CORPS BASE, Va. — After an emotional sentencing hearing, the court-martial board recommended late Tuesday that Marine Staff Sgt. Christopher VanGoethem be given a letter of reprimand for obstructing justice and making false official statements.
VanGoethem, 32, could have received 10 years confinement, loss of rank down to E-1 and forfeiture of all pay and allowances.
Instead, he will be allowed to complete his contract, which has a year remaining.
But because the two charges he was found guilty of are federal offenses, VanGoethem will not be permitted to re-enlist, effectively ending his 15-year career.
VanGoethem’s court-martial stemmed from an accident that occurred while he was commander of the Marine security detachment at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, Romania.
In the early morning hours of Dec. 4, 2004, VanGoethem was driving an embassy-owned sport utility vehicle that collided with a taxi at an intersection in the capital, killing 50-year-old Romanian rock star Teofil Peter.
On Tuesday morning, the seven-member board — the military equivalent of the jury — declared that VanGoethem was not guilty of negligent homicide and adultery, the other two charges he faced.
The jury was also responsible for recommending VanGoethem’s sentence.
First, however, the four noncommissioned officers and three majors on the board listened to testimony from seven witnesses on VanGoethem’s behalf: four former bosses in the Corps, his mother, a sister and his wife.
VanGoethem had sat expressionless throughout the seven-day court-martial, even when his mother, Bonnie St. Louis, pleaded for leniency on her only son’s behalf.
“I beg you … his kids need him, and I need him,” St. Louis said.
But the Marine began to weep when his sister, Julie Lund, took the stand and told the jury, “I wouldn’t trade him for anyone in the world.”
By the time VanGoethem’s wife, Kathy, took the stand, even members of the jury were sniffling.
In a barely audible voice, Kathy — who was present throughout the court-martial and listened to explicit testimony concerning her husband’s alleged adultery — told the jury, “I love him, and I support him no matter what happens.”
Finally VanGoethem, who did not testify during the court-martial, spoke for the first time in court.
“I’ve given everything I have to the Marine Corps for 15 years,” VanGoethem told the jury in a broken voice. “I love [the Corps]. Please take that into consideration in what’s to come.”
Lead prosecutor Maj. Charles Miracle told the jury that despite VanGoethem’s pride in being a Marine, “It’s time for him to go.”
“On Dec. 4, 2004, Staff Sgt. VanGoethem gave up the Corps’ value of honor,” Miracle said. “The very first thing he did [after the accident] was lie, and ask someone else to lie.
“He’s forfeited his right to be in the Marine Corps. It’s time for him to leave.”
Miracle asked the jury to give VanGoethem either a bad-conduct discharge, or the more serious dishonorable discharge. But he did not ask the jury to consider jail time.
In her closing statement, Marine Capt. Paula McNair, one of VanGoethem’s defenders, told the jury VanGoethem had lied “to protect his family from his mistakes.”
Although VanGoethem has “just a year left on his contract,” McNair said, “he still had good use in him.”
“Allow him to leave (the Marines) knowing that his band of brothers helped him up when he fell,” McNair concluded, asking for a letter of reprimand.
The convening authority for VanGoethem’s case, Col. Glen Sachtleben, will write the letter of reprimand.
Sachtleben, who is commander of the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade at Camp Lejeune, N.C., is also the final authority in the case, and must sign off on the verdict and the sentence before the court martial is formally concluded.
In Bucharest, Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu said he would help the family if they decided to pursue a civil suit against VanGoethem.
“A lawsuit on this could be a nightmare,” Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice in Washington, told Stripes by phone Wednesday.
Peter’s son could bring a civil suit against VanGoethem in Romanian court, which would require the court to “find and serve” the Marine in the United States.
Since the lawsuit would be a civil matter, not criminal, the Romanian government could not compel VanGoethem to appear.
Then, Peter’s son would have to find some way to collect the judgment, Fidell said.
Instead of a civil lawsuit, Peter “may be able to make a claim against the U.S. government [for monetary damages] under the U.S. Military Claims Act, Fidell said.
The Navy, as parent service to the Marine Corps, may also decide to offer Peter an “ex gratia” payment as compensation, Fidell said.
Such payments are unofficial, voluntary, and not mandated by law, nation-to-nation treaties or international agreement.