Former USMC DI pleads guilty to charges linked to recruit's death

Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon pleaded guilty to making a false statement and conduct unbecoming an officer during a court-martial

Wade Livingston
The Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, S.C.)

QUANTICO, Va. — The highest-ranking Marine implicated in the recruit abuse and hazing scandal following the death of a Muslim recruit pleaded guilty Monday at Marine Corps Base Quantico to charges of dereliction of duty, making a false statement and conduct unbecoming an officer during a court-martial.

As part of a pre-trial agreement, Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon opted to retire early from the Marine Corps in addition to pleading guilty to the aforementioned criminal charges. His rank could be downgraded at the time of his retirement, though that decision will be determined at a later time.

In addition, U.S. Navy judge Capt. Charles Purnell sentenced Kissoon with a reprimand and forfeiture of $1,000 a month for five months, the latter of which will be implemented in six months’ time.

“The message of this court-martial is that betrayal of Marine Corps values will have serious consequences,” said Marine prosecutor Lt. Col. Sridhar Kaza.

Kissoon’s was the last of a string of courts-martial and disciplinary actions handed down by the Corps in the wake of 20-year-old Taylor, Mich., native Raheel Siddiqui’s death and the hazing probe it spawned at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.

The resulting scandal was perhaps the biggest to rock the Corps since the infamous Ribbon Creek incident six decades earlier, when six recruits drowned when their drill instructor, who was reportedly intoxicated, led them into a Parris Island swamp during a punitive nighttime march on April 8, 1956.

Kissoon’s trial — a rare court-martial of a field-grade officer — occurred just days before the two-year anniversary of Siddiqui’s death. Kissoon pleaded guilty to, among other things, improperly assigning to Siddiqui’s platoon a drill instructor, who, at the time, was already being investigated for hazing and abusing trainees. Kissoon’s trial was originally slated as a general court-martial — the highest level military trial — but was downgraded to a special court-martial, something lead defense attorney Colby Vokey said was “offered” to his client by the government.

Before he deliberated for almost an hour on Kissoon’s sentence, Purnell heard from Kaza and Vokey. Prosecutors painted the picture of a careerist Marine who made selfish decisions that ultimately resulted in a recruit’s death. The defense argued that Kissoon alone was not responsible for what happened to Siddiqui.

“Instead of it coming from my words, I wrote down what the judge said in his (sentencing) ruling, which I think says a lot,” Vokey said after the hearing, when asked about his client’s decision making. “Which was, ‘Lt. Col. Kissoon’s actions were not the proximate cause of what happened to recruit Siddiqui,’ and that there were a number of leadership failures surrounding that whole situation.”

Siddiqui died following a nearly 40-foot fall from the third floor of his Parris Island barracks March 18, 2016. Moments before the fall, Siddiqui’s senior drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix, made the recruit — who was reportedly ill at the time — perform a series of punitive sprints, during which he collapsed to the floor. Felix was witnessed slapping Siddiqui forcefully in the face just before the recruit jumped up, ran out the back door of the barracks and fell over the stairwell railing to the ground below.

Beaufort County, S.C., Coroner Ed Allen ruled the death a suicide, and the Corps has classified it as such.

Siddiqui’s family disputes that ruling and wants it changed — they and their attorney, Shiraz Khan, have filed a $100 million lawsuit against the federal government claiming negligence led to their son’s death.

When reached last Friday by phone, Allen said he stood by his determination and saw “no indications to change it.”

In November, Felix was convicted by a military court of abusing Siddiqui and, during earlier incidents, targeting two additional Muslim recruits by forcing them into commercial clothes dryers. Former recruit and current Marine Lance Cpl. Ameer Bourmeche testified during Felix’s court-martial at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune that Felix had turned on the dryer while he was in it, and that he’d suffered burns as a result.

Felix was sentenced to 10 years in prison and slapped with a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and reduction in rank to private. His case is currently being reviewed as part of an automatic appeal process generated by the prison sentence.

He should not have been supervising Siddiqui’s platoon because of the then-pending investigation of the dryer incidents, the Corps said.

“Knowing those allegations (against Felix),” Kaza said, “(Kissoon) unleashed Gunnery Sgt. Felix on Platoon 3042.”

Investigations of Siddiqui’s death triggered a hazing probe on Parris Island that centered on 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, the unit Kissoon supervised and to which Felix and Siddiqui belonged.

“(Kissoon) was responsible for ensuring 3rd Battalion completed its mission,” Kaza said just before Purnell went into sentencing deliberation. “He failed.”

In all, 20 Marines, most of them drill instructors, were implicated, though some allegations were not substantiated, and some personnel were acquitted or had their cases dealt with through low-level, non-public disciplinary procedures such as “administrative actions.”

But five Marines, including Felix and Kissoon, were either convicted or pleaded guilty at courts-martial.

And four Marines, including Kissoon, were relieved of command.

Parris Island officials announced Kissoon’s firing from his 3rd Battalion post on March 31, 2016, but they said the decision was actually made the day before Siddiqui died.

When asked at the time why it took two additional weeks to relieve Kissoon, Parris Island officials said the timeline was at the discretion of his commanding officer, former depot Recruit Training Regiment commander Col. Paul Cucinotta. Cucinotta was later relieved and eventually received a grant of immunity to testify against Kissoon at a pre-trial procedure, during which he said he was unaware Felix was being allowed to train recruits at the time of Siddiqui’s death.

While debate of how much, or whether, Kissoon was responsible what happened to Siddiqui, only one count of one charge addressed the matter.

In sum, Kissoon pleaded guilty to five total counts contained in three charges:

  • Negligent dereliction of duty, for improperly assigning Felix to Platoon 3042;
  • Willful dereliction of duty, for failing to investigate a seperate report of improper physical contact between a recruit and drill instructor that could have been an instance of abuse;
  • Making a false statement, for lying to an investigator, saying that he did not attribute comments — which criticized Kissoon, and which were supposed to be anonymous — on a command climate survey to one of his subordinates;
  • Conduct unbecoming an officer, for attributing the aforementioned survey comments to that subordinate and sharing the man’s name with other Marines;
  • And conduct unbecoming an officer, for trying to impede a “reprisal investigation” of whether Kissoon treated that subordinate unfairly in the wake of the critical survey comments.

“He made a cascading series of decisions to protect his own career,” Kaza said, “and ultimately hurt his own recruits.”

Siddiqui was a valedictorian of his senior class at Harry S. Truman High School in Taylor. He told staffers there that he wanted to one day work on aircraft, or be an FBI agent. He is survived by his parents and younger sister.

He’d been on Parris Island just 11 days at the time of the fall. Five days before, he’d told Marine personnel he wanted to kill himself by jumping out of a barracks window, according to a Marine Corps investigation. He was evaluated by an on-base mental health professional the next day and recanted his statement, then returned to training. The investigation of his death found, among other things, “anomalies and inconsistencies in the policies and procedures responding to suicidal ideations or statements.”

Kissoon enlisted in the Marines in 1990 before receiving his officer’s commission in 1996. He is originally from Guyana, which borders Venezuela in South America, but he grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. He and his wife of 26 years have two children, one of whom serves in the U.S. Air Force.

Before Felix was sentenced in November, Marine prosecutors asked the government to send a message that hazing and recruit abuse would not be tolerated in the Corps.

Bourmeche read a statement to jurors before they began sentencing deliberations.

“In some dreams I see Gunnery Sgt. Felix killing my family,” Bourmeche said. “Sometimes I have nightmares and wake up hyperventilating and panicking.”

Then, prosecutor Lt. Col. John Norman read a note from Siddiqui’s mother: “Why did (the Marines) treat (my son) like a terrorist?” Ghazala Siddiqui wrote. “He was born in America and raised here. He was an American citizen.”

“I need justice for my son,” the note continued.

If Kissoon’s rank is lowered upon his retirement, it could cost him at least $10,000 of his penchant each year, according to Purnell, who provided that amount based on a reduction in rank from lieutenant colonel to major.

“My life is built on the foundation of being accountable to people and institutions I serve, and always being accountable for my actions,” Kissoon told Purnell, before the judge sentenced him. “I must be held accountable.”

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©2018 The Island Packet (Hilton Head, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service