Nearly a year after their original trial dates and more than three years after the alleged crime, two of four defendants already have pleaded guilty.
Navy Chief Special Warfare Operator Tony E. DeDolph faces a three-week trial in Norfolk, Virginia, beginning Jan. 14.
And co-defendant Marine Gunnery Sgt. Mario Madera-Rodriguez is soon to follow, also a three-week trial, expected to begin Feb. 1.
Both trials were delayed from their respective March and April 2020 start dates following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The two defendants both face the following charges related to the June 4, 2017, death of Melgar in Bamako, Mali: conspiracy, assault, hazing, obstruction of justice, burglary, involuntary manslaughter and felony murder.
If convicted of felony murder, they face possible life in prison without parole.
Both of their co-defendants, Navy Chief Special Warfare Operator Adam C. Matthews and Marine Staff Sgt. Kevin Maxwell Jr., pleaded guilty and agreed to testify on behalf of the prosecution in the upcoming trials.
Matthews was the first to plead and laid out many details of the incident. He was sentenced to one year confinement and a bad conduct discharge. Maxwell was the next to plead and received a four-year prison sentence.
Both testified that they, along with DeDolph and Madera-Rodriguez, planned together to break into Melgar’s room, duct tape him and video record him in a sexually embarrassing scenario.
The four men used a sledgehammer at around 5 a.m. to break open Melgar’s door and surprise him as he slept, according to testimony from the two co-defendants.
He awoke immediately, and DeDolph, a former professional mixed martial arts fighter, pounced on Melgar, putting him in a choke hold; the other men secured his arms and legs and began to duct tape him, according to testimony.
Within seconds in the choke hold, Melgar stopped breathing. The men later told investigators they immediately began trying to render lifesaving aid, including a field-expedient tracheotomy. But Melgar later died at a nearby medical facility.
All of this allegedly was in retaliation for a perceived slight and ongoing tension between Melgar and the other men.
Witnesses in the May 2019 hearing for Matthews testified that Melgar was fed up with “juvenile” behavior of the SEALs and Marines and couldn’t wait to conclude his deployment ― scheduled to end in a few weeks ― and return home.
Following Melgar’s death, each of the four defendants lied about their involvement in the incident. The SEALs claimed they’d been doing hand-to-hand combat training, first saying that Melgar was intoxicated and once put in a submission hold he stopped breathing.
But investigators quickly learned from friends of Melgar that the staff sergeant didn’t drink alcohol. And his wife, at home in the United States, later told investigators that her husband wasn’t comfortable with how some of his fellow special operators were behaving on the deployment, though he didn’t provide her with details, investigators said.
A combination of various commands have overseen the investigation. It moved from AFRICOM to special operations for all three services along with a shift from first the Army investigating and handing it over to the Navy once the Marines and SEALs involvement was confirmed. There was no public acknowledgement of the case until months after Melgar had died.
After the death, the men were almost immediately sent back to the United States and placed on administrative duties and nondeploying status as they awaited charges back at their respective commands in Virginia and North Carolina.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.