SEALs investigated in death of Green Beret in Mali

NAVAL STATION NORFOLK, Va. – Michelle Melgar sat in the front row of a courtroom, holding the coveted Green Beret her husband had earned, as one of the men who helped hold him down while others bound and choked him to death in what lawyers would call a “juvenile and illegal hazing” did his best to apologize for what he had done two years ago.

Near the end of the daylong proceeding Thursday, Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Adam C. Matthews said there was “no justification” for the hazing death of Army Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar in Bamako, Mali on June 4, 2017.

“I’ve carried the weight of Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar’s death every minute of every day since that night in Mali,” Matthews said. “I am tormented by my complacency at a time when my teammates required guidance and the situation required bold, decisive action. This was my fault and I accept total responsibility for the consequences of my poor decision …”

Earlier that day, Melgar’s mother, Nitza Melgar, had her own words for one of the four men charged in her youngest son’s death.

Reading from a prepared statement, she told Matthews that he was not “a 17-year-old college frat boy out for a night on a lark” when he, a fellow Navy SEAL and two Marine Raiders busted down Melgar’s bedroom door with a sledgehammer, pounced on him and began binding him in duct tape before he began to asphyxiate and spit up blood.

“Logan was asleep,” Nitza said. “He was attacked and minutes later was dead.”

“You, sir, are a murderer,” she said. “Logan’s blood will never wash off of you.”

But, when it was Michelle Melgar’s turn, she reflected on the loving memories, stories of how the couple met while Logan was a 23-year-old man working at a retail clothing store in 2006 at the Texas mall where she shopped.

How he became an almost instant father to her sons, ages 2 and 3 at the time they began dating. How, once Logan decided he’d join the military that they visited each of the services’ recruiters in 2012 and landed on the Army because it most closely shared their own values.

How, though they missed him when he left for training, later deployed twice to Afghanistan and then to Africa, he would take every spare moment to text, video chat and send surprise gifts to the boys or to her.

And how proud he’d been of his deployments, joining an Operation Detachment Alpha team of Green Beret soldiers during their tour and taking on the engineer job. Then going on the second deployment to Afghanistan in 2015 and leading a local team of explosives engineers ahead of the assault force, keeping people safe, finding IEDs even during firefights.

But the Africa deployment beginning in February 2017 was different.

Described by all as a man who easily made friends and showed a curiosity and maturity beyond his age, Logan was having problems with his teammates.

“I want to come home now. I hate it here. I don’t want to be here,” was how Michelle described his messages.

He described the SEALS he was working with as “very immature” and “doing immature things.”

She recalled how just hours before Logan died the pair had talked to each other on video so that when he didn’t reply to her text message, which he always did, the next morning that she knew something was wrong.

And then came the knock.

A chaplain and an Army officer stood at the door.

They told her Logan had been sick. He had been found convulsing in bed.

“You’re lying to me,” she told them.

Only hours before they’d talked, he was fine, he wasn’t sick.

And the lies continued.

Weeks and months passed. At a unit memorial she learned that an Army investigation into the death had been handed off to the Navy Criminal Investigative Service.

She had her suspicions, she said. Based on her husband’s messages, she didn’t trust the SEALs he was with.

“Nobody was taking me seriously,” she said. “It was a very isolating place to be. A very lonely place to be.”

After the sickness explanation passed, she was told that he’d died while doing combatives or self-defense training with the SEALs in their residence.

“I just wanted the truth,” she said. “I knew he wasn’t sick. I knew he wasn’t doing combatives at 5 in the morning.”

What had happened, Matthews testified in his special court-martial, was that he’d arrived in Mali for what was to be the first of three site visits. He met up with another SEAL that he knew, both serving on Naval Special Warfare Development Group, also known as SEAL Team 6.

That was then-Petty Officer 1st Class Anthony DeDolph, who is also charged in Logan’s death.

Matthews, DeDolph, Marine Raiders Gunnery Sgt. Mario Madera-Rodriguez and Staff Sgt. Kevin Maxwell hatched a plan to “remediate” Logan after what DeDolph and others described to Matthews as the Green Beret’s failure to work appropriately with the team.

Though Matthews would describe in court second-hand accounts about frustrations with Logan by at least two SEALs, the Raiders and even Logan’s team leader, Green Beret Sgt. 1st Class Jamie Morris, the only incident offered that was provided in detail was when Logan ditched the two Raiders on the way to a social function at the French Embassy.

That perplexed military judge Navy Capt. Michael Luken during the hearing, who asked Matthews how the perceived party snub could be considered a “deficiency” worth remediation, specifically an illegal hazing.

Matthews explained that Bamako was a “semi-permissive environment” in which service members would rarely travel alone. Matthews did say that DeDolph and others mentioned other incidents but he did not testify to details about those.

After the party snub, the four defendants and others hatched a plan to bust into Logan’s room, subdue him, tie him up and video record the incident to humiliate him in order to put him in line with what they said was expected of him when working with the other members of the unit.

But they were not in his chain of command.

So Matthews said he told DeDolph to get permission from Logan’s team leader Morris. Matthews testified that DeDolph woke Morris just before 5 a.m. Morris allegedly said yes and then went back to sleep.

Morris has not been charged in Logan’s death.

“It was at that point we initiated the plan that ultimately led to the tragic and completely unintended death of Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar,” Matthews testified.

The foursome burst into his room, Matthews testified. Logan awoke when the sledgehammer busted down the door, jumped up and said, “Oh, it’s you guys.”

Then they were on him. DeDolph, a former professional mixed martial arts fighter, wrestled with Melgar and put Melgar in a chokehold. Matthews first grabbed Melgar’s ankles as the Raiders began duct taping him. They then restrained his wrists and duct taped them too.

But Logan had stopped breathing. They ripped off the tape and began attempts to revive him. Blood splattered on them as they tried first CPR, then an emergency tracheotomy.

Unsuccessful, they took him to a nearby medical clinic where he was pronounced dead.

Within minutes they had a plan to hide what had really happened. Matthews said he and DeDolph would “own it” and not mentioned the Marines’ involvement.

So, they told investigators the three of them had been practicing self-defense training. They told them that Melgar had been drunk. They told them other things that were not true.

And the investigation, kept from the public for months after Melgar had died, dragged on.

And Michelle had no answers, only suspicions and an emptiness, a loss of the core of her family.

In November 2018, Matthews, DeDolph, Madera-Rodriguez and Maxwell would all be charged with felony murder, involuntary manslaughter, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, hazing and burglary.

The three remaining co-defendants still face those charges. There is not a hearing date set but Maxwell’s attorney has said his client is in plea negotiations.

In his closing arguments, lead prosecutor Navy Lt. Cmdr. Benjamin Garcia pointed to those early decisions as examples of how Matthews and others failed to take responsibility and how those choices led to more pain for the family.

“This is a juvenile and illegal hazing where they duct taped and blood choked a man,” Garcia said. “They had no excuse for that action.”

But one of Matthews’ attorneys, retired Rear Adm. Christian Reismeier, argued that the one bad day’s worth of decisions on his client’s part should not outweigh a 16-year military career spent mostly with the SEALs that involved multiple combat tours and “heroic” actions.

Matthews served on eight tours following his enlistment in 2003. He received the Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V” device twice, the Purple Heart medal, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Service Commendation Medal with “V” device and the Joint Service Commendation Medal, among other awards.

Childhood friends, a fellow Navy SEAL and his sister all testified to his high character, integrity and the deep remorse he expressed over his decisions and his role in Melgar’s death.

While spending time with a close friend, Arlington County Sheriff’s Office Detective Richard Kelly, the lifetime friend kept asking him about what had happened and what investigators were telling him, trying to pick at what the case was and how he might fight the charges.

But, Kelly said, Matthews cut him off.

“Richard look, at the end of the day, an American died and I’m taking responsibility for it,” Kelly said Matthews told him.

The charges

He pleaded guilty Thursday morning to conspiracy, assault with battery, hazing, house breaking and obstruction of justice. Matthews faces a maximum punishment of 12 months confinement, reduction from E7 to E1, two-thirds pay reduction per month for a year and a bad-conduct discharge.

Reismeier pointed to the myriad health problems that Matthews faced including PTSD, TBI, spinal compression, shrapnel in his leg, hearing loss, a sleep disorder and dislocated shoulder, which would not be covered by the Veterans Administration should he get that discharge.

The attorney also argued toward the end of the hearing that leaks to the media by the government, not specifically the current prosecutors, over the past two years had grossly mischaracterized what happened in Mali.

Sourced information reported by news outlets, to include Military Times, indicated that Logan’s death may have involved his knowledge of a coverup of SEALs and others taking money from cash given to the special operators to use for official government business when working with local military and other groups.

“This false narrative in the press from day one about a murder to cover up a slush fund,” Reismeier said. “All of this stuff, leaks coming from the government for two years … and for two years he has not been able to say, ‘that’s not what happened.’”

As he finished his argument for the maximum sentence, Garcia told the court that a punishment should signal to the military community that this behavior will not be tolerated. He acknowledged that as special operators both Matthews and Logan were “viscerally aware” of the dangers of their jobs and both agreed to take on those dangers.

“What neither of them agreed to was to accept risk from one of their own,” Garcia said.

After Michelle shared the love and loss of Logan in her and her family’s life, she took what she said some would think was a surprise turn in her statement.

“Adam, thank you for finally coming forward with some of the truth about what led to his death,” she said. “I’m sad you made such reckless choices that led to the end of your career and my husband’s death.”

“I care not how much time you do or do not sit in a prison cell,” she said. “Only that you are never again in a position to hurt other service members and no longer wear the Trident that so many others are honored to wear.”

The judge recommended that Matthews be reduced in rank from E7 to E5, confined for a year and receive a bad conduct discharge. He did not recommend any pay reduction or forfeiture.

But Luken did make specific recommendations to the Consolidated Disposition Authority, Rear Adm. Charles W. Rock, commander, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic.

He recommended that Rock “suspend or remit” the bad conduct discharge if Matthews adheres to his plea agreement by testifying on behalf of the prosecution in the case and with consulting the Melgar family about the discharge.

Matthews was taken into custody Thursday to begin his confinement. As part of his plea deal he has waived most of his appeal rights and agreed to testify against his codefendants and cooperate in the government’s case.