A Marine Corps sergeant accused of hazing a Muslim recruit while serving as a drill instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina, will be tried at a lesser, private hearing after agreeing to testify against another Marine drill instructor.
Sgt. Michael K. Eldridge was referred to general court-martial in April on charges of failure to obey a lawful general order, cruelty and maltreatment, false official statement, and drunk and disorderly conduct.
He is accused of participating in an alleged incident in which a recruit was subjected to a late-night interrogation about his Muslim faith and repeatedly thrown into an industrial dryer, where he suffered burns.
But in August, Eldridge's charges were altered and the circumstances of his trial changed with little official explanation.
In an Aug. 30 announcement, Capt. Joshua Pena, a spokesman for Marine Corps Training and Education Command, said Eldridge will now be tried at summary court-martial, the result of an agreement with Maj. Gen. Kevin Iiams, commanding general of TECOM.
He will face charges of failure to obey a lawful order, cruelty and maltreatment, and disorderly conduct.
Summary court-martial are the lowest level of military trial. They are typically private, simplified proceedings not open to the public, and the accused face much lesser sentences than those possible at a general or special court-martial.
While Pena did not provide an explanation for the change to Eldridge's proceedings, multiple sources confirmed to Military.com that they were the result of a plea deal, a key contention of which was that Eldridge would testify against Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix, another drill instructor implicated in the alleged hazing incident.
Investigations into multiple episodes of alleged hazing at Parris Island paint Felix as an instigator in some of the worst incidents. Felix is accused of putting the recruit in the dryer in an interrogation-style hazing ordeal while assigned to Platoon 3054, Lima Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion in July 2015.
The following year, while serving as senior drill instructor for Platoon 3042, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, he is accused of mistreating another Muslim recruit, 20-year-old Raheel Siddiqui, who died March 18, 2016, after vaulting from the third floor of a barracks building in what was determined a suicide.
"The facts and circumstances indicated several factors contributed to [Siddiqui's] death, including maltreatment by his drill instructor team, leadership failures at multiple levels of command, and administrative and process failures, that if avoided, could have the reduced the risk of his death," an investigation into the incident found.
Felix is charged with failure to obey a lawful general order, cruelty and maltreatment, false official statement, drunk and disorderly conduct and obstruction of justice. His general court-martial is set to run from Oct. 30 to Nov. 10 at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
It's not the first time individuals linked to the hazing scandal have been granted special allowances in exchange for testifying against another defendant.
Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, the commanding officer of 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, faces charges of failure to obey a lawful general order, false official statement, and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, accused of failure to take appropriate action when allegations from initial hazing incidents surfaced.
At his June 5 investigative hearing, two senior Marines who were removed from their posts in the wake of the hazing scandal testified for the prosecution. Col. Paul Cucinotta, former commander of Parris Island's Recruit Training Regiment, and Sgt. Maj. Nicholas Deabreu, former senior enlisted adviser to the regiment, testified under a grant of immunity, according to their own testimony.
Kissoon was arraigned Aug. 30; dates for his court-martial have yet to be set.