NORFOLK, Virginia—The killing started out as a joke.
None of the Navy SEALs or Marine Raiders based in Mali in 2017 took seriously the idea of getting a prostitute or even the suggestion that one of the local guards sexually assault their Army Special Forces teammate as payback for ditching them. At least not until all four were all lined up outside Army Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar’s door with two rolls of duct tape and a sledge hammer.
At that point, “Operation Toss Salad”—as they called it—was a go.
Now, two years later, Marine Raider Gunnery Sgt. Mario Madera-Rodriguez, 34, and Navy Special Operations Chief Tony DeDolph, 40, face charges including murder in the strangulation death of Melgar, a Green Beret. Both appeared Monday at a hearing at Naval Station Norfolk to determine if they will face a court martial.
The hearing comes in the wake of several high-profile incidents that have exposed issues in the SEAL culture. A SEAL platoon from SEAL Team 7 was sent home from Iraq after allegations of drinking and sexual assault last month. Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Gallagher, a former member of SEAL Team 7, faced a court martial for war crimes charges including murder, but was only convicted of posing for a picture with a dead body. Last year, six SEALs tested positive for cocaine.
Rear Adm. Collin Green, head of Naval Special Warfare Command, sent a memo to his command last month declaring the whole SEAL community has a problem.
“Some of our subordinate formations have failed to maintain good order and discipline and as a result and for good reason, our NSW culture is being questioned,” Green wrote in the July 25 memo. “I don’t know yet if we have a culture problem, I do know that we have a good order and discipline problem that must be addressed immediately.”
Monday’s hearing exposed some of the issues facing not only SEAL culture, but special operations in general. There was widespread alcohol use, partying, and prostitutes, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
“It was like a frat house,” one source said, when asked to describe what the safe house in Bamako was like.
But one of the more damning admissions during the hearing was when former Chief Special Warfare Operator Adam Matthews, who was only in Mali for a few days on temporary duty, said he felt it was his duty to haze Melgar—on DeDolph’s recommendation—to teach him a lesson about ditching his teammates.
Melgar, assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group, was nearing the end of his deployment when he was killed in the West African nation of Mali in June 2017. He was part of an intelligence operation in Mali supporting counterterrorism efforts against al Qaeda’s local affiliate, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Former Staff Sgt. Kevin Maxwell, a Marine Raider, and Matthews, testified during Monday’s hearing. Both have already pleaded guilty in exchange for plea agreements with prosecutors. Matthews, 33, pleaded guilty to hazing and assault charges and attempts to cover up what happened to Logan. He was sentenced in May to one year in military prison. Maxwell, 29, was sentenced to four years of confinement after pleading guilty in connection with Logan’s death in June. Both men Monday offered detailed retellings of what happened in the Bamako safe house the night Melgar died.
Maxwell testified when Melgar ditched the team in Mali’s capital city of Bamako on his way to a party at the French embassy, they hatched a plan to haze him. For the rest of the night, the SEALs and Marines—including one who didn’t take part in the attack—seethed about the perceived slight. They concocted wild scenarios, including hiring a prostitute to assault Melgar to get back at him. But after a long night of drinking and partying, they settled on using one of the local guards hired to protect the safe house instead. Nicknamed “Big Man,” they stripped him to his waist and put a leash on him. He was told to lie next to Melgar so they could shoot video and pictures to embarrass him.
After picking up a sledge hammer and duct tape at the Marine’s safe house, Maxwell, Matthews, DeDolph, and Madera-Rodriguez went to the house shared by Melgar and the SEALs. Matthews told DeDolph to speak with Sergeant First Class James Morris, Melgar’s supervisor, about the plan to haze Melgar.
“Yeah, do what you got to do,” Morris said, and went back to bed.
Madera-Rodriguez was at the head of the stack with a sledge hammer as the men lined up outside of Melgar’s door. The four men counted down from three and then he smashed the lock and Maxwell switched on the light as a startled Melgar got to his feet.
“Oh, it’s you guys,” Matthews recalled Melgar saying as they rushed in. “Come on fuckers.”
DeDolph and Matthews grappled with Melgar. While DeDolph applied a choke hold on Melgar from behind, Matthews pulled out his legs forcing both men to fall on the bed. Matthews and Maxwell then duct taped Melgar’s arms and legs. Mathews said Monday when he went to secure Melgar’s hands, he realized Melgar was unresponsive.
“The overall intent wasn’t to hurt him,” Matthews said.
Matthews ordered DeDolph off of Melgar, whose face was pressed into the mattress of his bed, and they tried to resuscitate Melgar with CPR and opened a hole in his throat. Prosecutors charged DeDolph, a medic, with obstructing justice alleging he performed the technique to cover up Melgar’s injuries. When they couldn’t revive him, the SEALs took Melgar to a French medical facility, where he was pronounced dead. At the clinic, DeDolph reportedly admitted to an embassy official he choked Melgar.
Phil Stackhouse, DeDolph's civilian attorney, and Colby Vokey, Madera-Rodriguez’s civilian attorney, tried to discredit Matthews by pointing out how his first statement to prosecutors was light on details. His subsequent statement, given after being warned he’d lose his plea deal, was more detailed.
Logan Melgar’s wife, Michelle, sat in the front row of the courtroom behind Madera-Rodriguez clutching her husband’s green beret in her hands. She told The Daily Beast last month she agreed to Matthews’ and Maxwell’s plea deals in exchange for the truth.
“I was just thankful that somebody had come forward to talk and tell the truth about what happened, which meant nobody was getting away with his murder, or with his death,” she said in an exclusive interview.
Stackhouse and Vokey also attacked the investigation, questioning the validity of information obtained by Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent Ethan Pickett. Pickett was assigned to investigate Melgar’s 2017 death in Mali. While there, Pickett met Collette Roberts—who worked in the embassy’s regional affairs office—and engaged in a romantic relationship. When Pickett’s misconduct came to light, NCIS pulled him from the investigation.
“He has created taint in the evidence that is inexcusable to us,” Stackhouse said.
Both Vokey and Stackhouse admitted during their separate closing statements that all four men were guilty of some misconduct like hazing and obstruction of justice, but not murder and burglary.
Monday’s hearing, called an Article 32, is like a civilian preliminary hearing mixed with a grand jury. Capt. Warren Record, the preliminary hearing officer, will now make a recommendation to Navy Region Mid-Atlantic Commanding Officer Rear Adm. Charles Rock. The admiral will ultimately determine if DeDolph and Madera-Rodriguez will face a court martial.
“Clearly what happened is a horrible, tragic accident,” Stackhouse said. “Based on all the facts in this case, nobody went into that room to kill Staff Sgt. Melgar.”