Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Tony DeDolph will spend the next decade in a military prison for his role in the killing of a Special Forces soldier in Mali in 2017.
A military jury sentenced DeDolph, a member of the elite SEAL Team 6, Saturday. In addition to ten years in prison, DeDolph was also hit with reduction in rank to E-1, forfeiture of his pay and allowances and will be dishonorably discharged, according to a defense official.
DeDolph had pleaded guilty earlier this month to involuntary manslaughter in the strangulation death of Army Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar, a Special Forces soldier assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group. DeDolph also pleaded guilty to hazing, conspiracy and obstruction of justice for trying to cover up the cause of Melgar's death.
DeDolph also agreed, as part of his plea deal, to a provision that bars him from profiting from the case in any way, including writing books or earning a living based on his experience at SEAL Team 6.
Phil Stackhouse, DeDolph's civilian attorney, did not return calls or text messages seeking comment. Melgar’s widow, Michelle, attended the hearing, but declined to comment on the sentence, which is the longest received by any of the men involved in his killing.
DeDolph was part of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, commonly known as Seal Team 6. He and Melgar were part of an intelligence operation in Mali supporting counterterrorism efforts against al Qaeda’s local affiliate, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in 2017.
Earlier this month, he told a military judge he and the other men were avenging a “perceived slight” after Melgar left them to attend a party at the French Embassy in Mali’s capital city of Bamako, according to the Associated Press. His job was to place Melgar in a “rear naked choke” that restricts blood flow in the neck.
“I effectively applied the chokehold as I have done numerous times in training, with combatives and has been done to me,” DeDolph told the judge.
DeDolph said the attack was intended to be a joke and the severity escalated during a night of drinking. DeDolph, Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Adam Matthews, also a member of SEAL Team 6, and two Marine Raiders—Gunnery Sgt. Mario Madera-Rodriguez and Staff Sgt. Kevin Maxwell—planned to break into Melgar’s room, choke him unconscious, bind him with duct tape and dance around him in a gorilla mask and shoot a video of the whole thing. The four men—after getting permission from Sergeant First Class James Morris, Melgar’s supervisor—broke down Melgar’s door and attacked him. Past testimony pointed the finger at DeDolph as the instigator, but he told the military judge “it was more of like a pack mentality, group decision.”
DeDolph is the third of four defendants to plead guilty in the case. Matthews, 33, pleaded guilty to hazing and assault charges and attempts to cover up what happened to Melgar. He was sentenced in May 2019 to one year in military prison. Maxwell, 29, was sentenced to four years of confinement after pleading guilty to negligent homicide, hazing and making false official statements in June 2019.
Only Madera-Rodriguez is still awaiting trial. He is expected to face a court-martial in February and has no plans to plead guilty, his civilian attorney Colby Vokey said earlier this month.
DeDolph’s 10-year sentence closes one of the last chapters in a case that has seen one of the NCIS investigators get pulled off the case after allegedly engaging in a romantic relationship with a witness, one of the accused SEALs hit on Melgar’s widow at a Las Vegas gun show and the Navy promote DeDolph four months after he admitted to investigators that he’d choked the Green Beret to death.
But the case’s lasting legacy might be the window it offered into issues facing not only SEAL culture, but special operations in general. Melgar’s death was one of several ugly incidents–ranging from allegations of war crimes to Army Special Forces soldiers smuggling cocaine from Colombia– to mar the reputation of special operations.
At the safehouse in Mali, there was widespread alcohol use, partying, and prostitutes, according to sources familiar with the investigation. That is a pattern that fits with the numerous incidents of sexual assault, sexual misconduct, and drug use associated with these units, including a platoon from SEAL Team 7 sent home from Iraq after having a “drunk fest” on the 4th of July in 2019 that spurred allegations of sexual assault.
A Special Operations Command (SOCOM) ethics review in January found no systemic problems, but acknowledged 20 years of combat degraded the development of leaders in the force. That “impacted our culture in some troublesome ways,” said Army Gen. Richard Clarke, SOCOM’s commander.
“The bottom line is that we have disproportionately focused on employment and mission accomplishment at the expense of the training and development of our force,” Clarke wrote in a letter to the force. “In some cases, this imbalance has set conditions for unacceptable conduct to occur due to a lack of leadership, discipline, and accountability,” Clarke continued, adding:
“Culture does not tend itself—it must be cultivated by leaders, and only active, consistent engagement from leaders at every level will make us better.”