By Alex Ward
An expert explains what’s next in the investigation.
On June 4, Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar — a 34-year-old Army Green Beret — was found dead in US Embassy housing in Mali while he was on a secret assignment. Investigators currently believe he was strangled to death — and that two members of SEAL Team 6 may have killed him.
Murder among US service members is relatively rare, but it’s especially shocking to see that the two suspects — Petty Officer Anthony DeDolph, a former professional mixed martial arts fighter, and a still-unnamed sailor, both Melgar’s roommates — form part of one of the most revered military units in the United States. SEAL Team 6 became internationally famous for successfully killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, 2011.
A probe, first reported by the New York Times, is ongoing — and no one has yet been charged with a crime. But it appears the suspected SEALs changed their story and lied about about what happened. The Daily Beast reports that Melgar found out the two SEALs were taking some money designated for an informant fund. The SEALs asked Melgar if he wanted to get involved, but he declined.
The SEALs first told investigators that they found Melgar dead around 5:00 am on June 4. But after an autopsy showed Melgar died of asphyxiation, they said the three of them were doing fighting exercises when Melgar passed out, after which they tried to get Melgar medical attention. The SEALs claimed Melgar was drunk — but he didn’t drink that day — which raised suspicions of their account. The two SEALs have left Mali and are now on leave.
I reached out to Geoffrey Corn, a 21-year Army veteran and military justice expert at South Texas College of Law Houston, to find out what to expect with the investigation, possible trial and the complications that may arise. Corn even mentioned that the suspects could face the death penalty if the evidence is overwhelming.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What were your first thoughts when you heard about the incident?
The fact that investigators initially became suspicious that it was a homicide is pretty serious. If it turns out that there’s evidence to support this assumption — that two service members murdered another service member — in any society, that would be very serious.
It’s even more so in the special operations society, I think, because it’s so dependent on the bond of trust between the people involved in the mission.
Have you seen anything like this case before?
There are periodically criminal homicides in the military where one service member will kill another. Sometimes that happens during deployments, but it’s not common, thank goodness.
But have I ever seen an allegation of two Navy SEALs killing a Green Beret? No, I haven’t seen that.
So this is completely new as far as you know?
What’s new is it’s not so much that you have an incident where there is a conspiracy and then a murder. What’s new is it’s in this kind of unusual environment where you have special operators deployed together.
Now that we know the SEALs changed their story of what happened, will the investigation change at all?
Yes, it is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice to make a “false official statement,” and “false swearing” is also a violation — if they made it under oath.
So it really ramps up the suspicion of misconduct, because the assumption of investigators will be that had it actually been an accident, the SEALs would have been forthcoming about it initially.
And even if the investigation indicates it was from “grappling,” and was therefore an unintentional killing, it could still lead to charges for involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide.
SEAL Team 6 is a highly decorated and revered group. What are the complications surrounding an investigation into SEALs, especially when a lot of what they do is highly classified?
What makes it complicated is when you’re deployed like that, you’ve got different chains of command for the purpose of military justice issues.
So one of the things that Africa Command or Joint Special Operations Command has to sort out is who has the primary authority for investigating this, and then ultimately the disciplinary authority — if there’s in fact credible evidence to prosecute.
How does the NCIS [Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which is the agency that investigates possible felonies in the Navy and Marine Corps] carry out this investigation? What is next in this process?
When a commander receives a report of a potential crime, the commander has to initiate a preliminary investigation. And if the commander believes there’s a reason to credit the accusation, the commander should consider involving military investigators — and that appears to have happened.
So NCIS is going to conduct their investigation — like any other criminal investigation would be conducted — with the unique challenges of having to go to the scene of the crime in another country and interview people that are all over the country. And they will make a recommendation on whether or not they believe there is probable cause to go forward with the charge and what charge that should be.
At that point it will go back to the commander, and usually with a recommendation to the legal adviser on how to proceed. If there’s credible evidence of a criminal homicide, you can almost certainly bet that there’s going to be a charge of murder, or maybe manslaughter, and the commander is going to order that a pretrial hearing be conducted and make a recommendation of whether it should go to court-martial.
Does the fact that the victim in this case was in the Army and the suspects are in the Navy complicate the investigation?
I don’t think it’s particularly relevant.
The Navy commanders making these decisions might be a little bit sensitive to the concerns of the Army commanders …read more
Read more here: Two SEAL Team 6 members. An Army Green Beret. A murder.