It was four years ago, on Jan. 4, 2019, that Rick Rodriguez, a military contractor and decorated retired Green Beret, was pronounced dead at a hospital in Germany.
Days before his death, he had been involved in a short fistfight outside a bar in Iraq. He had gotten punched and then fallen and hit his head.
In December 2019, three members of the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command were charged with homicide in connection with Rodriguez’s death. Known by their supporters as the “MARSOC 3,” these men were Gunnery Sgt. Josh Negron, Gunnery Sgt. Danny Draher and corpsman Chief Petty Officer Eric Gilmet.
A drawn-out legal case — involving allegations that a top Marine lawyer had threatened the operators’ defense team, condemnation from several members of Congress and a dramatic North Carolina trial — ultimately led to vindication for two of the men.
For Negron and Draher, it ended in early February, with a general court-martial jury finding them not guilty of homicide and deciding not to punish them for the lesser charge of drinking.
But it all began on New Year’s 2019.
What happened on New Year’s 2019
In the first few hours of 2019, the “MARSOC 3″ were celebrating the New Year at a bar off-base in Irbil, in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region.
Security camera footage shows a night of revelry at that bar: guests dancing, balloons floating toward the ceiling, bartenders preparing drinks.
American service members and contractors weren’t allowed to drink alcohol while deployed to Iraq, and those stationed in Irbil generally had to be back on base by midnight. But security camera footage shows that Rodriguez was drinking, to the point where he stumbled at times and got into a verbal altercation with an unspecified person.
Draher and Negron were drinking as well, as several witnesses, including Draher, testified at trial.
As the night went on, the security camera footage appeared to show Rodriguez approach and become verbally aggressive with Gilmet, whose body language seemed to be consistent with trying to defuse the situation.
The trial’s defense team framed Rodriguez’s apparent intoxication and aggression as evidence that the Marines later had to defend themselves.
“Is it fair to say that when you mix alcohol with the male ego, you get a cocktail that doesn’t turn out too tasty?” Joseph Low IV, Negron’s civilian attorney and a Marine veteran, asked Naval Criminal Investigative Service Special Agent Matthew Marshall on cross-examination.
The bar’s bouncers escorted Rodriguez out of the establishment. The “MARSOC 3″ left a few minutes later.
During the trial, which began Jan. 17, both sides argued different theories about what happened next outside the bar. The question was: Who started the fight, Draher and Negron, or Rodriguez?
Some witnesses testified that Rodriguez asked the men if they wanted to finish what was started inside. They varied on whether Draher replied in the affirmative, “Yup,” or reluctantly, “Why does it have to be like that?”
In security footage, Rodriguez appeared to have made an aggressive action toward Draher, though the prosecution disputed that he ever made contact. Draher testified that Rodriguez punched him twice, according to Draher’s lawyer, Marine veteran Phillip Stackhouse.
Draher pushed Rodriguez backward.
Then, according to multiple witnesses, Negron punched Rodriguez.
Rodriguez went down.
One Marine veteran testified at trial that Negron had said later in the morning that the punch was an attempt to protect Draher — which the defense insisted was the case.
Another Marine veteran, Adam Songer, said in response to a prosecutor’s questions that he had seen Negron get on top of Rodriguez when he already was down and punch him. If true, that testimony would have been a boon to the prosecution.
But it was, as Low drove home on cross-examination, a departure from other witnesses’ testimony, and even from testimony that Songer had given to NCIS in January 2019. Back then, Songer had said that Negron had thrown a punch while Rodriguez was still standing.
Low asked of the conflicting statements, “How do we know which one to pick?”
Songer insisted that while he didn’t remember giving the initial testimony to NCIS, he did now remember the fight.
After Rodriguez got knocked out, most of the bystanders scattered. The Marine special operators took him back to base and left him with Gilmet, an experienced hospital corpsman.
When Rodriguez stopped breathing hours later, a contractor who also was watching over him alerted a doctor on base.
Rodriguez died on Jan. 4, 2019, at a military medical center in Landstuhl, Germany.
He was survived by his wife, four children, granddaughter, parents and three siblings, according to his obituary.
At trial, the prosecutors argued in part that Rodriguez would be alive today if the special operators had taken him to a hospital earlier, rather than leaving him with Gilmet.
“I just think of all of the options and all of the things that could have been done to prevent what happened that night,” Rodriguez’s widow, Heidi, told Marine Corps Times after the trial.
The defense argued that it was reasonable for the operators to entrust Rodriguez to Gilmet’s care. Gilmet, having received immunity to testify without his statements being used against him, testified at trial that he carefully assessed Rodriguez and did his best to treat him, according to Stackhouse.
Another argument the defense raised centered on the cause of death. Some defense experts testified that Rodriguez, who had vomit in his airways, died from being unable to breathe, according to Stackhouse. Prosecution experts maintained he died effects of hitting his head.
Further complicating the case was that witnesses weren’t always sure what they remembered.
More than four years after Rodriguez’s death, witnesses often offered hazy, conflicting accounts of the night of the altercation. They frequently said they couldn’t remember details. Many of them admitted to having been intoxicated, and some of them later received administrative punishments for “collateral misconduct,” including making false statements to investigators, The Washington Post reported in 2020.
Security footage of the fight was grainy and taken from a distance at nighttime. Even an NCIS agent who had reviewed the footage multiple times said on the stand that he wasn’t sure how to interpret aspects of it.
There was even some ambiguity about what happened at the trial.
No other news outlets apparently attended it, and Marine Corps Times was present for four days of testimony by the prosecution’s witnesses, during which the prosecution laid out its case and the defense worked to dismantle it on cross-examination. Trial transcripts weren’t immediately available.
The prosecutors declined to comment to Marine Corps Times about the case.
What happened next
In the weeks following Rodriguez’s death, false rumors appeared on social media and in news coverage that the Marines had killed him by stomping on him or pummeling him. Some observers suggested that the incident in Iraq was in keeping with a culture of misconduct within the military’s special operations forces, with one Daily Beast article drawing a parallel to the 2017 strangulation of Green Beret Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar at the hands of other special operators.
Nearly a year after Rodriguez’ death, in December 2019, the Marine Corps announced charges of involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, obstruction of justice, dereliction in the performance of duties and violation of a general order against Draher, Gilmet and Negron. During the trial, the judge dismissed the obstruction of justice charge against Draher and Negron, and the prosecutors dropped one aspect of the manslaughter charge against Draher.
In November 2021, a comment in a briefing room in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, by a top Marine Corps lawyer added a significant intricacy to the legal proceedings.
Capt. Matthew Thomas, the Marine judge advocate general who was representing Gilmet at the time, asked Col. Christopher B. Shaw, then the deputy director of the Judge Advocate Division of the Marine Corps, how the Corps protects its uniformed defense lawyers.
“What is being done to protect the attorney in that position from outside influences such as political pressures, media pressure and general societal pressure?” Thomas asked, according to Marine Corps documents.
“I know your name and I know what cases you’re on and you are not protected,” Shaw told Thomas, according to at least four sworn affidavits, as Marine Corps Times previously reported. “You are shielded but not protected.”
An anonymous complaint to the Corps’ inspector general sparked a command investigation, which determined that Shaw had acted unprofessionally but hadn’t broken the law.
Lawyers for the MARSOC 3 argued that Shaw’s comment showed that the men wouldn’t get a fair trial and that it could have a chilling effect on Marine defense lawyers. They asked for the charges to be dismissed, alleging unlawful command influence.
Lt. Col. Eric Catto, the judge in Draher and Negron’s case, denied that request. A military judge dismissed Gilmet’s case, but a military appeals court reinstated the charges in August 2022.
JAGs from the Army and Coast Guard — not the Marine Corps — served as Negron and Draher’s uniformed defense counsel during the trial.
Meanwhile, several Republicans in Congress have condemned the Marine Corps’ handling of the case. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Florida, a former Army special operator, argued in a Marine Corps Times op-ed in May 2022 that Maj. Gen. Daniel Yoo, then in charge of MARSOC, had treated the trio as scapegoats.
“It appears to me that this unfortunate episode got wrapped up in other cases of alleged misconduct within the U.S. Special Operations Command,” Mast wrote. “I believe that Yoo saw an opportunity for damage control and a chance to score political points at the expense of these three heroes.”
One Marine veteran who said he is friends with Draher reached out to Marine Corps Times the day before the verdict to share that he thinks Draher deserves better from the Corps.
Trey, who asked to be identified by his first name only to speak about his difficult personal experiences, said he fell into a rough mental state after volunteering in Ukraine in 2022. Draher was his emotional lifeline, Trey said.
And when Trey’s small business faced overwhelming financial problems, Draher volunteered his time to help Trey when he could, he said. “He’s about as genuine as they come,” Trey said.
4 years later, a resolution
The trial before a general court-martial began in mid-January and took place at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina.
Only two of the eight members of the jury were commissioned officers, according to Low and to Marine Corps Times’ observation of their uniforms. The rest were staff noncommissioned officers.
All of them were MARSOC members, and four were Marine Raiders, according to numbers provided by MARSOC spokesman Maj. Matthew Finnerty.
Following closing arguments, the jury left to deliberate on the evening of Feb. 1. They returned a verdict a little more than two hours later, according to Stackhouse.
The verdict was the same for both Draher and Negron.
Involuntary manslaughter: Not guilty.
Negligent homicide: Not guilty.
Dereliction in the performance of duties, for allegedly breaking curfew: Not guilty.
Violation of a lawful general order, for drinking while deployed to Iraq: Guilty.
The one guilty charge carried a maximum sentence of two years’ confinement, a dishonorable discharge and forfeiture of all pay and allowances, according to the courts-martial manual.
But the jury decided the day after the verdict not to give Draher and Negron any punishment.
“Given these two members’ incredible amount of loyal service over a long period of time, and the incredible missions that they’ve been asked to do and accomplish in the worst conditions, punishing somebody like that for something this small would have been cruel,” Low told Marine Corps Times shortly after the sentencing.
Heidi Rodriguez told Marine Corps Times she felt shocked, but not surprised, to hear the jury’s decisions. She noted that several of the jury members were Marine Raiders and all were male.
“I felt that it was unfair and going to be hard for them not to have an unbiased thought going into this, with those being their brothers up there,” she said.
Despite the lack of punishment, the two Marines have still been convicted of felonies.
In theory, Stackhouse said, the command could decide to process Draher and Negron for separation. But that’s the kind of action that is usually reserved for more egregious offenses, he said.
The lawyer told Marine Corps Times after the sentencing that the defense counsel has asked Maj. Gen. Matthew Trollinger, the MARSOC commanding general, to set aside the conviction.
Stackhouse added in a statement to Marine Corps Times:
“We want to thank the MARSOC Commanding General for ensuring a fair process. Fair doesn’t mean easy. Fair means that he funded the experts we needed, funded the expenses for traveling the witnesses we needed, and ensured that Gunnery Sergeants Draher and Negron had a real jury of their peers — including officers and senior staff noncommissioned officers who were Raiders and/or had real-world experience from which to judge the evidence. That does not always happen, so he ensured a fair process.”
Other family members Marine Corps Times asked for comment did not respond by deadline. Draher didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Stackhouse said that his client shared the sentiments in his statement.
Negron told Marine Corps Times, “I’m not sure exactly what the next chapter of my life looks like, but I am overall extremely grateful, and grateful to the Marine Corps in general.”
Negron said his father served in the Marine Corps before him. He himself enlisted in 2000 and served in the Corps for his entire adult life.
And, he said, if his command lets him, he hopes to keep serving.
The third member of the trio, Gilmet, still faces involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide charges for allegedly failing to take Rodriguez to a hospital in a timely manner, along with charges of obstruction of justice, violation of the no-drinking order and dereliction of duty.
The corpsman’s case is pending appellate review by the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, which has to decide whether to dismiss the case because of the alleged unlawful command influence.
Because Gilmet received immunity to testify at Draher and Negron’s court-martial, it likely will make it harder for him to be prosecuted. The prosecution will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the evidence it uses against the corpsman didn’t come from his cooperation, interviews or testimony, a tough burden to meet, according to Gilmet’s lawyer, Colby Vokey.
Vokey, also a Marine veteran, told Marine Corps Times that Draher and Negron’s acquittal showed the charges against his client were “baseless and not supported by the evidence.”
“It’s time to stop this madness and end it once and for all,” Vokey said in a statement to Marine Corps Times.
Until Gilmet’s case gets dismissed or goes to court-martial, the legal saga of the MARSOC 3 isn’t over.
And for the family of Rick Rodriguez, the pain of losing him certainly isn’t over, Heidi Rodriguez told Marine Corps Times.
She wants people to remember him as she does: as a man who made people laugh, who earned a Bronze Star for valor in Afghanistan, who bought meals for homeless veterans when he saw them on the street, who doted on his children and granddaughter.
“He was the backbone of his family,” Heidi Rodriguez said. “He was my best friend. And my family hurts tremendously every day not having him here.” ■
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.