Navy SEALs Investigated in Green Beret’s Death Also Under Scrutiny in Theft
The revelations that the SEAL commandos have been under suspicion of stealing money from a fund used to pay informants shed light on a potential motive in the mysterious Mali death.
WASHINGTON — Two Navy SEAL commandos under investigation in the strangling of an Army Green Beret soldier in June in Mali have also been under scrutiny in the theft of money from a fund used to pay confidential informants, according to three service members briefed on the matter.
One Navy official said that military authorities investigated the allegations earlier this year and concluded there was insufficient evidence to take any criminal or other disciplinary action against the commandos, who are members of the elite SEAL Team 6. But another former member of the unit said the inquiry was continuing.
The revelations may shed light on a possible motive in the death of Staff Sgt. Logan J. Melgar, a 34-year-old veteran of two tours in Afghanistan, in the embassy housing he shared in the Malian capital, Bamako, with the two Navy commandos, who were on a secret counterterrorism mission in the impoverished West African nation.
Sergeant Melgar’s killing marked the latest violent death under mysterious circumstances for American troops on little-known missions in that region of Africa. Four American soldiers were killed in an ambush last month in neighboring Niger while conducting what was initially described as a reconnaissance patrol but was later changed to supporting a much more dangerous counterterrorism mission against Islamic militants in the area.
The Pentagon said last week that an inquiry into the four soldiers’ deaths would not be completed until January at the earliest.
No one has been charged in Sergeant Melgar’s death, which a military medical examiner ruled “a homicide by asphyxiation,” or strangulation. The initial reports to Sergeant Melgar’s superiors in Germany said he had been injured while wrestling with the two Navy commandos, according to three officials who have been briefed on the investigation and who requested anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service took over the case in late September from Army criminal authorities after the status of the two Navy commandos was changed from “witnesses” to “persons of interest,” meaning officials were trying to determine what the commandos knew about the death and whether they were involved.
The Navy SEALs’ potential role threatens to tarnish SEAL Team 6, the famed counterterrorism unit that carried out the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Until now, the biggest unanswered question in the case has been why Sergeant Melgar was killed. But new clues are emerging on that front.
An American service member who knew Sergeant Melgar said he was under the impression that the sergeant had stumbled on some sort of money-skimming scheme involving the Navy commandos. A retired senior enlisted sailor who served in SEAL Team 6 said Sergeant Melgar discovered the scam and threatened to report the Navy commandos to the authorities. Sergeant Melgar’s suspicions were first reported in the Daily Beast.
Both people spoke on condition of anonymity because the sergeant’s death remains under investigation. A spokesman for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Ed Buice, declined to comment on the homicide investigation.
Special Operations troops from a range of units can earn qualifications that let them recruit sources for intelligence and pay them. These individuals may handle payments from small cash bags up to storage lockers filled with currency.
Cash from funds to pay informants has a way of going missing, military officials said. Skimming money from funds, which in Mali could be as much as $20,000 at any given time, is relatively easy because the service members are often dealing with sources who are illiterate and cannot sign their names to a receipt. This allows an unscrupulous person to create a bogus receipt with the equivalent of an “X” for a signature, military officials said.
One of the first missions to draw broad public attention to the secretive Navy SEAL Team 6 unit was its dramatic rescue in April 2009 of Capt. Richard Phillips after Somali pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama cargo ship. Snipers from the unit’s Red Squadron shot and killed three of the pirates in a small rescue boat.
The criminal complaint against the surviving pirate, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, describes how Captain Phillips gave roughly $30,000 in cash from the safe aboard the Maersk to the pirates, money that soon disappeared. Captain Phillips later recalled leaning against a sack with the money inside on the lifeboat. When Navy personnel searched the lifeboat, all they found were guns, ammunition, cellphones and radios. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service gave the SEALs polygraph tests about the missing money but could never prove where the $30,000 had gone, and the case was closed. No SEAL from that mission is involved in the Mali case.
Much is unknown about what happened around 5 a.m. June 4 in the house that Sergeant Melgar shared with another Army Green Beret and the two Navy commandos.
The SEALs were in the country on a clandestine mission to support French and Malian counterterrorism forces battling Al Qaeda’s branch in North and West Africa, known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as smaller cells aligned with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. The Americans helped provide intelligence for missions, and had participated in at least two such operations in Mali this year before Sergeant Melgar’s death. Over all, about two dozen American troops operate in Mali at any given time, mostly to help on training and counterterrorism missions.
SEAL Team 6, formally known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, has over the past decade carried out kill-or-capture missions in Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, as well as the one that killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011.
According to one version of events surrounding the death in Mali, from a military official, one of the SEALs put Sergeant Melgar in a chokehold. When the sergeant passed out, the commandos frantically tried to revive him. Failing that, they rushed him to an emergency clinic, where he was pronounced dead.
The service member who knew Sergeant Melgar said that the sergeant’s chain of command immediately grew suspicious when the initial incident reports said the death was the result of a drunken accident. His friends and superiors knew Sergeant Melgar did not drink.
One of the SEAL commandos under investigation is Petty Officer Tony E. DeDolph, a former professional mixed martial arts fighter, according to two military officials who were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. His identity was reported by The Intercept.
Petty Officer DeDolph and the second Navy commando, who has not been identified, were flown out of Mali shortly after Sergeant Melgar’s death and were placed on administrative leave at the unit’s headquarters in Dam Neck, Va.
Sergeant Melgar, a graduate of Texas Tech University who joined the Army in 2012, was assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., the same unit whose soldiers were attacked by a much larger and heavily armed group of Islamic State fighters near the border between Niger and Mali on Oct. 4.
Sergeant Melgar, a native of Lubbock, Tex., was about four months into what military officials said was a six-month tour in Mali. He was part of a small crisis-response team in Bamako assigned to help provide intelligence about Islamic militants in Mali to the United States Embassy to help protect its personnel against attacks. The sergeant also helped assess which Malian Army troops might be trained and equipped to build a counterterrorism force.
“The distinguished accomplishments of Staff Sergeant Logan Melgar’s are in keeping with the highest honors and traditions of military service,” read the citation with a Defense Meritorious Service Medal awarded to him posthumously.