Marine Cpl. Mathew Nelson, of 2nd section, Scout Platoon, 2nd Tank Battalion, walks to the courtroom with his civilian attorney Vaughn Taylor and his other legal team at Camp Lejeune, N.C., on Sept.10. (Randy Davey)
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CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — It was supposed to be a game.
Cpl. Mathew Nelson felt certain his Marines knew he wouldn't shoot whenever he pointed his 9mm service pistol at them. He never intended to shoot and kill 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Patrick Malone last March in Iraq.
But now Nelson, 25, will spend the next eight years in prison for killing Malone with an accidental gunshot to the forehead — the result of a game gone terribly wrong, a game he and his fellow members of 2nd section, Scout Platoon, 2nd Tank Battalion, called "Trust."
Nelson pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and seven counts of reckless endangerment Sept. 10 at a general court-martial at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
He is the third member of the unit to be court-martialed for crimes related to playing the game, along with another corporal and a Navy corpsman second class. A fourth member, a sergeant, is awaiting trial. More could still be charged.
But only Nelson actually fired his weapon and hurt anyone. Marine judge Col. Daniel Daugherty sentenced him to eight years, reduction to private, forfeiture of pay and allowances, and a bad-conduct discharge. But it could have been worse — he initially faced a maximum of 22 years in prison.
‘Do you trust me?'
"They knew that it was horseplay," Nelson told the judge, who fired questions at the Marine as he tried to explain the game to a courtroom filled primarily with members of his and Malone's families. "When I was doing this with my Marines, it was not meant as a threat. They knew I was not serious. They knew that I was not going to intentionally shoot them."
Nelson told the court that he'd learned about the game from the other side of the pistol, as a junior Marine on a previous deployment to Iraq in 2007. It was, he said, "something I'd seen many times."
By the fall of 2008, he was one of the seasoned veterans, a noncommissioned officer with 2nd Tanks, and the game was commonplace in his section. At least six other members of the unit told investigators they, too, had either seen Trust played or heard about it before their 2nd Tanks' October 2008 deployment.
They played like this: An NCO would partially insert a magazine into his M9 and pretend to rack the slide, simulating the chambering of a round. Then he'd point the pistol and ask, "Do you trust me?"
When the question was answered, typically in the affirmative, he would then either pull the trigger or lower the gun to clear it.
Nelson admitted that over the course of the deployment, he asked the question repeatedly as he pointed his M9 at the six Marines and one corpsman under his charge. He played Trust on each person two or three times, he said.
‘A form of acceptance'
Maj. Matthew Stewart, the prosecutor, described the scene to the court-martial. Malone was sitting on his rack, his back against the plywood wall of the hooch he shared with 14 others at Combat Outpost Viking in Saqlaweiyah, Iraq. He was watching a movie when Nelson approached him.
Nelson testified he did not intentionally pull the trigger. He told investigators with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service that he could not remember firing the gun — only that he saw smoke rise from the barrel and Malone slumped over on his bed.
Less than 20 minutes after the shot, Malone, a young man Nelson viewed as a friend, was dead.
It's unclear how, when or where the Trust game originated. Some in 2nd section said they first heard of it in boot camp, but there are criminal cases involving Marines that date to the 1990s in which other versions of the game resulted in death. In 2007, a Kentucky National Guardsman shot and killed his best friend and fellow soldier while playing Trust after a deployment, and another Camp Lejeune Marine was arrested in July for allegedly doing the same to his civilian roommate.
Lance Cpl. David Skinner knew how Malone died the moment he heard Nelson was the shooter, he testified. A member of Scout Platoon's 1st section, Skinner was sleeping when Malone — like a brother to him, he said — was shot. Skinner cried, trembling on the stand as he recalled his immediate reaction. He was part of the group preparing to medically evacuate Malone and, in his haste to get ready, put on his boots, but no socks. He put on his blouse, but no T-shirt.
Skinner rushed to the vehicle, but when he got there he was told to stand down. He knew his friend was gone.
Members of 1st section have denied playing Trust, but Skinner said he heard about the game after arriving in Iraq last year. He said he saw it played once, by members of 2nd section.
"Who'd you tell?" Daugherty asked.
"No one, sir," Skinner answered. "Some people thought it was a form of acceptance — acceptance by your highers. By tolerating it, you basically said you trusted them."
‘I knew nothing would happen'
Lance Cpl. David Bills, a member of 2nd section, testified Nelson played the game on him "several times," and that he trusted his superior — the first time.
"I knew that nothing would happen," Bills said. "We all knew it was a stupid game, but nobody ever expected it to get taken that far. The Marine Corps teaches weapons safety, but they don't tell you about things like this."
Asked by the prosecutor Stewart whether he ever mishandled a weapon, Bills said no. But 13 photographs presented by Nelson's defense suggest otherwise. The judge warned Bills that he had the right to remain silent rather than risk incriminating himself, but the Marine went on to describe each photo anyway.
"It's me holding a knife above one of my fellow lance corporals," Bills said of the first picture. That Marine, Lance Cpl. Emerson Boutin, appears to be asleep as Bills holds the knife about 2 feet from his face, Bills said. Spencer Hamer, the corpsman, pleaded guilty to playing Trust on Boutin as well.
The next image, Bills said, shows him naked, except for a pair of boots, and holding a loaded M4 over his groin. Another shows a corporal holding a pistol to Bills' head, he testified. The photos were taken in the same hooch where Malone was shot, he said. It's unclear who took the photos.
Nor is it clear what charges, if any, Bills could face. The judge told him to return to his normal duties.
So why, Stewart asked Bills, did he think it OK to pose as he had in the photographs?
"Nobody said it wasn't," Bills said.
Throughout the trial, Daugherty was incredulous at the Marines' nonchalance with their weapons.
"You understand the business end of a 9mm is a threat. How come none of them ever shot you or put you down?" the judge asked Nelson.
"There was no malice behind it," Nelson answered.
The corpsman's 9mm
Hamer expressed similar sentiments Sept. 9 during his special court-martial, where the 23-year-old pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment for pointing his pistol at Boutin, who received nonjudicial punishment earlier this year for playing the game, sometime in November. Apart from two months in the brig, Hamer was busted to hospitalman.
"I guess I wanted to break up the monotony," he testified. "I had some problems fitting in with the guys. I got the crazy notion in my head, ‘Why don't I do this?' It was wrong on so many levels."
Hamer and Boutin testified that another Marine, Sgt. Michael Singles, pointed his weapon at Boutin just moments before Hamer did. Singles, 26, is awaiting his Article 32 on charges of reckless endangerment and dereliction of duty. He did not testify at either court-martial.
In July, Cpl. John McLellan was convicted of reckless endangerment and sentenced to two months in the brig and reduction to lance corporal.
Nelson sobbed as his father, Roy Nelson, took the stand and told the judge his son should be punished. Before the sentence was read, the Marine turned to Malone's family and apologized.
"I'm sorry from the bottom of my heart for what I have done," Nelson said quietly, standing with his hands folded at his waist. "There's nothing I can say. There's nothing I can do. I just hope you can find it in your hearts to accept my apology."
Nelson told the court he wants to make a video to be used as a public service announcement, warning others about mishandling weapons and how he took the life of one of his Marines.
"What I've done is the most despicable act that someone can do," Nelson said. "It was just foolishness. What I thought was camaraderie was stupidness. I have two lives to live. I can't just live for myself. I have to live for Lance Corporal Malone. I need people to understand that this cannot happen again. It should not go on. Something needs to be done."
Malone's father, Damian Malone, agreed when he took the stand: "It has to be understood why they're playing this game."
Marine officials, however, have said they see no signs of a trend, according to a spokesman at Marine Corps headquarters.
Family members on both sides of the courtroom think that's a mistake.
After Nelson was sentenced, Damian Malone embraced Roy Nelson, father of the shooter.
"It's going to be all right," Malone told him.
He wants their two families to work together to raise awareness about the game and its horrific effects.
Damian Malone, meanwhile, is still wrestling with the tragedy. While he believes his son's case was handled well, he is determined to find out how prevalent Trust is across the military.
He is satisfied with this, however: "I know he didn't mean to kill my son."