CAMP PENDLETON, California — It was on range 110 at Camp Pendleton, California, in September 2020 where 1st Reconnaissance Battalion began direct action training in preparation for an 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit deployment.
Sgt. Gunnar I. Naughton’s duty was to oversee and safeguard the ammunition ― a job he said he unfairly undertook more often than any of the others on his team.
“I was the ammo tent guy,” Naughton told the judge during his general court-martial on Thursday.
But instead of guarding the ammo, the reconnaissance Marine was later charged with stealing ammunition and eventually dumping it into a ravine.
The Marine had been arrested as part of a sting by federal agents, which allegedly caught Marines trying to sell ammunition and explosives online. Seven Marines and one sailor were investigated by NCIS, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
In five charges that included the theft of military explosives and obstructing justice, Naughton, 28, was sentenced Thursday, and will receive a bad conduct discharge with a reduction in rate to E-1 and spend 16 months in confinement, minus the 147 days he already has spent in the brig. The judge’s sentencing included more time in confinement for each charge, but Naughton’s plea agreement held that he would serve it all concurrently.
In total, Naughton had been charged with dumping 3,724 cartridges of 5.56 ammunition with a value of about $1,079; 6,000 cartridges of .45 caliber ammunition with a value of about $2,041; 1,826 cartridges of 9 mm ball ammunition with a value of about $401; 120 cartridges of 12 gauge ammunition with a value of about $60; 160 cartridges of 12 gauge door breaching ammunition with a value of about $350; 80 cartridges of frangible 5.56 ammunition with a value of about $31; two training grenades and one smoke grenade.
Though he pleaded guilty to stealing the ammunition while guarding a forward supply station at range 110, Naughton testified that he was peer pressured into doing so by other Marines and that he had been negatively influenced by the recon community in general.
‘So they can shoot it later’
A group of Marines pocketing extra ammunition from the range for personal use — though he spoke generally, that was the picture Phillip Stackhouse, Naughton’s civilian attorney, painted in a June 16 phone interview with Marine Corps Times.
“This is about infantry guys taking ammunition,” Stackhouse said. “It’s so they can shoot it later.”
Then one of them usually gets greedy and tries to sell the ammo, Stackhouse said, “which is dumb, especially in California.”
The Golden State has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation. As is required with the purchase of a firearm, California requires ammunition buyers to go through federally licensed vendors and requires the purchaser to undergo a background check.
It was Marine Cpl. Jason Peters who allegedly tried selling ammo in this case — allegedly trying to sell ammunition to undercover federal agents. He was subsequently arrested on Feb. 2 and his apprehension led investigators to Naughton.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service confirmed Peters’ investigation was ongoing and declined to comment in an email to Marine Corps Times on Wednesday.
Los Angeles Police and explosive ordnance disposal teams reportedly were sent to the L.A. apartment of Peters’ girlfriend on Feb. 3.
Since the case is being handled at the federal level, local police and explosive ordnance were likely only there on standby and no incident report would have been generated, an LAPD spokesperson told Marine Corps Times on Wednesday.
Peters is set to enter a guilty plea on July 7, according to court documents.
Tampering with evidence
At range 110, a Forward Ammunition Supply Point had been set up for temporary storage while the training continued, NCIS Special Agent Gunnery Sgt. Chaz Hatton testified Thursday, laying out the events leading up to Naughton’s trial.
It was there that Naughton was working the ammo tent.
Additionally, on or about Feb. 2, Naughton removed ammo cans from the residence of Staff Sgt. Brian Newport, who was apprehended by NCIS shortly after Peters’ arrest.
Naughton said he was instructed to do so by Newport and did it to prevent the evidence from impacting the senior Marine.
In another obstruction charge, Hatton said Naughton instructed Hospital Corpsman Third Class Arthur Goldsborough to delete Signal and WhatsApp messages in groups he managed in order to avoid investigation.
Naughton testified that “shenanigans” in the social media group messages “had to go away” so as not to incriminate those involved.
‘They compromised his character’
“How in the world did I end up here?” Naughton said at the court-martial in an unsworn statement he read aloud.
Naughton spoke of being an outcast in a line company of mostly infantry Marines.
He was certainly no infantry Marine, nor did he fit into the rebel recon community where “rule followers were branded as cowards,” he said, offering some examples.
Soon after checking into the recon unit, Naughton testified he was asked to strip naked by a staff sergeant in “some kind of recon ritual.” He also was constantly encouraged to cheat on his wife, “because then you’d have a head start when she cheats on you,” Naughton said. To earn a “cool” point or two, Naughton said he would tell the other Marines that certain items in his possession were stolen when he actually had purchased them.
Naughton and his defense painted him as a good Marine negatively influenced by the recon community.
Theft of ammunition is common practice, especially on ranges, where rounds can change hands so quickly that shoddy accountability is almost inevitable, they said.
When retired Col. Steven Redifer found out about Naughton’s trial, “It was a complete and utter shock,” he said in a phone call to the court on Thursday.
Redifer was Naughton’s commanding officer of the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force in Indian Head, Maryland, where in March 2016 Naughton was meritoriously promoted to corporal.
Redifer spoke of Naughton’s character, upholding the highest standards of CBIRF, which sends its Marines to work for the FBI and Capitol Police after their military service, he said.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 John Earnie also was with CBIRF at the time and worked with Naughton on a daily basis.
“He was the best Marine I had, period,” Earnie said.
It was the culture of the recon community that put Naughton in the position he’s in, Earnie said.
Anyone who stands out from the norm tends to get teased, Earnie said, to which Naughton nodded his head in response. Recon Marines think they’re special or above the law, Earnie said, they challenge the status quo.
Naughton doesn’t fit the bill for the “cool guy recon Marine,” Earnie said, and they “compromised his character.”