After a military jury announced on Wednesday it had found Lance Cpl. Luis Ponce-Barrera not guilty on all counts in a fatal 7-ton truck rollover, Marines who’d been injured in the mishap as his passengers filed to the front of the courtroom to give him a hug.

Then, they went outside the courtroom to an adjacent office trailer and sang him “Happy Birthday.”

That’s according to Jen Riffle, stepmother of Pfc. Zachary Riffle, one of the two Marines killed in the January 2022 mishap.

Jen Riffle, and Pfc. Zachary Riffle’s parents, Robert and Rebecca, were among a crowd of family members who’d followed the newly 21-year-old Ponce-Barrera’s trial as it unfolded in April at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

While feelings were mixed among some as to how much culpability the young Marine bore as the 7-ton’s driver, a half-dozen parents who spoke to Marine Corps Times ahead of the court-martial expressed their belief that Ponce-Barrera’s chain of command deserved a large portion of the blame for allowing the trip to take place at all.

It took the eight-member jury ― composed of officers and enlisted troops ― an hour to acquit Ponce-Barrera on charges including manslaughter, negligent homicide and reckless operation of a vehicle, Jen Riffle said.

Officials with II Marine Expeditionary Force, parent command of Ponce-Barrera’s Combat Logistics Battalion 24, confirmed the verdict in a two-sentence statement.

“On 12 April 2023, Lance Cpl. Ponce-Barrera was found not guilty of all charges,” II MEF spokesman Lt. Col. Joshua Diddams said in the statement. “II MEF and 2nd [Marine Logistics Group] continue to offer our condolences to the Marines and families affected by this tragedy.”

The court-martial took a week, including jury selection, Riffle said. Only the prosecution presented witnesses, she said, adding that it included many of the 16 other surviving Marines who were passengers in the truck and enlisted leaders, including the section chief of the motor transportation unit to which the vehicle belonged.

Ponce-Barrera did not testify, she said.

Over the course of the trial, Riffle said, it emerged that Ponce-Barrera, then 19, didn’t even have a driver’s license when he arrived at his schoolhouse at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in April 2021, only a learner’s permit.

After taking AAA’s safe driving course, according to testimony, he was able to get his license via a waiver, testimony showed. That revelation underscored Ponce-Barrera’s inexperience as a driver and the reasons many had for questioning his unit’s decision to let him drive a truck full of Marines onto a civilian highway near the base’s back gate a mere 10 months later.

The rollover took place when Ponce-Barrera took a relatively fast right turn at the intersection of North Carolina Highway 210 and U.S. 17, en route to Landing Zone Condor on the backside of the base.

While the precise speed of the vehicle wasn’t determined, and witnesses’ testimony provided a wide range of estimates, the turn made the truck’s rear wheel come off the road and ultimately caused it to roll.

All the passengers in the back of the vehicle were ejected. Pfc. Zachary Riffle was crushed by the truck, while 19-year-old Lance Cpl. Jonathan Gierke was hit and killed in the traffic median by a following joint light tactical vehicle that pulled over to offer assistance. All the other Marines sustained injuries, some critical.

According to witness testimony, Jen Riffle said, Ponce-Barrera had never driven a 7-ton with a mounted turret until that day, and he would not receive rollover training until February 2022 ― the month after the mishap.

According to Jen Riffle, the reading of the verdict announcing Ponce-Barrera’s acquittal was followed by an audible sigh of relief in the courtroom from the Marine’s supporters.

While some were unhappy with the acquittal, including William Gierke, father of Lance Cpl. Jonathan Gierke, Riffle said, many of the Marines who took the stand for the prosecution were eager to congratulate Ponce-Barrera and voice their support. Riffle’s own convictions on the matter are clear.

“Our son is not dead because of Lance Corporal Ponce-Barrera’s negligence, our son is dead because everybody that should have shown up, all the way up to the top, and done their job, did not,” Riffle said. “And they set him up for failure, not for success.”

Gierke told Marine Corps Times on Friday that, while he agreed with the Riffles that accountability should reach higher up the chain of command, he also felt Ponce-Barrera should have received at least some jail time as the driver whose actions and decisions directly caused the rollover.

He said that he’d wanted the driver of the joint light tactical vehicle that hit his son to face prosecution as well. Charges against that Marine were never pursued. A line-of-duty investigation found the driver was in shock and unaware he’d hit the lance corporal.

“At this point, I feel like our son died for absolutely nothing, you know, because nobody’s being held accountable,” William Gierke said. “That’s just where we’re at right now.”

Jen Riffle is still requesting a face-to-face meeting with Lt. Gen. David Ottignon, commanding general of II Marine Expeditionary Force, regarding vehicle training and oversight, as well as his decision to pursue court-martial in the Ponce-Barrera case, despite reportedly proposed plea agreements.

Officials earlier had said that Ottignon had declined meetings with family members during legal proceedings to preserve the integrity of the trial. They could not immediately say Thursday whether he’d make himself available for meetings now that the court-martial was complete.

Michael McDowell, whose son, 1st Lt. Conor McDowell, was killed in a May 2019 light armored vehicle rollover at Camp Pendleton, California, has been among the loudest voices pushing for greater accountability and oversight in military vehicle operations.

Having followed the January 2022 rollover case and Ponce-Barrera’s prosecution since the mishap took place, he celebrated Wednesday’s acquittal.

After successfully lobbying for the passage of a pilot program that would install “black box” data recorders in a variety of Army and Marine Corps vehicles, McDowell is now pushing for legislation that would create greater documentation requirements and accountability measures for senior leaders related to safety issues affecting service members.

“I am thrilled,” McDowell said of the Ponce-Barrera verdict in an email to Marine Corps Times. “I will use this case to support our legislation.”

Hope Hodge Seck is an award-winning investigative and enterprise reporter covering the U.S. military and national defense. The former managing editor of, her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Politico Magazine, USA Today and Popular Mechanics.

In Other News
Load More