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United States v. Nettleton

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Jacksonville Division

October 11, 2019




         In an apparent issue of first impression, the Court must determine whether a high-ranking Navy officer's noncustodial, unwarned statements to two superior officers were involuntary solely because of the “subtle pressure” to respond to orders inherent in military command relationships.

         This case is before the Court on Defendant John Nettleton's Motion to Suppress (Doc. 33) and the Government's response (Doc. 43).[1] On September 18, 2019, the Court held a hearing on this motion, the record of which is incorporated herein.[2]

         I. BACKGROUND[3]

         Captain John R. Nettleton (Ret.) faces a ten-count indictment following the investigation of the suspicious death of a civilian Navy employee, Christopher Tur, at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Doc. 1). In January 2015, Nettleton was the Commanding Officer of Guantanamo and had been since June 2012. Id. ¶ 1. He reported to Admiral M.J., the Commander of Navy Region Southeast based in Jacksonville, Florida, and her chief of staff Captain C.G. Id. ¶ 3. Tur worked as a civilian employee for the Navy and lived on Guantanamo with his wife (who was also a Navy civilian employee) and their two children. Id. ¶ 4.

         On the evening of January 9, 2015, there was a hail and farewell in the basement of the Guantanamo officer's club, called the Bayview, to greet the incoming Executive Officer (“XO”), A.R., and say goodbye to the outgoing XO. Id. ¶ 16. Nettleton, Tur, and Tur's wife all attended the hail and farewell, and each were seen consuming several alcoholic drinks. Id. ¶ 17. Around 10:00 p.m. outside of the Bayview, Tur began yelling at his spouse and Nettleton, accusing them of having an affair. Id. ¶ 18. At the urging of his new XO, Nettleton left the Bayview and proceeded toward his residence. Id.

         Sometime between 10:30 and 10:45 p.m. that evening, Tur called a civilian resident of Guantanamo, K.W., and told her “he was ‘at the Skipper's house' and that he had ‘just knocked the Skipper out.' K.W. also heard [Nettleton] stating words to the effect that Tur had ‘just knocked him out.'” Id. ¶ 20. Nettleton's daughter, J.N., was in her room on the second floor of the Nettleton home. She texted several people that she heard her father and another person fighting downstairs. Id. ¶¶ 21-27. At one point, she went downstairs and saw a man on a cell phone standing near her father, who was laying on the floor. Id. J.N. “eventually realized” the man she saw was Tur. Id. ¶ 22. J.N.'s text messages began at 10:46 and lasted until 11:28 p.m. Id. ¶¶ 21, 27. After the fighting noises ceased, Nettleton, who was shirtless, went into J.N.'s room and spoke with her briefly. Id. ¶ 28.

         The following day, Saturday, January 10, K.W. and R.B., a member of the Navy, began looking for Tur, who had not returned home. Id. ¶ 29. The two went to Nettleton's residence and asked if Tur was there. Id. Nettleton told them that Tur had been there the night before, but that he left after Nettleton told him to do so. Id. Nettleton refused R.B.'s request to search the backyard for Tur. Id. Later that day, Nettleton told the Command Duty Officer to have the Security Department search for Tur. Id. ¶ 30. Nettleton told the Command Duty Officer that the last place anyone saw Tur was the Bayview. Id. Based on the search by the Security Department, Naval Criminal Investigative Service opened a missing person investigation. Id. ¶ 34. Around 5:00 p.m. that evening, Nettleton directed the XO to expand the search party, but the search was halted after dark due to potentially dangerous conditions. Id. ¶¶ 35-36. Later that evening, Lieutenant J.C. drafted a Navy Blue message to send to Navy officials regarding Tur's disappearance. Lieutenant J.C. sent the draft to Nettleton and the XO. The message stated that Tur was last seen at the Bayview. Nettleton did not correct this information. Id. ¶¶ 41-42.

         Also on January 10, Nettleton spoke with Captain C.G. and informed him that a civilian had gone missing and a search was underway. Id. ¶ 33. Nettleton did not tell Captain C.G. about Tur's accusations at the hail and farewell, or about his altercation with Tur at his house afterward. Id. ¶ 33. That evening, Nettleton sent an email to Admiral M.J. and others, informing her that a civilian was missing, that a search was underway, that alcohol was involved, and that Tur had gotten drunk and gone missing before. Id. ¶ 38. Admiral M.J. requested additional information, which Nettleton provided, stating that Tur may have been suicidal and “got physical with [his wife] at the bayview [sic] . . . .” Id. ¶¶ 39-40. Admiral M.J. instructed Nettleton to call her at 8:00 a.m. the next morning. (Doc. 43-2 at 2).

         The following morning, Nettleton spoke on the telephone with Admiral M.J. in the XO's presence. Nettleton updated Admiral M.J. on the search efforts, but despite the XO's urging, did not inform Admiral M.J. about the events that occurred at the Bayview. Id. ¶ 45. Nettleton told the XO that Admiral M.J. did not need to know about that. Id. The XO, who K.W. had previously informed about Tur's phone call and statement that he was “at the Skipper's house, ” asked Nettleton if Tur had gone to his house; Nettleton responded that he had not. Id. ¶¶ 45-46.

         Around 11:00 a.m. January 11, Tur's body was located by the Coast Guard floating toward Cuba's territorial waters. Id. ¶ 47. An autopsy revealed that Tur died from drowning, but that he also suffered broken ribs and a laceration on his head before drowning. Id. ¶ 55. During the search for Tur, individuals found a bloody paper-towel in Nettleton's backyard. Id. ¶ 48. NCIS collected the paper towel and a later DNA test showed the blood belonged to Tur. Id.

         On January 12, the Navy Inspector General's Office informed Admiral M.J. and Captain C.G. that someone filed an anonymous complaint against Nettleton alleging that he was having an affair with Tur's wife. Id. ¶ 52; (Doc. 43-2 at 2). At this point, Nettleton had still not informed Admiral M.J. or Captain C.G. that he and Tur had been in an altercation at the command-sponsored hail and farewell. (Docs. 1 ¶¶ 54-56; 43-2 at 2). On January 13, at Admiral M.J.'s direction, Nettleton called her. During this call, he informed her that Tur had gone missing after the hail and farewell, that Tur accused him of having an affair with Tur's wife (which he denied), and that Tur arrived at his house and yelled at him but that Tur then left his house and returned to the Bayview. (Doc. 43-2 at 3). Admiral M.J. “told [Nettleton] to go find NCIS and explain everything to them” as he had to her, id., but Nettleton never relayed this information to NCIS, (Doc. 1 ¶ 54). On January 14 or 15, Nettleton called Captain C.G. to provide him additional details regarding what happened. Nettleton told Captain C.G. for the first time that he had gotten into an altercation with Tur at the Bayview, and that Tur had come to his house afterward. Nettleton still did not tell Captain C.G. that he and Tur fought inside his home. (Doc. 43-1 at 14-16). At this point, Captain C.G. did not want to ask any questions that could potentially “taint” any proceedings down the road, and just listened to what Nettleton had to say. (Doc. 43-1 at 16).

         NCIS began investigating Tur's death, and on January 17, Captain C.G. told Admiral M.J. that NCIS officials had learned that Tur and Nettleton got into a physical fight inside Nettleton's home on January 9. (Doc. 43-2 at 4). On January 20, Admiral M.J. decided to relieve Nettleton of command, and relieved him the following day. Id.

         Nettleton was indicted by a federal grand jury for: obstruction of justice in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(b)(3) (Count One); obstruction of justice in violation of § 1512(c)(2) (Count Two); concealment of material facts in violation of § 1001(a)(1) (Count Three); falsification of records in violation of § 1519 (Counts Four and Five); and false statements in violation of § 1001(a)(2) (Counts Six through Ten). (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 60-79). ...

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