Lt. Col. in charge of Corps' 1st Recon was fired over 'credible' allegations of domestic violence

Lt. Francisco Zavala (Photo: US Marine Corps)

The relief of the battalion commander in charge of the California-based 1st Reconnaissance Battalion last week was due to "credible" allegations of domestic violence, Task & Purpose has learned.

Lt. Col. Francisco Zavala, 42, who was removed from his post on Tuesday by the commanding general of 1st Marine Division, was served with a request for a restraining order in April alleging that his "unstable, violent, and harassing behavior" had made his wife "fear greatly for her safety," she wrote in a sworn two-page statement obtained by Task & Purpose.

Task & Purpose has chosen not to disclose her name.

Filed on April 4 as part of an ongoing divorce case, Zavala's wife detailed multiple instances of domestic abuse over the course of their marriage.

In her statement, Zavala's wife said she had sought and received help from the Family Advocacy Program at Camp Pendleton, which provides counseling and victim advocacy services, and had made a restricted report about her husband's alleged abuse. She later converted the complaint to an unrestricted report, which would have alerted Zavala's command, even though she said that she feared retaliation from her husband since the allegations would likely affect his career.

How Marine officials reacted to her report remains unclear. Although a source familiar with the matter said the unit conducted an investigation and had "found credible evidence" of domestic abuse which culminated in Zavala's ouster, a press release from the Division cited only a "loss of trust and confidence" in his ability to lead as the reason for his removal.

When asked for a copy of the investigation by Task & Purpose, 1st Lt. Cameron Edinburgh, a spokesman for 1st Marine Division, said it was not yet ready for public release. Edinburgh declined to comment on when the command first learned of the reported allegations against Zavala.

"An investigation is currently underway. This is an internal Marine Corps personnel matter and we will not release any further information at this time," Edinburgh told Task & Purpose. "All Marines are afforded due process as outlined in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. At this time, Lt. Col. Zavala has not been charged with any crime."

Zavala's removal from command is the fourth high-profile firing of a senior Marine officer in recent weeks.

Though it remains unclear whether Zavala will remain in the Corps — being branded with "loss of trust" is considered a career ender by many — his loss of command of one of the Corps' most famous and respected reconnaissance battalions seems a stunning coda to a 19-year career that saw Zavala rise through the ranks as he deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan — where he earned the Bronze Star (with "V" for valor) medal in 2010 for exposing himself to enemy fire while attempting to secure the site of a downed AH-1W Cobra helicopter.

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What began as a long distance relationship in 2013 was increasingly punctuated by turmoil after the couple married in August 2017, according to court documents.

On the night of Dec. 23, 2018, days after Zavala had returned from a short deployment to Peru, the couple got into an argument that turned violent, his wife wrote in the statement.

Zavala allegedly struck her in the face, took her phone away when she threatened to call 911, and then "slammed me against the wall," she wrote, "Pinning me there while he screamed in my face, then threw me on the ground and held me down while he continued to yell in my face."

"When he let go of me I ran out of the room and across the street to the neighbor's house, who I barely knew, where I stayed overnight," she continued. Once at the neighbor's home, she wrote that she "hesitated to call the police" since she was "embarrassed, terrified, and in shock."

The next day, after she had returned to pack up her belongings and leave for Colorado to be with her family, she wrote that Zavala "was in a bad mood, blamed me for what happened, and ignored me." While she was packing in the bedroom, the statement said, Zavala pushed over their Christmas tree and tore their Christmas wreath off the door, throwing it in the backyard.

There were other instances of abuse and controlling behavior, according to the statement.

On Oct. 21, 2018, Zavala allegedly broke both of the couple's cell phones by "slamming them to the ground while in a rage," she wrote, before he "wrapped me in a bear hug and would not let me go when I told him I wanted to leave the house since I was scared."

During another argument in the fall of 2018, Zavala allegedly picked up a gun and pointed it at his head, threatening to shoot himself, she wrote, "because I made his life so miserable." He went on to threaten suicide on two additional occasions, she added.

"This makes me fearful about what he might be capable of doing to me. I wish to keep him away from me and have him not contact me anymore," she wrote.

In addition to describing her fears of physical violence, Zavala's wife also alleged that he had sent harassing text messages "on an almost daily basis" after they had separated on Christmas Day. Zavala texted her that she was "filled with Satan's hatred" and claimed that she was being "influenced by 'the devil,'" she wrote.

"I have asked him seven times to stop contacting me via email, texts, and calls after he continually harassed me by sending me hundreds of messages," she wrote. "My attorney was even forced to send [Zavala] a cease and desist letter to try and stop this harassment, but he continued to contact me after that and has even tried to contact my parents."

Reached by Task & Purpose on Friday, Zavala repeatedly said that there was an ongoing investigation and that all "the allegations against me are false," adding that, "my responsibility is to allow the investigation to go on and, in time, I'm fairly confident I'll be exonerated of everything that's being alleged against me."

"We are going through a legal process in a court of law, and that will be adjudicated in the court of law," Zavala told Task & Purpose. "I have my evidence."

Still, despite Zavala's refusal to respond to specific questions from Task & Purpose, he confirmed that he did not file a written response to his wife's allegations with the court. The response to request for domestic violence restraining order, or DV-210, would be considered by a judge before enacting a restraining order, said Nicole Muckley, a family law attorney in Newport Beach.

"That's true," Zavala said, after Task & Purpose mentioned that he had not disputed his wife's sworn statement in court documents. He declined to elaborate.

"My defense is ready to go and I will be exonerated," Zavala said. "Please appreciate there is an ongoing investigation. I am innocent of the charges against me. And the due process will demonstrate that in due time."

U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Francisco X. Zavala, center, commanding officer of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Peru, briefs Marines aboard the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Somerset (LPD 25) in San Diego, Nov. 11, 2018.

Task & Purpose twice asked Zavala on Friday if his attorney could speak on his behalf to dispute the allegations, since an attorney's comments would not have any bearing on a command investigation. Zavala did not make him available to Task & Purpose.

Meanwhile, the restraining order banned Zavala from further contacting his wife and also required that he get rid of all firearms and ammunition in his possession. He sold his two pistols and provided documentation of those sales to the court on April 12. Two other rifles he owned, Zavala told the court, are currently in the possession of his wife's father in Colorado.

Beyond ownership, Zavala cannot have or possess a firearm while the restraining order is in effect, meaning he would not even be allowed to draw his weapon from his unit's armory for use during an exercise or deployment.

Attempts to reach Zavala's wife were unsuccessful. Her attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Task & Purpose.

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