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Investigation shows Lt. Col. in charge of Corps' 1st Recon was fired for alleged 'misconduct' but has not been charged
The Marine lieutenant colonel removed from command of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion in May was ousted over alleged "misconduct" but has not been charged with a crime, Task & Purpose has learned.
Lt. Col. Francisco Zavala, 42, who was removed from his post by the commanding general of 1st Marine Division on May 7, has since been reassigned to the command element of 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, and a decision on whether he will be charged is "still pending," MEF spokeswoman 1st Lt. Virginia Burger told Task & Purpose last week.
"We are not aware of any ongoing or additional investigations of Lt. Col. Zavala at this time," MEF spokesman 2nd Lt. Brian Tuthill told Task & Purpose on Monday. "The command investigation was closed May 14 and the alleged misconduct concerns Articles 128 and 133 of the UCMJ," Tuthill added, mentioning offenses under military law that deal with assault and conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman.
"There is a period of due process afforded the accused and he is presumed innocent until proven guilty," he said.
When asked for an explanation for the delay, MEF officials directed Task & Purpose to contact 1st Marine Division officials, who did not respond before deadline.
The investigation of Zavala, completed on May 3 and released to Task & Purpose in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, showed that he had allegedly acted inappropriately. The report also confirmed some details of his wife's account of alleged domestic violence that Task & Purpose first reported last month.
"I concur with the findings of fact, opinions, and recommendations of the investigating officer. No further investigation is warranted," Maj. Gen. Robert Castelvi, commander of 1st Marine Division, wrote in his endorsement of the command investigation on May 14, which redacted the name of Zavala and others due to privacy considerations.
"I will address LtCol [Zavala's] misconduct via separate correspondence," he wrote. Task & Purpose filed a Freedom of Information Act request for this correspondence on June 14.
The heavily-redacted report makes it difficult to discern much of what was learned by the investigating officer — its findings of fact, for example, has key details blacked out, while its opinions and recommendations section are fully obscured — but it does shed additional light on what occurred in the months prior to Zavala's relief.
As previously reported by Task & Purpose, Zavala was served with a request for a civilian restraining order in April alleging that his "unstable, violent, and harassing behavior" had made his wife "fear greatly for her safety," his wife wrote in a sworn two-page statement.
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.
Task & Purpose does not identify victims of domestic violence.
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, alerting Zavala's command, even though she feared retaliation from her husband since the allegations would likely affect his career.
Corps officials first learned of the allegations on April 16 and opened an investigation the following day, 1st Lt. Cameron Edinburgh, 1st Marine Division spokesman, told Task & Purpose.
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The wife's account of domestic violence mainly focused on the night of Dec. 23, 2018, days after Zavala had returned from a short deployment to Peru.
Earlier that day, Zavala told the investigating officer, the couple attended church together in San Clemente, then went out afterward for doughnuts with a fellow lieutenant colonel and their spouse. Later, Zavala and his wife went to a unit event at a yacht club in Newport Beach, he said, which finished at about 9 p.m.
On the way home, Zavala told the investigator that [redacted, presumably his wife] wanted to talk about the the battalion's deployment readiness coordinator.
"This was a conversation they had during the deployment," the investigator wrote in an interview summary. The investigator also noted in the findings of fact that the she had expressed frustration "on more than one occasion" with the DRC.
"LtCol [Zavala] said that he asked her not to bring up the subject and that he didn't want to discuss it," the investigator wrote. "He said that they drove home the rest of the way in silence, listening to the radio."
The report noted it was about a 90-minute drive from Newport to Zavala's home in Oceanside. Although the investigative report redacted what happened next, according to his wife's April statement, soon after they returned home at around 10:30 p.m., the couple got into an argument that turned violent.
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."
In the investigative report, the neighbors — who are not named — confirmed Zavala's wife had stayed over that evening. In a phone interview with the investigating officer in April, the husband and wife explained that they were outside their home at around 11 p.m. looking at their Christmas decorations when Zavala's wife approached on foot.
"They were both very surprised and taken aback," the investigator wrote. "They were surprised by her attire since it was very cold outside ... they were very surprised by the situation."
Zavala's wife spent the night sleeping on their couch in the living room, the investigator found. Before she fell asleep, they prayed together "for God's peace and calm," the report said.
The next day, after she had returned to pack up her belongings and leave for Colorado to be with her family, Zavala's wife wrote in her April statement that he "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.
Given the report's numerous redactions, it's not clear whether this detail was addressed by the investigating officer, but receipts of airline travel to Colorado and hotel stays were included in the report. The report also included receipts for the purchase of two Apple iPhone 8s, which were allegedly broken by Zavala during another argument between the couple in October.
"On October 21, 2018 [Zavala] broke both my phone and his cell phone, slamming them to the ground while in a rage," his wife wrote in her April statement. "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."
In the investigation report, Zavala addressed the allegations in a heavily-redacted written statement on April 23, saying that he had "handled the strain of this ordeal through prayer and through the unconditional support of [his] family."
In closing, he wrote, "I reiterate my apologies for all of this stray voltage taking up valuable operational bandwidth for the Division. I have learned a great deal about myself, my personal decisions, and I have taken great pains to ensure that none of those decisions had the opportunity to erode my ability to command. I have great confidence that all of this personal acrimony will be behind me this Thursday and there will be no impact to mission from this point forward."
Zavala was relieved of command weeks later on May 7. A press release about the relief said only that Maj. Gen. Castelvi, the division commander, had "lost trust and confidence in the commanding officer's ability to lead."
Meanwhile, the investigative report also included a military protective order issued on April 16 that mirrored the civilian restraining order against Zavala. A Corps spokesman confirmed on Thursday a military protective order against Zavala was still in place.
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