Defense Attacks Key Witness in USNA Rape Case

A Navy ensign testified Thursday that he had been "making out" on a bar dance floor with a key prosecution witness at the same time she claimed to be playing strip poker and having sex with a Marine major at his apartment near the Naval Academy.

Ensign Jonathan Erwert was part of a parade of defense witnesses who attacked the character and credibility of Ensign Sarah Stadler, a former midshipman who played a central role in having Marine Maj. Mark A. Thompson brought before a general court martial on charges of sexual assault.

Thompson, who was a history instructor at the Naval Academy at the time of the alleged assaults, has been charged with two counts of aggravated sexual assault, two counts of fraternization, and three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer.

The charges stemmed from binge drinking by a group that included Thompson at a croquet match between the Naval Academy and St. John's College, a liberal arts school in Annapolis, on April 30, 2011.

Erwert said he was drinking and partying with Stadler and other midshipmen at the same croquet match and then met up that night with a "tipsy" Stadler at the Federal Hall bar and restaurant in Annapolis.

"I thought she was attractive," Erwert said. "We were dancing; we were making out."

They both later left and tried to rent a room at a hotel, but "it was too expensive so we decided not to do it," Erwert said. "After that she went back to the Yard."

Stadler, who allegedly had been having an affair with Thompson, brought along a second female midshipman to Thompson's apartment after the match, according to the prosecution. They continued drinking and played strip poker, according to the charge sheet, after which Thompson allegedly had sex with both midshipmen. The second midshipman later told the Naval Criminal Investigative Service she had been raped. (Military.com's policy is not to name sexual assault victims or potential sexual assault victims.)

Erwert's testimony dealt a major blow to the prosecution's case against Thompson, who has flatly denied through his lawyers that Stadler or another female midshipman, now a Marine 2nd lieutenant, were ever at his apartment on the night of April 30, 2011, or that he ever engaged in sex with them.

The defense called to the stand other Navy officers, including Stadler's former roommates, who spoke ill of Stadler's character.

"I believe Ms. Stadler will do whatever she can for self-preservation," said Lt. junior grade Jessica Maxwell, who said she had roomed with Stadler. Another former roommate, now Lt. j.g. Ariel Baltis, said Stadler "is not truthful."

Navy Lt. Griffin Saving, who served with Stadler aboard the Aegis missile destroyer Howard in the Pacific in the summer of 2012, said "[Stadler] is an untrustworthy person."

The witnesses were not allowed to give specifics on their charges about Stadler's character under hearsay and other evidentiary rules, but Navy Cmdr. Aaron Rugh, the trial counsel, declined to challenge them on cross-examination and offered no questions.

Earlier, Rugh and co-trial counsel Lt. Cmdr. Philip Hamon rested the prosecution's case after calling to the stand Bill Kelly, the respected coach of the Academy's rifle team, to testify on his role in advising the Marine 2nd lieutenant to go to one of the school's Sexual Assault Response Coordinators.

Kelly said he had recruited the lieutenant out of high school to join the rifle team, and she became the team's captain. Thompson was the team's officer representative, and would travel with the team to hand out per diem meal money and chaperone, Kelly said.

"There was a rumor something had happened" to the lieutenant involving Thompson, and the rumor came from an ex-boyfriend and classmate of the lieutenant's, Kelly said.

In a meeting in January 2012, some eight months after the alleged assault, the lieutenant confided that she and Stadler had gotten drunk at the croquet match the previous April and had gone to Thompson's apartment where they played strip poker and then had sex, Kelly said.

"She was very clear in telling me she was aware of being sexually assaulted," Kelly said. "She felt she had to take action."

Both Stadler and the lieutenant were later interviewed by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which led to the charges against Thompson.

In their opening arguments, and in questioning prospective jurors, the defense team of Marine Maj. Joseph Grimm and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Angela Tang have called the charges bogus and suggested that they stemmed from a web of lies spun by the two women and by Stadler's anger at Thompson for rejecting her advances.

To bolster the defense case, Grimm called to the stand Marine 1st Lt. Jason Beasley, who was a midshipman in the 2011 graduating class with Stadler. He brought smiles to the faces of several jurors as he related being what the Marines call a "mustang," coming to the Academy and the officer corps from the enlisted ranks after serving in Iraq.

Beasley said he looked on Thompson as a mentor who helped him recover from injuries and pass physical readiness tests.

He recalled going for a run with Thompson and Stadler. As Thompson raced ahead, Stadler told him she thought Thompson was "sexy."

"'Put in a good word for me. I'd like to hit that,'" Beasley said Stadler said of Thompson. "That threw me for a loop. I'd never heard that from a female."

Beasley also rebutted Stadler's testimony a day earlier that she had gone again to Thompson's apartment to have sex with him on the night of her graduation from the Naval Academy in 2011.

Beasley, who also had graduated that day, said he went to Thompson's apartment that night to borrow a "Sam Brown" belt used by Marines to carry a sword, and to show off his new Camaro. Beasley said he found Thompson with his ‘live-in girlfriend." The three chatted for a while, had a beer, and he left near midnight, Beasley said.

The court martial, which began Tuesday at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard, could stretch into the week of June 10th, the military judge, Marine Lt. Col. Charles Hale, told the defense and prosecution teams.

The defense team was seeking the testimony of the NCIS agent who took statements from Stadler and the lieutenant, but the agent was currently serving in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and there was a problem with arranging transportation, Hale said.

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