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Accused of Lying About Sex, Marine Officer Walks from Courtroom

The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., seen in 2007. Reports of sexual assaults at the three military academies jumped by more than 50 percent in the 2014-15 school year. Kathleen Lange, File/AP
The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., seen in 2007. Reports of sexual assaults at the three military academies jumped by more than 50 percent in the 2014-15 school year. Kathleen Lange, File/AP

QUANTICO, Va. --The fate of a Marine Corps officer accused of lying about inappropriate sexual liaisons with Naval Academy students may hang on the testimony of a close friend: another officer who claims he participated in one of the alleged encounters.

On Friday, an Article 32 pretrial hearing convened at Quantico, Virginia, to determine whether to send Maj. Mark Thompson to court-martial on charges of making false official statements in a board of inquiry hearing two years and with conduct unbecoming a gentleman, including the alleged pattern of false statements and what prosecutors claim were efforts to deceive the public in the pages of The Washington Post.

A prosecuting attorney played more than an hour of recorded testimony from Maj. Michael Pretus, a longtime friend of Thompson's who worked as an instructor at the Naval Academy until he was removed from his post in April in connection with an investigation into his own illicit encounter with a midshipman that came to light.

Pretus, who was granted a waiver of immunity in exchange for consenting to testify against Thompson, described engaging in a threesome with Thompson and an midshipman during a 2011 visit to the academy and claimed Thompson had shared details with him about a later threesome between the officer and two drunken mids.

He described Thompson as having become "obsessive" in his efforts to clear his name, ultimately seeking to share his story in the Washington Post, an effort that would backfire when new evidence came to light as a result.

Officials are considering the new charges against Thompson as a result of revelations published this spring in a series of Post articles by reporter John Woodrow Cox.

Thompson, a former Naval Academy instructor who was acquitted at a 2013 court-martial of sex assault in a 2011 incident in which two midshipmen claimed he had sex with them at his home, was nonetheless found guilty at the time of fraternization and indecent sexual contact, serving brig time and receiving a $60,000 fine.

Thompson maintained his innocence, saying he had had only a professional relationship with the women. And in 2014 an administrative board of inquiry found he deserved to keep his career.

But the new reporting unearthed a cell phone from one of the accusers that had previously been considered lost, revealing text messages that appear to contradict Thompson's statements and alibis. Along with Pretus' new testimony, in which the officer also claims he previously gave false statements in Thompson's defense, the prosecution is pushing for a punishment of 32 months' confinement, dismissal from the Corps, and a $200,000 fine -- a day of confinement for every day Thompson served in uniform following the alleged 2011 incidents and the income he has earned on active duty since then.

Thompson's defense is unclear. He and his attorneys, Kevin McDermott and Navy Lt. Clay Bridges, left the hearing shortly after it began Friday.

McDermott, a former Marine Corps attorney who now practices law in California, said refusals by hearing officer Lt. Col. Adam Subervi to allow the defense to present the witnesses and evidence they requested during the hearing stripped the proceeding of its significance.

"The long and short of it is, we don't want to participate at this point in something that's going to be nothing more than a show trial," he said.

While Thompson still publicly maintains his innocence, he reportedly adjusted his claims slightly when confronted by the Post with the text messages. Though he had claimed in court proceedings that he had not seen one of the women, Sarah Stadler, following graduation in May 2011 -- a claim that contradicted her allegations that he had engaged in sex afterward with her and another woman from the academy -- he said then that Stadler had come by to drop off two glasses.

"I simply had to [lie] when they were coming after me for 41 years," Thompson said, according to Post reports. "I can't begin to say, you know, how terrifying that is."

Cox, the reporter whose work prompted the new proceedings, was also absent for the hearing. Subervi ordered that he be sequestered as he may be asked to testify as a witness in the prospective court-martial.

In his recorded statement, Pretus said Thompson arranged for a midshipman to come over during his 2011 visit for a 20-minute consensual sexual encounter with both men. For the officers, sex with a midshipman was a violation of policy. The Uniform Code of Military Justice also prohibits threesomes.

"[Thompson] said, 'I have a friend coming over. Do you want me to turn it off?'" Pretus said of the lead-up to the encounter. " … I made a stupid mistake."

The two men also had regular phone conversations to discuss their lives and marriages. Pretus claimed he called one night, April 30, and Thompson admitted Stadler and the other woman were drunk and at his place, adding that he expected a sexual encounter to happen. Later, Pretus said, Thompson confirmed the liaison had taken place.

One thing Pretus found difficult to explain, he said, was why Thompson pursued a story about his innocence in The Washington Post.

According to an investigator for the prosecution who also testified at the hearing, Gunnery Sgt. Michael Bengs, another officer at the academy said he had repeatedly encouraged Thompson to write a book in his own defense, rather than pursuing vindication in a news story.

"In his mind, he is innocent. One hundred percent innocent," Pretus said of Thompson.

In closing arguments, prosecuting attorney Maj. Sridhar B. Kaza suggested the government would pursue an additional charge of conspiracy against Thompson for allegedly leaning on Pretus to manipulate his testimony in order to support his story.

In the text messages obtained from Stadler, Kaza argued that frequent mentions of going on "runs" was code for prearranged sexual liaisons. Thompson, he said, has never contradicted the content of the messages or claimed they were fabricated.

Kaza claimed that alleged false statements given to The Washington Post represented a novel specification of the charge "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman."

"I think the best analogy is [Thompson] putting up a bunch of pictures or flyers in a neighborhood saying [the accusers] are liars," he said.

Alleged false statements to the officers who oversaw Thompson's board of inquiry also represented exploitation and dishonorable conduct, Kaza said.

"Since 2011, [Thompson's] time in the Marine Corps has been a fraud," he said.

Subervi has ten days to recommendation to the convening authority, Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley, on whether the matter should proceed to court-martial. Weidley will then make the final decision.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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