A Navy lieutenant commander who was convicted in connection with a Bahrain-based sex-trafficking ring in 2019 was given an unduly heavy sentence, a military appeals court decided this month.
Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Nelson, formerly a Reserve officer at Naval Operational Support Center in New York, had been found guilty of unauthorized absence terminated by apprehension; conduct unbecoming an officer; and patronizing prostitutes. The only officer to be charged among at least nine sailors accused of sex crimes and human trafficking during a 2017-2018 deployment to Bahrain, Nelson was sentenced to forfeiture of $7,596 pay per month for four months and dismissal from the Navy.
But an opinion from the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, or NMCCA, published Feb. 8, found that Nelson was wrongly convicted and sentenced on one charge: conduct unbecoming. The document also provides new details in the bizarre and dramatic case.
A Naval Criminal Investigative Service bust in 2018 publicized the shocking news that sailors deployed to Manama, Bahrain -- headquarters of the Navy's 5th Fleet -- were accused of participating in a scheme to patronize and traffic Thai prostitutes.
According to an in-depth series on the topic published by Navy Times in June 2020, some sailors alleged that they became involved with women in Bahrain in order to help them find a way out of bad conditions. The court decision shows this was also Nelson's claim.
"During his time [in Bahrain on the staff of commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command], he patronized and eventually befriended several Thai prostitutes," the document states. "When these women sought to escape their negative living situations, they moved in with [Nelson] and lived in his government-funded housing at various times over the course of several months. In exchange for not paying rent, the women cooked and cleaned for [Nelson.]"
As part of the NCIS investigation and crackdown, agents interviewed Nelson, then 33, in January 2018 for roughly two hours, cautioning him about his right to remain silent regarding patronizing prostitutes, but not warning him that "he was also suspected of failing to report the prostitution and sex trafficking-related misconduct of other Service Members," the court said.
"Throughout the interview, the agents downplayed the gravity of Appellant's personal misconduct and indicated they were more interested in using his information against other Service Members involved in sex trafficking," according to a summary in the CAAF opinion.
But immediately after the interview, NCIS searched Nelson's house and turned up evidence that Thai prostitutes were living with him. A few months later, in May, NCIS returned for another search and discovered a Thai woman hiding behind a bedroom door -- conclusive evidence that Nelson's living arrangement had not changed.
After that surprise search, Nelson was sent home to the States early, returning to Navy Operational Support Center New York City. He reported to the command periodically and did regular phone check-ins. According to the court, Nelson was called in to meet with his commanding officer at the support center in June 2018 and told that he was going to start a regular in-person work schedule the following day.
But Nelson failed to show up, the court said, and ignored phone calls and emails from his commanding officer and executive officer. On June 21, two days after he was to start in-person work, he was declared a deserter. On July 9, officers with the U.S. Marshals Service arrested Nelson at his New York City apartment, taking him to U.S. Army Garrison Fort Hamilton, New York, for holding.
According to the CAAF summary, Nelson told officers he didn't understand why he was being charged as a deserter as he had already fulfilled his service obligation and was no longer on active duty. The lead investigator told Nelson he'd need to take that up with his unit.
Nelson pleaded not guilty to all charges, but was ultimately convicted and sentenced May 10, 2019, at a general court-martial convened at Naval Support Activity Naples, Italy, and Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia.
The contention of the appeals court is that the prosecution did not independently prove the tenets of the conduct unbecoming an officer charge, which included accusations that Nelson knowingly made a false official statement about his duty status and cohabited with known prostitutes.
The court pointed out that Nelson was actually acquitted of a false official statement charge, and the prosecution did not establish how he should be convicted on conduct unbecoming charges related to that offense.
"Even viewed in the light most favorable to the Prosecution, we conclude that the evidence fails to establish that Appellant's conduct was unbecoming independent of whether it amounted to false official statement," CAAF concluded. "It would not be hard to imagine how his conduct would have been unbecoming if Appellant's statement to [the lead investigator] was both official and made with the intent to deceive. But if we remove consideration of whether Appellant's conduct amounted to the offense of false official statement, in our view, no readily identifiable service custom or standard of conduct remains to sustain his conviction."
The worst parts of Nelson's conviction, including his dismissal from the Navy -- tantamount to a dishonorable discharge -- will stand, however. The court found that he was owed some money back, and his corrected sentence included forfeiture of just $6,596 in pay per month for four months.
Other sailors convicted in the Bahrain prostitution scandal included a chief petty officer who received 30 months in the brig for charges related to patronizing prostitutes; in 2020, he was charged with raping a woman in Virginia Beach in 2019.
Navy Times reported that the Navy has worked to implement new training regarding human trafficking in the wake of the criminal investigation.
The outlet reported that then-5th Fleet Commander Vice Adm. John Aquilino held an all-hands call in 2018 as the investigation was underway.
"These things are wrong," he reportedly said. "They are wrong. I don't care if you're in Bahrain, the United States, Singapore, Japan. It's wrong no matter where you are."
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the description of Nelson's discharge and the appellate court that rendered the decision.
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.