First Ever Court-Martial for an Air Force General Officer Opens in Ohio

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Maj Gen. William Cooley addresses SBIR Pitch Day.
Maj Gen. William Cooley addresses SBIR Pitch Day. (U.S. Air Force photo by Keith Lewis)

Editor's Note: This story includes details of an alleged sexual assault.

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- The first ever military trial of an Air Force general kicked off in earnest Tuesday with the accused officer's sister-in-law testifying that he pinned her against a car window, forcibly kissed her and groped her in 2018.

Maj. Gen. William Cooley, formerly the head of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, has been charged with violating Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the article prohibiting sexual assault.

During the first day of testimony at Cooley's court-martial, military prosecutors and Cooley's defense lawyers laid out in opening statements the cases they will be presenting to the judge over a trial that could last as long as two weeks.

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Prosecutors said that Cooley's "selfish ego couldn't take it" when his sexual advances were rejected by his sister-in-law, while the defense argued that "this case is about a consensual kiss and nothing more."

On Monday, Cooley requested the case be heard only by the judge, Col. Christina Jimenez, rather than a jury. Under military rules, the jury would have needed to be composed of Air Force officers of equal or greater rank to Cooley, a small pool that Cooley's defense lawyers argued could have made it difficult to find impartial jurors.

Cooley's accuser took the stand as the first witness, testifying for nearly five hours under direct examination by prosecutors and cross examination by defense lawyers.

Military.com does not name alleged victims of sexual assault without their consent, and her lawyer has requested she be identified only by her relationship to Cooley.

In the prosecutors and sister-in-law's telling, Cooley forced himself on her after a family barbecue, telling her he "wanted to f---" her and have her "suck [his] c---," and later acknowledged in a letter that his actions were "deplorable."

"The evidence will show that he violated [his sister-in-law] in an uninvited way," prosecutor Maj. Abbigayle Hunter said in her opening statement. "It will show that he committed three different acts [of] abusive sexual contact and will show that the accused in this case, ma'am, is guilty."

Cooley and his defense team maintain the encounter amounted to only a consensual kiss, saying the sister-in-law changed her story over time and pointing to a voicemail two days after the incident in which she compared the situation to the romantic comedy "Love Actually."

"The only just and right outcome in this case is to find Gen. Cooley not guilty," his military defense attorney, Maj. Lindsey North, said in her opening statement.

If convicted, Cooley faces up to 21 years of confinement, as well as dismissal from the service and loss of rank, pay and benefits.

Cooley's case marks the first time criminal charges against an Air Force general officer have reached a court-martial. It comes while the military has been grappling with how to eradicate sexual assault from the ranks, including implementing congressionally mandated reforms to a military justice system lawmakers and advocates say has let far too many offenders off the hook.

The allegations against Cooley stem from an incident after a family barbecue in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in August 2018.

That month, Cooley, who lived in Dayton, needed to go to Albuquerque for a conference and decided to arrive early to visit his family.

On the night of Aug. 12, the sister-in-law and brother hosted a barbecue at their house during which, she testified, Cooley drank sangria and several shots of bourbon.

He asked the sister-in-law, who said she had drunk only a glass or so of sangria, to drive him to his parents' house to collect his belongings so that he could spend the night with her and his brother instead of his parents as he'd planned.

While in her Jeep, after attempting to hold her hand, Cooley asked her, "Do you ever fantasize about me," and told her, "I wanted to f--- you in the pool today," and "I wanted you to suck my c---," she recounted. She said she was "stunned" and "speechless."

When he left the car to get his things from his parents' house, the sister-in-law said she tried to set up a recorder on her phone to capture anything else that might happen, but he returned too quickly for her to finish.

On the drive back, he again put his hand on top of hers, this time entwining their fingers, she said. He then "yanked" her hand over his pants toward his genitals, but she was able to pull her hand away and told him, "Bill, stop, just stop," she testified.

As soon as they parked in her garage, he put his mouth on her mouth and "shoved" his tongue down her throat, she said. He also cupped one of her breasts before moving his hand down to between her legs, she added.

After a few moments, she was able to shove him back to his seat, she testified. He tried again, but this time she was able to block him while telling him to stop, she said. The brother then came to the garage to check on them, and they got out of the car.

Asked by the prosecutor whether she consented to being kissed and touched, she replied, "God, no" and "absolutely not."

"I'm scared," she said of her emotions during the incident. "I am terrified. This is a man I had known since 1988. I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience."

She told her husband the next night what had happened, and rather than immediately reporting Cooley, they decided to give him a chance to make amends in hopes of limiting fallout in the family, she said.

As part of the work the brother and sister-in-law asked Cooley to do, the trio visited the brother and sister-in-law's marriage counselor. They also asked Cooley for a written apology and to pay about $900 to cover their costs for therapy, legal fees for working with a lawyer on a statement about what happened and the bourbon he drank at the party.

After feeling as though Cooley was continuing to minimize what happened, the brother, also an Air Force Research Laboratory employee, made an informal complaint against him to Air Force Materiel Command. And after six months of no movement from the command, the brother filed an official report in early 2020, the sister-in-law testified.

In arguing that the sister-in-law's story changed over time, Cooley's defense lawyers zeroed in on a series of voicemails she left two days after the incident, clips of which were played in court, in which she says the brother "knows we kissed." She testified she described it as a kiss rather than an assault because she was trying to extend "compassion and grace" to Cooley.

"Bill Cooley's attack on me was like an F5 tornado coming into my home without my permission or my knowledge or my consent, just ruining everything in its path," she said. "My first goal was, what can I salvage, what can I pick up and glue together so that this does not become a fracture of immeasurable levels in this family?"

It was also in the voicemails that she said the encounter reminded her of the scene in "Love Actually" where Keira Knightley's character realizes Andrew Lincoln's character has long harbored a secret crush on her.

Daniel Conway, Cooley's civilian defense lawyer who led the cross examination, also highlighted the sister-in-law's account to an Air Force Office of Special Investigations agent, a clip of which was played in court, in which she said Cooley put her hand on "just the fabric of his leg" rather than over his genitals, as she testified Tuesday.

Conway also questioned her motivations in accusing Cooley, including accusing the sister-in-law and brother of demanding a written apology so they could orchestrate a "public humiliation" of Cooley. The sister-in-law maintained that she and her husband "just wanted Bill to accept responsibility once and for all for how abysmally he behaved."

The trial is scheduled to continue Wednesday, with the sister-in-law remaining on the stand for a second round of questioning by prosecutors.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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