Brother Testifies in Court-Martial of Air Force General Accused of Sexually Assaulting Sister-in-Law

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U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley delivers remarks.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley delivers remarks during a press conference inside the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, April 18, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wesley Farnsworth)

Air Force Maj. Gen. William Cooley's brother testified Wednesday that he was "completely dumbfounded" when his wife told him that Cooley had sexually assaulted her, saying that he "didn't want to believe that Bill could do this to us."

The brother was speaking during the second day of testimony in Cooley's court-martial over allegations he forcibly kissed and groped his sister-in-law during a brief car ride after a family barbecue in 2018.

Military.com, which does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault without their consent, is not naming the brother nor the sister-in-law at the request of her lawyer.

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Cooley's court-martial, the first ever of an Air Force general to reach trial, is taking place against the backdrop of a Defense Department that has struggled to end an epidemic of military sexual assault and over the last year has taken several steps to better combat the problem.

In the Pentagon's most recent annual report on sexual assault released in May, the department said it received 7,816 reports of sexual assault in 2020, down nine cases from the previous year. The 7,825 reports of sexual assault the Pentagon received in 2019 represented a 3% increase from 2018.

Last year's report also showed 912 civilians had reported that a U.S. service member sexually assaulted them, which is the case in the allegations against Cooley.

The figures are probably undercounts of the actual number of sexual assaults connected to the military since such crimes often go unreported. The Pentagon's most recent estimate of the prevalence of sexual assault in 2018 was that 6.2% of female troops and 0.7% of male troops had likely experienced sexual assault.

Only a small fraction of cases make it to trial and end in conviction. A 2020 Pentagon study found about 4% of sexual assault cases in the military end in conviction, mostly due to a lack of evidence.

In an effort to finally eradicate the problem, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as one of his first acts in office last year empaneled an independent commission to propose new ways to get at the issue.

Based on the recommendations of the commission, the Pentagon proposed, and Congress approved, changes to the military justice system that proponents of the reforms hope will result in more trials and convictions. Specifically, independent prosecutors -- rather than military commanders -- will make decisions on trying sex crimes when the reforms take effect at the end of 2023.

In Cooley's case, his accuser is alleging he pulled her hand toward his crotch when they were driving, and that once they were back in her garage, he pushed her against the car window, kissed her, cupped her breast and put his hand between her legs. He maintains the only thing that happened was a consensual kiss.

The sister-in-law returned to the stand Wednesday for a second round of questioning by the prosecution and defense, though most of her time there was spent with lawyers arguing over the admissibility of some pieces of evidence.

Cooley's defense attorneys have sought to frame the sister-in-law's allegations as a fabrication motivated in part by her fear of her husband's reaction if he knew she and Cooley had kissed consensually.

The defense has repeatedly cited the brother telling the Air Force Office of Special Investigations that one of his reactions when his wife told him what happened was, "What did you do to bring this on?" That section of his interview with investigators was played in court Wednesday, along with him saying he was "wanting to exonerate my brother."

The brother testified Wednesday he made that statement to investigators to describe what went through his mind but "at no point" did he actually say that to his wife.

"I never said that to [my wife] nor would I say that," the brother said Wednesday.

The sister-in-law also testified that she wasn't worried about her husband's reaction because, after he cheated on her in 2016, they went "through hell and back in our marriage" and "were never happier" than in 2018 when the alleged assault took place.

In the months leading up to the alleged assault, the sister-in-law told her husband that Cooley had been giving her hugs that lasted too long, kissing her on the head and smelling her hair, the brother testified Wednesday. But the brother said he didn't think much of it because his wife "had good smelling hair so it didn't really shock me."

The brother, who also works for the Air Force, had his security clearance revoked in August for a reason that was not specified in court. It has since been restored at the top secret/sensitive compartmented information level.

On the night of the alleged assault, the brother was cleaning up from the barbecue while his wife drove Cooley to his parents' house to collect some belongings. When the brother realized they had been gone longer than they should be, he sent both of them a text message asking whether they were OK. After more time passed, he decided to check the garage to see if he had missed seeing them pull in, and as he entered the garage, he saw his wife and Cooley getting out of the car.

Under questioning from the defense, the brother said he saw nothing in his wife that made him think anything was amiss, including whether she was flushed or hyperventilating. He recalled that she then went immediately to bed and told him what happened the next day after he got home from work.

The brother said he thought about immediately reporting the incident, but held off because he "he was my ... brother, and I love him, and I did not want to be here."

Asked by prosecutors whether he was angry at Cooley, the brother replied, "yes." But asked whether he also still loves his brother, he said, "I do."

The court-martial is scheduled to continue Thursday.

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

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