Marine Col. Daniel Wilson had been in Australia for less than a week when alarming allegations of a “sexual nature” began to surface in the winter of 2016.
He was recalled to his command at the Okinawa-based III Marine Expeditionary Force but was not investigated or reported, according to a 2017 Marine Corps Inspector General report.
With little fanfare, Wilson was shifted to the general staff at Camp Lejeune’s II MEF. Within six months, he was accused of molesting the children of a junior officer.
During a court-martial last September, Wilson was convicted of the sexual abuse of a child, six counts of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman and absence without leave. He was sentenced to 5 and a half years in prison and dismissed from service.
The parents are now seeking $25 million from the Marine Corps for the pain and suffering of their three daughters and for long-term mental health treatment. They blame former III MEF commander Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson for not holding Wilson to account for earlier transgressions, which later allowed the colonel to prey on their family.
“The Marine Corps failed to properly punish Wilson and hold him accountable for what he did in Australia,” said Adrian Perry, the mother of the girl Wilson was convicted of molesting. “They didn’t just fail our family. They failed every family in the Marine Corps when they chose to do that because really anybody could have been his prey, his next victim.”
‘Nasty bit of goods’
In March 2015, Marine Corps Forces Pacific commander Lt. Gen. John Toolan signed an order instructing Marines deployed to Australia to respect the country’s customs and to refrain from behavior that would be “offensive,” including excessive drinking.
On Feb. 16, 2016, Wilson — who had been serving as chief of staff for 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force — arrived in Australia to take over as officer-in-charge of the forward command element for Marine Rotational Force-Darwin.
Wilson was counseled about the behavior that was expected of him before he was sent, the IG report said.
His counterpart in Australia, navy commander Greg Mapson, said Wilson had a serious drinking problem.
“He would polish off a bottle of Jack Daniels every night,” Mapson said. “[The Marine Corps] knew everything about him. His reputation preceded him.”
By Feb. 22, Mapson and other Australian officers had lodged complaints about Wilson because of his behavior.
The colonel was accused of forcing a subordinate officer to send him photos of his wife in lingerie and sharing them with Mapson. Mapson said Wilson later demanded nude photos and a used pair of the woman’s underwear.
Mapson said Wilson also made crude sexual comments to a fellow Marine’s wife, drank to excess every day, drove drunk, sent an inappropriate email to Mapson from the computer of a female Australian Defence Department civilian employee, which violated ADF regulations, and sent inappropriate text messages to a married female Australian Defence Force officer.
“He was a nasty bit of goods,” Mapson said of the colonel.
An incident report regarding those allegations was filed on Feb. 24, the IG report said. The next day, Toolan recalled Wilson from Darwin.
When he got back to Okinawa, Nicholson summoned Wilson, whom he referred to affectionately as “Danny,” according to the IG report, and asked him what happened. Wilson told him it was a personality conflict. Nicholson thought the allegations lacked credibility, the report added.
While Toolan later told investigators that he felt the complaints were credible, he thought it was Nicholson’s job to report the incident, which would have likely led to an investigation and discipline. Nicholson told investigators he felt it was Toolan’s job to file the report since he was the senior commander and the one who had recalled Wilson.
Nothing was done, and the colonel was moved to II MEF as operations officer on April 30, 2016.
“They kind of got in a pointing match at each other, and said, ‘No, it was you,’ ‘No, it was you,’ who had responsibility for him,” said Don Christensen, a retired Air Force colonel now serving as president of the Protect Our Defenders Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to ending rape and sexual assault in the military. Christensen and the foundation are providing legal assistance to the Perry family.
“One of the two was required to put [Wilson] in the Officer Disciplinary Notebook … They would have had to have done an actual investigation,” Christensen said. “Again, the Marine Corps IG found these allegations in Australia against Wilson were substantiated, and if they would have done the investigation, he would have been put in a track to have his Marine Corps career end.”
Christensen agrees with the IG’s decision to pin the lion’s share of blame on Nicholson.
“In this case, Gen. Nicholson did not have the discretion to ignore the crimes committed in Australia by Colonel Wilson and was required to do certain things,” he said. “[Nicholson] failed to do those certain things and as a result Wilson was allowed to move to Lejeune, and then because he was at a Lejeune, he had access to the Perry children.”
While Nicholson originally denied responsibility, he eventually reversed course and accepted blame, according to the IG report.
Nicholson did not respond to requests for comment through the Marine Corps. He is retiring from the service after 39 years.
While Wilson settled in unscathed at his new assignment in North Carolina, Perry said her family’s nightmare was just about to begin.
Her Marine Corps major husband had served under Wilson on Okinawa. They arrived in North Carolina shortly after the colonel.
Perry said Wilson “lured” them in, inviting them to “get out of the hotel,” to hang out at his house and do laundry. He was alone with their children on several occasions.
During one of these visits, Perry’s 6-year-old daughter told her that Wilson had touched her inappropriately. The family left the house and reported the incident to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
Later, her other two daughters made accusations against Wilson. One accused him of molestation and the other said he offered her alcohol. Wilson was later acquitted on those charges.
Perry felt her family couldn’t be the first one victimized by the colonel, so they told NCIS about Wilson’s early relief in Darwin. That was the start of an investigation that ended with the IG report. They were shocked by what was uncovered.
“I didn’t hear all of it until we were sitting in the courtroom,” Perry said. “I had to get up and walk out at one point because I was so bothered. This is a predator, a true predator, and he has been thriving through the ranks for 37 years. How did our military miss him? How did he slip through it?”
On June 28, the Perry family filed three claims – one for each child – under the Federal Tort Claims Act, said Protect Our Defenders spokesman Brian Purchia. They are seeking $10 million each for the younger girls who claimed they were molested and $5 million for their eldest daughter, who suffers guilt for not protecting her younger sisters.
The Marine Corps has six months to pay or deny the request, Christensen said. After that six months, the family then has six months to file suit in federal district court.
Perry said she is concerned that her daughters will need mental health treatment for the rest of their lives – a servicemember who is sexually assaulted can lean on Veterans Affairs for care, but her children are civilians and won’t always be dependents. She said it was unacceptable to think they may have to pay for therapy out of their own pocket.
“For several weeks, my daughter had been coming to me a lot and crying about what Wilson did to her, crying and saying things like, ‘I just want to be normal. I don’t want to be different,’” Perry said. “She feels like she’s different because she’s had this happen to her. It’s heartbreaking … the damage that he did in this little innocent person.”
Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Brian Block said the Marine Corps does “not comment on ongoing litigation.”
“The investigation into the circumstances surrounding Colonel Wilson’s actions in Australia and any follow-on disciplinary action is publicly available and speaks for itself,” he said.
Block said every Marine, regardless of rank or position, is expected to uphold the “values of honor, courage and commitment that define our Corps.”
“When Marines fall short of those ideals, commanders and leaders have a variety of tools at their disposal to address that misconduct,” he said. “Every situation is unique, just as every Marine is unique.”
Perry accused Nicholson of perpetrating a cover-up to protect a friend. She described a “dark culture” in which officers take care of each other and misbehavior is overlooked.
Christensen said he has seen it often and called for independent prosecutors to make decisions as to which Marines are investigated and whether they are charged.
“In our experience we often see senior officers step in to either enable those who’ve committed crimes or try to stop investigations,” he said.
“This shows why it’s so important that allegations of crimes be taken seriously, whether that involves a lance corporal or a colonel or a general,” he added. “You have to take them seriously because there can be lifelong consequences for others down the road if you fail to do that.”
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