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Verdict announced in first ever Air Force general court-martial

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wesley Farnsworth)

A military judge found Air Force Maj. Gen. William Cooley guilty of one charge of abusive sexual contact on the sixth day of an historic court-martial at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Air Force Judge Col. Christina Jimenez deliberated for some five hours Friday before recessing for the day. The verdict was pronounced as soon as court opened Saturday morning.

The charge had three specifications involving how the two-star general was reported to have touched the complainant in the case — forcing his tongue in her mouth, forcing her hand to his genitals and pushing his hand between her legs and cupping her breast, according to an Air Force charge sheet.

The judge found Cooley guilty of the first specification and not guilty of the latter two.

A former commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Cooley was charged with abusive sexual contact in an encounter with his sister-in-law inside a Jeep when she gave him a ride after a family backyard barbecue in a New Mexico off-duty incident nearly four years ago.

The victim in the case, the wife of Cooley’s brother, is a civilian woman who is not a Department of Defense employee. Cooley’s brother works for the Air Force in New Mexico as a civilian employee.

Cooley had faced loss of rank, pay and benefits and up to 21 months of confinement. And he may have to register as a sexual offender.

Now after Saturday’s verdict, in terms of confinement, the maximum possible sentence is seven years per charge. An Air Force spokeswoman said Saturday that Cooley does not face loss of rank. It was not immediately clear Saturday what impact the conviction will have on Cooley’s career.

This is the first time a court-martial of an Air Force general reached trial.

“Today marks the first time an Air Force general officer has been held responsible for his heinous actions,” the victim in the case said in a statement from her personal attorney, Ryan Guilds.

“Sometimes family members are the abusers, abusers who count on silence in order to wield their extensive power.”

Cooley’s sister-in-law cited Vanessa Guillén, an Army soldier who was murdered by a fellow soldier in 2020 while she was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, as an inspiration for her to pursue the charges.

“Hopefully,” Guilds said, continuing with his client’s statement, “this will not be as difficult for the next survivor.”

Speaking for himself, Guilds said: “At the end of the day, he (Cooley) was found guilty.”

“If that can be achieved for her, it can be achieved for others. That doesn’t mean it’s easy,” he added.

Cooley has worked as an assistant to Gen. Arnold Bunch, the commander of Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC), in an AFMC administrative job since an Air Force investigation into the charges against him in late 2019 and early 2020. His brother and sister-in-law brought the matter to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations in December 2019. Bunch fired Cooley from his AFRL job in January 2020.

No jury was empaneled in the trial, which started April 18. A sentencing phase starts Monday morning at the base.

“Whatever the sentence is, it doesn’t erase what happens,” Guilds said.

“I implicitly trust our military judicial system, and respect the decision of the judge,” Bunch said in a statement Saturday. “As an institution, we are committed to holding all Airmen accountable, regardless of rank, when their actions don’t meet Air Force standards.

“This entire process has demonstrated the Air Force’s commitment to prevent sexual assault, protect victims and take appropriate action against offenders when it occurs. The trial was impartial, fair and transparent. I appreciate everyone who supported this process for their due diligence in the pursuit of justice, and for doing everything possible to protect both the victim’s rights and the rights of the accused to a fair trial.”

Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor of the Air Force and head of the organization Protect Our Defenders, believes this likely marks the effective end of Cooley’s Air Force career. Christensen expects a commander will begin initiating a discharge process at some point in the future.

Officers cannot be reduced in rank in a court-martial sentencing, Christensen said. But he said the secretary of the Air Force can reduce Cooley in rank down one star, to brigadier general.

And while the sentence might impose a dismissal from the Air Force, which would deprive Cooley of pay and benefits, Christensen said Saturday he would be surprised if the judge took that route.

“When they’ve had a long career like this, you usually don’t see a punitive discharge,” he said.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall can deny Cooley retirement benefits, Christensen said.


(c)2022 Springfield News-Sun, Ohio

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