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In historic conviction, Air Force general found guilty of sexual abuse

Air Force Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley. (Wesley Farnsworth/Air Force/AP)

A two-star general in the U.S. Air Force was found guilty Saturday of sexual assault, marking the first court-martial and conviction of a general officer in the military branch’s 74-year history.

Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley faces up to seven years in prison and dismissal from the Air Force for forcibly kissing a woman after a barbecue in Albuquerque in 2018. Col. Christina M. Jimenez, the senior military judge who presided over the case at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, began a sentence hearing Monday, and was deliberating on a verdict Monday night, said Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek.

Cooley faced charges in three specifications of abusive sexual contact against the woman — his sister-in-law — including kissing her “with an intent to gratify his sexual desire,” forcing the victim to touch him over his clothes, and touching her breasts and genitals over her clothes, according to an Air Force statement. Cooley was not convicted of the latter two charges. His attorney did not immediately respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment late Sunday.

“This case clearly demonstrates the commitment of Air Force leaders to fully investigate the facts and hold Airmen of any rank accountable for their actions when they fail to uphold Air Force standards,” Col. Eric Mejia, staff judge advocate for Cooley’s command, said in the statement.

Courts-martial are trials for members of the armed forces accused of committing serious crimes. Those sentenced to confinement serve time in military prisons.

Cooley’s conviction comes months after President Biden signed the latest defense spending bill, which included changes to the military’s handling of sexual-assault-related prosecutions after years of mounting pressure from Congress. Under the National Defense Authorization Act, within two years commanders will no longer have the power to decide to court-martial service members accused of murder, sexual assault, child pornography, domestic violence, kidnapping, stalking and other serious crimes. Instead, the decision will go to independent military prosecutors.

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An annual report on sexual assault in the military recorded 6,290 reported incidents in fiscal 2020, a slight increase from 6,236 in fiscal 2019. About 255 of those cases were brought to trial in 2020, and 156 of them resulted in a conviction, according to the report.

Cooley, whose career with the Air Force began in 1988, was the first general officer in his service’s history to be criminally prosecuted. The verdict broke an “impenetrable barrier,” which historically protected officers of high rank from facing consequences for inappropriate behavior, according to Rachel VanLandingham, a professor at Southwestern Law School and former Air Force judge advocate.

“Those stars on your shoulder are no longer a shield to criminal behavior,” VanLandingham told The Post, adding that the conviction also sends a deterrent message that no matter your rank, “sexual assault is not going to be tolerated within the United States Air Force anymore — and that’s been a long time coming.”

Cooley had been drinking at a barbecue on Aug. 12, 2018, when he asked his sister-in-law, who was also at the event, for a ride home. During the car ride, the victim said Cooley talked about his fantasies of having sex with her. She said he also “pressed her up against the driver’s side window, forcibly kissed and groped her through her clothes,” according to the statement.

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The woman and her husband reported the assault to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations in December 2019, according to the service. The following month, Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr. removed Cooley from his position with the Air Force Research Laboratory, where he oversaw about 6,000 people and managed billions of dollars for research and science and technology programs, according to his biography. He was reassigned as Bunch’s special assistant.

Cooley’s case was referred to court-martial in April 2021. He pleaded not guilty.

The victim, who does not wish to be publicly identified, said in a statement through her attorney that reporting an assault “shouldn’t be this hard.”

“Hopefully it won’t be this difficult for the next survivor,” she said.

The victim also noted the verdict came exactly two years and one day after the death of Vanessa Guillén, a 20-year-old soldier in the U.S. Army who was killed before being dismembered and burned by a man who faced sexual harassment allegations.

“Vanessa Guillén’s spirit has been with me on this journey and while this process has been incredibly invasive not only for me but also my immediate family and closest friends, I know there are countless other people who have been silenced forever, like Vanessa, so staying silent was simply never an option,” she said.

Guillén’s death, along with the #MeToo movement and pressure from Congress, laid the groundwork for prosecutors to secure a conviction against Cooley, VanLandingham said.

“I’m not happy to see this outcome, because there’s a victim and the Air Force is a victim of his misconduct as well,” VanLandingham said. “But it’s good to see that the system is finally willing to hold a senior officer to account for this kind of behavior.”

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.