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Wilkerson guilty, loses retirement benefits

Nov. 10, 2012 - 11:09AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 10, 2012 - 11:09AM  |  
Lt. Col. James Wilkerson
Lt. Col. James Wilkerson ()
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The former inspector general for the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy, convicted Nov. 2 of sexually assaulting a houseguest after a night of revelry, will spend a year in confinement before he is dismissed from the Air Force.

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The former inspector general for the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy, convicted Nov. 2 of sexually assaulting a houseguest after a night of revelry, will spend a year in confinement before he is dismissed from the Air Force.

An all-male jury of four colonels and one lieutenant colonel deliberated for about three hours before finding Lt. Col. James H. Wilkerson guilty of abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three specifications of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman in the March 24 incident, Capt. Eric Saks, Aviano chief of public affairs, said in an email.

There was no physical evidence in the case, which essentially cast the word of Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot, and his wife against that of the victim, a 49-year-old American civilian employed as a physician assistant.

Wilkerson and a group of officers, including then-wing commander Col. Dean Ostovich, met the victim and several friends at a base club the night of March 23, according to testimony during the weeklong trial, reported by Stars and Stripes. An impromptu party at Wilkerson's home followed. By 3 a.m., everyone had left except the victim.

"She had hung around there until after everyone had left the house," the accused's father-in-law, retired Col. Omer Ward said in a telephone interview with Air Force Times. Wilkerson's wife, Beth, "was being kind to this woman. She offered her a ride home several times. She finally said, ‘Here's a bed. Go to bed.' She refused to go to bed."

Beth Wilkerson testified the woman was noisily walking around the house and talking on the phone.

She "finally got out of bed and went and said, ‘Either go to bed or go home,' " Ward said. The woman left — without her shoes, according to wife of the accused. Wilkerson never left his own bed that night, she said.

The victim gave a far different account of the night: She fell asleep in the guest room, she testified, and awoke about 3 a.m. to find Wilkerson accosting her in bed. The assault came to a stop, the woman testified, when Beth Wilkerson opened the door, turned on the light and ordered her out.

According to the charge sheet in the case, Wilkerson fondled the woman's breasts and digitally penetrated her while she was "substantially incapable of appraising" the nature of the sexual act.

The jury returned guilty verdicts on all charges after deliberating for about three hours, Saks said. The prosecution asked for five years. He'd faced up to 30.

Jurors sentenced him to one, plus dismissal, which means Wilkerson will lose his retirement benefits after 20 years of the service. For an O-6 who retires this year with two decades of service, the loss amounts to $51,444 annually — not including cost-of-living increases plus health care and GI Bill benefits. Retirement pay alone would come to more than $1.5 million over 30 years.

The case is automatically appealed, a process that could take as long as two years. Wilkerson's civilian attorney, Frank Spinner, said two issues will form the basis of the appeal: The judge's refusal to allow testimony that would impeach the honesty of the accuser and witness testimony and affidavits that addressed the defendant's "character for truthfulness," he said.

A month before the party, Wilkerson received a stellar performance review for the prior year. It referred to the pilot as an "Air Force superstar," Ward said.

He has combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ward said. "He has never been in any kind of trouble. He has never been accused of telling a lie of any sort. He's an honorable person."

Ward said his daughter, Beth Wilkerson, had no reason to lie. "She told me when she found out about this … ‘if I caught my husband in bed with a woman like they said I did, I would leave him in a heartbeat.' "

The paper also reported testimony that suggested prior impropriety by Wilkerson: He'd once peeked over a bathroom stall at the wife of a subordinate as she urinated and in a separate incident, set a couch on fire.

Ward said both were misconstrued. Wilkerson looked over the bathroom stall — the only one in the area — after a line formed and no one answered the locked door.

"He peeked over to see if anybody was there. He didn't even realize anyone was in there," Ward said. "It certainly wasn't to peek on a woman."

The couch-burning incident was part of a good-natured ritual, Ward said, and Wilkerson first sought permission from the fire department.

The Wilkerson case led, in part, to the demise of another officer's career — Ostovich, who was with the group the night of the party.

Brig. Gen. Scott Zobrist, commander of the 31st Fighter Wing, removed Ostovich in June because of a "loss of confidence," Saks said.

"The investigation related to the Wilkerson trial brought to light information which contributed to the general's decision; however there were a number of factors — not a single event or action — which led to Col. Ostovich's reassignment" at the Pentagon, Saks said.

Wilkerson will serve out his sentence at a stateside facility, Spinner said. He could be released in 10 months or sooner for good behavior.

His wife and the couple's 9-year-old son are returning to the United States, where they will move in with the Wards, at least until Wilkerson is released.

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