WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio — A military judge convicted Maj. Gen. Bill Cooley of sexually assaulting his sister-in-law in 2018, closing out Saturday the historic first full court-martial of an Air Force general.
Col. Christina Jimenez, who is presiding over the bench trial, is expected to sentence the former Air Force Research Laboratory commander on Monday. He faces up to seven years in jail, dismissal from the Air Force and withholding of pay, and a possible spot in the national sex offender database.
After about five hours of deliberation Friday and an overnight break, Jimenez — the chief circuit military judge with the Air Force Trial Judiciary, Western Circuit, at Travis Air Force Base, California — ruled Cooley is guilty of forcibly kissing the woman, the first specification in a single charge of abusive sexual contact. He is not guilty of two other specifications of groping her and moving her hand to touch his genitals over his clothes, she said.
This is the first time a military court has issued a verdict in a case involving an Air Force general. It’s also the first time sexual assault charges have led to criminal prosecution for someone so high up in the chain of command.
“Sometimes family members are the abusers,” Cooley’s sister-in-law said in a statement read by Ryan Guilds, her pro bono victim’s advocate, after the verdict. “The price for peace in my extended family was my silence. And that price was too high.”
Cooley pleaded not guilty to the abusive sexual contact charge for kissing the woman, and for allegedly touching her breast and genitals over her clothes while they were alone in her car in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She also claims he moved her hand to touch his groin through his pants.
She agreed to be publicly identified by her relationship to the defendant, but not by name. Air Force Times does not publish the names of sexual assault victims without their permission to protect their privacy.
The woman and her husband — an Air Force civilian employee — as well as Cooley’s mother and several other family friends and expert witnesses testified in the trial, which began Monday. Those who the woman confided in after the alleged incident recounted that she was unlike herself, even shell-shocked, when discussing the alleged assault.
“She was incredibly upset, teary, incredibly shaken,” Rev. David Martin, an Episcopal deacon and close friend, testified Thursday.
The defense acknowledged a kiss happened, but characterized the lawsuit as a setup by the sister-in-law to get revenge for a brief, consensual tryst — a description the woman denies.
The trial counsel in closing arguments Friday argued the defense took evidence out of context and twisted the alleged victim’s words so the two-star general could avoid responsibility.
“[I] kissed you in an uninvited way … for my own selfish ego,” Cooley said in a written apology from 2018 that the prosecution cited in court. “I’m stunned at my deplorable actions.”
While the defendant told others he had made a pass at his sister-in-law that she invited, his privately drafted apologies expressed regret for objectifying the woman and said he sought help.
Cooley’s sister-in-law called the contents of a written apology from the general “lie-filled, shameful … garbage” in a September 2018 email. Defense lawyer Maj. Shea Hoxie argued the woman refuted her own claims as laid out in Cooley’s apology, which his accusers forced him to say under threat of reporting the incident.
“They kissed, he fantasized about a relationship, and then they spent 16 months talking past each other,” Hoxie said in closing arguments Friday.
The prosecution said the woman felt Cooley’s attempts at apology for the incident were disingenuous.
Lt. Col. Matthew Neil, the prosecutor, countered that while the general would have been worried about charges, that doesn’t make the apology a false confession. He also pushed back on suggestions that the woman’s struggle to remember certain details, or her delay in telling her husband, mean she’s lying.
“Why didn’t she yell for help? Hindsight is 20/20,” Neil said in closing arguments. “It’s easy to judge her for that, but nobody knows how they are going to react.”
A voicemail she left for Cooley, telling him his brother knows “we kissed,” conveyed nothing about consent, Neil said. The defense portrayed the voicemail as proof the general hadn’t forced himself on her and that she wanted the kiss.
Cooley entered active duty service in 1990 and has worked in a variety of military space, missile defense, research and other positions.
As the head of AFRL, he managed a $2.5 billion Air Force-led science and technology portfolio plus another $2.3 billion in research funded outside the military. He oversaw a workforce of around 6,000 people.
Cooley was removed from that job in January 2020 amid an Air Force Office of Special Investigations inquiry and charged with violating Article 120 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, which forbids sexual assault.
Cases involving military personnel can be tried in either military or civilian court, or in both.
“This is a case where the military has jurisdiction because of the status of the accused,” Guilds, the plaintiff’s legal advocate, said. “That doesn’t mean the case couldn’t have been prosecuted on the civilian side, but the … investigation started within the military.”
Cooley now serves as an assistant to Air Force Materiel Command boss Gen. Arnold Bunch, advocating for the service’s science and technology plans.
Bunch said in a written statement released after the verdict that he trusts the military justice system and respects the judge’s decision. The service is committed to holding all airmen accountable for conduct that falls short of Air Force standards, he said.
“The trial was impartial, fair and transparent,” the four-star said. “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, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for military sexual assault victims that worked on the case, told Air Force Times Saturday that the conviction is a “momentous occasion,” even with a split verdict.
The outcome is a sign that general officers can be held accountable as well, said Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force. The verdict itself is more important than the sentence, he added.
He doubts that Cooley will be dismissed from the Air Force. Instead, he expects the two-star will be demoted to brigadier general and allowed to retire.
The defense team declined to comment on the verdict Saturday.
In her statement delivered to reporters, Cooley’s accuser invoked the spirit of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén, who told her mother she was being sexually harassed before she disappeared from Fort Hood, Texas, in April 2020. Her remains were found two months later.
Guillén’s ordeal sparked new calls to reform how the military handles sexual harassment and assault prevention, and how it prosecutes the accused.
“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,” the victim in this case said. “Staying silent was simply never an option.”
She thanked her family, friends and legal counsel for believing and supporting her.
“To my astounding husband, thank you for stepping into this horrific issue with me,” she said. “You are the best ally and advocate I could have ever asked to be on this journey with me.”
Cooley’s sister-in-law is expected to read a statement on Monday about the impact she feels the incident and court proceedings have had.
Guilds told reporters on Thursday the woman’s feelings about the outcome and how to move forward will surely evolve over time.
“This is all part of a long journey, especially in such a difficult, complex case with such challenging family dynamics,” he said.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.