WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE — The former commander of the Air Force Research Lab faced a military judge Monday morning at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to determine whether or not allegations against him shall proceed to a formal court-martial.
Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley faces a potentially historic legal proceeding, having been charged with three counts of sexual assault under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. If preliminary hearing officer Col. Charles Wiedie — who presided over the Article 32 hearing — recommends that the case proceed to court-martial, Cooley would be the first Air Force general in history to face such a trial.
Cooley is charged with three specifications of sexual assault under Article 120 of the UCMJ. The formal charge indicates that Cooley allegedly kissed and groped a woman “with an intent to gratify his sexual desire.” The document also asserts that Cooley caused the woman to touch his genitalia through his clothes, and touched her breast through her clothes.
The charge stems from an alleged off-duty incident in August 2018 in Albuquerque, NM. The alleged victim was known to Cooley, though not a member of the military or the Department of Defense.
The hearing, similar to a grand jury, is convened to determine whether or not the charge constitutes a violation of the UCMJ, and to determine whether or not the case should proceed to a court-martial.
Cooley’s lawyers allege that Cooley’s accuser is part of a “conspiracy” to end his career, while prosecutors argued that Cooley had been untruthful with the investigation and had sexually assaulted a female victim. Attorneys questioned witnesses over the phone about recalled conversations they had with the alleged victim, in which she described being kissed without her consent, and forced up against the door of a car.
Dr. Laurence Merkle, a professor at the Air Force Institute of Technology, said that the victim had confided in him about the alleged event approximately a month after its occurrence. The woman told Merkle that the alleged incident occurred after a social gathering at an Albuquerque residence, where there was “swimming, eating and drinking,” according to Merkle. The woman offered to give Cooley a ride to his parents’ house, where he had been staying. According to Merkle, the victim said that during the car ride Cooley told her he had been having “fantasies” about her, and that he expressed his desire to have oral sex with her.
When asked if the woman had alleged during their conversation that Cooley had attempted to touch her breast or cause her to touch his genitals, Merkle said she had not.
Dr. David Hardy, a retired researcher at AFRL, was also questioned by attorneys. Hardy alleged that, in conversation with the victim and her husband after the event, they both expressed “anger, hurt and confusion about what to do next.” He said the two were exploring their options to move forward, which included the possibility of filing a formal complaint.
Prosecutors said that Cooley admitted in multiple emails that he had kissed the woman. Cooley was “extremely sorry” for his actions, according to emails cited by prosecutors, and had since stopped drinking and started going to Sex Addicts Anonymous. According to prosecutors, Cooley allegedly wrote a check to the victim and her husband for “legitimate damages,” which were unspecified.
Prosecutors also said that Cooley had been untruthful with the Office of Special Investigations, which oversaw his case, after Cooley read a statement maintaining his innocence.
“It is categorically impossible,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Neil, a government prosecutor, “for Cooley to have been truthful in both the investigation and in court.”
Cooley’s defense counsel argued that the kiss was consensual, and that Cooley’s accuser had changed her story during the course of the investigation. The defense counsel cited a voicemail from the alleged victim in which she said she was “flattered, but stunned.”
“There was never an allegation of anything other than a consensual kiss until she [the victim] reported to the OSI,” said Daniel Conway, Cooley’s primary defense counsel.
In an unsworn statement, Cooley maintained that the interactions between himself and the woman were consensual, and that he knew her story had changed.
“I am innocent of these charges,” he said. “Her marriage and reputation depended on this lie.”
In remarks, Conway said that Wiedie had the power to “restore this case to where it should be disposed of, which is not at a court-martial.”
Cooley was relieved from command of the AFRL in January 2020. He still works at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and currently serves as special assistant to Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr. Cooley’s current duties are focused primarily on advancing the digital campaign of Air Force Materiel Command.
Wiedie, a senior judge advocate (JAG), has eight days to return a decision, after which a formal court-martial may be scheduled.
Reach London Bishop at 937-502-4532 or follow @LBishopFDH on Twitter.