A former Air Force basic training instructor pleaded guilty at her trial Monday on charges she abused recruits under her command and even threatened one of them with violence.
Staff Sgt. Annamarie D. Ellis entered a guilty plea on three charges and 24 specifications of maltreating recruits. The judge dismissed one specification. The incidents occurred over a roughly 22-month period starting in 2009.
The judge, Col. Donald Eller Jr., opened the proceedings to a packed courtroom. Most of those in the gallery were NCOs, along with a few who appeared to be her family.
Eller informed Ellis that he had been the judge in a number of MTI sex abuse cases, one of them involving a former trainer, Peter Vega-Maldonado, who testified as part of a plea bargain that he had been involved with 10 recruits or technical training school students.
She had no problem with that and also told Eller that she wanted him to decide the case, not a jury.
“Is this a free and voluntary act on your part?” he asked, after reviewing a form she signed authorizing him to decide her fate.
“Yes, sir,” Ellis replied.
The trial is the 29th at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland since investigators more than two years ago uncovered wrongdoing among basic training instructors at the expense of young people they were charged with molding into airmen.
So far, 35 basic training instructors have been investigated for misconduct with 71 recruits and technical school students in what has become the worst sex scandal in Air Force history.
Twenty-six instructors have been convicted over the past two years, while one was acquitted. The other case was thrown out after a judge found the evidence had been tainted.
It is on appeal.
The many accusations against Ellis do not include allegations of sexual misconduct.
A lengthy charge sheet, however, charged her with threatening to cut off an airman's genitals and obstructing an investigation into how a recruit got a black eye.
Ellis did not enter a plea.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys instead battled over motions that included MTI testimony and the introduction of several San Antonio Express-News stories.
One expert said the defense apparently intended to use the stories to show an aggressive culture existed to push recruits, and even young training instructors, in an effort to create excellence.
A prosecutor, however, told Eller the stories proved that instructors who violated the rules were prosecuted.
The defense did not press its argument before trial recessed for lunch.
After an extended break, Eller shot down a defense motion to dismiss all but one of the specifications, ruling that he found no unreasonable “multiplicity” or overlap in the many allegations.
The judge said that even if he dismissed the charges and specifications sought by the defense, Ellis would still have faced a steep sentence.
As things now stand, could receive 44 years and six months in prison if convicted of all charges and specifications.