The former 31st Fighter Wing inspector general at Aviano Air Base, Italy, has been charged with sexual assault after he allegedly groped a woman’s breasts and genitals, authorities said Thursday.
Lt. Col. James H. Wilkerson is charged with two counts of violating Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice: abusive sexual contact and aggravated sexual assault. Wilkerson, who is married, was also charged with three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman, a violation of Article 133.
According to the charge sheet, the woman, a civilian, was “substantially incapable of appraising the nature of the sexual contact” when she was allegedly assaulted on March 24 in a bed in a room in Roveredo in Piano, Italy, a town just south of the base.
Capt. Erick Saks, 31st Fighter Wing spokesman, declined to elaborate on the meaning of the phrase. But it normally indicates prosecutors’ allegations that a victim was incapacitated, for instance by being unconscious, asleep or heavily intoxicated.
The charges resulted from a complaint to the base Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, Saks said, which was investigated by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
Wilkerson’ s court-martial is scheduled to begin Oct. 26. An Article 32 hearing, to determine whether there was enough evidence for the case to go to trial, has been completed, Saks said. The convening authority in the case is Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force, headquartered at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
Wilkerson had been the wing IG, overseeing inspections, since January, Saks said, after serving as the 31st Operations Group deputy commander.
In May, he was removed from his IG position and reassigned as special assistant to the operations group commander, Saks said.
Brig. Gen. Scott Zobrist, 31st Fighter Wing commander, issued a statement when the charges were announced, emphasizing that “sexual assault is simply unacceptable and will not be tolerated.” Zobrist pointed out that wing members had recently completed “bystander intervention training” designed to teach airmen that it’s their duty and moral obligation to step in when they see incidences of potential sexual assaults to prevent them.
“I take any allegation of criminal conduct by someone under my command very seriously – regardless of the rank of the accuser or that of the alleged offender,” his statement said, adding that criminal defendants are presumed innocent.
Gen. Mark Welsh, the new Air Force chief of staff, whose confirmation was held up over a sexual assault scandal at the Air Forces’ basic training school, has said eliminating sexual assault is a priority, and any commander “who isn’t actively engaged in being part of the solution of this is part of the problem.”
Among the witnesses expected to testify at Wilkerson’s trial is Col. Dean Ostovich, the former 31st Wing vice commander, whom Zobrist relieved of command in June, citing a lack of confidence.
Specific reasons Ostovich was relieved remain unclear, although Saks said that among the reasons was behavior brought to light during the investigation into Wilkerson’s conduct.
Ostovich is now assigned to the Pentagon, Saks said.