RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — After consuming at least two liters of beer at Oktoberfest, the Air Force officer couldn’t recall all the details from a night that changed his life, but he pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a family friend who accused him of rape.
As the Pentagon faces intense scrutiny for a rise in sexual assaults among military personnel and criticism for low prosecution rates for such crimes, the conviction of Capt. Andrew J. Brilla was swift and sure because, in his defense attorney’s words, “he took responsibility.”
With his pregnant wife sitting behind him in court, Brilla pleaded guilty Monday to one count each of sexually assaulting his victim by causing bodily harm and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. Brilla was originally charged with rape by unlawful force, which potentially carries a life sentence, but that charge was dropped in exchange for his plea.
Air Force Col. Dawn Eflein, the military judge, sentenced Brilla to 27 months in jail and dismissal from the Air Force after time served. But, while the dismissal stands, the sentence was reduced to 18 months’ confinement, under terms of a pre-trial agreement. Brilla’s pay and allowances typically would have been forfeited during his confinement, but the pre-trial agreement waives that stipulation for the first six months, with his salary going to his spouse, an Air Force captain also assigned to Ramstein.
After an Article 32 investigation, the charges were referred for trial on April 26 by Third Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, the convening authority. Franklin was also the convening authority in the sexual assault case against Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general for the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy. Franklin’s subsequent decision in February to overturn Wilkerson’s conviction by a jury of officers and reinstate him into the Air Force caused outrage on Capitol Hill, where a number of lawmakers are pushing to take those decisions out of the chain of command.
Attorneys for the government in the Brilla case, including Capt. Ben Beliles — a special victims’ prosecutor for U.S. Air Forces in Europe who was also on the prosecution team for the Wilkerson trial — asked Eflein to send Brilla to jail for 30 months.
“His only tools were physical force and the trust of his close friend,” said Capt. Robert Burlison, during closing arguments.
Defense attorneys asked for leniency.
“This was a one-time lapse in judgment,” said Capt. Karl Vogel.
The victim, a civilian who has known the Brillas since 2005, had come to Germany from the States last fall to visit with her friends. On Sept. 27, they spent the afternoon drinking beer at Oktoberfest, according to court testimony.
Early in the evening, the victim left the tent to buy a pretzel and couldn’t get back in; she called Brilla on a cell phone. Brilla went to find her, and they agreed to meet the rest of their group back at the hotel.
They got lost and wandered the streets of Munich for a couple of hours, ending up in a city courtyard separated from pedestrians and traffic by a small hedge. It was there that Brilla forced himself on her, the victim tearfully testified in court Monday.
“He pushed up against me and started kissing me and pulling my pants down,” she said, adding that she told him to stop and wasn’t strong or coordinated enough at the time to push him away.
The next day, the Brillas left early to return to Ramstein because they received a call to be temporary foster parents to two military children in need. The victim later rejoined them, staying at their home before continuing her travels in Europe.
“At this point, I was still trying to figure out what was going on,” she told the court. “I didn’t think he would ever do anything like this,” the victim said, calling Brilla and his wife “as close as family.” After she got home, she sought counseling and reported the crime in November.
Brilla said in court his memory from that day is fragmented after leaving Oktoberfest, but said of the victim, “I have no reason to doubt her version of events.” At the time, he said, he was experiencing marital difficulties and “misread signals” from the victim that she might be interested in him.
“Do you remember her telling you to stop?” Eflein asked him.
“Yes,” Brilla said.
“Can you tell me why you didn’t stop?”
“No,” he said.
A member of the 86th Logistics Readiness Squadron, Brilla had upstanding officer performance reports, a lengthy record of volunteer service and numerous character letters submitted on his behalf.
He apologized in court to the victim, but she was not present to hear him, choosing not to sit through the trial.
“He did the best he could to take responsibility,” said Maj. Reggie Yager, one of Brilla’s defense attorneys.
Beliles said prosecutors were pleased with the outcome.