Testimony begins in officer’s sexual assault trial at Aviano
AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — An Air Force officer slid into her bed as she was sleeping and began touching her, according to the alleged victim in the sexual assault court martial of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson.
“I felt like I was floating. I was being touched very lightly over my breasts and my stomach. I felt like I was dreaming,” the woman testified about the alleged encounter at Wilkerson’s home. Then she started feeling vaginal discomfort. A light came on, she said, and she saw Wilkerson’s face inches from her own and Wilkerson’s wife standing inside the bedroom doorway.
“Get the hell out of my house,” Wilkerson’s wife told her, the woman testified.
Wilkerson, a former 31st Fighter Wing inspector general, has pleaded not guilty to charges of aggravated sexual assault, abusive sexual contact and three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.
His lawyer, Frank Spinner, said in opening statements Monday that the woman, a 49-year-old physician’s assistant, was not credible. Spinner told the jury that Wilkerson was asleep in his own bed and that his wife, Beth, would testify to that.
“Col. Wilkerson’s wife is going to say it didn’t happen,” Spinner said.
He said Beth Wilkerson would testify that the reason the physician’s assistant had left in the middle of the night, shoeless, was because the two women had had a confrontation over noise the physician’s assistant was making walking around the house, possibly waking sleeping children.
The disputed events at the Wilkerson house in a town near Aviano on the night of March 23 and the next morning followed a convivial evening: a USO concert, drinks at the base club and an unexpected trip to the Wilkerson residence.
The woman and friends had met Wilkerson and Col. Dean Ostovich, the 31st Wing vice commander, for the first time at the club after the concert.
The group of seven, including a major, two captains and a colonel, had piled into Ostovich’s black Mercedes — none of them wearing seatbelts, according to testimony — to go elsewhere to continue socializing.
The woman testified she thought they were going to an English pub off base, but they ended up at Wilkerson’s house.
Eventually, all had left except for the alleged victim.
Ostovich, who according to evidence presented had left with a female officer, was relieved of command in June for behavior brought to light during the Wilkerson investigation, officials said.
The woman testified she was unaware the others had left without her. She had spent much of the evening in conversation with Wilkerson’s wife, who then invited her to stay the night.
The two women had hit it off, she testified. “I liked Beth right off the bat.”
Wilkerson’s wife told her, the woman said, that she had liked her, too, as she was telling her to get out.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, what happened?’ I was mortified. I was in total shock. I took my things and left. I didn’t know where I was. I just started walking,” the woman testified.
Because of her civilian status, the alleged victim was not allowed to file a confidential “restricted” report about her alleged assault. She was told, she said, that she either had to file an unrestricted report, meaning it would not be confidential and would be investigated, or drop the matter. The woman said she thought it over and talked with friends and decided to go ahead, even though the first report would go to Ostovich, a friend of Wilkerson.
“I was afraid it would affect me if I didn’t do anything about it,” she said. “Certainly as a medical provider, it would be hypocritical of me to encourage other people to report and not do it myself. Most important, I didn’t want him to do this ever again to anybody else.”
The defense attorney, in his cross examination of the woman, tried to point out inconsistencies in her story. He questioned her repeatedly about the time line of events and when she had called and texted friends during the night.
In the charge sheet, prosecutors say Wilkerson assaulted the victim when she was “substantially incapable.”
Spinner told the jurors in his opening statement that no one had been highly inebriated, and in his cross examination asked the alleged victim if she had been drunk.
“No,” she replied, “I was pretty buzzed, but I wasn’t drunk.”
Prosecutors said the Wilkersons had ejected the woman from their house and sent her into a brisk March morning without her shoes. Spinner said one of the issues in the trial would be what happened to them.
“She had lost track of her own shoes,” Spinner said.
Wilkerson, a former F-16 pilot, has been a special assistant to the 31st Operations Group commander since the investigation began into the alleged crime. His inspector general job was unique to Aviano Air Base; he headed up a new program charged with managing base inspections.