Wife says former Aviano inspector general is innocent
Lt. Col. James Wilkerson speaks as the then 20th Fighter Wing chief of safety at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Aug. 11, 2008.
AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — The wife of the former Aviano Air Base inspector general charged with sexually assaulting a sleeping house guest testified Wednesday that her husband didn’t do it.
Beth Wilkerson, in more than three hours of testimony, described her version of events on the night of March 23 after her husband, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, came home with a party of six, including the vice wing commander, two other pilots and three women.
Wilkerson told the court that she had offered the alleged victim a bed for the night after the woman, a 49-year-old physician’s assistant at the base, was the last one left at the impromptu party.
Wilkerson said the woman had awakened her twice, once talking on the phone and again by walking around and making the wooden floors creak. It was shortly before 3 a.m. At that point, she said, she told the woman she either had to go to bed or go home.
“She opened the door, she picked up her purse and she walked out that back door,” Wilkerson said. She said her husband had remained in their bed all night, and that she didn’t tell him that the woman left, shoeless, in the middle of the night, until the next morning.
Asked by defense attorney Frank Spinner whether she had caught her husband in the alleged victim’s bed, she said absolutely not.
According to his accuser, who had never met him before that night, James Wilkerson stole into her bed while she slept in a guest room. She testified that Wilkerson touched her breasts and inserted his finger into her, and that she thought she thought she was dreaming until the light came on and she opened her eyes and saw Wilkerson's face inches from her own — and Wilkerson's wife standing in the doorway. She said Wilkerson's wife then told her: "Get the hell out of my house."
Beth Wilkerson seemed tense and her eyes were puffy, as she sat in the witness box.
Lead prosecutor Col. Don Christensen questioned the couple’s contention that she had not told her husband about the supposed departure of the alleged victim until the next morning.
He pointed out that she had testified that she was worried about the woman making noise because of two neighbor children sleeping at their house who were still disturbed by their father’s death and often called out to adults to make sure they were there.
Yet, he said, she testified that she went out in the middle of the night to look for the woman, leaving the children with no one to hear them if they called out: her husband had slept through all the other disturbances, she had testified.
“So, I‘d imagine, you’d say, ‘Hey, Jay, that crazy lady left in the middle of the night and I’m going out to find her.’
“I’m certain you woke up Jay, dependable Jay,” the prosecutor continued, to discuss what to do after having failed to find her.
Christensen pointed out her reputation for kindness. He asked if she had tried the next day to find out whether the woman was OK.
“You’re the IG’s wife. Your husband’s part of the wing leadership. He’s good friends with the medical group deputy commander,” he said. “Did you call your husband’s good friend and make sure she got home?
“Did you bother to call the wing commander?” he continued. She had not.
“You made absolutely no effort to make sure that the woman you described as very drunk, who left your house in the middle of the night, was OK.”
Christensen asked if she blamed her husband for what happened during the course of the evening. She said she blamed the former vice wing commander who drove the party to the house.
Christensen said that Beth Wilkerson had treated the alleged victim with “nothing but hospitality.”
So, Christensen asked, did Wilkerson know any reason why the alleged victim would lie and say that Wilkerson’s husband had digitally penetrated her.
“My husband did not do that,” she said.
James Wilkerson is charged with aggravated sexual assault, abusive sexual contact and conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman. He has pleaded not guilty.
During earlier testimony by character witnesses brought by the defense, prosecutors managed to put before the jurors evidence of previous misconduct.
Col. David Walker, commander of the 31st Operations Group at Aviano — Wilkerson worked for him when he was deputy commander and has been his special assistant since being removed as inspector general — extolled Wilkerson’s character and performance as “at the highest level” during testimony Tuesday.
Christensen asked Walker if he was aware that Wilkerson had peeked over a bathroom stall wall as the wife of a subordinate urinated.
Yes, Walker said. “I think we’re all human and can make mistakes. I think his mistakes were minor,” Walker said.
Christensen, his voice rising, pressed on. Traffic safety was a concern at Aviano, he said. Both the Air Force and Italian law required seat belt use. Yet Wilkerson had gotten into a car the night of the party at his house, along with the then-vice wing commander, who was driving. Neither wore seat belts nor told lesser ranking people in the car to do so.
All, including the driver, the recently reassigned Col. Dean Ostovich, had been drinking, Christensen noted. Seven people in a car designed to hold five; no seat belts worn; alcohol consumed: Did Walker justify all that? Christensen asked.
“That is a bad mistake,” Walker said.
As he left the witness stand, Walker winked at James Wilkerson.