How the military handles sexual assault cases behind closed doors
By CRAIG WHITLOCK | The Washington Post | Published: October 1, 2017
For the U.S. Air Force, the case of alleged sexual harassment and assault by a senior officer was exactly the type of misconduct Pentagon leaders had promised Congress and the public they would no longer tolerate.
The victim at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Alabama reported in September 2015 that her married boss, a colonel, had repeatedly said he wanted to have sex with her, tracked her movements and sent her recordings of him masturbating in the shower, documents show. She said that she told him to back off but that he would not stop: Twice, she alleges, he trapped her in the office, grabbed her arms and forcibly tried to kiss her.
Air Force investigators quickly confirmed much of her account, aided by hundreds of messages that the officer had texted the woman and by his admission that he had sent the masturbation recordings, the documents show.
In their report, the investigators compiled extensive evidence that the colonel, Ronald Jobo, had committed abusive sexual contact against the woman, a civilian in her 30s. Under military law, the charge would have automatically resulted in a court-martial, a proceeding open to the public. The crime carried a sentence of up to seven years in prison and a requirement to register as a sex offender.
The decision on what to do next rested with a three-star general 600 miles away at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. In the military-justice system, commanders - not uniformed prosecutors - have the power to dictate how and whether criminal cases should be pursued.
In March 2016, Lt. Gen. John Thompson, the senior officer in Jobo's chain of command, decided against charging Jobo with abusive sexual contact, or any crime at all. Instead, Thompson imposed what the military calls nonjudicial punishment, or discipline for minor offenses.
Jobo was forced to retire and demoted one rank, to lieutenant colonel. Because the military keeps most disciplinary actions secret, the case was hidden from public view.
There would be no trial, no publicity and no public record - the same for thousands of other sexual assault investigations each year in the armed forces.
An examination of the Jobo investigation, based in part on an internal 400-page law enforcement case file obtained by The Washington Post, casts doubt on the military's promises to crack down on sexual misconduct and hold commanders accountable for how they administer justice.
"This kind of case cries out to be court-martialed," said retired Col. Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force who is now president of Protect Our Defenders. The group advocates for sexual assault victims in the armed forces and has lobbied for uniformed prosecutors, instead of commanders, to oversee cases. "It just cries out for someone to be held accountable in a public forum."
Jobo retired from the Air Force last year. He declined requests for an interview. In a statement to The Post, he said he served honorably in the Air Force for more than 25 years but "showed extremely poor judgment by allowing a close work relationship to escalate into an unprofessional personal one."
"I was misguided and deeply regret the hurt and embarrassment I caused my wife, daughter, extended family, colleagues and friends," he added.
In an interview with The Post, the woman said she felt betrayed by the general's decision. "Disappointment is probably an understatement. I felt strongly that Colonel Jobo should be held accountable," she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect her privacy. (The Post's policy is not to identify victims of sexual assault or abuse.)
The Pentagon has sought to raise the profile of its campaign against sexual assault and harassment in the ranks since 2013, when a string of scandals raised fundamental questions about whether the military's justice system was too antiquated to cope with the problem. In testimony before Congress, the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledged that they had neglected the issue for years.
Since then, the armed forces have promised to address the problem and have devoted new resources to training and law enforcement. Last year, the number of reported sexual assaults - defined as acts ranging from wrongful sexual contact to rape - reached 6,172, a new high.
The Pentagon has called the increase a sign of progress, saying that more victims are coming forward because they are confident that offenders will be held accountable. Still, only about 1 in 3 victims last year reported being assaulted, according to military estimates.
More than 90 percent of reported incidents, however, are investigated and adjudicated behind closed doors, Pentagon statistics show. Last year, only 389 sexual assault cases proceeded to trial and produced public records of what happened.
Ordinarily, details of the case involving the colonel from Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base would have remained secret, too. The Air Force rejected Freedom of Information Act requests from The Post for records associated with Jobo's investigation and punishment, citing his privacy rights.
The documents obtained by The Post from other sources show how the victim futilely pleaded with Thompson, the general in charge of deciding the case, to approve criminal charges instead of meting out what she feared would be "a slap on the wrist."
"Sir, very respectfully, this is offensive to me," she wrote in a memo in February 2016, when she learned Thompson was unlikely to order a court-martial. "I have been afraid that I would not be believed. I was afraid that I would get blamed for what happened. I am afraid that this whole thing would just get swept under the rug because of his rank."
Thompson, who was given a new leadership post in May with the Air Force Space Command, declined requests from The Post for an interview. In a statement, he said military law and Air Force policy restricted him from commenting on the reasoning behind his decisions.
"In this case, as in all cases, a thorough investigation was conducted and commanders throughout the chain of command reviewed all of the evidence at multiple stages," Thompson said. He said he had based his decisions "on the totality of the circumstances and the maintenance of good order and discipline in the Service."
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Located in Alabama's capital, Montgomery, Gunter Annex is several miles across town from the main base. The annex houses the Business and Enterprise Systems Directorate, which is responsible for managing many of the Air Force's computer systems worldwide.
About 1,500 civilians and uniformed personnel work for the directorate. Roughly 80 percent are men.
Military records indicate that the former civilian chief of the unit - Jobo's boss - had previously been rebuked for an overly lenient approach to sexual misconduct allegations.
The Air Force inspector general criticized the chief, Robert Carl Shofner, for his actions in 2015, when he pushed to promote an Air Force supervisor who had a record of sexual harassment and played down another subordinate's affair with a junior employee.
According to the inspector general's report, obtained by The Post under FOIA, Shofner was "overly friendly" with his two offending subordinates. By failing to take appropriate action, the inspector general found, he contributed to a culture at Gunter that "condoned sexual harassment."
"Mr. Shofner gave the impression that leadership turned a blind eye to sexual harassment and thus allowed an environment where sexual harassment festers," the report concluded.
The Air Force said in a statement that it suspended Shofner without pay for 14 days as a result of the inspector general's findings. He was transferred from Gunter last year to a new job at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
In an email to The Post, Shofner said he disagreed "with any conclusion someone would make that I failed any integrity tests in showing favoritism or in providing a healthy working environment."
"There were many complex issues in work over the course of my tenure and I responded firmly and appropriately as expected and required," he said.
The inspector general's report shows Shofner had been warned explicitly that his handling of the sexual harassment case could backfire. In July 2015, a senior official at Gunter told Shofner in a memo that he was sending the wrong message to the workforce and failing to create "a deterrent to future indiscretions."
The warning proved prescient. A few weeks later, Shofner was confronted by another sexual misconduct case - this time involving Jobo, his second-in-command.
Jobo was a systems engineer who had graduated from the Air Force Academy and served in the war in Afghanistan. As the senior uniformed officer at Gunter, he wielded unquestioned authority over the directorate.
Married with a daughter, Jobo, then 47, worked closely with a female subordinate: a civilian executive who specialized in logistics and was about a decade younger. They both told investigators that their relationship was professional at first and gradually became more friendly.
She told The Post that she saw him as a mentor but that in the summer of 2015, he started to become flirtatious, making her uncomfortable. He texted and emailed her at all hours and remarked that they were "in a relationship." She said she reminded him more than once that he was her boss and that she had a boyfriend.
Others at Gunter said it was not hard to sense what was on the colonel's mind.
One Air Force officer later told law enforcement agents from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations that Jobo hovered over the woman and touched her on the arm during staff meetings, according to the agents' case file. The officer, whose name was redacted from the file, said that just watching the interaction made her "neck hairs stand up" and that she warned the woman afterward to be "very cautious."
"I told her that he looked at her like he wanted her sexually and that he was in her space and that the touch was weird," the officer wrote in a statement. "She said, 'He touched me?' She was oblivious. I told her that she needed to become situationally aware because [it was] just a strange vibe."
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In August 2015, Jobo's behavior suddenly turned more explicit. While the woman was on a business trip to Washington, he left a phone-sex recording on her voice mail, according to investigators' records in the case file.
For six minutes, he shared his sexual fantasies and recorded himself masturbating; he also sent her a photo of himself in the shower while holding a toothbrush next to his genitals, the case file shows.
The woman told The Post that she was shocked and scared by the recordings but ignored them, hoping the colonel would stop. "I handled it as best I could without prompting or allowing any further thoughts on his part," she said.
But when she returned to Montgomery from Washington, the harassment intensified.
On Aug. 28, her first day back in the office at Gunter, she received a text from Jobo at 8:58 a.m. saying that he wanted to push her against the wall and kiss her, according to the case file.
He texted her nine more times that day, capped with a message at 9:46 p.m.: "If I really had balls I would have kissed you today but I figured I'd see if I could ignore you first."
Over the next two weeks, at all hours, Jobo sent hundreds more phone texts and instant messages, alternating between work-related notes and outbursts of vulgarity, records show.
He repeatedly called the woman a "hopa" - hot piece of ass - and asked her out on dates, saying he was "a dude you've never experienced before." He also pushed her to attend a conference with him, on the condition that they stay together at a hotel "away from everybody else."
On Sept. 5, a Saturday, Jobo texted her a shirtless photo of himself in front of a river. "My body is here going through the motions," he wrote. "My mind is somewhere else with someone else."
In separate interviews with The Post and Air Force investigators, the woman said she didn't reply to many of the texts. Other times, she said, she flatly told Jobo to cut it out and warned him that people in the office were beginning to gossip about the attention he paid her.
On the morning of Sept. 8, after the Labor Day weekend, the woman met with Jobo in his office to discuss hiring plans for the directorate. As she stood up to leave, "he pulled me into a forceful two arm hug," she told investigators, and ran his hands up and down her back and tried to kiss her.
She said she pushed him away, blurted out an expletive and fled. "I was confused, scared and embarrassed," she told investigators in a statement.
Later that morning, she reached out to an Air Force tech sergeant who worked in Jobo's office, asking whether they could discuss something confidential. She met him in a parking lot, showed him some of Jobo's texts on her phone and asked what she should do.
In a statement to investigators, the tech sergeant, whose name was redacted from the report, said he told the woman that their boss' behavior was "wildly inappropriate." He asked if she felt she was in danger and whether she intended to report the physical contact and harassment.
Worried about the consequences for her career, the woman said she was reluctant to file a complaint. "She was apprehensive and started to cry, thinking about having to move," the tech sergeant said, adding that she knew "how things were, in her opinion, 'swept under the rug' in our organization during previous circumstances with other individuals."
Before they left the parking lot, the tech sergeant advised her to tell Jobo in writing that he had to stop harassing her - not only to put him on notice but also "to ensure there was a record of her asking him to cease his actions."
Later that afternoon, after receiving another flurry of messages from Jobo, the woman texted him back and told him to cut it out.
"I've worked too hard to throw away my reputation for perceptions," she wrote. "It's stressing me out like crazy."
Jobo appeared to back down. He replied that he would "quit cold turkey," adding: "I'll cut it out."
Later that night, at 8:29, he apologized, sort of.
"So I am not sure why you are all in a panic today," he texted, "besides me being a jerk and trying to kiss you . . . for which I'm sorry."
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The texts, however, kept coming. The woman told investigators that she ignored most of them but that the colonel was hard to deter.
Jobo monitored her whereabouts by checking when she was signed onto her desktop computer and if her car was in its reserved parking space, the tech sergeant told investigators. Once, as she was leaving for the day, Jobo "shot out the door" to intercept her but was blocked by the tech sergeant, on the pretext that the colonel was late for a meeting, according to the tech sergeant's account.
By Sept. 10, the woman had hit her limit. She told her boss to buzz off. Again.
"I need all this to stop," she texted. "I want to be able to come in to work and do my job without drama. My trust and foundation have been shaken. With this type of work environment, it makes my job 10 times harder than it already is."
Jobo replied that he loved her and respected her enough to stop. But then he notified her that they needed to review the directorate's hiring plans again. He scheduled a one-on-one meeting in his office for 1 p.m. the next day.
The woman said she was afraid to attend but did not want to jeopardize her job by refusing. She confided again in the tech sergeant, who promised to station himself at a desk outside Jobo's office for the duration of the meeting. If the colonel tried any funny business, he told her to yell or text him immediately and he would barge in.
On Sept. 11, a Friday, the woman arrived at Jobo's office a little after 1 p.m. For about 30 minutes, the meeting proceeded uneventfully. In her statement to investigators, the woman said she tried to wrap things up, but Jobo replied that he had something else to discuss: that he loved her and didn't want to do his job without her by his side.
She told investigators that she tried to avoid eye contact, which only made the colonel angry. He slammed his fists on the table and ordered her to look at him. Then he rambled on about not wanting to lose her, that he couldn't stop thinking about her and that it was affecting his ability to work.
"At this point," the woman recalled in her statement, "I snapped and raised my voice and said, 'Sir, you are a f---ing colonel. Why don't you act like one?' "
Outside, the tech sergeant sensed trouble and texted the woman asking whether she needed help. She told investigators that she was too preoccupied to answer. She tried to end the meeting and walk out but said that Jobo put his foot against the door, trapping her inside.
She said he grabbed her arm forcefully and exclaimed, "Tell me you will answer my texts this weekend! Tell me you will talk to me! Tell me!"
The woman said that she tried once more to leave but that he told her he wouldn't let go of her arm until she agreed to respond to his texts. Instead, crying, she swore at him again.
When he raised his other arm, she said she noticed that his foot was no longer blocking the door.
She grabbed the door handle, yanked it and ran out the building.
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At Gunter, word spread quickly that something had happened.
Several colleagues sought the woman out to see if she was OK. Shofner, the head of the directorate, noticed that her body language was awry and asked whether there was anything he could do. She was visibly upset but evasive. She told The Post that she didn't know whom to trust or what to say.
That afternoon, Jobo resumed texting. In a series of messages, he told her that he had overreacted, that he didn't want to lose her, according to the law enforcement case file. He called himself "an idiot" and apologized. "I definitely don't deserve you," he wrote at 8:16 p.m.
Before dawn the next morning, he picked up his phone again.
"Besides trying to hug you and kiss you on Tues I'm racking my brain as to what else I did that broke your trust in me?" he texted. "I'm over my anger. I still don't know why you're really mad at ME other than trying to kiss you."
That afternoon, the woman confided in the tech sergeant once more. She texted him a photo of her left forearm, which had a bruise from where Jobo had grabbed her, according to the law enforcement case file.
That was enough for the tech sergeant. He told her that if she didn't report the assault, he would. He said he'd give her a day to decide.
She agreed and called Shofner on his cellphone the next morning to ask for an urgent appointment. He was in church for Sunday services but agreed to meet at 1 p.m. in his office, where she told him what the colonel had done, according to the case file.
He advised her to make a formal report, which she did a few hours later. He declined to comment further about how the case was handled.
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) receives several hundred sexual assault reports a year. In many cases, the evidence is thin or contradictory. Alcohol often plays a role, fogging memories. Cases can boil down to the word of the accuser vs. that of the accused.
In this case, there was plenty of evidence. OSI agents interviewed the woman at length and photographed the bruise on her arm. She showed them the texts Jobo had sent her, which they later corroborated by seizing and examining the colonel's phones.
Two days after receiving the complaint, the agents interviewed Jobo. According to the agents' notes, Jobo confirmed many of the woman's allegations. He admitted sending her numerous texts, including a message in which he said, "I want you, I want to make love to you."
Further, he admitted to sending the masturbation recordings and shower photo, although he said they were meant as a joke and "not with sexual implications in mind," according to the case file.
He sent the X-rated material, he explained, only because the woman had once sent him a photo of herself in a swimsuit. She confirmed to investigators that she sent the photo but said he pressured her to do so.
The day after his interview, Jobo gave the agents a five-page statement that cast things in a different light. He said she was the one who pursued a relationship with him. He added that she had texted him in July that "she would date me" but that he didn't take it seriously.
"I figured she was just being honest and expressing her thoughts but we both knew the realities," he wrote. "We avoided each other at work and it seemed to turn into who can ignore who the most."
In their report, the OSI agents cast doubt on Jobo's assertion that the woman had wanted to date him, saying there was no evidence of it in the hundreds of text messages they examined. The woman also told the agents that she had made clear to Jobo that she already had a boyfriend but that the colonel pursued her anyway.
In his email to The Post, Jobo said he "cooperated fully and truthfully with a lengthy and exhaustive inquiry, took responsibility for this unprofessional relationship but emphatically refuted other allegations and I maintain this position."
He did not specify which allegations he was contesting.
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On the same day that the woman filed her complaint, Gunter officials flashed an urgent notice up the chain of command.
The alert landed on the desk of Lt. Gen. John Thompson, the head of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. As the senior officer in Jobo's chain of command, Thompson had the final say on how the case would be handled and what, if anything, would happen to Jobo.
U.S. military commanders have wielded near-total authority to impose discipline or criminal charges since the Revolutionary War, but their role has come under sharp criticism in recent years.
Most commanders have little, if any, legal training. Congress has debated whether some of their powers should be ceded to military prosecutors, especially in sexual assault cases.
The Pentagon has vigorously resisted, arguing that commanders need to retain their authority to maintain order and discipline in their units and that they receive plenty of advice from military lawyers.
Lawmakers have started to pay close attention to how commanders deal with sexual assault and harassment. In 2013, members of the Senate raised an outcry after learning of two separate cases in which Air Force lieutenant generals had granted clemency to convicted sex offenders. Both generals retired under pressure.
Under military law, there are few hard-and-fast rules that dictate which cases should go to trial. Commanders can impose discipline for serious offenses - or order courts-martial for trivial ones. In March, for example, an enlisted member of the Air Force from New Jersey was convicted at court-martial for being six minutes late to a meeting with his commander.
Thompson personally assured the woman at Gunter that he would take her case seriously. "He told me he was going to treat me like his daughter," she told The Post.
The OSI agents completed their investigation and submitted their report to Thompson on Feb. 3, 2016. The report cited evidence that Jobo had committed abusive sexual contact when he grabbed the woman by the arm and tried to kiss her because he was trying to gratify his sexual desires.
Under a recent change in military law passed by Congress, if Thompson had approved the charge of abusive sexual contact, the case almost certainly would have resulted in a court-martial. Any other outcome would have required review from the highest levels of the Air Force.
A few days after the OSI report was submitted, however, the woman heard rumors that Thompson was considering a more lenient approach. She sent the general an email and memo on Feb. 15 pleading with him to have Jobo court-martialed.
"He sexually harassed me and he tried to sexually assault me. It is as simple as that," she wrote. "I fear that if this is reduced to a simple assault charge that it will lead others not to step forward because the Air Force will not protect them if they are in a similar situation."
Thompson emailed back the next day. "I understand your position," he told her, adding that he had not yet made a decision.
A few weeks later, on March 24, 2016, Thompson made up his mind. There would be no criminal charges.
Instead, he ordered that Jobo be disciplined for attempted abusive sexual contact, assault consummated by a battery and conduct unbecoming an officer. None of those offenses required a court-martial.
Meanwhile, the woman took another job with the Air Force in a different state. She told The Post that she had wanted to stay in Alabama but decided to leave because she didn't feel safe working near Jobo and because the Air Force would not transfer him to another base.
Air Force officials said that Jobo was subsequently forced to retire and that a review board determined that he should be demoted to lieutenant colonel.
Jobo, now 49, retired effective October 2016. He will receive a military pension for the rest of his life.
It is now worth about $72,000 a year, or $10,000 less than if he had not been demoted, according to an Air Force spokeswoman and pension records.