Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, then the 20th Fighter Wing chief of safety at Shaw AFB, is interviewed in 2008.

Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, then the 20th Fighter Wing chief of safety at Shaw AFB, is interviewed in 2008. (U.S. Air Force)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a 31st Fighter Wing pilot and former base inspector general, was found guilty Friday of aggravated sexual assault, abusive sexual contact and three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman.

According to the charges against him, Wilkerson slipped into the bed of a sleeping house guest, fondled her breasts and digitally penetrated her.

Wilkerson showed no emotion as the verdict was read, nor did his wife, Beth, who had provided key testimony for the defense. After the jurors left the courtroom, the couple faced each other, put their heads on each other’s shoulders and held on for several moments.

The all-male jury, four colonels and one lieutenant colonel, reached its verdict after three-and-a-half hours of deliberation at the end of a hard-fought, weeklong court-martial. At least four jurors had to agree for a guilty verdict.

As the verdict was read, several women in the gallery, who were supporters of the Wilkersons, wept, including a lieutenant colonel with the wing maintenance group.

The sentencing case begins Saturday. Wilkerson faces a maximum potential punishment of 40 years in prison, dismissal from the Air Force and forfeiture of all pay and allowances. Military juries have wide discretion in sentencing and his punishment could be far less.

The victim in the case, a 49-year-old physician’s assistant who had only met Wilkerson hours before the assault, had “absolutely zero” motive to lie about Wilkerson sexually assaulting her, chief prosecutor Col. Don Christensen told the jury in closing arguments earlier Friday.

In order for the jurors to believe that the victim was lying, Christensen said — “to perjure herself and go through this process, destroy this man, destroy his wife, destroy his son — you’d have to believe [she] is pure evil, a spawn of Satan,” Christensen said.

Defense attorney Frank Spinner told the jury that they may never know the reasons the woman “imagined this sexual assault.”

The lawyers’ closing arguments — 45 minutes for the prosecution and two hours for the defense — capped a courtroom battle over the truth about what happened on the night of March 23 at Wilkerson’s house.

Wilkerson’s accuser testified that he assaulted her while she slept — until his wife turned on the light, saw the tableau and ordered the woman out.

Prosecutors presented corroborating evidence of the woman’s account — as well as evidence that seemed to prove that the Wilkersons were lying.

Wilkerson never testified. His wife told the jury that she told the woman, who she said was up and walking around at 3 a.m., to either go to bed or leave.

She testified that she was afraid a neighbor’s children, who were spending the night and whose father had been killed two years before, might be disturbed.

She testified that her house guest had walked out, shoeless, and that she had made a fruitless search for her before returning to bed, where her husband still slept, undisturbed since shortly after midnight.

Spinner told the jury that Beth Wilkerson was kind and gracious — and that while it was true that she was caught in a “white lie” the day after the events, when she told a friend she was sick, she would not lie under oath.

Christensen countered by telling jurors it was their duty to determine who was lying, based on corroborating evidence, relationships to others and what witnesses might have to lose.

He played parts of the videotape of Wilkerson’s interview with investigators in April, stopping it to explain in detail what he said were Wilkerson’s evasions and deceptions.

Christensen called the defense argument “pathetic” and “ridiculous.”

Spinner had told the jury that Wilkerson was a stellar officer as proven by the job reviews and affidavits they were provided.

In the military system, evidence of good military character alone can raise reasonable doubt.

“The defense says he’s a great officer. He wouldn’t do that,” Christensen said. “Good military character is not something you get to check. It’s constant.”

He said there was a Lt. Col. Wilkerson who acted a certain way around superiors and then another man. “How does he act when it’s about Roscoe? That’s the question,” Christensen said, referring to the fighter pilot’s call sign.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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