After courts-martial dropped, Air Force Academy cadets fight expulsions
By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette | Published: October 22, 2019
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Two years after what Air Force Academy leaders call a hazing incident on the school's swimming team, three cadets are still fighting to become officers after administrative expulsions followed the school dropping criminal charges.
It was the first hazing case involving criminal charges in school history, and a lengthy investigation offered a rare glimpse behind the fence that separates cadets from Colorado Springs and into how justice at the elite school is carried out.
Attorneys for the cadets, in getting the criminal charges dropped, made claims of misconduct by officers, including the school's top generals. They also alleged that the swimmers were singled out for harsh treatment that included charges of attempted conspiracy to obstruct justice while a more significant hazing incident involving members of the lacrosse team — allegedly slamming textbooks closed on freshmen's genitalia — resulted in slapped wrists.
The swimmers' claims are documented in thousands of pages of court documents reviewed by The Gazette. The cadets' attorneys are making their case to the Pentagon, hoping to stay in uniform and avoid paying more than $200,000 to refund the cost of their education.
The swimmers admit that the ritual induction into Phi Kappa Swim, a ribald fraternity that dates back to at least the 1990s, was inappropriate. Its pants-down sexual innuendo was worthy of an R-rated campus farce.
"I know it isn't representative of the entire Air Force," said former swimmer Lars Knutson, who planned on graduating in 2018, but has stayed in cadet uniform and in limbo as two graduations have come and gone. "I know the Air Force as a whole is doing great things."
Knutson admits the swim team's ritual for freshmen broke regulations at the school. He said if the Pentagon lets him pin on lieutenant's bars, he will use his mistakes to help others.
"I think I can impart that you have to be an airman first," he said.
Michael Hannigan, the swim team's captain, said he, too, can grow from the incident.
"I wake up every single day and think about it," he said. "And that hasn't changed since this whole thing started."
The attorney for the third cadet, Garret Glaudini, said the cadets are being held to a higher standard than the officers who run the school and the coaches who ran the team.
"No one on the academy swim team handled the initiation event and investigation ideally," the attorney, Richard Stevens, wrote. "The swim team members were young, and they made mistakes that young people often make, albeit not what was legally alleged against them."
In a letter seeking to keep Glaudini in the Air Force, Stevens said the service needs to take a hard look at academy leaders.
"On the other hand, the legal office is led by a colonel, who has a team of prosecutors who are licensed professionals. The academy is led by a lieutenant general. These are individuals who have the benefit of decades of experience and maturity to lead their decisions and actions," Stevens wrote.
"They are supposed to set the example and operate in a manner consistent with the ideals espoused by the Air Force Academy."
The academy said it couldn't address specific cases due to privacy concerns, but sources there cautioned that defense attorneys are paid to see one side of the issue.
Sent home in disgrace
The swim team had held the "Chunker" for decades.
It was a ritual that some cadets say gave them a sense of belonging at the 4,000 student campus. But at best, it was sophomoric, wildly inappropriate and firmly in contravention of academy rules.
The swimming fraternity, though, was at least tolerated if not encouraged by the team's coaches. The fraternity logo graced walls at the pool, and swimmers made bumper stickers for their cars.
Knutson and swim captain Hannigan claim coach Rob Clayton, who has managed the squad for more than 20 years, knew all about the fraternity and its rites.
Clayton denied knowledge of the hazing to investigators and kept his coaching post.
That denial left his senior swimmers to take the blame.
The ax of military justice came down during the 2018 Western Athletic Championship meet in Texas.
Swimmers were pulled from the pool on academy orders. They were expected to win their third-straight conference championship. Instead, they were sent home in disgrace.
All sides admit the incident started over all-you-can-eat pasta at a Colorado Springs Olive Garden restaurant.
The freshmen were told by their upperclassmen teammates to order the meal and eat until marinara sauce flowed from their ears.
"If you truly didn't want to do it anymore, you could talk to the upperclassmen and get out," one freshman said in a handwritten statement to investigators.
Hannigan said making it voluntary was something he wanted as the team captain.
"That was what was preached to the team and that was what was preached to the freshmen," he said. "It was 100% optional. I didn't want these kids to do anything they didn't want to do.
From the restaurant, the freshmen were put in cars. The ties that accompany their dress uniforms — the only clothing freshmen are allowed to wear off campus until the spring rite of "recognition" — were used as makeshift blindfolds.
The ride took them to a forested tract near Larkspur.
The freshmen were helped from vehicles before seniors, barking basic-training style, told them to strip and dress for the pool.
"We took off our blindfolds momentarily to change into team gear then put them back on," a freshman witness wrote.
It was standard fare for the Chunker, Knutson said. He did it when he was a freshman, when he said the ritual was even more over the top.
Hannigan, who ordered the rite toned down for 2017, said he remembers being shocked as a freshman when he went through it.
"I definitely wasn't expecting the swim team to be like that," he said. "But I did feel closer to my classmates."
But there was a point to the event, he maintains. It took newcomers and gave them a tough experience that built esprit de corps and a sense of family. Think of it as a creepy, seminude version of a facilitated team-building exercise at a corporate retreat. With vomit. And crude homo-eroticism.
Swimming alumni pushed the Chunker.
The alums of the academy pool have had the fraternity logo tattooed on their bodies. One alum, court papers show, even carried the logo on the dashboard of his F-22 Raptor fighter.
Hanigan remembers meeting with some Class of 2007 alumni in the weeks before the Chunker.
"All the traditions were being preached from alums," he said.
Violating the code of conduct
The academy is used to getting rid of bad ideas from the past. In the 1970s, it brought women into their ranks. In the early 2000s, it battled sexual assault and hazing.
The teen years of the 21st century at the school have been about cleaning up its sports teams.
The academy has worked for the past five years to stamp out "toxic subcultures" that have appeared in its athletic teams.
A full quarter of the school's cadets participate in intercollegiate sports.
"For those who are up to the challenge, the United States Air Force Academy offers an expansive intercollegiate program, sponsoring 29 men's and women's sports," the school touts on its website.
The 2014 crackdown came after a Gazette investigation uncovered drug use, sexual assault and cheating by players, especially those on the football team.
After the scandal, the academy commissioned an investigation into its teams and started a series of programs to crack down on bad behavior.
One tool that emerged from the scandal was the school's new athlete code of conduct, a contract signed by every cadet who competes for the academy.
"I will not participate in hazing of any sort," cadets pledge. "I acknowledge such acts, either in connection with membership on an academy's athletic team, participation in an informal or formal team activity, or for any other reason, are strictly forbidden."
That rule was flouted by at least two teams in the fall of 2017.
An incident that occurred after the Chunker, but was reported earlier to authorities, involved the school's lacrosse team.
"This week we are initiating an investigation into potential hazing on the ... men's swimming team," Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria wrote to then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson on Jan. 3, 2018. "It does not appear to be as severe as the men's lacrosse team, but we take all hazing serious. While attention is on this topic, I would like to take advantage of momentum. ... We will let you know right away if this leads to suspensions or any media attention."
The academy said Silveria's email was routine, noting neither the secretary nor Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein played a role in his decisions in this case.
Hazing at the academy is always a relative term.
Standing on footprints while being screamed at by an upperclassman, just inches from your face, is considered effective leadership training.
You memorize reams of information or do pushups. That's training, too.
There's training while crawling through mud amid screaming instructors and training while caged to learn about surviving as a prisoner of war.
Freshmen get training all the time.
They are trained to only walk on marble strips that run along the school's cadet area. They are trained to greet upperclassmen and salute whatever they encounter along the way.
They eat a certain way or get punished. They pass the condiments at the table a certain way or get punished.
The only real way to tell training from hazing is to learn what's specifically authorized.
The unauthorized lacrosse team rite was the swimming fraternity's weirder cousin.
The academy released few details, but court papers from the swim case say it involved freshmen lacrosse players having textbooks slammed closed on their penises.
The lacrosse coach was removed from his post. The lacrosse players involved were allowed to continue at the school, graduate and become officers.
Defense lawyers for the swimmers say the difference in how the cases were handled is found in Silveria's email and the actions that followed.
"The superintendent had made his displeasure and priority known: Stamp out hazing," Knutson's lawyer Andrew Efaw wrote in a motion seeking to have the criminal case thrown out for unlawful command influence, a term in military law that alleges a leader manipulated a case to benefit the prosecution.
"The subsequent actions ... demonstrate that the superintendent corrupted the independent decision-making authority of those below him and caused numerous actions to coerce and manipulate the military justice process."
The academy maintains that the swimmers got harsher treatment because they didn't come clean.
"The cadets on the lacrosse team not only acknowledged the wrongness of their behavior, but they went out of their way to educate and engage their fellow cadets in conversations focused on mutual respect and aimed at stopping hazing and maltreatment of any kind," the school said.
Politician becomes involved
The academy was also spurred to action by a freshman's mother, an attorney, and by a top ally of President Donald Trump.
The freshman, identified as MS in court papers, reported the incident to the academy on Dec. 12 and followed up with written statements, some of which have footnotes citing military laws and academy regulations.
The cadet's mother, who identified herself as a top lawyer on the staff of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Florida, sent her notes to academy leaders.
By Jan. 3, Ron DeSantis, a Florida Republican congressman at the time and now the state's governor, also sent a letter to the Pentagon demanding answers for MS. He's a politician who drew repeated presidential praise on Trump's favorite medium, Twitter, during the 2018 governor's race.
"I look forward to hearing from you soon," DeSantis wrote to the Air Force.
By Jan. 8, when Silveria sent his note to Wilson, the academy's Office of Special Investigations detachment had filed for warrants to use hidden cameras to snoop on the team and tap senior Michael Hannigan's phone and other electronic devices.
"This is a great tradition that every male swimmer has taken part in since 1989," MS recalled Hannigan saying at the Chunker. "Some of you think this is a joke ... right, Matt? That will change."
The senior cadets say it was all in good fun.
"It was supposed to be a bonding event," Hannigan said.
MS told leaders, "Hannigan told us to pull down our pants."
"Some upperclassmen simultaneously exposed their genitalia to the freshmen," OSI investigators concluded.
The freshmen were then given a mix of what investigators call "unappetizing food," the menu included sausage, Twinkies and eggplant. Witnesses said sausages were also used to simulate oral sex.
"There was no indication that oral or anal sex (forced or consensual) occurred between team members during the 2017 'Chunker' initiation," investigators wrote.
The bad food was followed by gallons of milk. And then the freshmen were told to run until the combination of food and drink made a horrific reappearance.
Hannigan's attorney, Frank Spinner, wrote in a letter to Air Force leaders that MS had a motive to make the Chunker look worse than it was.
"Perhaps if the investigators bothered to look at cadet (MS)'s background and motive, they would have seen he was failing out of school and not good enough of a swimmer to compete at the intercollegiate level," Spinner wrote. "He had plenty of motive to fabricate and lie on his way out the door, and that is exactly what he did."
The academy praised MS for coming forward and has since implemented anonymous reporting for hazing victims and an ombudsman.
"Another positive sign in this case is that a victim came forward and reported this unacceptable behavior," the school said. "That is an important point, one, because it takes enormous courage to do this and two, it shows the culture is changing to encourage people to come forward — something that might not have happened in the past."
Focusing on cover-up
On a wall near the cadet dormitories at the academy, the cadet Honor Code is emblazoned.
"We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does," it says.
That code is part of what makes the academy take a cover-up more seriously than bad food, nudity and simulated sex acts.
"No one saw anyone's genitals, right?" investigators say Hannigan told his teammates at a meeting where they plotted to derail investigations into the fraternity and the Chunker.
The team, led by Hannigan, later resolved to tell the truth.
But, Hannigan said covering things up was something of a swim team tradition, too.
Investigations into the team's wild ways in 2013 and 2016 were unable to penetrate a stone wall of silence from swimmers, records show. Those cases also involved crude humor, but included allegations of underage drinking.
The 2016 case sparked five months of investigation.
The investigator "was unable to corroborate the alleged underage drinking incident," a report says.
Hannigan said when swimmers faced the Chunker investigation they got ready to stonewall.
"That was the underlying expectation from everyone on the team," he said. "It was the culture. That is what you do when these things happen."
But Hannigan, a devout Christian, decided it was time for a change.
"In subsequent meetings, subject Hannigan apologized to the team for telling them to be deceptive, told them to tell the truth to investigators and he would accept whatever consequences came," investigators said.
But when the academy opened the first hazing courts-martial in school history, the most serious allegation Hannigan and Knutson faced was conspiracy to obstruct justice.
The investigation had started in an unprecedented way, too. Sophomore and freshmen swimmers were ushered into the school's Office of Special Investigations and given a speech from a general, former commandant of cadets Brig. Gen. Kristin Goodwin.
"Rather than let investigators impartially seek the truth of what happened and treat alleged victims with dignity and respect, the commandant inserted herself directly into the investigation in a way that subverted the truth," Efaw, Knutson's lawyer, wrote in a motion to have the case tossed for unlawful command influence.
The academy said the commandant spoke to the victims "to assure them she and her staff were there to support them. Additionally, she encouraged cadets involved in the investigation to simply tell the truth — integrity is central to everything we do here and a tenet of what our commanders expect of cadets every day."
The cadets were warned of the punishments for lying and then handed over to investigators for what Efaw called "startling custodial interrogations."
The questioning was tough.
One cadet reported "having a secret homosexual relationship used as leverage by investigators," Efaw said.
Parents of the underclassmen objected to the treatment.
"Our son and others were interrogated, in isolation, for hours on end," parents of a sophomore cadet wrote.
Cadets who didn't give the answers investigators were seeking wound up with letters of reprimand.
And OSI wasn't the only agency grilling cadets.
Some say they were called in by Goodwin, who was later dismissed from the school on unrelated misconduct allegations.
Academy prosecutor Capt. Susan Bet-Sayad grilled them, too.
"In many cases she would make comments, 'We can move this to the superintendent's office' or 'I'll take you to the superintendent to have you disenrolled'," Efaw wrote.
The academy said prosecutors talked to victims after they were granted immunity and it "allowed the prosecution to gather evidence without putting these victims and witnesses in legal jeopardy as long as they told the truth."
Invoking the school's top general is a rare move. And threatening the alleged victims with expulsion is also seen as rare, lawyers said.
Glaudini, Hannigan and Knutson were charged with attempted conspiracy to obstruct justice and failure to obey orders. Glaudini got the obstruction charge despite the fact he was in California during a meeting where swimmers talked about a cover-up. His case was dropped ahead of an evidence hearing.
Generals do their best to stay away from courts-martial before a jury reaches a verdict.
That's because just a hint that leaders have their thumbs on the scale could get the charges dismissed.
That's a symptom of how the military's system of justice was built, in an age when the fastest mode of transit involved a horse.
The horse-and-buggy system made it difficult to get suspects, victims and witnesses to a traditional court in peacetime and nearly impossible in wartime. So the military got a system outside the nation's independent judiciary, where the judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, victims, witnesses, suspects and jurors all wear the same uniform.
But having that system meant that an unscrupulous leader could dictate the outcome of a case by leaning on the courtroom participants.
Courts have called that kind of unlawful command influence "the mortal enemy of military justice."
"This court has consistently held that any circumstance which gives even the appearance of improperly influencing the court-martial proceedings against the accused must be condemned," the military's highest appellate court found in 1956.
Facing a public hearing for unlawful command influence, one which could have seen top Air Force brass and its civilian secretary called to testify, the academy dropped the last of its courts-martial cases against the swimmers.
But the school said the fight was far from over.
"Although the court-martial charges have been dismissed, acts of hazing and bullying have no place in our military as they run contrary to the core concept of dignity and respect," the academy said in a news release. "Other cadets involved in these incidents have already faced discipline including administrative paperwork, probation and disenrollment."
Ample due process
The academy followed through with expulsion paperwork in March. The school, in an email, said it couldn't discuss specifics of its cases because administrative actions are covered by the Privacy Act, which mandates secrecy.
"In February 2018, we announced that 11 cadets of the men's swim team were removed from swimming competition as a result of ongoing misconduct. An investigation was conducted by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations," the academy said.
"As a result of subsequent numerous interviews as well as information provided in response to related discipline actions, administrative actions were initiated against cadets involved in these incidents," the school said.
"Therefore, ultimately, five cadets were disenrolled and six were retained after successfully completing the terms of their probation."
"While administrative actions are protected by the Privacy Act and therefore we cannot share specific names of the cadets who were disenrolled, we can confirm the ... superintendent has completed his review of the cases. For those cadets who were disenrolled, the superintendent recommended monetary recoupment to the secretary of the Air Force for all cases," the academy said.
"Contributing factors leading to the decision included the seniority of the cadets, and the active involvement of the cadets to obstruct justice during the ... investigation into the alleged activities. The cadets in question demonstrated a concerted effort to undermine good order and discipline along with an inability to exercise moral courage."
The last line of appeal for the cadets runs through the Pentagon.
Wilson resigned in May and the new secretary of the Air Force, who was confirmed last week, will review lengthy written appeals.
Barbara Barrett, a pilot, lawyer and defense industry executive who earned confirmation on an 85-7 Senate vote, will face a sea of paper to reach a ruling.
For Hannigan alone, the appeal includes 121 letters attesting to his character.
One letter supporting Hannigan comes from Lt. Col. Tracy Bunko, who once served over his cadet squadron and has since been assigned as the academy's top spokeswoman.
"I can attest to him being a likeable, popular cadet with an easy smile and a good attitude," Bunko wrote.
Lots of witnesses say all three — Hannigan, Knutson and Glaudini — would make exceptional officers.
Several of the letters in the Hannigan file come from freshmen subjected to the Chunker and their parents.
"Cadet Hannigan does everything he can to reach out and check on everyone's well-being and is very considerate to others," a freshman wrote.
The past Air Force secretary was kept up to speed on the swimming cases by Silveria. In a February email, Silveria expressed frustration over Spinner, Knutson's lawyer, telling Wilson that Spinner "tried to intimidate me by talking about how all the details of the misconduct will get out in the press and embarrass the academy."
Silveria told the secretary, whose service included more than 500,000 airmen, that the cadets who were kicked out got ample due process. Wilson rarely got involved in courts-martial, much less the expulsion of cadets.
But this case was different.
"This will be months in the making," Silveria wrote her.
"But with the first disenrollment this week, I wanted you to be aware of how the case was proceeding."