VanGoethem cleared of major charges in Romanian’s death
Stars and Stripes February 1, 2006
QUANTICO MARINE CORPS BASE, Va. — A seven-member court martial board on Tuesday found Marine Staff Sgt. Christopher VanGoethem not guilty of the two major charges in the traffic death of Romanian rock musician Teofil Peter.
The board found VanGoethem not guilty of negligent homicide and adultery, but guilty of two lesser charges: obstruction of justice and making false statements.
After emotional testimony on his character from his family and work colleagues at the sentencing hearing, the jury recommended VanGoethem be given a letter of reprimand. VanGoethem could have received up to 10 years confinement, loss of rank down to E-1 and forfeiture of all pay and allowances.
Under the Rules for Court Martial, it is now up to the convening authority for VanGoethem’s case, Col. Glen Sachtleben, to decide whether to accept or modify the board’s recommendations for punishment.
Sachtleben, who is commander of the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade at Camp Lejeune, N.C., can choose to make reductions in the sentence, but he is not allowed to increase any of the punishments, according to Marine Lt. Col. Kirk Kumagai, acting deputy staff judge advocate for Marine Corps Base Quantico.
The four charges stem from a traffic collision that happened while VanGoethem, 32, was commander of the Marine security detachment at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest.
VanGoethem, who is married and has two children, was returning at 4:30 a.m. after dropping off a friend, Ilse Wentworth, at her home on Dec. 4, 2004.
According to police reports, the dark-blue Ford Expedition that VanGoethem was driving broadsided a taxi carrying 50-year-old Peter, a veteran producer and bassist for the rock band Compact.
Peter suffered major head injuries and died at the scene.
VanGoethem was charged with negligent homicide for his role in the crash, as well as adultery with Wentworth, who was a secretary at the embassy.
The obstruction of justice and making false official statements charges, meanwhile, stemmed from the aftermath of the crash.
When questioned by State Department security officials, VanGoethem told them he and Wentworth had spent the evening bar-hopping, followed by an early morning pizza at a third Bucharest establishment called Everest.
VanGoethem also called Wentworth on his cell phone immediately following the collision and asked her to match his lie when she spoke to investigators.
But Wentworth testified last week that she and VanGoethem never went to Everest.
Instead, she tesitifed, the pair left the second bar and went to VanGoethem’s home, where they had sex and fell asleep.
In closing arguments Monday, lead defender Marine Maj. Phillip Stackhouse attacked Wentworth’s credibility, noting that she had offered four different sworn versions of the events of Dec. 4 to investigators.
He also said that even if Wentworth and VanGoethem had conducted an illicit relationship, in order to find the Marine guilty, military law requires that the board determine the actions caused either direct discredit to the service or were prejudicial to good order and discipline.
“The only people who knew [about the alleged adultery] were Ilse Wentworth and Staff Sgt. VanGoethem,” Stackhouse said.
“It would never have come to light” unless the crash had occurred, he said.
Regarding the negligent homicide charge, Stackhouse maintained that the intersection where the crash occurred was “chaotic and nonsensically signed” with conflicting directions.
“The worst-case scenario was that Staff Sgt. VanGoethem was in an accident,” Stackhouse said.
In his own closing statements, Maj. Charles Miracle, the lead prosecutor, argued that VanGoethem was familiar with the intersection.
“Your common sense will tell you he either ignored [three] stop signs, or he zoned out,” Miracle said.
“And the only explanation” for the crash was “alcohol and fatigue,” Miracle said.
Stackhouse countered that although VanGoethem had admitted to drinking about three and a half beers over the course of the evening, tests of his blood returned negative for both alcohol and drugs.
“And he wasn’t tired,” Stackhouse said. “No one testified to that.”