Yokota chief master sergeant found dead was facing sex, assault charges
August 9, 2003
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Three days before Chief Master Sgt. Winfred B. Harrison Jr. was found dead, his application to avoid court-martial in exchange for a loss of retirement benefits and an other-than-honorable discharge was denied.
“Monday morning we were notified that the command had denied that request,” Capt. Jamie Key, one of Harrison’s three defense counselors, said Thursday.
Maj. Eric Hilliard, Fifth Air Force spokesman, confirmed Friday morning that Harrison filed a request for discharge in lieu of facing court-martial.
“He filed his request late last week. Such requests are not uncommon in court-martial cases,” he said.
Hilliard said Fifth Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Thomas C. Waskow, acting in his role as the general court-martial convening authority, “considered all relevant factors, including the serious nature of the charges, the chief’s service record and input from the chief and the chain of command.”
“Ultimately, he decided to deny the request because he felt that the general court-martial was the best and most appropriate forum to consider the facts and circumstances of this case,” Hilliard said.
Harrison, 44, was found dead in a squadron building Thursday morning after he failed to appear for court. Officials have yet to release his cause of death.
Harrison, a member of the 374th Civil Engineer Squadron, was to be arraigned Thursday on charges of being absent without leave, obstructing justice and two counts each of cruelty and maltreatment, assault and indecent acts.
The 26-year Air Force veteran was described Thursday as a man who dedicated his life to military service.
“Everyone’s in shock,” said Lt. Col. Judith Bittick, a former 374th Civil Engineer Squadron commander who worked with Harrison for two years. “It was unexpected and a loss to the Air Force.”
Testimony during pretrial hearings earlier this week indicated prosecutors planned to argue Harrison tried to develop an inappropriate and close personal relationship with two subordinate male airmen, through a pattern of favor and harsh supervision.
Charging documents allege Harrison coerced a subordinate airman to strip and bathe in front of him and get into bed with him naked between July 1999 and March 2001 in South Korea and at Yokota. Harrison also was accused of blindfolding, handcuffing and stripping the same airman, and of mistreating and verbally abusing a second airman.
One alleged victim described the actions as survival training, Harrison’s attorneys said.
The defense questioned many of the allegations and planned to argue they didn’t meet the legal definition of a crime.
“There is a fine line between an inappropriate relationship and taking someone under your wing and helping out your troops,” said Capt. Christopher Thomas, a second defense counselor.
On Thursday night, Harrison’s wife, Okhui, said she learned of her husband’s death earlier in the day from friends.
“It’s a great loss,” she said. “He was a good father. He was a great man.”
The couple had two teenage children.
Okhui Harrison said her husband was innocent.
“I totally believe him,” she said.
Key said defense team members were shocked when they heard of their client’s death.
“Nothing seemed out of the ordinary,” said Key, the circuit defense counsel at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. Both prosecution and defense attorneys appeared in court Thursday morning for the session’s scheduled 8:30 start time.
No one, to the defense lawyers’ knowledge, had identified Harrison as a suicide risk, Key said, noting the chief never was ordered to pretrial confinement.
Someone accused of a crime may be placed in custody before a court-martial if it’s believed he or she may commit a criminal act, poses a threat to society or is a flight risk, Key said.
Before pretrial motions opened Monday, Harrison requested a Chapter 4 discharge, which would have stripped him of all retirement benefits and given him an “other-than-honorable discharge,” his attorney said. In exchange, Harrison would have avoided court-martial and a possible federal conviction.
Harrison was prepared to find employment outside the military to support his family.
“A conviction alone would have made it almost impossible for him … to still be able to provide for a family, which includes a child with profound special needs,” Key said.
Harrison said in court that his wife stayed home to take care of the couple’s son, 17, who is autistic and disabled.
Witnesses testified in pretrial hearings Monday and Tuesday that the Air Force planned as early as the spring of 2001 to let Harrison retire quietly after he was accused of an “inappropriate relationship” with a subordinate airman.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks derailed those plans when all transfers for servicemembers in Air Force civil-engineering fields were frozen until July 2002 under stop loss.
After allegations from a second junior airman surfaced while Harrison was deployed to Oman in the summer of 2002, plans again were made for Harrison’s retirement that fall, Harrison said Tuesday.
“There’s a provision in the retirement regulations that you cannot retire if you’re under investigation,” Key said. At some point after the investigation was closed, Harrison’s attorneys said Air Force officials must have decided to prosecute.
Bittick said “lots of people are asking right now” whether more should have been done to ensure the chief’s retirement.
“I’ve had many, many candid discussions with the chief. I think everything that was in our control was done properly. Under the previous commander, there was an agreement to retire.”
A stop-loss waiver could have been sought, but circumstances had to be “extremely unusual” and in “the best interest of not only the person, but the Air Force,” Bittick said.
Harrison was integral to the success of Yokota’s recent $66 million runway resurfacing. He planned installation of a temporary airfield lighting system for the half that remained operational and worked with the Army Corps of Engineers and Japanese government to coordinate traffic flow, she added.
“The chief was a very good, innovative thinker,” Bittick said, noting many force-protection devices set up after Sept. 11, such as the yellow concrete barrels along the runway and the makeshift tire shredders at the gates, were his idea. “His life has been dedicated to the Air Force. It’s been his first priority.”