Officer accused in wife's death in Belgium says Navy abandoned him
By CARL PRINE | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: August 14, 2017
SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — He’s been on the job only about a week but Richard V. Spencer, the new Secretary of the Navy, faces the tough job of determining the fate of an American war hero.
Navy Lt. Craig R. Becker stands accused of pushing his drugged and sleeping wife out the seventh floor window of their Belgian apartment building in late 2015, dashing out her life on the pavement of Mons, a sleepy city in the French-speaking portion of the northern European nation.
Becker maintains his innocence, saying the death was a suicide. He accuses the Navy’s Sixth Fleet of abandoning him to Belgian authorities.
Becker, once stationed in San Diego and still linked to Naval Special Warfare in Coronado, wants his prosecution transferred to the American military’s court system — a right almost always afforded in such cases.
Adm. Michelle Howard, commander of Naval Forces in Europe and Africa, has not taken jurisdiction, expressing concerns to lawmakers about Navy investigators not being able to use the evidence collected by Belgian authorities in military court.
The four-star admiral did not return messages seeking comment from The San Diego Union-Tribune. Navy spokeswoman Cmdr. Pamela Rawe said that the “United States respects the justice system of Belgium and is cooperating with Belgian authorities in accordance with international agreements.”
Saying the probe is ongoing, she declined further comment on Becker’s case.
“It’s pretty unfortunate and frustrating,” said Becker, 36. “You don’t expect, as a U.S. service member on active duty, to find yourself confined to your apartment building. I really don’t have any support from the Navy and it’s been like that for a significant period of time. I spend a lot of time thinking about when it’s all going to end. When is someone going to come and assist me?”
Interviewed by telephone, Yvonne and John Hove of Jacksonville, Florida, are urging Spencer to keep the case in Belgium because they believe it’s the most likely place to find justice for their daughter, Johanna, who was 32 when she died.
“All of this is just to find the truth and we believe the Belgians, in this case, are the best equipped to find the truth,” said John Hove, 63, a former judge in Sweden before becoming a successful businessman in Florida three decades ago. “They seem very thorough. They seem very hesitant to jump to conclusions. They want to turn over every stone they can to find everything they can that’s pertinent to the case.”
A rare case
All parties in the Becker case concede it’s highly unusual.
Under Article VII of the NATO Status of Forces Treaty, both Belgium and the United States have concurrent jurisdiction, but the American armed forces can assert primary jurisdiction because the alleged victim was married to a sailor. A letter from Becker’s criminal defense attorney in Belgium, Jean Philippe Mayence — included in the evidence file presented to top Navy leaders — claims that the Belgian investigation is concluded.
The letter suggests that the Belgians are awaiting a U.S. determination on jurisdiction, although officials there did not respond to a request for comment.
In an April 21 letter to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, Adm. Howard in Italy defended her decision to refuse jurisdiction.
First, she wrote, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service — NCIS — lacks the authority to conduct an independent homicide probe off-base in Belgium. If the Navy asserted control of the case, Belgium would drop the investigation and NCIS would be stuck with nothing, Howard suggested. NCIS officials in the United States declined comment.
The other problem involves evidence, Howard said. More than 2,000 pages compiled by Mons detectives would be challenged in an American military courtroom. Belgian witnesses also can’t be compelled to appear at American court-martial proceedings. Howard said that the Belgian justice system would afford Becker similar protections to what he would find in an American courtroom.
His Mons attorney disagrees. In an April 3 letter to the admiral, Mayence pointed to “a vast difference” between the systems. Belgian courts lack a speedy trial and there’s no right to a trial by jury. Defendants can’t confront or cross-examine witnesses or contest hearsay testimony. The judge has requested that witnesses be hypnotized to try to recover memories.
Mayence told Howard that the soonest Becker would stand trial in Belgium is 2020.
“The Belgians have stated in every one of my 16 hearings that they’re waiting on the United States to make a formal request for jurisdiction and they have not done that,” Becker said. “They’ve been pretty happy sitting down in Naples, drinking cappuccinos, without caring anything about what’s going on with my case up here. And that’s unfortunate because I’ve bled for this country. Absolutely bled for it.”
In addition to Mayence, Becker has a San Diego attorney, Jeremiah Sullivan III, and a pair of Navy attorneys. Attempting to bypass Navy commanders in Europe, they appealed directly to Spencer to intervene and assert American jurisdiction.
Bronze star citation
Born in Stockholm, Johanna Hanna Elizabeth Hove-Becker died on Oct. 8, 2015. She was a licensed psychologist who served as an adviser to the court in Norfolk, Virginia. She moved with her husband to Mons in 2013 when he was transferred to NATO headquarters and gave birth to their daughter, Isabelle Louise, in 2014.
The girl now lives with Becker’s family in Massachusetts, following a Belgian civil court decision to keep custody with her father. Hove-Becker wed the sailor, an emergency ordnance disposal expert, in 2008 in Destin, Florida. Their marriage was dogged by allegations of domestic violence.
According to her family, military police in Mons investigated Becker in 2013 for allegedly strangling and beating his wife because of a telephone text message from another man but say authorities dropped the case when she recanted in order to preserve his Navy career.
Sullivan confirmed that authorities closed that case and said he’s prepared to address it at court-martial, if necessary.
Becker has spent 17 years in uniform. A Bronze Star citation recalls his valor in Afghanistan in 2012, when elements of his strike force were pinned down by a “fierce firefight with many insurgents.”
After swapping rounds with the Taliban, he crawled across a high ledge to leap atop a rooftop, where he shot a guerrilla and then covered the movement of American troops sweeping into the area.
His battlefield courage has been cited in Belgian decisions about his custody, his attorneys say.
“I’m told that I’m confined because I’m a ‘danger to society’ as a ‘Navy specially trained individual,’” Becker said. “That they can’t control me if they release me.”
Although he receives his full pay and benefits from the Navy, Becker performs no job for the military while he is confined to his apartment, which he rents. Belgian police officers bring him his food and he wears an ankle monitor to prevent his escape.
He claims the Belgian judge in his case, Pamela Longfils, speculated that President Donald Trump could fly the sailor home in his personal jet, another reason to bar his return to the American armed forces.
Initially, Belgian authorities ruled the 2015 death of Johanna Hove-Becker a suicide, although no note was found.
A forensic toxicology report indicated that her last meal included one or two glasses of wine. Blood samples indicated the presence of a high level of opioid pain reliever, plus smaller amounts of a sleeping aid, anti-agitation medication, a headache pill and atropine, a substance used to treat nerve gas exposure, slow heart rate and inflammation of the eyeballs.
In a series of letters sent to Secretary Spencer and U.S. Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, the supreme commander of NATO and Lt. Cmdr. Nicholas J. Kassotis — director of the Navy’s International and Operational Law Division — Becker’s attorneys alleged that his wife suffered from previous bouts of mental illness.
The Hoves told the Union-Tribune that their daughter was briefly held for three days of observation as a teenager because she suffered from the eating disorder bulimia. She was never committed for treatment, it never recurred and she went on to earn two psychology degrees, they said.
A Belgian crime scene reconstruction concluded that Hove-Becker could not have committed suicide but rather was pushed, unconscious, through the window to her death.
Forensic experts contacted by Becker’s attorneys challenged that, asserting that it would have been impossible for the sailor to have done it the way Belgian authorities theorize.
Anyone falling from the seventh floor window would have slid down a shingled roof before plummeting toward a balcony lined with flowerpots. If a body flipped inward on the ledge, the fall would have caused serious injuries but not death, Sullivan said.
Sullivan believes Hove-Becker climbed atop the roof much as jumpers do when contemplating suicide. She could have changed her mind but lost her balance, slid down the roof, tumbled away from the ledge and fallen to her death, he said.
If Becker wanted to kill her, he would have used the window on the opposite side of the apartment because it was a straight drop to the pavement, Sullivan said.
“But these are evidentiary issues and we’re not there yet,” he told the Union-Tribune. “First let’s get Becker into the right courtroom. He belongs before a military judge.”
Life insurance payout
Sullivan and Becker’s Navy attorneys have alleged numerous other problems with the Belgian investigation.
They say that Belgian detectives didn’t reopen Hove-Becker’s death until her father pressed the issue, and that the elder Hove tampered with crime scene by touching the shingles near where his daughter fell. They also claim that he had a “significant seven figure life insurance policy on his daughter,” which was put in jeopardy by the initial suicide finding.
Hove said he had nothing to do with the decision by Belgian authorities to reopen the case. A witness walked into a police station and raised questions about the death, apparently about medications that were in the home when she died, he said.
Hove is the president of parts supplier Buffers USA. Florida property records reviewed by the Union-Tribune show that the Hoves and his Buffers combine to control at least $4.3 million in real estate in Duval County alone.
The insurance payout actually was $32,000, Hove told the Union-Tribune, and it was tied to a State Farm automobile policy his daughter got when she was 16. The family didn’t even realize that they would receive a check and have already deposited it.
The lingering suspicion that financial gain would have spurred them to tamper with evidence or agitate detectives to get Becker arrested is absurd and offensive, Hove said.
Several weeks ago a surprise witness — Belgian nurse Jade LeJeune — came forward and spoke to Belgian authorities and Becker’s defense team. She says she watched a conscious Hove-Becker climb onto the roof and then fall, screaming. On July 28, LeJeune signed an affidavit in both French and English indicating that she would testify in military justice proceedings.
It is unclear why LeJeune was never identified sooner by either Belgian or NCIS agents during a probe that’s gone on for over a year.
Becker said that chaos in the criminal investigation mirrors a fractured and often incompetent government. He pointed to his initial incarceration in a Belgian prison, which was wracked by a jail guard strike. Conditions deteriorated during the labor unrest and that helped to trigger his release to home confinement.
“I sat in that prison for 124 days, and 55 of those days were under strike conditions,” Becker said. “The Belgians checked out. The hygiene was horrible. It made international headlines for the human rights abuses.”
Government inertia partly stems from deep divisions between French-speaking Mons and the richer Flemish sections of the northern European nation, Becker said.
“They don’t play nice with each other and that thread plays out in the rest of society.” Becker said. “Nobody talks to anybody else and everything’s fractured. And I’m sitting in the middle of it, unfortunately, in the judicial system, which is no different than anything else in this place.”
The Navy has given no timeline for Spencer’s decision in the Becker case.
Carl Prine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org