Government and defense attorneys traded arguments in military court Monday, with the defense for the former commander of Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) contending that Maj. Gen. William Cooley is the victim of a “conspiracy” to end his career, and prosecutors arguing that Cooley sexually assaulted a woman.
After an investigation by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) last year, a charge and three specifications of violating Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military were brought against Cooley. Article 120 concerns sexual assault.
Cooley’s accuser is not a member of the military. General Arnold W. Bunch Jr., commander of Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC), relieved Cooley from command of AFRL in January 2020 following the accusations.
The case is potentially historic. It could be the first time an Air Force general has ever been court-martialed.
The accuser charges that in an August 2018 off-duty incident in Albuquerque, N.M., Cooley “made unwanted sexual advances by kissing and touching” her, according to an Air Force charge sheet. The charge says the two-star general kissed the accuser without her consent, “with an intent to gratify his sexual desire.”
The defense argued that the kiss was consensual.
“There never was an allegation of anything other than a consensual kiss until (the accuser) reported to OSI,” said Daniel Conway, who represents Cooley.
Referring to voice mails and messages he said Cooley gave the accuser after the alleged kiss, Lt. Col. Matthew Neil, a government counsel, said it was “categorically impossible” for Cooley to have been honest both with OSI investigators and in court, when Cooley read aloud an unsworn statement maintaining his innocence.
In a statement, Cooley charged that the accuser’s “marriage and reputation” depend on “false allegations” against him.
“I have cooperated with the investigation, and I have been truthful throughout this process,” Cooley said. “I an confident that I will be exonerated.”
“The story he spun was not an accurate one,” Neil said, arguing that Cooley’s declaration of innocence conflicted with statements he made afterwards to investigators and to the alleged victim.
Questioning witnesses over the telephone, attorneys drew recollections of conversations with the accuser in which she alleged that Cooley pinned her against a car door and forcibly tried to kiss her.
Dr. Laurence Merkle, a professor at the Air Force Institute of Technology, described in his testimony how the accuser recounted to him her version of events.
Merkle said the woman told him that after a social event at an Albuquerque house in August 2018, in which there had been swimming and drinking, she gave Cooley a ride to his parents’ home, where he had been staying.
According to Merkle, on that car ride, the accuser told Merkle that Cooley shared with her his “fantasies” about her, fantasies that involved “oral sex” and Cooley “taking” her.
“We are longtime friends, so she was confiding in me,” Merkle said. On questioning, he said the accuser had not alleged to him that Cooley touched her breast and had not alleged to him that Cooley had wanted her to touch him “on his penis.”
Asked if the accuser had been distraught when she shared this with him, Merkle said: “Not particularly.”
A senior military judge will decide whether the case advances to a trial by court-martial. That could take eight days or more.
The preliminary Article 32 hearing happened at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where Cooley still works. Since his removal from command, Cooley has served as special assistant to Bunch, with duties focused primarily on advancing the command’s digital campaign, the command said.
AFMC Commander Bunch last year appointed Lt. Gen. Gene Kirkland, commander of the Air Force Sustainment Center at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, as the authority to independently review all available evidence and make an initial disposition decision on the case.
Both AFRL and AFMC are headquartered at Wright-Patterson.