Jury deliberating Air Force base sex abuse case

AP News
Posted: Jul 20, 2012 7:49 PM
Jury deliberating Air Force base sex abuse case

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The case of an Air Force instructor accused of preying on female trainees at a Texas base embroiled by a sex abuse scandal remained in the jury's hands Friday.

Staff Sgt. Luis Walker was a "wolf in sheep's clothing" who took advantage of already scared Air Force trainees, a prosecutor said Friday. His attorney, Joseph Esparza, argued that authorities offered no evidence during three days of witnesses besides the testimony of alleged victims.

Walker is charged with 28 counts, including rape and aggravated sexual assault involving at least 10 women in basic training. He faces up to life in prison if convicted.

Walker's trial is seen as the cornerstone of a major investigation into trainers at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where every American airman receives basic training. Six instructors have been charged on counts ranging from rape to adultery. Walker is the first to stand trial.

The jury began deliberations just before 1 p.m. Friday, and was expected to continue into Friday evening.

Maj. Patricia Gruen said in her closing argument that female trainees — many still in their late teens — arrived at Lackland "terrified" of their instructor. Gruen said Walker used that fear to prey on them and commit rape and sexual assaults.

"He is the wolf in sheep's clothing. Consummate predator," Gruen said.

Walker took his victims to hallways and other areas where surveillance cameras would not catch him, she said. Women in separate trainee groups knew details about Walker that he had allegedly told them, such as that he had a vasectomy, Gruen said.

Trainers like Walker "rule their worlds," Gruen said. "They get off that bus and, Bam! Their world is changed."

After committing assaults, Walker would often cut off contact with his victims and sometimes openly ignore them, she said.

Esparza argued his client was being railroaded and described Lackland as a "rumor mill" where stories spread quickly.

"Staff Sgt. Walker is simply not guilty in this case. I know that sounds hard to believe given all we've heard but it is simply recitations of stories," he said. "That's all these are. There's nothing backing them up."

He noted that one of the alleged victims had her father take a picture of her with Walker at graduation from basic training — and later hung the photograph in her room.

"'Here Daddy, hold still, I'm going to take a picture of my rapist?" Esparza asked incredulously. "It makes no sense whatsoever."

A six-man, one-woman jury of military personnel will decide the case. Prosecutors called 14 witnesses, including one alleged victim who gave a video deposition because she had recently given birth and could not travel to the base.

On Tuesday, one alleged victim fought back tears as she testified that Walker lured her into his office and sexually assaulted her on a bed, ignoring her pleas for him to stop. She and others told jurors they were afraid that reporting Walker's actions would get them kicked out of the Air Force.

The Associated Press typically doesn't identify alleged sexual assault victims.

The defense called just one witness, Tech. Sgt. Richard Capestro, who testified that instructors and trainees at the Lackland base are under constant surveillance and officials conduct surprise inspections of trainee dormitory areas without warning — seemingly attempting to cast doubt on the possibility Walker could have committed rape and sexual assault on the premises.

Capestro said there are cameras in the hallways and at least some of the stairwells around base dormitories, and that open microphones allow an in a control room to listen in on any activity in the dorms.

Esparza on Friday questioned why prosecutors did not offer video of areas where the abuse allegedly occurred, he said, nor offer DNA evidence. Prosecutors have argued Walker knew to pick areas where there were no cameras and that surveillance footage typically gets erased every 20 days.

"There is no individual corroboration for these claims, but we do have evolving stories that changed over time," Esparza said.

Lackland has about 475 instructors for the approximately 35,000 airmen who graduate every year. About one in five is female, pushed through eight weeks of basic training by a group of instructors, 90 percent of whom are men.

Once the case goes to the jury, under Air Force court rules, its members consider every charge and can reach a guilty verdict on each with a simple two-thirds majority vote.

If Walker is found guilty on any charge, sentencing begins immediately and is also decided by the jury.

Meanwhile, the case of another former Air Force training instructor has been referred to a general court-martial, according to an Air Force statement issued Friday evening.

Staff Sgt. Craig LeBlanc is charged with sexual misconduct, obstructing justice and making a false official statement. He is accused of using his post as a military instructor to sexually assault and pursue a sexual relationship with one female trainee, and have a wrongful sexual relationship with another. No trial date has been set.