The former head of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, is headed to court-martial on a sexual assault charge. It may be the first time in modern history an Air Force general has faced such a trial.
A sexual assault charge has been referred to court-martial in the case of Maj. Gen. William Cooley of Air Force Materiel Command, or AFMC, spokesman Derek Kaufman said Wednesday.
"After a comprehensive review of all of the evidence from the investigation and the Article 32 preliminary hearing, I've informed Maj. Gen. Cooley of my decision to move his case to general court-martial," AFMC commander Gen. Arnold Bunch said in a news release. "I can assure you this was not a decision made lightly, but I believe it was the right decision."
In November, the service brought the charge against Cooley, who led the lab for roughly two and a half years. In February, the Air Force convened an Article 32 preliminary hearing, during which a military judge reviewed the charge; the process is similar to a preliminary hearing in civilian court and determines whether there is enough evidence to bring a case to a formal trial.
"This has never happened in the Air Force's history," Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders and a retired Air Force colonel, told Military.com on Wednesday. The advocacy group has been in contact with the alleged victim and connected her with her pro bono attorney, he added.
The Air Force's decision "tells me that there's a strong case here," said Christensen, who was also the service's chief prosecutor.
Following the hearing, Bunch, the court-martial convening authority, reviewed the preliminary hearing officer's report to determine the appropriate disposition.
The charge, which includes three specifications of sexual assault under Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, stems from an off-duty incident that occurred in August 2018 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, officials said. The Air Force Research Laboratory-New Mexico, part of Kirtland Air Force Base, is headquartered in Albuquerque.
Cooley allegedly "made unwanted sexual advances by kissing and touching a female victim," who is not a service member or Defense Department employee, the release states.
According to the specifications, which were detailed in a charge sheet obtained by Military.com in November, Cooley is accused of kissing the woman on her mouth "with an intent to gratify his sexual desire" without her consent. He is also accused of sexual contact, causing the woman to touch his genitalia through his clothing with her hand without her consent, and touching her through her clothing with his hand without her consent.
The Air Force "will identify a senior military judge and coordinate timing and venue for the court-martial proceeding," the release states. "Jurors, or court members, must either be officers of higher rank, or equivalent grade but with an earlier date of rank to the accused."
AFMC stressed that Cooley is presumed innocent until proven otherwise.
Cooley’s lawyer, Daniel Conway of Gary Myers, Daniel Conway & Associates, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Christensen said there is a possibility the trial may not occur if Cooley reaches a plea deal.
"He could offer to retire instead of going to court, and he could accept that," he said. "It'll probably be a while before this gets to trial [because the Air Force] has to come up with a panel of general officers senior to Cooley that are going to be fair and impartial, and it may take them a while to do that."
Cooley, who was removed from his post in January 2020, was already under investigation at the time by the Air Force Office of Special Investigation for alleged misconduct.
Cooley became commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory in May 2017, according to his official service biography. Prior to that, he was the program executive for programs and integration at the Missile Defense Agency at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama.
"The military has got a long ways to go into solving its sexual assault problem -- the accountability or lack thereof -- but it's a good step," Christensen said.