Updated: January 5, 2012 at 12:00 am
Commanders on Thursday charged three Air Force Academy cadets with sexual assault in separate cases that occurred over the past 15 months.
Charging documents obtained by The Gazette show the three cases involve acts allegedly committed on the campus, including acts against fellow cadets.
The most recent incident happened in November, charging papers show. Cadet Stephan H. Claxton is charged with attempted rape for allegedly unzipping the pants of a female cadet while she was “substantially incapacitated” – a phrase the military has used in the past to describe intoxication.
Claxton faces assault charges tied to the November incident, including an allegation that he forcibly kissed a female cadet and assaulted another cadet.
Claxton is also charged with a March incident, where he’s accused of forcing a fellow cadet to touch his genitals and underage drinking.
Cadet Kyle A. Cressy, a senior on the soccer team, is charged in a May incident. Prosecutors say he had sex with a woman at the academy who was “substantially incapacitated.” It’s unclear from the charging documents whether the alleged victim in the Cressy case was a fellow cadet.
Cadet Robert M. Evenson Jr. is charged with forcibly raping a fellow cadet in the spring of 2010. He’s also charged with breaking regulations by having an ongoing relationship with a female freshman and abusing his position as a “cadet non-commissioned officer for honor cases” to extract sexual favors from a female fellow cadet.
Evenson was one of the cadets who run the academy’s honor system, which punishes those who lie, cheat, steal or tolerate comrades who break those rules. Those who violate the honor code face a maximum punishment of expulsion. Allegations of corruption in the honor system, the touchstone of the academy’s cadet culture, will likely send shockwaves through the school.
“The fact that the charges in all three cases are being referred at this time is due to the near simultaneous completion of each individual investigation,” Col. Tamra Rank, the Academy’s vice superintendent, said in an emailed statement.
The charges will be referred to a hearing officer, who will review evidence in the cases and counsel the academy’s superintendent, Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, on whether courts-martial are merited.
“Each case will be adjudicated independently and the accused in each case is presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Rank said. “We take these allegations seriously. Sexual misconduct is a particularly egregious offense and we have a zero tolerance policy in the Air Force.”
Under military law, rape is a crime that can bring the same punishment as murder, even bringing the possibility, albeit minuscule, of the death penalty.
The charges come a week after the Pentagon reported a spike in the number of sexual assaults at the school, which had 33 reported incidents in the 2010-2011 academic year, a four-fold increase over a two year span.
The charges were announced to the 4,000-member cadet wing by Brig. Gen. Richard M. Clark, the school’s commandant of cadets, who addressed a noon meal formation in Mitchell Hall.
A senior academy leader, speaking on background, said the charges don’t mark a return of the dark days of 2003, when the school was rocked after dozens of women reported their reports of sexual assault were mishandled or ignored.
Top leaders at the academy were fired in the wake of the scandal, which also brought congressional scrutiny and major reforms that swept from classrooms and dormitories to athletic fields.
Now, the leader said, the school takes all claims of sexual assaults seriously, including the criminal cases announced Thursday.
The Pentagon in a December report to Congress praised the academy’s efforts to curb sexual assault in the ranks and gave the school high marks for its programs to encourage sexual assault reporting.
“(The academy) demonstrated commendable practices that should be considered for replication by other military service academies,” the Defense Department wrote in the report.
If any of the cadets get convicted, it would mark a turnaround for prosecutors. Since the 2003 scandal, the academy has prosecuted a string of rape cases against cadets. But none of those cases has resulted in a conviction.
Recent rape trials at the academy have almost always centered on the issue of consent, with the defendant claiming that the victim asked for sex. The cases were also marked by a lack of forensic evidence that could help sort out the conflicting claims.