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How the military handles sexual assault cases behind closed doors

By: Craig Whitlock, The Washington Post
September 30, 2017 Updated: October 1, 2017 at 7:10 am
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As part of a sexual harassment and assault case, Air Force investigators recovered hundreds of text messages that Col. Ronald S. Jobo, left, sent to a female subordinate in 2015. (Photo by Mickey Welsh /The Advertiser; texts obtained by The Washington Post/)

For the U.S. Air Force, the case of alleged sexual harassment and assault by a senior officer was exactly the type of misconduct Pentagon leaders had promised Congress and the public they would no longer tolerate.

The victim at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Alabama reported in September 2015 that her married boss, a colonel, had repeatedly said he wanted to have sex with her, tracked her movements and sent her recordings of him masturbating in the shower, documents show. She said that she told him to back off but that he would not stop: Twice, she alleges, he trapped her in the office, grabbed her arms and forcibly tried to kiss her.

Air Force investigators quickly confirmed much of her account, aided by hundreds of messages that the officer had texted the woman and by his admission that he had sent the masturbation recordings, the documents show.

In their report, the investigators compiled extensive evidence that the colonel, Ronald S. Jobo, had committed abusive sexual contact against the woman, a civilian in her 30s. Under military law, the charge would have automatically resulted in a court-martial, a proceeding open to the public. The crime carried a sentence of up to seven years in prison and a requirement to register as a sex offender.

The decision on what to do next rested with a three-star general 600 miles away at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. In the military-justice system, commanders — not uniformed prosecutors — have the power to dictate how and whether criminal cases should be pursued.

In March 2016, Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson, the senior officer in Jobo’s chain of command, decided against charging Jobo with abusive sexual contact, or any crime at all. Instead, Thompson imposed what the military calls non­judicial punishment, or discipline for minor ­offenses.

Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson, the senior officer in Jobo’s chain of command, decided against charging the colonel with abusive sexual contact, or any crime at all. (U.S. Air Force) 

Jobo was forced to retire and demoted one rank, to lieutenant colonel. Because the military keeps most disciplinary actions secret, the case was hidden from public view.

There would be no trial, no publicity and no public record — the same for thousands of other sexual assault investigations each year in the armed forces.

An examination of the Jobo investigation, based in part on an internal 400-page law enforcement case file obtained by The Washington Post, casts doubt on the military’s promises to crack down on sexual misconduct and hold commanders accountable for how they administer justice.

“This kind of case cries out to be court-martialed,” said retired Col. Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force who is now president of Protect Our Defenders. The group advocates for sexual assault victims in the armed forces and has lobbied for uniformed prosecutors, instead of commanders, to oversee cases. “It just cries out for someone to be held accountable in a public forum.”

Jobo retired from the Air Force last year. He declined requests for an interview. In a statement to The Post, he said he served honorably in the Air Force for more than 25 years but “showed extremely poor judgment by allowing a close work relationship to escalate into an unprofessional personal one.”

“I was misguided and deeply regret the hurt and embarrassment I caused my wife, daughter, extended family, colleagues and friends,” he added.

In an interview with The Post, the woman said she felt betrayed by the general’s decision. “Disappointment is probably an understatement. I felt strongly that Colonel Jobo should be held accountable,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect her privacy. (The Post’s policy is not to identify victims of sexual assault or abuse.)

The Pentagon has sought to raise the profile of its campaign against sexual assault and harassment in the ranks since 2013, when a string of scandals raised fundamental questions about whether the military’s justice system was too antiquated to cope with the problem. In testimony before Congress, the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledged that they had neglected the issue for years.

Since then, the armed forces have promised to address the problem and have devoted new resources­ to training and law enforcement. Last year, the number of reported sexual assaults — defined as acts ranging from wrongful sexual contact to rape — reached 6,172, a new high.

The Pentagon has called the increase a sign of progress, saying that more victims are coming forward because they are confident that offenders will be held accountable. Still, only about 1 in 3 victims last year reported being assaulted, according to military estimates.

More than 90 percent of reported incidents, however, are investigated and adjudicated behind closed doors, Pentagon statistics show. Last year, only 389 sexual assault cases proceeded to trial and produced public records of what happened.

Ordinarily, details of the case involving the colonel from Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base would have remained secret, too. The Air Force rejected Freedom of Information Act requests from The Post for records associated with Jobo’s investigation and punishment, citing his privacy rights.

The documents obtained by The Post from other sources show how the victim futilely pleaded with Thompson, the general in charge of deciding the case, to approve criminal charges­ instead of meting out what she feared would be “a slap on the wrist.”

“Sir, very respectfully, this is offensive to me,” she wrote in a memo in February 2016, when she learned Thompson was unlikely to order a court-martial. “I have been afraid that I would not be believed. I was afraid that I would get blamed for what happened. I am afraid that this whole thing would just get swept under the rug because of his rank.”

Thompson, who was given a new leadership post in May with the Air Force Space Command, declined requests from The Post for an interview. In a statement, he said military law and Air Force policy restricted him from commenting on the reasoning behind his decisions.

“In this case, as in all ­cases, a thorough investigation was conducted and commanders throughout the chain of command reviewed all of the evidence at multiple stages,” Thompson said. He said he had based his decisions “on the totality of the circumstances and the maintenance of good order and discipline in the Service.”

A history of trouble

Located in Alabama’s capital, Montgomery, Gunter Annex is several miles across town from the main base. The annex houses the Business and Enterprise Systems Directorate, which is responsible for managing many of the Air Force’s computer systems worldwide.

About 1,500 civilians and uniformed personnel work for the directorate. Roughly 80 percent are men.

Military records indicate that the former civilian chief of the unit — Jobo’s boss — had previously been rebuked for an overly lenient approach to sexual misconduct allegations.

The Air Force inspector general criticized the chief, Robert Carl Shofner, for his actions in 2015, when he pushed to promote an Air Force supervisor who had a record of sexual harassment and played down another subordinate’s affair with a junior employee.

According to the inspector general’s report, obtained by The Post under FOIA, Shofner was “overly friendly” with his two offending subordinates. By failing to take appropriate action, the inspector general found, he contributed to a culture at Gunter that “condoned sexual harassment.”

“Mr. Shofner gave the impression that leadership turned a blind eye to sexual harassment and thus allowed an environment where sexual harassment festers,” the report concluded.

The Air Force said in a statement that it suspended Shofner without pay for 14 days as a result of the inspector general’s findings. He was transferred from Gunter last year to a new job at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

In an email to The Post, Shofner said he disagreed “with any conclusion someone would make that I failed any integrity tests in showing favoritism or in providing a healthy working environment.”

“There were many complex issues in work over the course of my tenure and I responded firmly and appropriately as expected and required,” he said.

The inspector general’s report shows Shofner had been warned explicitly that his handling of the sexual harassment case could backfire. In July 2015, a senior official at Gunter told Shofner in a memo that he was sending the wrong message to the workforce and failing to create “a deterrent to future indiscretions.”

The warning proved prescient. A few weeks later, Shofner was confronted by another sexual misconduct case — this time involving Jobo, his second-in-command.

Jobo was a systems engineer who had graduated from the Air Force Academy and served in the war in Afghanistan. As the senior uniformed officer at Gunter, he wielded unquestioned authority over the directorate.

Married with a daughter, Jobo, then 47, worked closely with a female subordinate: a civilian executive who specialized in logistics and was about a decade younger. They both told investigators that their relationship was professional at first and gradually became more friendly.

She told The Post that she saw him as a mentor but that in the summer of 2015, he started to become flirtatious, making her uncomfortable. He texted and emailed her at all hours and remarked that they were “in a relationship.” She said she reminded him more than once that he was her boss and that she had a boyfriend.

Others at Gunter said it was not hard to sense what was on the colonel’s mind.

One Air Force officer later told law enforcement agents from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations that Jobo hovered over the woman and touched her on the arm during staff meetings, according to the agents’ case file. The officer, whose name was redacted from the file, said that just watching the interaction made her “neck hairs stand up” and that she warned the woman afterward to be “very cautious.”

“I told her that he looked at her like he wanted her sexually and that he was in her space and that the touch was weird,” the officer wrote in a statement. “She said, ‘He touched me?’ She was oblivious. I told her that she needed to become situationally aware because [it was] just a strange vibe.”

Texting around the clock

The woman shared some of the original text images with The Post. Jobo’s texts appear in the gray background and hers are in the green. (Obtained by The Washington Post) 

In August 2015, Jobo’s behavior suddenly turned more explicit. While the woman was on a business trip to Washington, he left a phone-sex recording on her voice mail, according to investigators’ records in the case file.

For six minutes, he shared his sexual fantasies and recorded himself masturbating; he also sent her a photo of himself in the shower while holding a toothbrush next to his genitals, the case file shows.

The woman told The Post that she was shocked and scared by the recordings but ignored them, hoping the colonel would stop. “I handled it as best I could without prompting or allowing any further thoughts on his part,” she said.

But when she returned to Montgomery from Washington, the harassment intensified.

Read the full story at The Washington Post.

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