WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio — A brother of the former commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, Maj. Gen. Bill Cooley, testified here Wednesday against the two-star in the third day of his court-martial for sexual assault.
The witness described his hurt and confusion in the weeks following the alleged incident in August 2018, when Cooley is said to have forcibly kissed and groped his sister-in-law while the two were alone in a car.
“‘How could Bill do this to us? How is this possible?’” his brother, a civilian Air Force employee, said he thought at the time.
Efforts by the woman and her husband to reconcile with the general faltered because they felt Cooley was minimizing the situation in his apologies. The two-star accused them of blackmail for their continued attempts to address it further.
“I wanted to move past this, with him owning what he had done and truly apologizing,” the defendant’s brother said on the stand. “It was impossible … if he didn’t take responsibility.”
Cooley’s sister-in-law has agreed to be publicly identified by her relationship to the defendant, but not by name. Air Force Times does not publish the names of alleged sexual assault victims without their permission to protect their privacy.
Maj. Gen. Cooley is now trying to shift blame and publicly justify his actions as a consensual kiss, his brother said. The officer on Monday pleaded not guilty to abusive sexual contact, with three specifications, for allegedly kissing and groping the woman against her will while visiting Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Lawyers for the defense pointed out that Cooley’s brother did not witness the alleged misconduct firsthand, and characterized the situation as an elaborate setup to get revenge for the two-star’s pass at his sister-in-law. The plaintiff has rejected that version of events.
The defendant and his brother were competitive and weren’t as close as other siblings, Cooley’s brother said. They regularly discussed their jobs but had their differences in opinion.
On the night in question, Cooley’s brother stayed home while his wife and the general went for a short drive during which the alleged assault occurred. The brother said his wife hadn’t been flirting with Cooley earlier in the day, and he didn’t notice anything amiss with his wife as she and Cooley exited the car when they returned or at bedtime.
Defense lawyer Dan Conway said that indicated Cooley’s sister-in-law was not as upset that night or the next day as she claimed.
“This is the most traumatic thing I’ve endured,” the woman said. When asked why she attended a work meeting the next day, she said: “I am a professional and I coped.”
That stress also caused her to leave out some details about Cooley’s alleged actions when telling her husband and in her interview with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, she said. She later filled in that information for them.
The defense also argued the woman’s husband blamed her for the alleged incident; both Cooley’s brother and his sister-in-law deny that accusation happened. The defendant’s brother didn’t know where to direct his anger about the claim, the brother said.
“When I was in the interview with OSI, I gave a full accounting of all of the thoughts I was trying to process when I learned of this,” the defendant’s brother said.
He trusted his wife but didn’t want to believe his brother would do such a thing. “I was angry … livid” when Cooley acknowledged the situation and apologized in person soon after, the brother said.
He and his wife ultimately decided not to press charges, but changed their minds when they failed to resolve their differences.
“I love him, and I did not want to be here,” Cooley’s brother said of the escalation to litigation.
Cooley’s bench trial marks not only the Air Force’s first time moving through court-martial proceedings against a general, but also the first time sexual assault charges have led to criminal prosecution for someone so high up in the chain of command.
He entered active duty service in 1990 and has worked in a variety of military space, missile defense, research and other positions.
As the head of AFRL, he managed a $2.5 billion Air Force-led science and technology portfolio plus another $2.3 billion in research funded outside the military. He oversaw a workforce of around 6,000 people.
Cooley was removed from that job in January 2020 amid an OSI inquiry and charged with violating Article 120 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, which forbids sexual assault. He now serves as an assistant to Air Force Materiel Command boss Gen. Arnold Bunch, advocating for the service’s science and technology plans.
Legal counsel for both parties have frequently compared statements gathered for the OSI report to this week’s testimony, though the investigation report is not a formal piece of evidence.
He could face up to 21 years behind bars — seven years for each specification of the sexual assault charge against him. Cooley could also lose his pay alongside dismissal from the Air Force, service spokesperson Derek Kaufman said.
A guilty verdict could land him in the national sex offender database as well. There is no minimum sentence and he may avoid punishment altogether.
Conway told reporters Cooley’s team would make a “game-time decision” on whether he should testify.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.