Maj. Gen. Bill Cooley, the former Air Force Research Laboratory commander and now a sexual assault convict, on Monday apologized to family and fellow airmen for the 2018 misconduct that now threatens his three-decade military career. He is expected to be sentenced Tuesday, the eighth day of his historic court-martial at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
“I can honestly say I have come out a better human being than I was in 2018,” Cooley said, according to the Dayton Daily News. “I will work for the rest of my life to be a better person than the one who was portrayed in this trial.”
Cooley, who led AFRL for nearly three years before he was removed in January 2020, was convicted on one charge of abusive sexual contact and its first count of forcibly kissing a woman, who is his sister-in-law.
Military judge Col. Christina Jimenez acquitted the general on two other counts: one, of groping the woman, and two, of forcing the woman to touch his groin through his pants.
Cooley’s lawyers acknowledged a kiss happened, but characterized the lawsuit as a setup by his sister-in-law to get revenge for a brief, consensual tryst. She denies that version of events.
The defense team did not respond to a request for comment on Monday evening.
In court, Cooley’s sister-in-law described the toll the attack and its aftermath have taken on her and her family.
“Bill robbed me of my safety, objectified me, disrespected me and my family, and forever destroyed all trust I ever had in him,” she said. “I was unable to trust the man my husband considered his closest brother, friend and confidante with my own safety and well-being.”
Though she “hoped and prayed for true contrition and lasting remorse” from her brother-in-law of about 30 years, she said she doesn’t feel that she received it.
“It became agonizing, the impossible position he placed us in — report someone we love — knowing full well the very real consequences for both him and our families, or continue to allow a man who assaulted me to get away with it,” Cooley’s accuser said.
She agreed to be publicly identified by her relationship to the defendant, but not by name. Air Force Times does not publish the names of sexual assault victims without their permission to protect their privacy.
Jimenez, who presided over the bench trial, is expected to issue Cooley’s sentence on Tuesday. The two-star faces a maximum sentence of up to seven years in jail, dismissal from the Air Force and withholding of pay, and a possible spot in the national sex offender database.
Air Force lawyers representing the government on the woman’s behalf in U.S. v. Cooley argued the general should be dismissed from the service without a pension or other retirement benefits, the Dayton Daily News reported on Monday.
If not dismissed, Cooley should be jailed, the prosecution said. They also pushed for a reduction in rank.
Defense attorney Dan Conway asked the judge for compassion and said a letter of reprimand would be sufficient punishment, the Dayton Daily News reported.
Cooley’s move to kiss his sister-in-law “on the lips and tongue with an intent to gratify his sexual desire,” according to an Air Force charge sheet, while they were alone in her car after a party at Cooley’s brother’s home in August 2018, is no longer classified as a sexual offense and a felony after recent legal changes.
However, Jimenez indicated she would follow the rules that were in place at the time of the incident when considering his sentence, according to the Dayton Daily News.
Cooley 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 fired amid an Air Force Office of Special Investigations inquiry and charged with violating Article 120 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, which forbids sexual assault. Cooley now advocates for the service’s science and technology plans as an assistant to Air Force Materiel Command boss Gen. Arnold Bunch.
This is the first time a military court has issued a verdict in a case involving an Air Force general. It’s also the first time sexual assault charges have led to criminal prosecution for any official so high in the chain of command.
Cases involving military personnel can be tried in either military or civilian court, or in both.
Cooley’s accuser said the stress she has endured in the nearly four years since the became “nearly unbearable,” keeping her awake at night. The ordeal caused her to lose friends, family and work, she said.
She felt like a “hypocrite” and a “fraud” at her job, while “training audiences on creating harassment-free environments and encouraging others to report harassment and assault without fear, when I myself was the victim of assault and initially elected not to report my attacker,” she said.
The woman also said she felt dishonest to her daughters by initially failing to speak out against the same kind of abuse she had taught them to fight.
She will heal and atone for that silence through advocacy, and by becoming a role model for other sexual assault victims.
“I could have let Bill Cooley define me as a victim, but today, in coming forward, in shining a bright light on truth, I am working to rewrite that narrative,” she said. “I will work to channel the worst event of my life into something of service to benefit others.”
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.