Woman recalls night of terror at Tailhook hearing

August 18, 1993|By Maureen Dowd | Maureen Dowd,New York Times News Service

QUANTICO, Va. -- In a calm voice, Lt. Paula Coughlin testified at a military hearing yesterday about her searing experience going through the infamous Tailhook gantlet.

She pointed to a Marine captain sitting a few feet away in the austere courtroom and identified him as the most brazen of her molesters that Saturday night two years ago in the hallway of the Las Vegas Hilton.

Then, in an equally calm voice, the accused man, Capt. Gregory Bonam, offered an equally harrowing story: the ordeal of an innocent man wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit.

Following character witnesses who described him as a peaceful, religious, chivalrous man fighting back against cancer, Captain Bonam said that while he attended the pilots' convention in Las Vegas and had a few beers, he never saw either a gantlet or Lieutenant Coughlin that night.

His civilian lawyer, Patrick J. Mackrell, asserted that Lieutenant Coughlin, the Navy helicopter pilot and admiral's aide whose persistent complaints started the Tailhook investigation, had been pushed to make an identification by Navy investigators eager to identify the villain in a case that had become a feminist cause celebre.

"Possibly somebody out there did assault her and is walking away scot-free," Captain Bonam said at a news conference after the hearing. "I did not touch her."

Their accounts were in stark apposition at several other points, too. For example, Lieutenant Coughlin said her assailant was wearing a burnt orange T-shirt; Captain Bonam said he was wearing a green shirt with a zig-zag pattern, a statement that is supported by a photograph taken that night.

The courtroom drama, a preliminary hearing to determine if Captain Bonam should be court-martialed, underscored the problems in seeking sure and complete justice in the Tailhook case. The memories of that Saturday night, clouded by alcohol, have become even cloudier with time.

Many stay silent

And because of fear and loyalty and differing assessments of what represents sexual misconduct, most potential witnesses have stayed silent. Indeed, Lieutenant Coughlin, who set off an earthquake in sexual etiquette in the military when she was the first to acknowledge publicly that she had been assaulted at the convention, was the sole witness for the prosecution.

The testimony ended yesterday, and the judge investigating officer, Col. Stephen S. Mitchell, said he would recommend by Monday at the latest whether the case warranted further action.

Although the Navy report published last year after an extensive investigation found that more than 80 women were assaulted during a night of debauchery, closing the cases has been a struggle.

Three Navy officers will be court-martialed; two other Navy officers face possible court-martial; three dozen more have been fined or given letters of reprimand or caution, and 71 Navy cases are still not settled. Two Marine officers face possible court-martial.

Lieutenant Coughlin, wearing her Navy whites, testified first, retracing her steps on the night of Sept. 7, 1991. To describe her emotional experience she used unemotional military terminology, calling 11:30 p.m., 2330; the third floor of the Hilton, the third deck, and the wall of the hallway the bulkhead.

Lieutenant Coughlin said she started wandering around at the ++ third-floor Hilton party and stumbled into the hallway where she found "men lining both sides of the hallway, some in the middle and some with their backs to me."

As she walked between the first two people, a third man bumped into her, "very forcefully so that I stopped my forward movement," she said. "I turned and looked at him and said, 'Excuse me.' "

Then things began happening fast, she said. She heard someone start to yell "admiral's aide."

"I was grabbed from behind by the first individual who'd bumped me," she said. "He moved in from behind with both his hands and grabbed my buttocks. It was a big grab that pushed me up and moved me forward."

She said she had turned around and, using an expletive, demanded that he tell her what he thought he was doing.

She said that she was 5-foot-4 and she estimated her assailant was about 6-1 or 6-2 and 185 or 190 pounds, "fairly well built and very fit, muscular with a long jaw."

"I looked into his eyes," she said, adding that he was either a light-skinned black or Hispanic whose most prominent features were his "light eyes."

"That is how I have been able to identify Captain Bonam," she added, as the defendant, a light-skinned black man with blue eyes.

She said she was not yet frantic at that point of the gantlet. "I was mad, I was very irritated, nobody grabs me like that, nobody touches me at all," she said. But then, she became more frightened when the same man, whom she identified as Captain Bonam, "pressed up directly against my back with his chest, leaned over me, brought both hands over my shoulders and reached down my blouse and grabbed both my breasts."

Captain Bonam said he had never seen Lieutenant Coughlin that night, but had stayed mostly in the Rhino suite to have a few beers with friends. He later explained that Rhino was the nickname for a Marine unit the captain had been in, made up of officers who flew the Phantom jets.

Plus for defense

Mr. Mackrell, a former Marine officer who practices law in Albany, scored several points for the defense.

While he did not damage Lieutenant Coughlin's credibility on what happened that night, he may have hurt her on the issue of who assailed her.

He forced Lieutenant Coughlin to admit that she had briefly considered implicating another light-skinned black man shown her in a photograph by Navy investigators, before settling on Captain Bonam.

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