Army captain found guilty in Arberdeen sex case Plea deal calls for discharge, jail term

March 21, 1997|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.

In the first verdict of the sexual misconduct trials at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Capt. Derrick Robertson was found guilty yesterday on five charges involving a female private, ending the career of an officer described by a former superior as "the most outstanding I'd ever seen."

Under a plea agreement outlined during pretrial motions, Robertson, 31, will be dismissed from the Army and serve four months in prison for the military crimes of consensual sex and sodomy with a recruit, adultery, fraternization and dereliction of duty.

But Robertson, the only Army officer charged in the Aberdeen cases, was cleared of the most serious charges, including rape, forcible sodomy and assault.

"My mother taught us three things I will never forget," Robertson said through tears. "To treat people the way you want to be treated, that one race is no better than another, and to never mistreat a woman. I never have and I never will." His mother, Gertrude Robertson, watched from the gallery in a bright red dress.

The plea agreement alarmed some legal experts and women's groups. They questioned why -- after Army leaders loudly condemned sexual misconduct four months ago -- the military has yet to prove a single rape case. Robertson would have faced life in prison if convicted of all the original charges.

"I still lack confidence that the military is taking this seriously," said Karen Johnson, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and National Organization for Women vice president. "I do have concerns that we will never know what really went on."

As the sexual misconduct investigation continues, two drill sergeants have left the Army rather than face courts-martial for charges that included sodomy and indecent assault. And Staff Sgt. Nathanael C. Beach was allowed to choose administrative punishment rather than a court-martial on charges of fraternizing with and threatening a private; a decision in his case is expected today.

In November, Robertson became one of the first soldiers charged in the Aberdeen cases, which now involve allegations of sexual misconduct from 56 female trainees at the Army post. Four Aberdeen sergeants still face court martial proceedings, part of an Army-wide scandal.

Prosecutors said yesterday that Robertson's crimes undermine the Army chain of command. "This case was not about sex, but about discipline and trust," said Maj. Virginia Beakes, a prosecution spokeswoman.

Robertson, a 12-year Army veteran, will report to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., next week. Judge Ferdinand Clervi recommended a three-year sentence, but under the plea agreement Robertson will serve four months in prison, with two months' probation to follow.

Robert Maginnis, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who directs the military readiness project for the Family Research Council, called the sentence a "major punishment" for actions that are legal in the civilian world.

But Susan G. Barnes, a former criminal court judge in Colorado who heads Women Active in Our Nation's Defense, their Advocates and Supporters, said the Army is sending mixed signals.

"You're either saying you're not going forward because you don't have the evidence," or the Army is unwilling to "take these offenses seriously," said Barnes. Either way, she said, the Army should explain what happened to the cases.

Prosecutors said that the charges were reduced in part to spare the victim the trauma of having to testify.

In testimony at turns emotional and explicit, a split-image of Robertson emerged in the small post courtroom. According to family and colleagues, he was a tireless and devoted son who helped his mother raise eight children in impoverished East Texas by working after-school jobs, who turned to the Army instead of theft and drugs, and who held the family together during tragedy.

But prosecutors described a different Robertson, a man who took advantage of his rank and the vulnerability of a 20-year-old private in his company, using her "as a sexual play toy."

"There is no place in this Army for someone who places his selfish sexual desire, his lust, above the interests of his troops, of the United States," said Capt. Theresa Gallagher, a prosecutor, in her closing statement.

The sixth of eight children, Robertson enlisted in the Army in 1985 straight from Winona High School in Lindale, Texas. Since then, his career trajectory has been steep: "Soldier of the Year" at a German posting, officer candidate school, assistant operations officer of Aberdeen's 61st Ordnance brigade, commanding officer of Alpha Company.

"He was the most outstanding young officer I'd ever seen," said Col. Glenn J. Harrold, a 24-year Army veteran who served with Robertson in Germany. "If a [non-commissioned officer] ever wanted to know what to look like, I said look at Lieutenant Robertson."

But last year, after a March marriage that proved troublesome, Robertson "veered off the path his mother set," according to his attorney, Maj. Jerry Murphy.

In late August, female recruits at Aberdeen's Ordnance Center and School started coming forward with allegations of sexual abuse by drill sergeants. During a Sept. 5 session in his office with six recruits, the private said she had been raped by Staff Sgt. Delmar Simpson -- who now faces an April court martial.

"She screamed, she was upset, she was angry," Robertson testified, after submitting a six-page statement that prosecutors did not dispute. "She finally asked if she could meet with me alone."

The next day, Robertson said, they talked for 20 minutes behind closed doors, mostly about her sister, who said she'd been raped in the Army. When he tried to leave, he said, "she grabbed my hand and put it on her breast." They began kissing.

On Sept. 14, the private took a taxi to a convenience store at Robertson's request, and he picked her up. They went to his Joppatowne home, where they had consensual sex, he said.

"It [was] extremely inappropriate," Robertson testified.

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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