An Army trainee was arrested Thursday morning in South Carolina after allegedly hijacking a school bus with 18 students onboard. Law enforcement officials say he’ll now face multiple kidnapping charges.
The trainee, armed with a rifle and dressed in physical training gear, allegedly boarded a school bus that was headed to Forest Lake Elementary in Columbia, South Carolina, after fleeing Fort Jackson, a nearby basic training base, at about 7 a.m. The trainee told the bus driver he didn’t want to hurt him, but needed a ride to the next town, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said during a Thursday morning press conference.
The children and the driver were eventually able to get off the bus unharmed.
“The bus driver started driving, and the trainee brought the kids to the front of the bus,” Lott said. “The kids started asking lots of questions to the suspect about whether he was going to hurt them or the bus driver. The suspect got a little frustrated.”
The bus then stopped, and the kids and driver exited the vehicle. Lott said the Fort Jackson trainee then started driving the bus, but had trouble controlling it. He eventually fled on foot, leaving the rifle on the bus, according to Lott.
“[He] went through neighborhoods trying to get rides, trying to get clothes,” he said. Police soon caught up with the suspect; Lott said he was in his third week of training at Fort Jackson and was “arrested without incident.”
“He’ll be charged with multiple counts of kidnapping and whatever charges we can put on him,” Lott added.
The entire incident lasted about an hour. The needs of the students involved are being addressed, Lott said.
“You can just imagine they were scared to death, along with that bus driver,” he said. “I will give the bus driver credit — he kept his cool. He didn’t overreact. He didn’t get excited. He kept his cool enough that kept the situation calm. And I will tell you his main concern was the safety of those kids, and he did his job.”
Officials at Fort Jackson said they were aware of the incident involving the trainee and were working closely with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department to respond. No additional details about the trainee or the events leading up to the bus hijacking were provided by the Army.
Baron Davis, superintendent of Richland School District, said receiving the phone call about an armed man hijacking a school bus was horrifying.
“I’ve never been as scared in my life,” he said. “… every child is a precious child to all of us, and it was one of the … scariest phone calls — so many emotions.”
Lott said the initial call his department received was about a man trying to wave down cars on Interstate 77. A parent of one of the children on the bus later flagged down a deputy to alert them that an armed man was on the school bus.
The trainee got onto the bus at Percival Road while it was stopped to pick up children, Lott said.
Gen. Arnold Bunch, the commander of the Air Force Material Command, announced Wednesday that Maj. Gen. William Cooley of the AFMC is headed to court-martial on a sexual assault charge. The decision marks the first time an Air Force general has faced such a trial, Military.com reports.
Bunch said “this was not a decision made lightly,” but he believes it was the right call after reviewing “all of the evidence from the investigation” and a preliminary hearing.
Cooley, the former head of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, has been accused of making “unwanted sexual advances by kissing and touching a female victim,” who is not a service member or Defense Department employee, in August 2018, Military.com reports. A charge sheet from last November obtained by Military.com provided more specific details about the off-duty incident, including the accusation that Cooley kissed the woman on the mouth without her consent.
An airman at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, was sentenced April 26, 2021, to three years in jail for driving drunk and killing a local German man, and injuring another in a car wreck two years ago.
JENNIFER H. SVAN/STARS AND STRIPES
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPESPublished: April 27, 2021
SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany — A night of heavy drinking with fellow airmen that ended in a deadly car crash two years ago has landed a Spangdahlem airman in jail for three years and ended his military career.
Senior Airman Jade A. Westmoreland was sentenced after pleading guilty to negligent homicide and related charges at a Spangdahlem court-martial Monday before military judge Col. Charles Wiedie.
Westmoreland also received a bad-conduct discharge and a reduction to E-1.
The senior airman admitted to being drunk behind the wheel on April 20, 2019, when he veered into the opposite lane and collided with a car carrying two local German men.
Kevin Schneider died at the scene of the wreck near Speicher, a village about seven miles southwest of Spangdahlem. His cousin, Pascal Mayer, sustained serious injuries.
“He was a happy guy,” Schneider’s mother, Petra Marx, said about her only son in tearful testimony. “He was helpful. He loved playing soccer and he loved his family.”
Schneider was married with two daughters and a son on the way.
Westmoreland, assigned to the 52nd Maintenance Squadron, apologized to the victims and their families.
He faced a maximum of six years in jail based on his guilty pleas to the charges, which also included reckless endangerment, and driving a vehicle while drunk and causing injury. A fourth charge of involuntary manslaughter was withdrawn as part of the plea agreement.
Prosecutors asked for a minimum of four years.
“This wasn’t a freak accident,” said Capt. Cynthia McGrath, a military lawyer for the government. “Every single decision the accused made that night put him in that car in the wrong lane.”
The victims and their families “deserve more than an apology,” she said.
Westmoreland told the judge he went out the evening before the crash with other airmen after working a long shift that was part of a base exercise.
He estimated consuming about seven mixed drinks and additional whiskey shots over five hours.
Prosecutors filled in more detail, describing how Westmoreland and his friends had several rounds before going to Kajutes, a bar a few minutes drive from the base.
A nearly empty whiskey bottle was later recovered in Westmoreland’s car, prosecutors said.
Most of the airmen in Westmoreland’s group took a taxi home around 3 a.m. But Westmoreland told the judge he couldn’t afford a taxi because of expenses from a recent off-base move.
He said he stayed at the bar drinking with “Sergeant Brown,” who was described in court as Westmoreland’s supervisor.
Westmoreland drove Brown home around 5:30 a.m. and sat in his Volvo S40 talking with him in his driveway. When Brown didn’t invite him to stay over, Westmoreland said he continued driving but pulled over and passed out for about 90 minutes.
That Westmoreland gave an airman “two ranks above him” a ride home should be a mitigating factor in sentencing, his defense attorney said. It was unclear Monday whether Brown was disciplined for letting Westmoreland drive drunk.
The crash happened around 8 a.m., a few minutes after Westmoreland got back on the road. His speed was estimated at 52 mph.
Prosecutors said Westmoreland’s blood alcohol content was .109 a few hours later at the hospital, and approximately .19 at the time of the crash. The legal limit in Germany is .05.
Westmoreland recalled hearing a “huge crash sound” and seeing “red dust.”
McGrath said Mayer, who was driving the other car, tried to swerve, but there was nothing he could do. Westmoreland’s car “obliterated the right side of his car,” she said, adding Schneider “never stood a chance.”
Mayer has had multiple surgeries to repair a fractured arm and has not recovered full use of one of his hands, according to court testimony. He still suffers from anxiety when driving, he wrote in a victim impact statement.
Michael Reimers, 41, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to one count of distributing a controlled substance and one count of engaging in the business of selling firearms without a license, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Nevada.
A military judge also found Reimers guilty in a general court-martial on March 11, a Nellis spokesperson said Thursday. His sentence: 84 months of confinement, a six-grade demotion from master sergeant to airman basic, and a dishonorable discharge.
Reimers was arrested in September 2019 after spending about two months offering to sell “numerous firearms to various buyers, including an AK-47, a .26 caliber handgun, and a 12-gauge shotgun,” DOJ said. “In addition, on July 23, 2019, Reimers sold methamphetamine to an individual for $800.”
Reimers, who was not a licensed firearms dealer, allegedly sold the shotgun to someone living in the U.S. illegally, and had trafficked cocaine on top of more than 50 grams of meth, the federal government said.
Master Sgt. Michael Reimers is now being held in pre-trial confinement.
DOJ will move to dismiss two remaining charges at the sentencing hearing, scheduled for July 13, Trisha Young at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Nevada told Air Force Times Thursday. Reimers faced a second count of distributing a controlled substance and one count of selling a firearm to a prohibited person.
Reimers could serve a maximum sentence of life in prison, a lifetime of supervised release, and a $10.3 million fine, according to DOJ. He was placed in custody pending the hearing, Young said.
The Nellis spokesperson said Thursday they were still working to confirm Reimers’ whereabouts.
Reimers joined the Air Force in 2000 and had attained the rank of master sergeant at the time of his arrest, Air Force Times previously reported. In 2019, the Air Force Personnel Center said he worked in the spectrum operations field and was a transmissions section chief in Nellis’s 99th Communications Squadron.
The Drug Enforcement Administration led the investigation in partnership with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, the Henderson Police Department, and Nellis law enforcement.
FORT BRAGG, N.C. (WTVD) — Special Forces Col. KR is a free man after being found not guilty on all charges. After a three day trial, the jury found him not guilty on all five sexual Col. Kevin M. Russell was acquitted of sexual assault charges Thursday. (Army)
A Special Forces officer who faced sexual assault charges at a military court-martial this week was found not guilty on each of the charges Thursday.
The eight-man panel that included seven colonels and a brigadier general found Col. KR not guilty of sexually assaulting an Air Force captain who was on the same deployment with him in 2015 to Pakistan.
“We did have faith that the military panel would come to the right decision. We knew what evidence we had and what the truth was. We’re pleased with the verdict,” said defense attorney Michael Waddington. “The government’s two-star witnesses were people known for lying, pathological lying and manipulation. They both have lied under oath repeatedly.”
The accuser, an Air Force reservist, took the stand Wednesday in Fort Bragg’s second judiciary circuit court. She admitted to the court that she hung out with KR, planned KR’s farewell party and had sexual relations with him several times after the alleged sexual assault.
The pair worked together at the U.S. Embassy.
KR, who testified Wednesday that sex with the captain was consensual, pleaded not guilty to all of the charges. Those charges included whether he sexually assaulted the woman and whether he sexually assaulted her while she was asleep, impaired or unable to provide consent and whether he kissed the woman while she was incapacitated, impaired or with the intent for arousal.
During closing arguments, Waddington said he did not think prosecutors provided evidence to support the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt.
Maj. Stacy Gutarz Cohen, who represented the prosecution, repeated the woman’s testimony in which she alleged that she went to an establishment with KR on June 5, 2015, and could not remember much from that night after having two drinks that KR brought her.
The woman alleged that she woke to KR having sex with her.
KR testified Wednesday that the woman was coherent when she came into his room that night and initiated the sex.
The woman testified Wednesday that she had sex with KR and his housemate, an Army captain, prior to and after the alleged assault.
Both men were married at the time.
The Army captain alleged during his testimony Tuesday that all three left the establishment together in June 2015 and when they returned to the house, he and KR carried the woman upstairs.
The captain, who was granted immunity of his own affair allegations for his testimony, said the woman was not coherent and alleged he saw KR kiss her.
KR said the woman walked up the stairs on her own and all three went to bed after a short conversation in the hallway.
On Thursday, Waddington reminded the panel that the woman said she had sex with the Army captain later the same morning of the alleged assault.
Waddington alleged the woman and captain lied about the story.
He questioned why she had sex with KR after the alleged assault, went to dinner with him, helped organize two parties for him after the alleged assault, went on a group hike with him that was photographed after the alleged assault or had sex with him the day he left Pakistan.
Waddington questioned why she provided text messages to investigators from March, April, May and July between her and KR but none from the month of the alleged assault.
He questioned her credibility as a witness because he said she later maintained an on-again, off-again relationship with the Army captain, but “used ploys” to keep the relationship going, which included lying about having had cancer.
“We had faith that the military panel would come to the right decision,” Waddington said. “We knew what evidence we had and what the truth was, so we’re pleased with the verdict.”
The charges stem from a romantic relationship in 2016 with another Army attorney. The alleged victim reported that what began as a consensual relationship of rough sex and domination-submission turned criminal.
Hockenberry is accused of holding a knife to the victim’s throat, choking her and forcing her to have sex without a condom, violating an explicit rule she had set forth.
Sexual assault in the U.S. armed forces remains pervasive despite the military’s attempts to eradicate sex crimes from the ranks, according to a new report by a Senate Democrat who has been critical of the Pentagon’s efforts.
“The accused may think that this was a game or it was role-playing, but it’s not a game — it’s an assault,” prosecutor Lt. Col. Carol Brewer said at the end of a multi-day preliminary hearing in January.
The case hinges on whether Hockenberry knowingly and deliberately violated the terms of their relationship in an attempt to brutalize his partner.
“At the outset, she knew exactly what the relationship involved,” civilian defense attorney William Helixon said in January.
A master sergeant with the 315th Security Forces Squadron at Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina will face a court-martial next month on charges of possession of child pornography.
Master Sgt. Brian Arnold, of the Air Force Reserve, is accused of possessing sexually explicit videos of a minor, or someone who appears to be a minor, between August 2012 and June 2015, according to charge sheet information provided by Joint Base Charleston. If convicted, this would be a violation of Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Arnold’s court-martial is scheduled to begin March 19 at the base, and end March 23. Maj. Gen. Christopher Bence, the commander of the United States Air Force Expeditionary Center, will be the convening authority.
“It is important to remember in the military justice system every individual is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Marvin Krause, a spokesman for Joint Base Charleston, said in an email. “While it is premature to comment on the outcome of the case, charges have been referred to trial by the General Court Martial Convening Authority, and a court will determine if the accused is guilty of the alleged offense and if so, adjudicate an appropriate sentence.”
The next time you want to send your buddies a joke text message, remember that it could end your career.
Three instructor pilots at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, are facing the end of their Air Force careers after investigators searched their personal cellphones and found mentions of the word “Molly” — a slang term for the illegal drug ecstasy.
Importantly, the pilots were punished because the Air Force deemed their texts to be unprofessional. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations found no evidence that they had used drugs. The pilots also passed drug tests.
The pilots, who have not been identified publicly,claimed they were referencing club and rap songs that have popularized the word “Molly,” such as in Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop,” but their commander, Col. Brian Hastings, issued the three pilots letters of reprimand and stripped them of their wings, Air Force Times has learned. A fourth pilot was exonerated at an Article 15 hearing.
Sources close to the investigation say the pilots have asked that the letters of reprimand against them be withdrawn.
But the case illustrates how easily agents with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations< can, after searching your personal cellphone, use crude or ironic text messages to damage your career. It also shows how little recourse you have if you receive a letter of reprimand.
The pilots’ story was first reported by retired Air Force Lt. Col. Tony Carr on his military blog John Q. Public and later by The Daily Beast.
Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh promised to look into the matter after meeting with two lawmakers on Oct. 5: Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who served in the Marine Corps; and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a former KC-135 pilot in the Illinois Air National Guard.
Both lawmakers wrote Welsh a Sept. 15 letter arguing that the text messages for which the three pilots were punished contained “song lyrics, movie lines, and other obvious cultural references that seem to have been painfully misunderstood by investigators.”
“The texts were a mix of banter, music and pop culture references,” said Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Hunter. “Quite often, as I do myself and many others do too, there were euphemisms and metaphors within the conversations. Having seen the full extent of the messages from everyone involved, I can attest to this.” Kasper declined to provide the text messages for publication in the Air Force Times.
The Air Force is taking the matter seriously, said service spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Karns.
“At the request of the Air Force Chief of Staff, the Air Force Inspector General has begun an inquiry of the investigative process and the procedures used to administer any adverse personnel actions,” Karns said in an Oct. 17 email to Air Force Times. “Upon completion of the IG Inquiry, a general officer will independently review the final adjudication and resulting outcome of each member’s administrative case.”
Maintaining good order and discipline is essential for a successful fighting force, Karns said.
“Commanders are expected to hold members accountable for their actions, while ensuring due process and equitable treatment are appropriately applied in every case,” he said. “Commanders take this responsibility very seriously. An allegation of mistreatment is reviewed at multiple levels and the Laughlin cases are no exception.”
Hunter and Kinzinger wrote that they had questions about “the legal underpinning, along with the integrity of the process.”
Welsh vowed to come back to Capitol Hill to brief both lawmakers within four and six weeks, Kasper said.
“The best advocate for these pilots — within the Air Force organization — is Gen. Welsh, because he, too, will take one look at this entire case, as Representatives Hunter and Kinzinger have, and be able to inject the objectivity and common sense that’s been missing for so long,” Kasper told Air Force Times.
During an unrelated investigation into whether a pilot was having an inappropriate relationship with a student, investigators found text messages that led them to suspect four other pilots had used drugs.
Sources close to the investigation said one of the four pilots investigated was ordered by his commanding officer to turn over his personal cellphone after OSI agents initially told him they had a verbal warrant to search his phone and he pushed back. He later learned that the warrant for his phone was signed the day after his phone was seized.
OSI refused to allow another pilot to talk to a lawyer after demanding he provide the passcode for his phone, sources said. Another pilot provided OSI with the passcode for his phone because he believed they could get a warrant for that information.
The way OSI obtained the phones raises legal issues, according to military law experts.
Guy Womack, a military defense attorney in Houston, questioned whether OSI was legally allowed to search one pilot’s cellphone after his commanding officer told him to give it to investigators.
“If he gave the officer an order to turn over his phone, that does not mean that he gave anyone authorization to search the phone,” said Womack, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and judge advocate. “If you hand them your phone, they can’t look at it, they can just hold it until they get a warrant to search it — or an authorization to search it. If they didn’t have authorization to search it, then search was illegal.”
OSI either needs a warrant approved by a judge to search your personal phone off base or a command authorization approved by your commanding officer to search your phone on base, Womack told Air Force Times.
“It’s not consensual if you tell someone, ‘Hey, I’ve got a warrant, you might as well give it to me,’— ‘OK, here you can have it,’” Womack said. “That’s not valid because you didn’t know that you could refuse consent. It’s only consensual if you believe you can refuse and you give that up and you say, ‘OK, go ahead and take it.’”
It’s an open question whether commanders can order you to give your phone to investigators. Womack says commanders have authority to compel you to submit to a search, but Michael Waddington, an attorney in Evans, Georgia, who handles courts-martial, disagrees.
“That’s the equivalent of ordering someone to waive their Constitutional right protecting them against illegal search and seizure,” said Waddington, a former Army captain who served as a military police officer and judge advocate. “That sounds like an illegal order.”
If you have a government-issued phone, OSI does not need permission to search it, Waddington said. Otherwise, investigators need to establish probable cause to search your private phone, but OSI agents often get around that by simply asking airmen if they can look at their phones, he said.
“I have so many guys who get charged and some end up in jail because they’ll go into OSI, they’re under investigation, OSI says, ‘Hey, you mind if we take a look at your phone real quick?’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, sure’ — instead of saying: ‘No, you can’t look at my phone. Do you have a warrant? If you don’t have a warrant, you can’t have it,’” Waddington said.
When one of his clients allowed OSI to search his phone, they used it to get witness statements against him. “They called every person on the phone saying: ‘Hey, this guy is a sexual predator. We need your help. Do you know anything about him? Has he ever done anything to you?’ And they called all of his ex-girlfriends and they started drumming up additional witnesses — which I think is inappropriate, but the judge let it fly,” he said.
The pilots’ case is not the first time a service member got in trouble for text messaging. Waddington said he just represented an Army officer who texted things to his girlfriend messages along the lines of “Hey, you want to get together and have sex this evening?”
When the two broke up, his ex-girlfriend provided all of those private text messages to the soldier’s commanding officer, and he received a letter of reprimand, Waddington said.
“That’s the first time I’ve seen something like that, where’s there’s not even really a crime that’s occurred, but they’re going to do something to the officer,” Waddington said. “I think in his letter, they phrased it as, ‘inappropriate.’ It was basically a generic catch-all like under ‘conduct unbecoming’ — ‘inappropriate behavior,’ ‘inappropriate conduct’ — but there’s really nothing inappropriate about it.”
The Military Judges’ Benchbook defines unbecoming conduct as “conduct morally unfitting and unworthy rather than merely inappropriate or unsuitable, misbehavior which is more than opposed to good taste or propriety.”
Neither the Defense Department nor Uniform Code of Military Justice defines what constitutes unprofessional behavior, Waddington said.
“There’s no such thing; otherwise, you could be just making up charges,” he said. “Somebody could get drunk in his backyard and play rap music and that would be considered unprofessional by some standards.”
But the pilots have little legal recourse because they were issued letters of reprimand, Waddington said.
“If it’s a letter of reprimand, really anything goes,” Waddington said. “There’s no one to really go to and say, ‘Hey, listen, these things were obtained illegally,’ because it’s not a court. Hearsay is admissible, illegal searches would be admissible with a letter of reprimand.”
Retired Col. Don Christensen, the Air Force’s former chief prosecutor, has seen cases where airmen received a letter of reprimand because evidence against them was thrown out.
Christensen gave a hypothetical example of an airman charged with stealing tools from the flight line. In the example, investigators find the tools after violating the scope of a search authorization, so the judge rules the evidence against the airman inadmissible.
“There’s nothing that precludes them from taking administrative action,” said Christensen, now president of the victims advocacy group Protect Our Defenders. “I’ve seen that kind of scenario where they say, ‘OK, we can’t use this in trial, but we know you got these tools. We’re not going to ignore it. Give him a reprimand for that.’”
As a prosecutor, Christensen always worried that judges would rule evidence gathered from a search inadmissible, in part because the people who authorize searches often have little legal training, he said.
“So what we see a lot is that the search authorizations are probably overly broad and not narrowly tailored as they should be, and as a result, it gets much more expansive,” Christensen said.
But it’s not often that evidence obtained from searches is thrown out, he said.
Airmen are expected to abide by Air Force standards for professional at all times, even when they are off duty, Huygen said.
“The idea of holding people accountable and responsible for things that they communicate — regardless of what method they use to communicate — is a longstanding proposition,” she said.
The standards airmen are expected to abide by are outlined in Air Force Instruction 1-1, Huygen said.
“You must avoid offensive and/or inappropriate behavior on social networking platforms and through other forms of communication that could bring discredit upon on [sic] the Air Force or you as a member of the Air Force, or that would otherwise be harmful to good order and discipline, respect for authority, unit cohesion, morale, mission accomplishment, or the trust and confidence that the public has in the United States Air Force,” the instruction says.
Waste of training
Waddington argues that kicking service members out for inappropriate texting is a waste of the money and training that the military invested in them. It costs the Air Force $9 million to train a single pilot, Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly, director of force management policy, told Air Force Times in July.
“Unless they get the wings back — which hopefully they do — they’re going to be sitting around handing out basketballs at a gym or doing something like that,” Waddington said. “After all those years of training and all that hard work, I’d rather have those guys out there on the front lines doing their jobs.”
Waddington’s advice to service members: “Don’t text anything that they would not want their mother reading out loud at family dinner.”
A U.K.-based airmen faces charges that he lied to a commanding officer about housing for a dependent, according to charge sheets filed with the Judge Advocate General’s office.
Staff Sgt. Angelo Rodriguez, with the 48th Maintenance Squadron, “willfully failed” to notify his commanding officer that a dependent moved to the U.K. with Rodriguez during his deployment to Royal Air Force Base Lakenheath, according to court documents.
Instead, Rodriguez allegedly told his commander that the dependent was still living in the U.S. in Florida, and misrepresented his entitlement to housing allowances, the records show.
Rodriguez’s lawyer, however, says his client is innocent and never misrepresented where his family was living.
“He was on an unaccompanied tour to England and never received [Overseas Housing Allowance] with dependents,” said attorney Michael Waddington. “From Florida, his wife and baby did visit with him in England occasionally…They never had an intention of staying and never applied for command sponsorship.”
Waddington said the Air Force has also cut off all of Rodriguez’s allowances for dependents and now owes him $20,000 in back pay.
“For nearly a year, he has been supporting his family on a salary without any dependent pay for his wife and baby,” Waddington said.
Rodriguez also faces charges that he stole $500 worth of military property between September 2012 and May 2014.
Officials declined to identify what items Rodriguez is accused of stealing, saying that they could not discuss the case.
According to Air Force personnel records, Rodriguez is a weapons load crew chief. He joined the service in 2007, and has received the Air Force Commendation Medal and Air Force Achievement Medal.