FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- Less than a month before an Army general's trial on sexual assault charges, the case's lead prosecutor broke down in tears as he told a superior he believed the primary accuser lied under oath.
Lt. Col. William Helixon had urged that the most serious charges against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair be dropped because they rely solely on the woman's accusation that he twice forced her to perform oral sex. But those above the seasoned sex crimes prosecutor overrode him, rebuffing Gen. Sinclair's offer to plead guilty to lesser charges.
Defense attorneys allege that the top brass moved forward because they worried about political fallout if the charges were dropped. Col. Helixon was pulled from the case after leading it for nearly two years, after a superior officer took him to a military hospital for a mental health evaluation, according to testimony.
Following a daylong hearing, a judge ruled that the case should go to trial. Opening statements are set for Thursday.
"No offense to Lt. Col. Helixon, but I don't care what he thinks, and neither should the court," Lt. Col. Robert Stelle, who replaced Col. Helixon as lead prosecutor, told the judge.
The case against Gen. Sinclair, believed to be the most senior U.S. military officer ever to face trial for sexual assault, comes as the Pentagon grapples with a troubling string of revelations involving rape and sexual misconduct within the ranks. Influential members of Congress are pushing to remove decisions about prosecuting sex crimes from the military chain of command.
Gen. Sinclair, former 82nd Airborne deputy commander, has pleaded not guilty to eight criminal charges including forcible sodomy, indecent acts, violating orders and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. He faces life in prison if convicted of the sexual assault charges.
Lawyers for the married father of two have said he carried on a three-year extramarital affair with a female captain under his command during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The admission of an affair will almost certainly end his Army career. In pretrial hearings, prosecutors have painted Gen. Sinclair as a sexual predator who abused his position and threatened to kill the accuser and her family if she told anyone of their relationship. The Associated Press does not identify alleged sexual assault victims.
Col. Helixon, described as dealing with "personal issues," wasn't called to testify Tuesday. But among those called to the stand was Brig. Gen. Paul Wilson, a high-ranking military lawyer stationed at the Pentagon.
Gen. Wilson said another general sent him the morning of Feb. 8 to check on Col. Helixon, then staying at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Washington. He said he founnd Col. Helixon appearing drunk and suicidal. "He was in the midst of a personal crisis. He was crying. He was illogical," Gen. Wilson testified. "I truly believed if he could have stepped in front of a bus at the time, I think he would have."
The lead prosecutor had become convinced that the accuser had lied under oath when she testified in January about evidence collected from a cellphone.
The captain testified that on Dec. 9, shortly after what she described as a contentious meeting with prosecutors, she rediscovered an old iPhone stored in a box at home that still contained the general's text messages and voicemails. She testified that she charged the phone, then synced it with her computer to save photos before contacting her attorney.
But a defense expert's examination suggested that the captain powered up the device more than two weeks before the prosecutors meeting. She also tried to make a call and performed various other operations. Three additional experts verified those findings.
Gen. Wilson said Col. Helixon was distraught that the accuser had lied to him. "I served with him in combat in Afghanistan, making targeting decisions with people's lives on the line. I have never seen another human being in a state like that," he said.
Gen. Wilson said he took Col. Helixon to nearby Fort Belvoir's hospital emergency room for a mental health evaluation. Though a psychiatrist declined to admit him, Gen. Wilson said he told Col. Helixon's immediate Fort Bragg superior that the prosecutor was no longer fit to handle the case. "He was not fit for any kind of duty," Gen. Wilson said. "I would not have trusted him to drive a car."
In an unusual move, the defense called Richard Scheff, Gen. Sinclair's lead lawyer. Mr. Scheff testified that Col. Helixon had confided that he was concerned that the case had become too politicized. "He said everyone on his team had reasonable doubt," the lawyer said. "He said, 'I'm going to be the guy who gets hurt in this. I'm going to have a problem.' "
The defense introduced a December letter the military lawyer assigned to represent the accuser sent to Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, the Fort Bragg commander. Under military law, it was up to Gen. Anderson to decide whether to accept Gen. Sinclair's plea offer.
On behalf of the accuser, Capt. Cassie L. Fowler urged Gen. Anderson to reject the deal, suggesting to do otherwise would "have an adverse effect on my client and the Army's fight against sexual assault." She wrote, "Acceptance of this plea would send the wrong signal to those senior commanders who would prey on their subordinates by using their rank and position, thereby ensuring there will be other victims like my client in the future."
Military judge Col. James Pohl said Capt. Fowler's letter to Gen. Anderson was improper, but did not constitute unlawful command influence. Gen. Anderson is a three-star general, the judge said, while the special victim's advocate is just a captain.
After the ruling, Gen. Sinclair's lawyer suggested that the Army was sacrificing Col. Helixon's career and reputation to pursue a flawed case.