FT. BRAGG, N.C. — He first met the much younger woman who would become his mistress in Germany, and later in Iraq, the general testified Thursday.
In 2009, the woman, by then a 29-year-old Army captain, accompanied Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, 51, on missions in Afghanistan. They soon became lovers who exchanged texts and emails brimming with explicit sex talk. He called her "my panda." She called him "Papa Panda sexy pants."
The passionate three-year affair ultimately soured, and Sinclair was brought before a military judge Thursday on charges related to the relationship. He pleaded guilty to adultery, improper relationships with three other female officers, impeding an investigation and watching pornography on his personal computer on a military base in Afghanistan.
Sinclair, a former deputy commander of U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan, has pleaded not guilty to far more serious charges — all but one stemming from allegations by his former lover, who has accused him of forcing her to perform oral sex after the affair went bad. Sinclair is charged with threatening to kill her and her family if she divulged the affair.
Opening statements in his court-martial are expected to begin Friday. The general also faces charges of sodomy, groping the captain against her will, engaging in public sex and abusing his government credit card in pursuit of the affair. He faces life in prison if convicted on all charges.
The offenses Sinclair admitted Thursday could bring up to 15 years in prison, forfeiture of pay and allowance, and severance from the Army. He will be sentenced by an all-male panel of five two-star generals after they hear evidence on the remaining charges.
The jury was not in the courtroom when Sinclair described his offenses.
For more than an hour, Sinclair spoke in a hoarse Southern drawl as he described his adultery with the captain and his romantic pursuit of three other officers. He told of having sex with the captain on three continents, and of pressuring a female officer to email him nude photos.
He ranged from expansive to evasive, and from coy to contrite. He eagerly described how the accuser initially flirted with him, and how another female captain told him she loved him.
Asked several times by the judge, Col. James L. Pohl, whether he considered his behavior improper and a violation of military regulations, the general responded: "Oh, yes, sir" or, simply, "Absolutely, sir."
He was less forthcoming with details of his porn-watching habits, and admitted only under the judge's questioning that he had badgered a major for nude photographs. The judge pressed the general to admit that he obstructed justice by deleting nude photos he had received electronically from a civilian woman after he learned he was under investigation.
Pohl approved the guilty pleas. Prosecutors later dismissed two relatively minor counts against Sinclair — pressuring the captain to send him photos and engaging in an inappropriate relationship with the civilian.
The case of Sinclair, one of the highest-ranking officers to be court-martialed, has become a national emblem of the military's struggle to cope with sexual assault in its ranks. His guilty pleas to the lesser charges came the same day the Senate failed to pass legislation that would have stripped senior military commanders of their authority to decide whether to prosecute sexual assault cases.
In court, the general wore jump boots and a blue dress uniform with a star on each shoulder. His brown hair was longer than the military buzz cut he wore in combat, and he spoke to the judge in convivial tones, as if he were chatting with a friend at a backyard barbecue.
Sinclair freely confessed that his behavior was unbecoming an officer and brought dishonor to the Army.
"Senior officers should not do that," Sinclair said after confessing that he had pressured a young female first lieutenant for a horseback riding date.
He told the judge his accuser, the captain, approached him in March 2009 with an offer to watch a Showtime movie in his personal trailer at a base in southern Afghanistan. He said the movie contained "some nudity."
The captain, Sinclair said, "wanted intercourse that night." He said he immediately decided, "I wouldn't go there."
The judge asked how Sinclair knew the captain wanted to have sex. "Probably when she took her top off, sir," the general replied.
The two had sex in Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany, Texas, Arizona and North Carolina, Sinclair testified. They exchanged hundreds of sexually tinged emails and texts, some of which have been described in pretrial hearings.
The captain was single. The general has been married since 1985, and he and his wife have two sons.
Pohl asked Sinclair his wife's name. "Rebecca Sinclair," he said softly.
Rebecca Sinclair has not attended the hearings, but has said in interviews that she supports her husband despite his infidelity. She has called him a good father who has been demonized by the Army.
Sinclair's lawyers contend that his accuser lied on the stand, saying she falsely accused him of sexual assault after discovering he was flirting with other women. They also accuse her of trying to avoid prosecution for adultery, a serious military crime.
The judge asked Sinclair whether it made any difference that the relationship began as a consensual affair, given that he was a senior commander and she was a junior officer subject to his orders.
"I'm still guilty of an inappropriate relationship," Sinclair replied.
Asked about his sexually explicit emails with the officer who said she loved him, Sinclair replied: "It's like that old story of what would your wife think if she saw that? It was too personal."
Sinclair admitted telling the first lieutenant that he was "smitten with her" and asking for a date. That, he said, was improper, and he apologized to her.
Sinclair told the judge he deleted the email account he used to communicate with the civilian woman, a friend since childhood, along with nude photos she had sent. He said he wanted to spare her embarrassment once he knew he was under investigation.
After the hearing at Ft. Bragg, Sinclair walked through a chilly mist to his car for the short drive home, past a bank of TV cameras. His chief lawyer, Richard Scheff, said Sinclair welcomed the opportunity to take responsibility for his actions.
The accuser, now 34, could testify as early as Friday, Scheff said. He said choosing whether to put Sinclair on the stand would be "a game-day decision."
The guilty pleas have deprived prosecutors of what the defense has characterized as salacious and prejudicial testimony about extramarital sex and pornography, Scheff said.
"What remains of this case really rests on the damaged and tattered credibility of an individual who has not been truthful," Scheff said. "Now we'll fight the accuser head-on."
The general has been waiting for months to own up to his actions, Scheff said. "He's comfortable. He's happy. He feels great."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times