FT. BRAGG, N.C. — Two former lovers faced off a few paces apart in a military courtroom Monday, avoiding eye contact as a judge heard conflicting narratives about a tumultuous and illicit affair between two officers of very different rank and stature.
Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, wearing jump boots and a dress blue uniform with a white star on each shoulder, pleaded guilty to mistreating his mistress, a subordinate officer under his command. He told a military judge in a halting voice that he deceived the woman, a captain, during their three-year affair, causing her "emotional harm and suffering."
"I failed her as a leader and a mentor, and caused harm to her emotional state," Sinclair said, struggling to maintain his composure while reading from a statement on a dreary, rainy day in which he pleaded guilty to a series of related charges.
"I led her to believe that I would leave my wife and that we would be together at some point in the future," he said. "This was not true."
The captain, who was not present for Sinclair's statements, testified at the start of the general's sentencing hearing Monday.
Also wearing a dress blue uniform, she told of lasting trauma she suffered at the hands of a general whom she once worshiped, but who she said ensnared her in an unequal and manipulative relationship that he controlled as her senior commander. He would not let her break off a rocky affair that caused her anguish, she said.
"I felt completely trapped," the 34-year-old captain testified, choking back tears. "I was just being used for sex."
Pressed by Sinclair's lawyer to admit that she voluntarily remained in the relationship, the captain shot back, "I would have left a long time ago if it was completely up to me."
The predicament left the captain so distraught and fearful that she slept on her couch with a loaded gun nearby and got a 95-pound Doberman to protect her, her mother said in Monday's testimony.
The back-to-back accounts offered by the tall, imposing general and the small, dark-eyed captain nudged the high-profile sexual misconduct case another step toward resolution.
The military judge, Col. James L. Pohl, on Monday accepted Sinclair's guilty pleas, which were hammered out over the weekend with an eye toward closing a case that destroyed the general's career and left his former lover saying she felt abused and utterly alone.
As part of that plea deal, the Army agreed to drop charges that he sexually assaulted the captain, threatened to kill her and her family, and engaged in "open and notorious" sex in a parked car and on a hotel balcony. Under those charges, Sinclair would have faced life in prison and would have had to register as a sex offender had he been found guilty.
One of only a handful of generals to face a court-martial in the last 60 years, the 51-year-old Sinclair also pleaded guilty to twice misusing his government charge card to pursue the affair, disobeying an order not to contact the captain, and making derogatory comments about other female officers.
On March 6, the 27-year veteran pleaded guilty to adultery; impeding an investigation by deleting sexually explicit emails to and from a civilian woman; possessing pornography in a war zone; conducting inappropriate relationships with two other female officers; and improperly asking a female lieutenant for a date.
Pohl will decide Sinclair's punishment at the end of the sentencing hearing. Sinclair normally would face up to 25 1/2 years in prison based on the guilty pleas. However, the new plea agreement puts a cap on his punishment. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but the general's lawyers are fighting to keep him out of prison. They also are seeking a sentence that would allow Sinclair to retire at the reduced rank of lieutenant colonel.
Army prosecutors on Monday said maximum penalties included, in addition to prison, dismissal from the Army and forfeiture of pay and allowances.
Sinclair's plea agreement came after the court-martial was halted last week, when Pohl ruled that improper political considerations may have tainted the Army's decision to reject an earlier plea offer.
That embarrassed the Army, which signaled a willingness to bargain and thus avoid prolonged testimony based almost solely on statements by a compromised accuser. Forensics experts concluded the captain lied at a January hearing about an old cellphone she said she found, which contained messages to and from Sinclair.
Sinclair, who is married with two children, has long admitted he committed adultery as part of a consensual affair that stretched across two war zones and three continents. He was a rising star, the deputy commander of U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan, and a decorated veteran of five combat tours.
On Monday, the general said his behavior was unbecoming to an officer and gentleman. It was "unjustified and unnecessary and caused [the captain] mental harm and suffering," he said.
Asked by the judge whether his comments about female officers were inappropriate and indecent, Sinclair nodded briskly. "Oh, yes, sir," he said. "I was wrong."
He also admitted that the real reason for taking trips to Arizona and Texas at government expense "was for me and [the captain] to see each other."
The general said he misled his lover because "I feared that if I told her the truth, she would reveal the relationship with terrible consequences for both of us."
He embarked on the affair in 2009, fully aware that the much younger woman was "enamored of my rank and authority," Sinclair told the judge.
For the first six months, Sinclair said, he believed the captain understood that he would not divorce his wife. Only later did he begin to realize that she "was emotionally committed to the relationship in a way that I wasn't, and that she wanted me to leave my wife."
Sinclair said the captain was jealous of other women, including his wife. He said he flirted with other women and "was cold to her at times in order to encourage her to break off the relationship on her own."
Prosecutors put the captain and her mother on the stand to underscore a contention that Sinclair mistreated his mistress and took advantage of the discrepancy in their ranks to control her.
The captain, an intelligence officer and Arab linguist, described the general as "the only person in the world who could get me out of that situation, and he refused to." She worked directly for Sinclair for much of their relationship.
Because of mistreatment by Sinclair, the captain said, she is anxious and guarded now around senior commanders. "I'm constantly wondering ... how are they abusing their rank ... and how might they abuse me or someone else?"
Her mother, who lives in Nebraska, said Sinclair's behavior devastated her daughter.
"She was wound tighter than a corkscrew," she told the judge. "She'd just sit there and cry uncontrollably."
Under brief cross-examination, the captain acknowledged that she was trying desperately to get Sinclair's attention when she threatened suicide after he stopped returning her calls. She said she knew the general probably would not divorce his wife, yet continued to have sex with him.
Even after Sinclair allegedly forced her twice to perform oral sex and threatened to kill her and her family — according to the captain's previous testimony — she sent the general a thank-you card that gushed about his leadership and stature.
She thanked him for allowing her to work for him, calling it "my greatest honor." She added, "I owe you, sir" — code between the lovers for "I love you," according to previous testimony.
But when asked by Sinclair's lawyer, Richard L. Scheff, whether she had insisted that Sinclair leave his wife, the captain denied it. Scheff provided the court with entries from the captain's journal, in which she wrote: "My biggest fear is that there is still something there in his marriage."
The captain said Sinclair used vulgar and abusive language to disparage female officers. When she challenged him, she testified, he uttered a profanity and told her he was a general and could say whatever he wanted.
"As a female, it was extremely discouraging to hear someone at that level, at that rank, call women by those names," she testified.
Sinclair admitted using vulgar language to describe several female officers. But he said his comment about a general being able to do whatever he wanted was an inside joke among his command staff, and was said in jest.
The captain, challenged by Scheff that everyone in the military curses, including her, responded that everyday military profanity is much different than vulgar, sexually explicit insults directed only at women.
With a pained expression, the captain spoke at times with her head down, and did not look in Sinclair's direction. The general leaned back in his chair, hands folded, with a somber look as he listened intently.
Sentencing testimony resumes Tuesday with four more Army witnesses.
Scheff said he would call at least 20 witnesses to testify about Sinclair's character and service to his country.
Scheff said Sinclair's wife, who has stood by him, would submit a letter to the judge and that Sinclair himself would make an unsworn statement at sentencing, Scheff said. He added that he had not decided whether to have Sinclair testify under oath.
Scheff said Sinclair became emotional when testifying. "That's what happens when you have a sincere belief that you made a mistake," he said. "You do get choked up."
In the most contrite element of his colloquy with the judge, Sinclair said he should have been mentoring the young captain. "Instead," he said, "I created a situation that over time caused her emotional harm and suffering."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times