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Tailhook Flier Expected to Be Cleared : Scandal: Criminal charges against Marine to be dropped, sources say. New evidence indicates wrong man may have been accused.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Marine Corps magistrate Thursday recommended that criminal charges be dismissed against the Marine Corps flier accused of assaulting Lt. Paula Coughlin at the 1991 Tailhook convention because of new evidence indicating that she had identified the wrong man, sources here said.

The recommendation is likely to be approved soon by the Marine base commandant, the sources said. Such a step would end what the accused flier, Capt. Gregory J. Bonam, has described as an episode that not only jeopardized his career but damaged “the entire Navy and Marine Corps” as well.

Bonam has been painted as one of the chief villains in the scandal, in which, by the Pentagon’s own count, 83 women were sexually harassed or assaulted during the 1991 Tailhook Assn. convention at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel.

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Now that his vindication appears near, Bonam said he harbors no bitterness against Coughlin, who won national headlines and the cheers of women’s advocate groups when she first stepped forward to claim that she and other women had been sexually harassed or assaulted at the fliers’ convention.

“I don’t think she’ll be on my Christmas list this year,” the 30-year-old aviator said. “But you can’t lay the whole blame on Lt. Coughlin. There are a lot of people, and I can’t and I don’t want to list them all.”

He also strongly defended the annual Tailhook conventions. They have lost the support of the military since the scandal, while the allegations have cost some high-level Navy and Marine officers their jobs.

Bonam said that he sees no reason to avoid future Tailhook conventions, contending that “you’ve got the best and the brightest people there. When there is another one, I won’t hesitate to go.”

Bonam’s defense attorney, Patrick J. MacKrell of Albany, N.Y., said that the hearing officer, Col. Stephen Mitchell, has recommended that the charge be dismissed, rather than proceeding to a court-martial. If convicted of the assault charge, Bonam could receive a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

MacKrell said that Mitchell is urging the dismissal because of the new evidence, because of Bonam’s exemplary military career and because of questions about Coughlin’s identification of Bonam.

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The decision will be made by Lt. Gen. Charles C. Krulak, the base commander here. Mitchell and Krulak are precluded from discussing the case while it is still under consideration.

Coughlin was reportedly ill and did not attend the hearing Thursday. But her attorneys have said that, despite the new testimony and regardless of the outcome of this case, she has not changed her belief that it was Bonam who grabbed her buttocks and squeezed her breasts as she walked into a hallway that was filled with drunken airmen.

Yet new evidence presented Thursday tends to contradict her recollections. A civilian Navy employee testified that someone other than Bonam--whom he said he could not identify--attacked Coughlin. And two other witnesses recalled standing with Bonam on a hotel patio at the time the assault took place.

“It was a very large socializing party,” James T. Kelly, the civilian Navy employee, testified in describing the convention. “It would be like a combination New Year’s Eve-wedding reception-spring break all built into one. A very festive attitude.”

He recalled one woman who was lifted in the air and passed along the hallway, and a second, drunken woman who was “descended upon,” her pants pulled off and flung into the air.

In describing Coughlin’s assault, he said that the attacker was about her height--5 feet, 4 inches tall--much shorter than the 6-foot, 1-inch Bonam. But he said he could not identify the man today.

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“I don’t recall seeing the individual’s face,” he said.

Kelly also testified that he knows Coughlin, but is not fond of her, and “did not elect to go to her aid” because he was worried about guilt by association for being there.

“I determined I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and I wanted to get out,” he said.

Kelly was not called as a witness in the initial August hearing in the case. Defense attorney MacKrell said that he did not learn of Kelly’s presence at the convention until two weeks ago when Kelly testified at hearings for Naval officers in Norfolk, Va.

The other two witnesses who gave fresh testimony Thursday, Marine Capt. Barry Lee Kragel and former Marine Capt. Matthew P. Long, said they were with Bonam on a nearby patio at the time Coughlin was assaulted.

They were able to pinpoint the time because they remembered a window pane falling from the hotel. According to hotel security logs, that incident coincides with the hallway debauchery.

Long added that, even though a thousand people were in the patio and hallway areas, he saw no assaults.

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