- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 14, 2015

MINOT A.F.B., North Dakota — An award-winning combat photographer who once faced up to 130 years in prison for sexual harassment may avoid jail altogether after being cleared Friday of the most devastating charges against him.

Judge Tiffany Wagner found Tech. Sgt. Aaron D. Allmon II guilty on three counts: two charges of maltreatment of two female airmen, and one charge of making a false official statement.

But the balance of Lt. Col. Wagner’s ruling tilted in Sgt. Allmon’s favor. She scaled back the maltreatment charges by removing references to “physical contact of a sexual nature.”

She also found Sgt. Allmon not guilty of sexual harassment of a civilian coworker; “assault consummated by a battery” on a female staff sergeant; and two counts of communicating a threat toward coworkers.

Sgt. Allmon, 39, is an award-winning combat photographer with 19 years of service who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan with special operations troops and Army ground forces and won a series of commendations for his actions in battle. His combat photos are conspicuous on the Internet, capturing Air Force fighters in action and soldiers patrolling Iraq’s mean streets.

“We won. We won big,” said a relieved Lisa A. Roper, the defendant’s sister, after the verdict was announced in the packed courtroom.

“It was a great outcome because pretty much everything was dropped,” she said, adding, “I believe in my heart that she [Judge Wagner] really did see this for what it was, which was a witch-hunt.”

The verdict comes amid the Pentagon’s ramped-up attack on sexual misconduct in the military, a campaign that critics contend has turned the crass and the crude into the criminal.

It’s possible Sgt. Allmon will now receive no jail time beyond the seven days he has already served after he was accused last year of sexual harassment, including “inappropriate touching” and boorish sexual comments, by four women on the remote base.

Ms. Roper said her brother plans to appeal the three guilty verdicts.

Originally, prosecutors filed more than 30 charges against Sgt. Allmon, but removed or consolidated most of them after the investigative officer in an Article 32 pretrial hearing characterized the list as overkill.

Prosecutors had no immediate comment on the ruling, but one of the women who testified against him appeared to wipe tears from her eyes after the verdict was read.

Jeffrey Addicott, a former Army advocate who has advised the defense team, called the outcome a “gross miscarriage of justice,” adding that he hopes the judge renders “no punishment beyond the fact of a federal conviction.”

Immediately after rendering her verdict, Lt. Col. Wagner began the trial’s sentencing phase, which resumes Saturday.

In the prosecution’s closing statement Friday, Capt. Kevin Hakala argued that Sgt. Allmon engaged in a “systematic practice of sexual harassment” in the public-affairs shop, where he was assigned in 2012 to help train and teach young airmen learning to be photojournalists.

Capt. Hakala ticked off a list of Sgt. Allmon’s alleged comments to his young female coworkers, such as, “You’re attractive,” “I’d f*** you,” “Can I see your nipples?” and “Your ass and your thighs are getting bigger.”

“These are not the words of some frat bro, but an NCO [non-commissioned officer] in the Air Force to his subordinates,” said Capt. Hakala.

He said Sgt. Allmon used “threats, coercion and scare tactics to prevent his victims from coming forward,” creating a “toxic environment no one would want to be in as he extensively manipulates his coworkers.”

Defense attorney Virginia Hermosa countered that the charges against Sgt. Allmon are evidence of the Sexual Assault Prevention Response [SAPR] program swinging wildly out of control as the military scrambles to prove that it takes sexual misconduct seriously.

“I do believe that SAPR has a purpose … But that’s completely different from painting every interaction between service members as sexual,” she said.

She stressed that investigators found no evidence or witnesses to corroborate the outrageous statements or the allegations of “inappropriate touching,” which included brushing back a female staff sergeant’s shorts to see her tattoo, kissing an airman on the forehead, and grabbing another airman’s bottom.

The prosecution acknowledged that such incidents may seem to fall short of criminal behavior. For example, Sgt. Allmon was charged with “assault consummated by a battery” for the tattoo episode, which took place in a crowded gym.

“Now, was this the most egregious assault? No,” Capt. Hakala said. “But it was an assault, nonetheless.”

While prosecutors said Sgt. Allmon took advantage of the undisciplined environment in the public-affairs office to harass women, Ms. Hermosa said he was himself became the target of his young coworkers for his uncompromising, hard-driving approach to the job.

One of the airmen had testified that the office was in “revolt,” while a former captain said that there was a “mutiny” when the airmen drafted and signed a petition to stop a physical-training program to be led by Sgt. Allmon.

“There’s a complete breakdown of the chain of command in that office. … There is no discipline,” Ms. Hermosa said. “You also have people who will fabricate and lie.”

She said it wasn’t difficult for young female airmen, many on their first assignments, to embellish their creative disagreements with Sgt. Allmon into full-blown examples of sexual harassment, which she described as a “feeding frenzy.”

Ms. Hermosa recounted an episode that was originally described as Sgt. Allmon touching a coworker’s knee changed into him running his hand up her thigh.

“Why? I’ll tell you why. Because that’s exactly the lens she wants us to look [through]. The SAPR lens,” Ms. Hermosa said.

Prosecutors said that Sgt. Allmon threatened two coworkers, telling a female coworkers he would “get” her if she said anything to ruin his career, and threatening the career of a male airman unless he reported a female airman’s underage drinking.

Again, defense attorneys countered that there were no witnesses to the exchanges, or to the touching incidents, although in some cases there were other people nearby.

In the case where there should have been evidence — a female coworker saying Sgt. Allmon had invited her over to his house at night via text — an investigator testified that no such text messages were found, even though he also searched deleted texts.

“There’s no evidence of that,” Ms. Hermosa said.

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