IN THE COURTS

2 Guantánamo guards accused of sexually assaulting junior soldiers

 
 
Guantanamo guards prepare to move a detainee to a recreation area in Camp 5 at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay on Oct. 18, 2011 in the Department of Defense handout photo.
Guantanamo guards prepare to move a detainee to a recreation area in Camp 5 at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay on Oct. 18, 2011 in the Department of Defense handout photo.
KILHO PARK / US NAVY PETTY OFFICER

crosenberg@MiamiHerald.com

The military is putting two Guantánamo guards on trial in Texas on charges alleging they sexually assaulted junior soldiers at the remote outpost at a time when commanders were grappling with the prison hunger strike, the military said Monday.

The separate courts martial will take place next month by order of Army Maj. Gen. Joseph P. DiSalvo, the commanding officer of Army South, the headquarters unit for personnel activities of soldiers at the U.S. detention center in southeast Cuba.

In one case, 1st Sgt. Richard A. Smith, no age provided, is accused of raping a sergeant in January 2013 as well as sexually assaulting two other women at the base several months later. Smith, described as a reservist from Orlando, was activated to service about 10 weeks before the alleged rape.

Smith also faces charges alleging he bit the neck of one woman, a corporal, and groped another woman for whom no rank was provided, suggesting she was a civilian contractor.

His charge sheet describes an alleged coercive environment of unwanted sexual advances — and worse — spanning seven months at Guantánamo. They include asking one junior female soldier to persuade another woman soldier to move in with him on his return to life in Florida; having an apparently consensual adulterous sexual relationship with a married specialist; and suggestively speaking with and touching a corporal despite her protests to stop it.

In the other case, Sgt. Stevontae Lacefield, no age provided, is accused of groping a specialist who resisted him in May 2013 in his quarters as well as “wrongfully pursuing personal and sexual relationships” with four different privates in a 10-month span at the remote base. He’s also accused of allowing one under-aged private to drink liquor.

One of Lacefield’s alleged abuse-of-power instances was described as occurring on a cellblock at the prison, which, as of Monday, held 154 foreign men as war-on-terror captives. Lacefield’s charge sheet did not specify which prison camp at Guantánamo.

At Southcom, the South Florida headquarters responsible for the prison, Army Col. Greg Julian said the cases come at a time of increased Pentagon efforts to let soldiers know there’s a way to file complaints against “predators who prey on subordinates.”

He said the military was trying to educate low-ranking soldiers, “not just at Gitmo — anywhere in the military where this sort of thing occurs” of their right to go outside their chain of command for fear of senior troops using their authority as “some sort of power to intimidate them.”

The criminal proceedings were first disclosed over the weekend by the San Antonio Express News in Texas, after the two soldiers’ cases appeared on a military docket as the lone April trials scheduled by the Army South headquarters at San Antonio’s Fort Sam Houston.

The Express News report said the prosecutions marked the first sexual-assault trials of non-commissioned officers assigned to the 12-year-old prison alleging the men preyed on women they were “duty-bound to protect.”

Separately, however, the Guantánamo prison is also investigating a sailor in a different sexual assault case. The Pentagon prison’s 2,100-strong staff borrows troops from different military services, mostly the Army. The suspected U.S. Navy sexual assailant has not yet been charged, said Julian, and works in an administrative not guard job at the detention center.

The Express News cast next month’s trials as the first cases by Army South “in which a guard was accused of assaulting another GI.”

In February, however, another Guantánamo guard, Staff Sgt. Brandon Shelton was convicted at an Army South court martial of harming the mission by having sex with a more junior soldier and mistreating another subordinate through inappropriate comments.

The sergeant lost $2,426 in pay, was busted down to a specialist and ordered to perform 60 days hard labor, according to his record of trial, for making unwanted advances on two different privates in the first half of 2013.

In a statement Monday, Navy Rear Adm. Richard Butler, the prison staff commander, called sexual assault a crime that “undermines the strength of our forces, and fundamentally goes against our warrior ethos, the civilian corps creed and our military core values.”

Prison staff “must be willing to stand up to stop sexual assault,” he said, “because it undermines our mission and continues to hurt our great military.”

The charge sheets show the alleged misconduct began at a time when Army soldiers were replacing Navy sailors as guards on the prison blocks. It continued through one of the greatest periods of tension at the detention center — as captives protesting their circumstances engaged in a sweeping hunger strike during which Southcom poured in medical reinforcements to help conduct tube-feedings of captives.

The documents, released to the Herald Monday, indicated that the charges were originally leveled against the two sergeants in October. Their subsequent pretrial hearings, called Article 32 proceedings, were held at Fort Sam Houston, according to Col. Hans Bush, the public affairs officer there.

An Army major, Gregory B. Batdorff, will serve as judge at the separate trials — for Smith April 3-4 and for Lacefield April 7-10.

Smith’s links to Orlando are a bit of a mystery. According to his service record, he got to Guantánamo as the most senior sergeant with the 602nd Military Police Company based out of Bossier City, La., that concluded its service at the U.S. Navy base in August.

He’s spent 26 years in the military, first with the Air Force and Air Force Reserve from 1987 to 2000, then the Army National Guard for seven years before switching to the Army Reserves in February 2007. He had three other deployments before Guantánamo — to Kuwait in 2003, Afghanistan in 2007 and Iraq in 2009.

Lacefield, who lists his hometown as Waukesha, Wisc., served twice in Iraq, according to his service record — in 2008 and 2010 and got to Guantánamo from an assignment with the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii.

Both men had Military Police specialties, have been reassigned from Guantánamo and are working at U.S. Army South’s headquarters battalion while awaiting trial.

Conviction in each case could be punished by life in prison, Julian said.

Read more Guantánamo stories from the Miami Herald

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