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Jury of generals finds two-star Air Force general not guilty of sex assault in historic court-martia

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart left, formerly the 19th Air Force commander, speaks with Team XL leaders at the 47th Operations Support Squadron at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, Oct. 4, 2022.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart left, formerly the 19th Air Force commander, speaks with Team XL leaders at the 47th Operations Support Squadron at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, Oct. 4, 2022.

FORT SAM HOUSTON — Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart has been found not guilty of sexual assault of a female officer in his former command in a historic court-martial on Fort Sam Houston.

Stewart, the first Air Force general to ever face a sexual assault jury court-martial, was found guilty Saturday on the other charges against him — dereliction of duty and conduct unbecoming of an officer.

The defense stood, and Stewart showed no reaction to the findings. He opted for sentencing from the military judge instead of the jury panel, which consisted of all three-star generals.

Stewart was sentenced to a reprimand, restricted to Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Air Force base for two months, and a $60,000 forfeiture of pay over the course of six months. He gets to keep his two star rank — for now.

"You've thrown a lot away," The presiding judge, Col. Matthew Stoffel said. "I don't know if you could be more disappointed than your fellow general officers."

The punishment could have been a lot worse for Stewart, who faced up to 60 years in prison at the start of the trial.

Before the sentencing, Stewart provided a tearful unsworn statement to the court, saying he is a part of three generations of military service.

"I wanted to be a fighter pilot since I was 7," Stewart said. "Please do not dismiss me from service."

Stewart has served 31 years in the Air Force. He said he wanted to "bounce back from this."

"I am so much more than this," Stewart said.

The defense objected to a victim impact statement from the female subordinate officer, saying she was not a victim. The objection was overruled. The judge found she qualified as a victim under other charges Stewart was convicted of.

"I never wanted any of this," Her statement read. "I came forward for my daughter and other airmen."

She said the events changed the trajectory of her life.

Stewart pleaded guilty to two of the lesser charges against him — one of dereliction of duty under Article 92 and extramarital sexual conduct under Article 134 — before Monday's opening statements.

The judge asked Stewart how he felt his actions were service discrediting after Stewart gave a statement on the charges. He said he was guilty of pursuing an inappropriate relationship, but maintained it was consensual.

“Articles are being written everyday … while I wear this uniform,” Stewart said. “There’s no way that cannot be service discredited.”

11 witnesses took the stand during the week-long trial, including the subordinate officer he was accused of sexually assaulting, her husband, and several other officers. Stewart did not testify.

In closing arguments, the prosecution's Col. Naomi Dennis called the trial "full-scale victim blaming."

“She’s not some opportunist,” Dennis said. “She’s a pilot.”

Stewart at the time was commander of the San Antonio-based 19th Air Force, a part of Air Education Training Command. Multiple witnesses testified most of his travel consisted of base visits and conferences.

Dennis presented text messages between Stewart and the woman during a Denver conference in March of 2023, the month before a sexual encounter between the two took place on Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma.

“He was just treating her like a woman,” Dennis said.

In the defense's closing statements, attorney Sherry Bunn said the texts between Stewart and the woman were out of concern for the woman's safety upon returning to her hotel.

“She’s a party girl,” Bunn said about the officer. “She makes decisions that benefit her.”

Bunn spent the majority of her time on the alleged assault. She called the woman an “avid drinker.”

“Look at how she acted on the stand,” Bunn said. “Look, members, she's all over the place.”

The defense noted when the woman was on the stand, tears went down her face only once and the rest were “melodramatics.”

“This is either a case of sexual assault or a consensual sexual encounter,” Bunn said. “You have to get this right.”

The woman said she felt she had no choice but to submit because of Stewart's power and rank, and especially due to him being her commander at the time.

During the conference in Denver, Stewart sent text messages to her inviting her to stay in his room. She said they made her feel uncomfortable.

“I’ve worked way too hard to get here,” she said. “I earned this job.”

Text messages between the pair were shown to the court and presented to the witness by both sides. The evidence included some messages sent from a base visit the same team took to Altus Air Force Base, where the sexual encounter happened.

Stewart invited her to his lodging for wine after she dropped him off following a command dinner and social event. The woman testified she tried unsuccessfully to warn Stewart of breaking the “bottle to throttle” rule of flying an aircraft within 12 hours of consuming alcohol, something he was found guilty of.

She accepted the invitation. A pair of non-commissioned officers, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Justin Apticar and Master Sgt. Andrew Bryan, came by to socialize and testified they were expecting the woman to leave with them at the end of the night. When she didn’t follow, Bryan sent her a message to check in.

The woman stayed alone with Stewart and shared stories. That’s when the kissing started, and he led her to the bedroom. The woman said she submitted and left his room around 3:40 a.m.

The next morning, Stewart made his flight after sleeping late, according to testimony from multiple witnesses.

A report was made in May of 2023. Office of Special Investigations Special Agent Adam Hershey worked on the initial investigation with the woman's husband and handled a phone call interception operation between him and Stewart.

The phone call was played in court. The husband later testified he was not “threatening” Stewart when he told him, “Pray you don’t see me on the street.”

“We’d done something we shouldn’t have done,” Stewart responded on the call. “I’m living with guilt and shame too.”

Stewart had been married for seven years at the time; he has since divorced.

He was terminated from his role leading the 19th Air Force. He's currently a staff officer at the Air Education and Training Command.

Copyright 2024 Texas Public Radio

Gabriella Alcorta-Solorio