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'I felt trapped:' Air Force officer testifies about sexual encounter with general

Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart
Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart

FORT SAM HOUSTON — The second day of the historic court martial of a two-star Air Force general was filled with tense testimony from the woman he's accused of sexually assaulting.

The officer said she wasn't prepared for her career to blow up after a sexual encounter with her commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart.

The officer re-lived her experience on the stand and explained how she submitted to Stewart’s sexual advances because of his rank and power.

“I felt trapped,” she said regarding the night in Altus. “I haven’t kissed anyone but my husband in the last 22 years.”

The alleged assault happened on a trip to Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma in April of 2023. However, weeks earlier, she recounted an alleged encounter in Denver at a conference she and Stewart attended.

Stewart invited her to his hotel room via a series of text messages on her personal phone, according to evidence presented by the prosecution.

"You can crash here,” Stewart's text read. “I have two queens.”

The alleged victim said she was uncomfortable with receiving those messages, and she spoke about it to two non-commissioned officers in the command that same night.

“I was in tears,” she testified. “I worked way too hard to get here.”

She said the next morning she told the two airmen not to say anything or do anything. She said she felt she may have interpreted the messages wrong.

A month after the Denver conference, the same group went on a trip to Altus. After a night of some drinks, the woman took her commander back to his lodging on base. She noted that she felt they were bonding, and that she was happy he had an interest in her, on a professional level.

Upon arriving at the commander's quarters, he invited her in for a glass of wine. She testified that she tried to prevent him from breaking the “bottle to throttle” rule of flying an aircraft within 12 hours of consuming alcohol.

When he invited her for wine, she said she’d never seen a commander “blatantly disregard” the rule. She joined him for a drink.

“I really thought it would be just a glass,” she said.

When lead prosecutor Col. Naomi Dennis asked why she went in after testifying she was uncomfortable by the Denver encounter, the woman said she thought she overreacted.

“I didn’t want it to be a big deal,” the woman said about Denver.

Evidence showed the woman invited two non-commissioned officers to the commander's quarters. They came and spent some time with Stewart and the alleged victim. Eventually they left, and she was alone on the sofa sharing stories with Stewart, according to her testimony.

“At some point I realized his arm was around me,” she noted. “The conversation wasn’t flirtatious.”

Then she said they were kissing. The woman maintained that she did not know how it started, but that she thought she would keep kissing him, to find a way out.

“I never told him no.” she said. “And now it’s very clear what he wants from me.”

She recalled Stewart putting his hand out and saying, “Come on.” She took that as direction not a question, she said.

Stewart undressed her and the woman said she just “stood there” and felt she had no choice. She said she and Stewart had sex twice that night.

Back at her lodging, she tried to call her sister. She added that she didn't know when she fell asleep but when she awoke on April 14, she had to go through the day as if everything was normal.

The alleged victim noted a time she saw Stewart outside of work again after the alleged assault, at a restaurant she was at with her in-laws and husband. “He shook my husband's hand,” she said.

She explained that she came forward after speaking to many trusted people in her life and realizing the event wasn’t her fault.

She filed a report in May 2023.

One of the jurors, a three-star general, asked what career aspirations she had before the alleged assault and if Stewart showed support. The woman said she wanted to be in a command position, possibly at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio.

The lead prosecutor then asked what her aspirations are now. She said she’s retiring in November, suggesting the alleged assault derailed her career.

After more than six hours over the course of two days, the woman stepped down from the witness stand. Her family promptly exited the gallery.

The next witness took the stand and will be cross examined on Wednesday morning.

Guilty pleas

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

The presiding military judge, Col. Matthew Stoffel, questioned Stewart about the relationship between him and the alleged victim.

“I am guilty of pursuing an inappropriate relationship,” Stewart said to the judge. “I was aware not to have an unprofessional relationship.”

He spoke about the night he spent in Oklahoma with the alleged victim, his executive officer at the time. Although there are sexual assault charges against him, he said that the relationship was consensual.

Stewart maintained that he was aware that he should not have engaged in an unprofessional relationship with a subordinate officer. Stoffel asked three times if Stewart understood his duties to maintain a professional relationship. Stewart responded "yes" each time.

“I knew what we were doing was wrong,” he said. “I knew there was regulation against it. … I did it anyway.”

Article 134, regarding extramarital sexual conduct, was underscored by Stewart as an offense that negatively affects the Air Force image.

“I knew I was married to someone else, and I knew she was married to someone else,” Stewart said. “She kissed me, and that pursued further into consensual sex.”

During opening statements, the defense called this a case dealing with adultery not assault. They instead called it a night of emotional and physical connection.

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

Historic trial

Stewart is only the second general officer to be court-martialed in Air Force history. This was also the first time a general’s trial was heard by a jury.

The previous court-martial of an Air Force two-star general charged for sexual assault was back in 2022. Former Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley avoided jail time, was stripped of his rank and retired as a colonel. He opted for a military judge and decided against a jury trial.

Before that, the two general officers who were demoted and retired did not face a court-martial.

New legal era

The Stewart trial also took place at a moment when an old legal era ended and new one began.

The Office of Special Trials Council (OSTC) began operations late last year, as a part of the new military law enforced after the death of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen. She was slain on Fort Cavazos in 2020 after being sexually harassed. The uproar from fellow servicemembers, veterans and her family shifted the way the military handles sexual abuse cases.

In previous years, commanders would handle the cases and reports. Now, the OSTC handles cases of sexual assault, domestic abuse and murder as an independent organization within the Pentagon.

Cases have processed through the OSTC since early this year. The Stewart case is one of the last of the cases being handled under the old review system.

Copyright 2024 Texas Public Radio

Gabriella Alcorta-Solorio