As talk of sexual misconduct swept through the 143rd Ordnance Battalion at Aberdeen Proving Ground, a small group of female soldiers looked to their company commander, Capt. Derrick Robertson, for help.
And they brought chilling complaints -- charging that a drill instructor had raped three of them and abused others.
For Robertson, who had seen the Aberdeen posting as the best way to advance his career, it was a crucial moment -- one that within days would put him at the center of the misconduct allegations and endanger his military career.
Although he met with six of the women as a group, one private asked for a one-on-one meeting, says Robertson's lawyer.
At that September meeting, the woman told Robertson she found him attractive, says the lawyer, Capt. Maria McAllister-Ashley. Sexual encounters followed at the battalion barracks and at Robertson's brown rancher in Joppatowne.
Robertson, the only commissioned officer named thus far in misconduct allegations, says the encounters were consensual; the woman says it was rape.
The final determination could come in a court-martial.
For Robertson, the Army was a road out of poverty in rural East Texas. For 11 years the Army took care of him, trained him, made him an officer and sent him to Europe.
Now the Army is trying to send the 30-year-old career soldier to prison. Even evidence of a consensual relationship with the private could end his military career.
Robertson joined the Army because it was the only way he could get out of East Texas, says Martha Daniels, who taught him civics and government at Winona High School. "He saw the service as a way up for him and he made it, from private to captain without a college degree."
Winona and Lindale, where the large Robertson family is centered, are rural suburbs of Tyler. The area is described as a very conservative, very close-knit farming community.
"There's nothing to do here, no big industries," Daniels says. "There's a Kelly-Springfield tire plant and a Trane Air Conditioning plant and the Tyler Pipe Co., that's about it."
Several of Robertson's brothers were star athletes for the Winona Wildcats. Derrell, who died in December 1994 from the effects of a car wreck, was a defensive end with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions.
Robertson's father died when he was a child; their mother, Gertrude, is said to be "still grieving" over Derrell's death.
The Army captain has drawn support from acquaintances in Texas who find the rape charge "out of character."
"I don't believe it," says Daniels. "He comes to see me every time he comes home. He was here just a few weeks ago. He brought me a plaque that reads, 'Teaching is a Work of Heart'; it hangs in my office.
"He was in my office, and we had a wonderful conversation. We talked about what it is that creates a fire in the belly, that there's always something better to work for."
She concedes that Robertson made a serious mistake by becoming involved with the private. But she rejects the notion that the tall, lanky officer would have raped a woman.
"He's so clean; so straight," Daniels says. "He's handsome and charming, maybe even more charming than handsome."
Another of Robertson's former teachers, Jimmy Boultinghouse, questions the Army's aggressive posture and motive in the case. "The Army is trying to make an example of him. Maybe the girl is trying to get back at him. Even high school teachers have to be careful about things like that."
Robertson enlisted in the Army right after high school graduation in 1985. After basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., he had various assignments, including a tour of duty in Regensburg, Germany. He earned an associate of arts degree through Army courses and has the equivalent of 3 1/2 years of college.
He was a sergeant when he was sent to the Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga. He graduated as a second lieutenant and was sent back to Germany, where he spent five years until he was reassigned to Aberdeen in late 1995.
According to McAllister-Ashley, Robertson's performance in Germany earned him his choice of stateside assignments. Ironically, she says, superiors convinced him that Aberdeen offered the most opportunity for advancement in the Ordnance Corps.
Robertson was assigned in December as operations officer of the 61st Ordnance Brigade. A month later, he took over Alpha Company, 143rd Ordnance Battalion, the post he held when the female privates came to him with complaints about Sgt. Delmar G. Simpson.
Robertson, who said he was in the midst of a divorce from his second wife, canceled a scheduled interview with The Sun yesterday after Maj. Jerry Murphy joined his defense team. McAllister-Ashley said they decided that "it would not be in his best interests to give his side of the story now."
But when the charges against him, Simpson and another soldier were announced, Robertson said: "It began with [a private] telling me how much she admired me, how compassionate I am and how she wanted to be with me and be in my life. I engaged in an improper relationship forbidden by regulations with her and that was it."
But the woman at the center of the case against Robertson says he's not telling the truth.
"It is inaccurate," she said, standing outside a recreation center at the base Saturday. She declined further comment; The Sun does not identify alleged victims of sexual abuse.
Capt. Cliff Faulkner, 29, commander of Bravo company of the 143rd, says he and Robertson shared a sense of humor about Army life. In fact, he was telling a joke the first time they met.
Robertson, he says, burst into such a loud laugh that "he almost scared me. You could hear him a room away. He definitely had a good sense of humor."
Pub Date: 11/19/96