In a rebuke to the Army probe of sexual misconduct at Aberdeen Proving Ground, four women, backed by NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, accused investigators yesterday of using threats and grueling interrogation to try to obtain false rape allegations.
Holding hands and trembling at a news conference, the current and former privates said investigators tried to twist their testimony through veiled threats, long interviews without legal counsel, and statements that officials wrote for their approval.
When they balked, the women said, they faced retribution such as having leave canceled and assignments delayed.
"I have a lot to lose by being here -- I have a family, I have children," said Pvt. Darla Hornberger, 30, adding that her refusal to press rape charges prompted the Army to cancel "compassion leave" so that she could visit her children in Kansas.
"I could keep my mouth shut and this would blow over. But something is wrong here," she said.
The charges, bolstered by Mfume's call for a Justice Department review of the Aberdeen investigation, had the effect of putting the Army on trial a week before a series of courts-martial is scheduled to begin.
Army officials vehemently denied the privates' charges, but some members of the House of Representatives also called for an outside review of the investigation, which might include a broad internal Department of Defense probe.
"I think we need to find out what the truth is," said Rep. Tillie Fowler, a Florida Republican and a member of the military personnel subcommittee.
"I think I'm beginning to question whether we have to get the [Department of Defense] inspector general to conduct an investigation."
The allegations are the latest twist in an increasingly complex story touching on race, rank and military justice.
Since allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced at Aberdeen in November, seven sergeants and one captain at the post have been charged with crimes as serious as rape and forcible sodomy.
The most recent was Staff Sgt. Herman Gunter, 30, who was charged yesterday morning with six counts of criminal misconduct, including rape, cruelty and maltreatment, and assault. Gunther, an 11-year Army veteran, is a drill sergeant with C Company of the 143rd Ordnance Battalion.
More than 50 women have reported cases of sexual misconduct at Aberdeen over the past five months, but in recent weeks alleged victims have cast doubt on the Army's ability to investigate itself.
"The bottom line is who is on trial here," said Stuart J. Robinson, counsel for the NAACP's Harford County branch, which arranged the news conference. "These women of courage are on trial when we should be looking at the military."
The women are: Hornberger of Stillwater, Okla.; Brandi Krewson, 24, of Dallas; Kathryn Leming, 22, of Harrisburg, Pa.; and Kelly Wagner, 20, of Bakersfield, Calif. Leming, dressed yesterday in a Notre Dame football jersey instead of fatigues, is the only one to have left the Army.
Army officials denied that investigators, who have interviewed more than 1,200 women trained at Aberdeen, coerced alleged victims into making false statements.
None of the four women at the news conference said she had signed a false statement, the officials noted, adding that no rape charges have been based on their statements.
Army says it followed rules
The Criminal Investigation Command said investigators followed all Army procedures in the course of interviewing women trained at Aberdeen.
Regulations call for soldiers suspected of violating military law to be advised of their rights and told they are entitled to consult a lawyer. As in civilian cases, after a person requests a lawyer all questions stop and a military attorney is provided at no expense.
Army officials also dismissed allegations by the NAACP that black soldiers were being unfairly targeted in the investigation. Lt. Col. Gabriel Riesco of Aberdeen's ordnance training school said, "This is an issue of sin, not skin."
But Army defense attorneys scrambled to speak to the women, who were joined by Toni Moreland, the private who last week said investigators coerced her into making false accusations.
"We have heard that CID is using very strong tactics on some of these girls," said Capt. Maria McAllister-Ashley, who represents Capt. Derrick Robertson, now facing rape, forcible sodomy and other charges.
Three of the privates -- Hornberger, Wagner and Krewson -- have said they had consensual sex with Staff Sgt. Vernell Robinson Jr., according to his attorney, Capt. Art Coulter.
Robinson, 31, faces eight counts of consensual sex and improper behavior with five women as well as rape, sodomy and assault charges. He could face a court-martial.
"This would raise doubts about the validity of the other charges against my client," Coulter said.
The women at the news conference told variations on the same story, but divulged few details, saying they feared charges for filing false statements.
"They told me that if I didn't tell them what they wanted to hear, I couldn't leave" the post, said Krewson, whose reassignment date was allegedly delayed for six months.
"It's caused me a lot of depression. I deal with it every night. I just want to get on with my life, but I can't."
What is role of race
While never explicitly mentioning race as a motive for the Army's alleged tactics, civil rights leaders said yesterday that any independent review must examine why the majority of alleged victims are white and all men charged to date are black.
"There seems to be something different about the handling of this matter," Mfume said. "Does it have to do with race? Does it have to do with class? Does it have to do with rank? We don't know."
Pub Date: 3/12/97