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Accuser Faces Accused in Tailhook Sex Scandal : Harassment: Whistle-blower testifies how she was manhandled in gantlet by Marine officer. He denies all.

August 18, 1993|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

QUANTICO, Va. — Except for a brief encounter when she picked him out of a lineup, they met Tuesday for only the second time: she, the main whistle-blower in the notorious Tailhook Assn. scandal; he, the one Marine charged with assault in the 1991 sexual harassment scandal that reverberated throughout the nation's military.

Their first meeting, she alleges, occurred in a crowded Las Vegas hotel hallway, where 20 Navy and Marine airmen had set up a gantlet and were entertaining themselves by sexually attacking the women who passed through it.

The setting Tuesday was a small courtroom on the Marine Corps base here, where a military investigating officer heard testimony aimed at helping him determine whether the woman should be believed and the marine should stand trial at a general court-martial.

Navy Lt. Paula A. Coughlin, a 33-year-old helicopter pilot dressed in her summer whites, described in slow, impassioned detail how she was manhandled in the gantlet. Sitting straight in ramrod, military style, she accused Marine Capt. Gregory J. Bonam of grabbing her buttocks with such force that he nearly lifted her off the ground, then forcing his hands down the front of her blouse and squeezing her breasts.

She testified that when Bonam released her, she turned and faced him, staring straight into his eyes. "He had his hands across his chest," she told the court, "with his chest out proud and he smiled."

Bonam, a fighter pilot now based in Meridian, Miss., is a longtime son of the military, born on the Torrejon Air Force Base in Spain 30 years ago. He is tall and tanned and fit.

He, too, spoke directly and in short sentences. Asked repeatedly on the witness stand whether he had touched any women that night, had seen a hallway gantlet or had detected any organized aggression toward women, he repeatedly responded: "No, I did not."

While Bonam appeared to strike the pose of an officer in a Marine Corps recruitment poster, his eight-year career could be in serious trouble. He faces up to five years in prison as one of three servicemen charged with assault in the Tailhook incident, which took place at an annual convention of Marine and Navy fliers.

Earlier this year, the Pentagon's inspector general concluded that 140 men were involved in officer misconduct during the Tailhook convention, and that as many as 83 women had been assaulted.

But now, only three officers--Bonam and two Navy fliers--are charged with offenses so serious that they could face courts-martial. The two naval officers are awaiting investigating officers' decisions in Norfolk, Va. Other servicemen are confronting only the possibility of lesser charges, such as conduct unbecoming an officer or disobeying superiors.

But it is the Coughlin-Bonam encounter that lies at the heart of the criminal cases arising out of the Tailhook scandal.

Coughlin--the only witness called by the prosecutor, Marine Corps Maj. Philip A. Seymour in the Bonam case--made the allegations that spawned the Tailhook investigation. The scandal already has toppled the careers of several of the Navy's highest-ranking officers and led the services to re-examine their treatment of women.

Coughlin said that she went to the Tailhook symposium in September, 1991, as an aide to Rear Adm. John W. Snyder Jr. Wearing a new red silk dress, she said, she attended the group's Saturday night banquet at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel and later changed into a tank top, short denim skirt and "little black cowboy boots."

She went to the hotel's third-floor patio, where a phalanx of beer kegs made alcoholic drinks abundant. When she decided to leave, she testified, she turned to her right, stepping into the hallway and into a group of 20 men lined up on each side.

Suddenly, she said, the men were yelling "Admiral's aide! Admiral's aide!" and Bonam bumped into her from behind. "He grabbed both my buttocks and lifted me off the ground almost," she said.

She said that she spun around, their faces within six inches of each other. She asked him: "What the . . . are you doing?" And immediately noticed his eyes and his burnt orange shirt with the monogram "Boner" across the chest, she testified.

She said that she wheeled around when someone else grabbed her from behind and it was then that Bonam reached over her shoulders, into her tank top and grabbed her breasts. Another man, she said, reached for her crotch. She said that she bit Bonam's right hand, then kicked and flailed, eventually making her way out of the hallway.

"I had passed through a combat zone," said Coughlin, a nine-year Navy veteran now assigned to Norfolk.

"I was mad," she added. "I was very irritated. Nobody grabs me like that. Nobody touches me like that at all."

She said that she later collapsed into a chair, crying, unable to believe what had occurred. She then went to the Circus Circus hotel, where she "smoked about six cigarettes and had a lot of coffee."

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