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Air Force instructors face sexual misconduct charges

Female recruits say they were preyed upon during or after basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Six instructors face charges and six are under investigation.

June 29, 2012|By David S. Cloud, Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Six Air Force basic training instructors face criminal charges and six others are under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct with female recruits in a widening scandal at the service's training command at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

Gen. Edward D. Rice Jr., commander of the Air Education and Training Command, told a Pentagon news conference that 31 victims had been identified so far. All were undergoing or had recently completed basic training when they were purportedly preyed upon by male instructors, he said.

Rice ordered a separate investigation into instructor conduct at all Air Force training units last week as a result of the Texas case, which began a year ago. Instructors are barred from personal relationships "of any kind" with recruits under their command, he said.

Rice said his impression was that sexual misconduct was "not an endemic issue" in Air Force training units and was "isolated." But he acknowledged that the Lackland case had "cast a shadow on the entire program."

Nine of the 12 instructors were assigned to the 331st Training Squadron. Rice said the squadron leader, Lt. Col. Mike Paquette, was not implicated in the abuse but had been relieved of duty because of "unacceptable conduct that occurred in that unit."

The squadron is one of nine that conduct eight-week basic training for the 35,000 recruits that go through the San Antonio base every year. About 22% of the recruits are women.

But Rice said investigators' efforts to determine if more women were abused, and when the sexual misconduct began, had been hampered because defense lawyers had prevented some of the accused instructors from being interviewed. The earliest known abuse occurred in 2009, he said.

In the most serious case, Staff Sgt. Luis Walker faces a court-martial next month on charges that he had improper sexual contact with 10 female recruits and raped one of them, the Air Force said.

Walker faces life in prison if convicted. His lawyer did not return a call seeking comment.

Walker's case came to light in June 2011, but the investigation expanded last fall when several instructors reported overhearing colleagues discuss sexual relations with recruits, Rice said.

In April, Staff Sgt. Peter Vega-Maldonado pleaded guilty to one charge of having an improper relationship with a trainee and to violating a no-contact order. He has assisted prosecutors with other cases, the Air Force said.

Rice named Maj. Gen. Margaret H. Woodward, Air Force acting director of operational planning, policy and strategy at the Pentagon, to investigate other training units in the command. She is scheduled to report back in 60 days, he said.

david.cloud@latimes.com

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