ST. LOUIS (AP) - A Missouri-based Army drill sergeant has been accused of sexually assaulting 12 female soldiers during the past three years, including several while he was deployed in Afghanistan.
Staff Sgt. Angel M. Sanchez appeared at a pretrial hearing at Fort Leonard Wood on Wednesday and could face a court-martial later this year, defense attorney Ernesto Gasapin said Thursday. The Washington Post first reported on the charges against Sanchez.
Military court records indicate that Sanchez is accused of using his supervisory position as a drill sergeant with the 14th Military Police Brigade to threaten some of the women he's accused of assaulting.
He is accused of sexually assaulting four women and assaulting eight others by touching them inappropriately, said Tiffany Wood, a Fort Leonard Wood spokeswoman.
The charges, filed earlier this month, come amid persistent criticism by Congress over how the Pentagon handles sexual assaults. The U.S. Defense Department says more than 5,000 reports of sexual abuse were filed in the most recent fiscal year - a 50 percent increase from the previous 12 months.
The Pentagon's first formal report on sex assaults in its ranks - released two days after Sanchez was charged on May 13 - shows that in the vast majority of the cases the victim was a young, lower-ranking woman and the offender a senior enlisted male service member, often in the same unit.
Sanchez served one tour each in Iraq and Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star, before arriving at the Missouri post in August. He's been assigned an office job with his unit as his legal case unfolds.
Several of the women Sanchez is accused of attacking testified at Wednesday's hearing. But Gasapin said the initial accuser chose not to attend the hearing.
"It starts as one allegation and spreads out," he said, referring to the investigation that led to multiple accusers coming forward. "We have serious questions about the credibility of the witnesses making these accusations."
The defense lawyer said he expects an investigating officer's full report to be complete by June, at which point Sanchez's case could be set for a court-martial. The charges could also be dismissed or downgraded, Gasapin said.
Military prosecutors say Sanchez's alleged crimes date back to his year in Afghanistan, which lasted from March 2011 until March 2012. Prosecutors allege that during that time, Sanchez assaulted a female soldier at Outpost Dandar in Kunar province and also had a sexual relationship with a soldier "subject to his direct control."
One of the alleged incidents took place at Fort Richardson, Alaska, according to military court records.
At Fort Leonard Wood, Sanchez is accused of forcing one woman to perform oral sex on him in an office he shared with other drill sergeants. That accuser said Sanchez suggested she would be kicked out of the Army if she didn't comply with his demands for sex.
"I can be your replacement for your girlfriend," he is accused of telling a Fort Leonard Wood soldier who is gay.
A married soldier in Afghanistan said that Sanchez, who was also married, told her and others that "I know you guys are married but it's OK if you have a deployment buddy."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called sex assaults in the ranks "a clear threat" to male and female service-members when the Pentagon released its latest statistics.
In December, Congress approved changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice that strip commanders of their ability to overturn military jury convictions. That law also requires a civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case and requires that any individual convicted of sexual assault face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal.
The law also provides alleged victims with legal counsel, eliminates the statute of limitations for courts-martial in rape and sexual assault cases and criminalizes retaliation against victims who report a sexual assault.
Federal lawmakers are considering even further changes, some of which are opposed by top military commanders.
Greg Jacob, a former Marine who now works for the Service Women's Action Network, said the charges against Sanchez suggest that the military "hasn't fixed the problem." He said the inherent power imbalance between a drill sergeant and a lower-ranking soldier make the allegations even more disturbing.
"You're taught to trust authority, trust the chain of command," said Jacob, the group's policy director. "You're dependent on these people for everything, from your food to your sleep to your safety."