Cognitive interviewing brings cold case rapist to justice

  • Published
  • By Wayne Amann
  • AFOSI Public Affairs

Despite the scarcity of physical evidence, cognitive interview expertise by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations resulted in serving justice in a sexual assault cold case at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.

In August 2000 a female technical training school student (victim) was attacked in the Sheppard home of one of her Air Force instructors. Fast forward to Feb. 26, 2017, when the perpetrator (subject) is tried, convicted and sentenced to a reduction in rank from E-7 to E-1, a forfeiture of all pay and allowances, a dishonorable discharge and a 16 year six-month prison sentence.

“I’ll never forget how quickly the (jury) members announced their verdict, just 90 minutes,” said OSI Special Agent Jessica Daugherty, who assumed duties as lead case agent when the case was transferred from Sheppard to Eglin AFB, Fla., in 2014. “The members then deliberated for just 45 minutes to render a sentence of 198 months.

“It took me a while to convert that into years,” SA Daugherty admitted. “But, for 16 and a half years the victim had to deal with being raped by her Air Force instructor. Then it made sense, they sentenced him to the same sentence he gave the victim that evening in August 2000 at Sheppard.”

For nearly 14 years the crime was dormant. It was resurrected on March 12, 2014, when the victim (now a civilian) reported the sexual assault to the 82nd Training Wing Staff Judge Advocate at Sheppard.

On March 31, 2014, the victim recounted that shortly before her technical school graduation she visited the Sheppard club and saw the subject and other school instructors drinking alcohol. The subject appeared highly intoxicated. The victim offered to call a cab for the subject. He refused so she offered to drive him home. He accepted. The victim helped the subject enter his home where he slammed her against the wall or the door, placed his arm on her throat and grabbed her shoulder when she tried to leave.

The victim lost and regained consciousness during the assault, but recalled the subject raped her. Afterwards the subject told the victim no one would believe her because he was an instructor. When the subject walked away the victim left the residence.

“One challenging aspect of the investigation was helping people remember what they did one insignificant Friday approximately 14 years ago,” Special Agent Daugherty said.

On Aug. 28, 2000, the victim went to an Emergency Room in Wichita Falls, Texas, where she had a Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE) kit collected. It confirmed signs consistent with sexual assault.

OSI records revealed while at the hospital the victim first reported she was physically and sexually assaulted in the parking lot of a Wichita Falls retail store by an unknown male the day before. Surveillance tapes did not corroborate her information. She later admitted she knew the assailant but would not identify who it was or where the attack occurred. OSI and the Wichita Falls Police Department then closed their investigations.

On May 22, 2014, after being advised of his Article 31 rights, the subject denied: drinking much; having a personal relationship with any students as an instructor at Sheppard; or receiving a ride home from a student. He did not recall a female student with a black eye and never entered a club with trainees inside. He then requested legal counsel and the interview was terminated.

The case turned on March 10, 2015, when the victim provided a sketch of the subject’s residence similar to one provided by a witness. The victim described a family portrait she remembered seeing inside the residence the night of the assault.

“The lack of physical evidence was another challenge,” SA Daugherty said. “However, after the cognitive interview we knew we had a key piece of evidence and it was up to us to find it.”

OSI’s 9th Field Investigations Squadron (now Detachment 104) at Eglin, searched the subject’s residence and seized three family photos matching the victim’s description.

“The day of the search I was a little nervous,” Special Agent Daugherty said. “This was the first time I’d be conducting a real search which had real effects on real lives. And I’d be looking for a picture which had only been described as stick-people.”

Two months later the victim identified one of the photos as the one she focused on during the assault. She also recalled reporting the attack to her mental health provider, and producing a picture of herself and the subject when she had a black eye from the attack.

During the trial the subject vehemently denied ever hanging the family portrait in question on the wall. The subject’s wife echoed her husband’s claim the portrait was never displayed in their home. The prosecution then projected a photo of the subject’s family sitting on a sofa in their living room with the portrait hanging on the wall.

It was the only piece of evidence other than the victim’s testimony.

“The key (to solving the case) was the cognitive interview and the willingness of the victim to look at pictures which had a profound effect on her life,” SA Daugherty said.

As with many OSI investigations, teamwork played an integral role in closing the book on this case. Sixty-three OSI agents, from various stateside units plus Guam, England, Germany and Korea, completed the witness interviews and searches. The Department of Veterans Affairs acquired the victim’s long since archived medical records containing key photos. Sheppard OSI Det. 411 agents assisted in key searches of the neighborhood where the subject lived. Plus, the OSI Insider Threat team provided archived sexual assault case files where no subject was identified to identify other possible victims.

“A cognitive interview, 63 OSI agents, an OSI psychologist, a victim advocate, a Special Victim Counsel and a slew of legal folks on the prosecution team produced justice,” wrote Special Agent Mark Walker, Director, Criminal Investigations, 6th Field Investigations Region. “This was textbook on how to run a case and multidiscipline team success.” 

“The moment they read the guilty verdict I knew I made a difference in someone’s life,” said Special Agent Daugherty who was an SA for just two months when she took over as lead case agent. “I was eager and excited to take on the challenge.”

(Editor’s Note: This is the third in the series, OSI: On The Case, highlighting the multi-faceted work of Special Agents as they pursue the command’s mission: Defend the Nation, Serve Justice, Protect the Integrity of the Air Force and Find the Truth.)