FORT BRAGG, N.C. — He first met the much younger woman who would become his mistress in Germany, and later in Iraq, the general testified Thursday.
In 2009, the woman, by then a 29-year-old Army captain, accompanied Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, 51, on missions in Afghanistan. They soon became lovers who exchanged texts and emails brimming with explicit sex talk. He called her “my panda.” She called him “Papa Panda sexy pants.”
The three-year affair ultimately soured, and Sinclair was brought before a military judge Thursday on charges related to the relationship. He pleaded guilty to adultery, improper relationships with three other female officers, impeding an investigation and watching pornography on his personal computer on a military base in Afghanistan.
Sinclair, a former deputy commander of U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan, has pleaded not guilty to far more serious charges, all but one stemming from allegations by his former lover, who has accused him of forcing her to perform oral sex after the affair went bad. Sinclair is charged with threatening to kill her and her family if she divulged the affair.
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Opening statements in his court-martial are expected to begin Friday. The general also faces charges of sodomy, groping the captain against her will, engaging in public sex and abusing his government credit card in pursuit of the affair. He faces life in prison if convicted on all charges.
The offenses Sinclair admitted Thursday could bring up to 15 years in prison, forfeiture of pay and allowance, and severance from the Army. He will be sentenced by an all-male panel of five two-star generals after they hear evidence on the remaining charges.
The decision by Sinclair and his defense team to plead guilty to the lesser charges hinges on their strategy of trying to focus the trial on the credibility of the Army captain, the only person to accuse him of sexual assault.
The defense team asserts that the captain lied under oath during a pretrial hearing in January, and initially fabricated claims of forced oral sex after she realized she could be prosecuted for adultery after reporting her affair with the general
The jury was not in the courtroom when Sinclair described his offenses.
For more than an hour, Sinclair described his adultery with the captain and his romantic pursuit of three other officers. He told of having sex with the captain on three continents and of pressuring a female officer to email him nude photos.
He eagerly described how the accuser initially flirted with him, and how another female captain told him she loved him.
Asked several times by the judge, Col. James Pohl, whether he considered his behavior improper and a violation of military regulations, the general responded: “Oh, yes, sir” or, simply, “Absolutely, sir.”
He was less forthcoming with details of his porn-watching habits, and admitted only under the judge’s questioning that he had badgered a major for nude photographs. The judge pressed the general to admit that he obstructed justice by deleting nude photos he had received electronically from a civilian woman after he learned he was under investigation.
Pohl approved the guilty pleas. Prosecutors later dismissed two relatively minor counts against Sinclair: pressuring the captain to send him photos and engaging in an inappropriate relationship with the civilian.
The case of Sinclair, one of the highest-ranking officers to be court-martialed, has become a national emblem of the military’s struggle to cope with sexual assault in its ranks.
His guilty pleas to the lesser charges came the same day the Senate failed to pass legislation that would have stripped senior military commanders of their authority to decide whether to prosecute sexual-assault cases.
Sinclair freely confessed that his behavior was unbecoming an officer and brought dishonor to the Army.
“Senior officers should not do that,” Sinclair said after confessing that he had pressured a young female first lieutenant for a horseback-riding date.
He told the judge his accuser, the captain, approached him in March 2009 with an offer to watch a Showtime movie in his personal trailer at a base in southern Afghanistan. He said the movie contained “some nudity.”
The captain, Sinclair said, “wanted intercourse that night.” He said he immediately decided, “I wouldn’t go there.”
The judge asked how Sinclair knew the captain wanted to have sex. “Probably when she took her top off, sir,” the general replied.
The two had sex in Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany, Texas, Arizona and North Carolina, Sinclair testified. They exchanged hundreds of sexually tinged emails and texts.
The captain was single. The general has been married since 1985, and he and his wife have two sons.
Pohl asked Sinclair his wife’s name. “Rebecca Sinclair,” he said softly.
Rebecca Sinclair has not attended the hearings but has said in interviews that she supports her husband despite his infidelity. She has called him a good father who has been demonized by the Army.
Sinclair’s lawyers contend that his accuser lied on the stand, saying she falsely accused him of sexual assault after discovering he was flirting with other women. They also accuse her of trying to avoid prosecution for adultery, a serious military crime.
Sinclair told the judge he deleted the email account he used to communicate with the civilian woman, a friend since childhood, along with nude photos she had sent. He said he wanted to spare her embarrassment once he knew he was under investigation.
The accuser, now 34, could testify as early as Friday, Sinclair attorney Richard Scheff said. He said choosing whether to put Sinclair on the stand would be “a game-day decision.”