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Marine Drill Instructors Charged After Raping Several New Recruits

By Robert L. Jackson

Intensifying a sexual misconduct inquiry that began last spring, the Marine Corps has charged two drill instructors with raping trainees at a military base in Missouri, officials said Wednesday.

The rape charges are an outgrowth of misconduct cases brought against seven Marine instructors in a training detachment at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. All were accused in April of a range of charges, including sexual harassment and inappropriate sexual relations with students under their jurisdiction. One has been convicted.

With the investigation ongoing, Marine prosecutors have added rape charges -- the most serious of all -- in two of the cases, including that of Howard Ross, 34, of Baltimore, a former staff sergeant considered to be a central figure in the inquiry.

In the second case, Staff Sgt. Bernard Smith, 29, of Chesterfield, S.C., is charged with rape, having sex with students, fraternizing with trainees, assaulting students and drinking alcohol.

Sexual misconduct at Fort Leonard Wood has been an embarrassment for the Marine Corps, which runs motor transport instruction courses at the Army base for 3,800 Marine recruits assigned to handle military trucks and other vehicles.

Now, however, the more serious allegations of rape could engulf the corps in a major scandal similar to the misconduct that surfaced in 1996 at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. A dozen drill instructors there were charged with sex crimes; eventually, four went to prison and eight were discharged or punished administratively. In addition, letters of reprimand were issued to Aberdeen’s commanding general and three other senior officers.

The rape allegations against Marine instructors Ross and Smith involve separate incidents with trainees in June 2000. If convicted, they could face life sentences, officials said.

Maj. Timothy Keefe, a spokesman for the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, told reporters that more serious charges arose at Fort Leonard Wood because, “during the course of the (earlier) investigation, additional allegations were made and investigated.”

Some officials believe this signals the possibility that students at the Army base, fearing for their careers, may not be telling investigators the full extent of the misconduct. Marine Sgt. Thad L. Kelley, 24, of Adams, Neb., is accused of telling a student to lie to investigators. He also is charged with sexual harassment.

Ross, the sole defendant convicted on previous charges, has had his rank reduced to private and is in the brig at Quantico. He pleaded guilty to improper fraternization with a student and to the receipt, possession and transportation of child pornography. He also stands accused of stealing from his students.

Keefe played down any comparison with Aberdeen, saying that “every case has different circumstances.” But he said that more than 400 people have been interviewed, and “if new evidence were to develop, obviously, we would pursue those leads.”

Pretrial hearings for Ross and Smith are expected this fall. For Kelley and the others, special courts-martial have been scheduled to begin next month at the Quantico base.

Each of those defendants faces confinement of up to six months. They are assigned to administrative duties at Quantico pending their trials.