At Fort Hood, juvenile crimes that go unprosecuted


Late on a Saturday night in 2010, Jane was headed to the kitchen to get a glass of water when she heard a strange noise coming from her 10-year-old son’s bedroom. To her horror, she found her 13-year-old stepson molesting him. In the agonizing hours that followed, she learned that the abuse had been going on for three years.

Jane, whose real name is not being used because it would identify an underage victim of sexual assault, and her husband, an Army officer, reported the assault to police and planned to press charges against her teenage stepson.

But there was a problem. The family lived in military housing on Fort Hood, which sits apart from the jurisdiction of surrounding Coryell and Bell counties. A social worker who came to the house told her that had she lived a few blocks away, off the massive Army post, her stepson would have been taken into custody that night.

Instead, despite her eyewitness statements, her stepson’s confession and a lengthy investigation by Army investigators that found aggravated sexual abuse had been committed, the teenager wasn’t charged with a crime. No victims services advocate was assigned to find resources to help the shattered family. No lawyer was assigned to help the family navigate the complex legal landscape.

Two years later, frustrated with the failures of either federal or county prosecutors to prosecute the case, Jane wrote to Fort Hood’s judge advocate general office: “My husband has deployed 3 times to Iraq, been shot at, almost blown up, and has spent years far from his wife and children. We moved to on post housing thinking that this was the safest place to raise our family. Never could we have imagined that a crime like this could be committed against one of our children and the only one being protected would be the perpetrator. … Had I known this was the case I never would have moved on post.”

Her situation is just one example of how the jurisdictional arrangement between military, federal, state and county authorities at many U.S. Army installations prevents juveniles who assault, molest or rape other children from being consistently and regularly prosecuted.

In the civilian world, prosecutions of juveniles for sex crimes are common. In the past five years, nearly 600 14-year-olds the age Jane’s stepson would have been had he been tried — were adjudicated on sexual assault charges in courts across the state.

While the issue of sexual assault among its ranks has roiled the U.S. military and led to numerous reforms, relatively little attention has been paid to the issue of sexual assault among juveniles on its installations.

Nationally, juveniles account for more than one-third of sex offenses against minors, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

When no one prosecutes

At Fort Hood, concern over the lack of juvenile prosecutions goes back at least a decade. In 2005, an Army investigator expressed frustration over the lack of action in the case of a 16-year-old accused of sexually assaulting a 5-year-old girl on the post in 2001. “(T)his office has contacted the various appointed (prosecutors) to determine what action if any, was going to be pursued,” the investigator wrote in a letter to the U.S. attorney’s office in Waco. “As of this date, no prosecution was ever initiated.”

The culprit is a jurisdictional black hole in which there is no clear authority for prosecuting juvenile crime on military installations. The military justice system — a separate legal construct that governs active-duty soldiers on military installations like Fort Hood — cannot prosecute civilians, a job left to federal prosecutors. But the federal system is ill-equipped and sometimes little disposed to pick up juvenile cases, except for the most serious. (In 2008, the federal government prosecuted fewer than 300 juveniles nationwide, most of whom were on American Indian reservations).

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Frazier, whose Waco office covers Fort Hood, said that because federal rules restrict the juvenile cases he can handle, such prosecution of Fort Hood juveniles in federal court is “fairly rare.”

“Federal courts are not normally set up to (handle such cases),” he said.

While federal prosecutors who oversee military installations, including those in Central Texas, occasionally attempt to refer cases to their county counterparts, who typically prosecute juvenile crime, local prosecutors aren’t required to take the cases. Some courts across the country have even said state prosecutors can’t handle federal cases without a formal jurisdictional transfer.

Officials with neighboring Coryell County refused to comment for this article.

In Bell County, which surrounds much of Fort Hood, officials could not provide statistics but said they’ve handled few Fort Hood juvenile cases in the past 15 years.

“We don’t get them real often,” said John Gauntt Jr., chief juvenile prosecutor for the Bell County attorney’s office.

That doesn’t mean significant juvenile crime doesn’t occur on Fort Hood.

A document obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request shows 670 reported incidents of juvenile crime from 2010 to 2015, including a dozen sex crimes. An internal Fort Hood legal memo obtained by the American-Statesman details more juvenile sexual assaults — 39 between 2006 and 2012 — resulting in no federal prosecutions and just a handful referred to local prosecutors.

“This routine failure by the federal government to prosecute these cases resulted in numerous juvenile sex offenders escaping any sort of accountability for their crimes,” the memo noted. “It left just as many juvenile victims and their families without justice.”

Different places, different outcomes

Nineteen years ago, another Army wife, this time on what was then Fort Lewis in Washington State, told investigators that a 13-year-old neighbor on the post had molested her 7-year-old son. Investigators were told the teen had asked at least two other children to perform sex acts in what he called his “Playboy Club” in a wooden ravine on the post.

But the teen wasn’t prosecuted. “Almost every day I’d look out the kitchen window and see the little pervert on his way to school,” the victim’s mother told the Associated Press. “He’d smile at me and wave.”

Her son, she said, began sleeping on the floor and hiding knives in case the teen came back.

Instead of a prosecution, Army officials forced the teenager’s family to move away.

Publicity over the case sparked a quick reaction from Army officials. Two months later, they began the process to surrender jurisdiction over juveniles to Pierce County prosecutors. Today, “as a matter of course,” juvenile cases there are forwarded to local prosecutors, Joint Base Lewis-McChord officials said.

The change in jurisdiction shows the inconsistent and sometimes haphazard way that the U.S. Army deals with juveniles who commit sexual assault on military installations. With no centralized policy in place, jurisdiction and prosecution patterns vary widely at U.S. Army posts, an issue that has bedeviled Army lawyers for decades.

“Due to varying state court decisions and extensive gaps in legislation on federal properties cluttered with overlapping and inconsistent jurisdictions, confusion abounds,” wrote Maj. Stephen Castlen and Lt. Col. Gregory Block in Military Law Review in 1996.

Nineteen years later, a survey of juvenile prosecutions published in the May edition of The Army Lawyer found similar inconsistencies.

For example, Fort Meade in Maryland had referred nearly every case of juvenile misconduct to federal or state prosecutors in 2014. Fort Gordon in Georgia likewise referred the majority of its juvenile cases to state court. But others, including Fort Hood, referred just a tiny percentage of juvenile crimes for prosecution. Others depend on administrative review boards that handle minor misconduct, but not sexual assault or more serious crime.

‘Exclusive federal jurisdiction’

 

Legal experts say the problem stems from the way jurisdiction works on federal properties.

Many military installations, like Fort Hood, were granted “exclusive federal jurisdiction” when they were created. The situation generally prohibits state authorities from enforcing criminal law on the federal property. Other military installations have a mix of jurisdictions. For example at Fort Meade in Maryland, state authorities have been given jurisdiction over schools, certain housing areas and “the Shell gasoline station located on Route 32 near Route 295, adjacent to the NSA complex.”

Fort Knox ceded jurisdiction 15 years ago, and under the resulting agreement minor offenses are handled through a local diversion program, while more serious crimes are sent to county prosecutors. “While we have a limited ability to deal with juvenile matters, I believe the State is better suited to handling such problems in most instances,” then-commanding general George Harmeyer wrote the governor of Kentucky at the time.

Many military law experts argue that giving jurisdiction of juveniles back to state authorities, as the Army did at Lewis-McChord and Fort Knox, is the best and cleanest way to handle the issue. Yet ceding jurisdiction, known as retrocession, remains rare, despite an Army policy urging commanders to give up any “unnecessary” jurisdiction on their installations.

Castlen and Block laid blame on the “lack of continuity” at military installations, where commanders typically move on after a year or two of service, and misguided fears that giving up jurisdiction somehow means an erosion of power and control.

Texas law may make such retrocession a more involved process than in other states. A 1981 Texas attorney general opinion says the state must “affirmatively” accept any jurisdiction ceded by federal authorities. 

Calls for change have flared up periodically at Fort Hood. In 2004, Coryell County District Attorney Riley Simpson wrote in a memo that his office was “more than willing to consider prosecutorial involvement” in Fort Hood juvenile cases if “authority was ceded to us by the Post Commander.”

In 2008, legal officers at Fort Hood pursued a plan to “establish routine transfers of appropriate juvenile cases to Bell/Coryell county” that apparently went nowhere.

In 2012, internal communications urged Fort Hood leaders to consider retrocession as a remedy to the lack of juvenile prosecutions, though it is unclear if it reached commanders.

Asked if it would be beneficial to cede juvenile authority to county prosecutors, Fort Hood public information officials said in a statement: “(I)t would be inappropriate to comment as the question requires speculation or opinion.”

Officials added that Fort Hood Commander Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland has the “intent… to utilize every resource available to appropriately address allegations of criminal misconduct in an effort to protect all persons and property present on the installation and in the surrounding community.”

MacFarland, who as installation commander would likely have to initiate a retrocession of jurisdiction, is currently serving overseas as head of the coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, highlighting the logistical obstacles in producing a jurisdictional transfer.

Gauntt, the Bell County prosecutor, said “it might make sense” to look at a more formal agreement to handle Fort Hood juveniles, but wondered if treating and supervising juvenile offenders would bring high costs to the county.

‘I won’t ever get justice’

 

Jane, who has since moved from Texas, says that as she pursued charges against her stepson, she was urged to drop the case by authorities. “I got the attitude that these are just juveniles, just kids. But we are talking about some serious crimes here. They are not just kids; they are perpetrators. They would throw it at me: He’s just a child, maybe he was experimenting,” she said. “The overall sense was: This is the way it is, just go with it and suck it up and move on.”

Three months after she walked in on her stepson, the U.S. attorney’s office in Waco “declined to prosecute this investigation,” according to an Army investigative report obtained by the American-Statesman that found the abuse occurred “almost every day.”

Jane says federal prosecutors told that her they presented the case to Bell County prosecutors but that they too declined to take it.

The mom says a delinquency hearing was necessary not just to punish her stepson but to protect other children. As the months and years passed without a criminal charge, she found pictures of her stepson, by now living with his mother near Dallas, with other young children on his lap. She brought the photos to the U.S. attorney’s office, which she said eventually forced the teen to agree to periodic visitations to ensure he wasn’t in close contact with children.

Frazier, who said he could not discuss specifics of any juvenile case, said that federal prosecutors can still arrange monitoring, sex offender treatment and other resources for juveniles they don’t prosecute.

Jane said that her family had previously entered her stepson into an inpatient treatment facility on their own. A formal juvenile delinquency adjudication would likely have included such treatment had the teen been tried.

Jane said she also pursued the case in family court, forcing the teen to move into his grandmother’s home and away from the young children in his mother’s home.

“I shouldn’t have had to do those things,” she said. “If there was a process in place that would have taken over and said, ‘You don’t have to worry about putting yourself on the line, you don’t have to worry about being at odds with your spouse because we are taking over and we’re prosecuting because this is a serious crime.’”

She was married to an officer, but she says younger and lower-ranking parents likely wouldn’t have felt secure enough to pursue the case as she did.

Her son, now a teenager himself, remains affected by the ordeal. “He’s still angry,” she said. “I think he has to be angry with somebody and at times I think he’s angry with me.”

The strain of the ordeal took a toll on her marriage as well, and she has since divorced. But she hasn’t given up helping other military families from going through a similar legal nightmare.

“I know that I won’t ever get justice,” she said. “I have to put that to rest. I hate knowing that every day there could be somebody who’s going through this and some victim who’s not getting help.”



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