Air Force declines to charge colonel accused of sexually, physically abusing boys

WASHINGTON — The Air Force has declined to charge a senior military doctor accused of sexually and physically abusing two elementary-school-aged boys despite pleas from Air Force lawyers appointed to advocate for them, interviews and documents obtained by USA TODAY show.

The allegations against Air Force Col. Eric Holt, a battlefield physician who was severely wounded in Afghanistan, were dismissed June 15 after an Air Force two-star general determined that evidence military and civilian officials had uncovered was “inconclusive.”

Lawyers for the boys, however, wrote on June 14 to Air Force officials that there was “sufficient factual basis” to press charges against Holt for abusing the boys, including photographs of their injuries ... and expert testimony supporting the veracity of their allegations.”

The severity of the allegations, including sodomy, black eyes and cuts, has captured the attention of members of Congress who have called on Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein to direct their most senior prosecutor to review the case.

Air Force officials maintain that they carefully weighed evidence from multiple investigations, including one by Maryland officials, before making their decision. Holt, 48, who works at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, declined to comment.

"These are very serious allegations and we took numerous steps to thoroughly investigate and protect the welfare of these children,” Lt. Col. Brus Vidal, an Air Force spokesman, said in a statement. “In this case, the Air Force investigated the allegations, reviewed evidence and assessments from Maryland law enforcement and child service agencies and then determined there was not sufficient evidence to support the allegations.”

Holt graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1991, transferred to the Air Force and went to medical school. In January 2009, he was on his fourth deployment, providing medical care on the battlefield for special operations forces.

He was accompanying Marine commandos on a night-time raid in Afghanistan when a roadside bomb ripped through the Humvee he was riding in. The blast hurled Holt 35 yards, severely wounding his face, skull and spine. He endured years of treatment and recovery, has returned to duty and is an assistant professor.

In October 2016,  allegations of sexual abuse arose after one of the boys returned from a visit with Holt. The boy awoke the night of Oct. 13 having soiled himself, according to the June 14 memo to Maj. Gen. James Jacobson, the officer deciding whether Holt would be charged.

As his mother cleaned him up, the boy told her that Holt "pulls on his penis and puts his fingers in his bottom." Crying, he told two other women in the home the same story. A photo of his bruised penis and a statement from one of the women were left out of the investigative report by the Air Force, according to the memo.

The memo catalogs other forms of abuse the boys allegedly suffered at the hands of Holt, including black eyes and facial bruising. They also cite the opinion of a licensed psychologist, who found the boys to be credible.

"As detailed above, the investigation wrongfully omitted highly relevant information in this case," the Air Force attorneys for the boys, Captains Lauren Kerby and Stephanie Howell, wrote in the memo this month to top Air Force officials.

The lawyers urged Jacobson to set aside statements from the boys' mother and rely on the evidence presented.

"Whether or not she is credible, you have photos of injuries, statements by the boys, and an expert's opinion that (their) disclosures are credible," they wrote. "These are the facts you need to prefer  charges in this case."

Jacobson declined to prefer charges, which would have required an Article 32 hearing. A decision could have made at that proceeding to send Holt to a court-martial.

Vidal, the Air Force spokesman, said the decision not to charge Holt was based on expert testimony and the decision by Maryland authorities to pass on the case.

"The Air Force retained a civilian expert in forensic psychology to evaluate the evidence; the expert’s analysis deemed there was insufficient evidence to proceed," Vidal said. "Maryland law enforcement and child services agencies' investigations also found the evidence against Col. Holt was inconclusive.

"This case was previously reviewed by Maryland state prosecutors, who declined to pursue the case, providing the Air Force opportunity to conduct a second look at the case and determine whether disciplinary action was appropriate."

For now, the case is closed.

But advocates for the boys, including members of Congress, continue to push the Air Force to launch a new investigation.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Massachusetts Democratic Reps. Joe Kennedy III and Niki Tsongas co-authored the letter seeking a fresh look at the case.

“These are extremely serious allegations, and there is no excuse not to fully investigate what happened," Gillibrand said in a statement to USA TODAY. "I urge the Air Force to take this case seriously and to protect this family. It is not too late to have people with the proper level of expertise and understanding of complex crimes looking at the facts – as my colleagues and I requested previously."

Evidence shows that the Air Force failed to give complaints about the abuse a fair hearing.

“Anyone – man, woman, or child – who reports sexual, physical, or mental abuse deserves a fair, independent investigation and trial," Kennedy said.

The Air Force Special Victims Counsel assigned to the boys' mother speculated that her advocacy for them may have colored the judgment of officials reviewing the case.

"She wants her kids to be safe," Maj. Jophiel Philips said in an interview. "That's what she wants. She loves those kids. In her pursuit of justice for her children, she may rub some people the wrong way, but that's all she wants, and no one should fault her for that."

A video of one of the boys shows him distraught, sitting on a bed, crying. In it, he pleads for help.

"I need somebody to take care of me," he says, "because if nobody takes care of me my bottom will hurt."

Kerby, one of the attorneys for the boys, said it is clear that something happened to the boys. And that they need help.

“The boys are 6 years old, and they can’t advocate for themselves," Kerby said in an interview. "We’re trying to give them a voice.”

Don Christensen, the former top prosecutor for the Air Force and president of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, said the photos and video of the boys should trigger charges and a hearing.

"The children are clearly being abused and the Air Force doesn’t seem to have an interest in finding out who is doing it," Christensen said. "The clear indication that his his chain of command has made up their mind that they believe him and and that's clouding their judgment. He's a officer, injured in combat. Sometimes too much deference is given to those things."

Comments on this article