By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times –
HOUSTON — The latest development in the unfolding sex scandal at San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base: An instructor was acquitted of sexually assaulting a boot camp graduate and now awaits sentencing on a lesser charge, a military spokesman said.
A military judge ruled Tuesday that military prosecutors lacked sufficient evidence to support the original sexual assault charge, and the instructor, Staff Sgt. Kwinton Estacio, was convicted on a charge of wrongful sexual contact, according to Lackland spokesman Brent Boller.
Boller told the Los Angeles Times that Estacio pleaded not guilty to the sexual assault charge Monday, but guilty to other violations, including obstruction of justice and of violating a lawful general regulation and no contact order.
The airman had faced up to 43 years in prison if convicted before the acquittal. Now he faces up to 14 years, Boller said.
A jury began deliberating the sentence at Wednesday morning and was still out by midafternoon, Boller said.
Military prosecutors have investigated 17 instructors at the base, the busiest Air Force training ground in the country, and charged six. Three have pleaded guilty or been convicted, two of unprofessional relationships and a third of rape, Boller said.
Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, a former instructor, received a 20-year prison sentence after being convicted July 20 of rape and sexually assaulting 10 women — many still in their teens.
Tech. Sgt. Christopher Smith was sentenced to 30 days in jail and a reduction in rank to airman first class after he was convicted Aug. 1 of having an “unprofessional relationship” with a female trainee and fraternizing with another. He was recently released back to his unit, Boller said.
Staff Sgt. Peter Vega-Maldonado admitted in June to having sex with a female trainee, was given 90 days’ confinement as part of a plea deal and also returned to his unit — despite later admitting to having sex with more than 10 trainees.
Boller said commanders could still pursue administrative action against the pair that might result in their discharge.