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Originally published Monday, August 19, 2013 at 9:17 PM

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Prosecutors reviewing sex case involving teen, Marine recruiter

King County prosecutors are reviewing allegations that a Marine recruiter engaged in sexual misconduct with a 17-year-old female student hoping to enlist.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is reviewing allegations that a Marine recruiter last year engaged in sexual misconduct with an Eastside high-school student who sought to join the Marines.

The King County review of the case reflects concerns about the outcome of a military investigation of the allegations, which did not result in any charges, and ended with the recruiter returning to his position after a temporary suspension.

The student last year was a 17-year-old prospective recruit. She told King County detectives that she fondled the recruiter’s genitals at his insistence while they were riding in a car in the fall, and had two other sexual contacts at a local recruiting office, according to investigative files obtained by The Seattle Times under the state Public Disclosure Act.

The student said she felt pressured to participate in the sexual contact to get a position in the Marines, according to an incident report.

County investigators found the student’s accounts to be credible, according to Cindi West, spokeswoman for the county sheriff's office.

The recruiter, in statements to investigators, denied all the allegations against him and said he never had any sexual contact with any of his potential recruits.

The Seattle Times is not naming the recruiter because he has not been charged with a crime.

Prosecutors have kept the case open for months as they determine whether the recruiter’s alleged actions could have violated a state law that prohibits adults in super-visory positions from sexual contact with someone 16 or 17 years old.

The Marine Corps investigation involved both the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and a separate inquiry by a Marine officer from outside the Seattle area, according to Staff Sgt. Zachary Dyer, spokesman for the U.S. Marine Corps Recruiting Station in Seattle.

“We take all allegations of sexual misconduct very seriously. All reports of sexual misconduct are investigated thoroughly,” Dyer said in a written statement released to The Seattle Times.

The Marine Corps considers recruiters to be in a “unique position of power and control over a prospective recruit’s or candidate’s potential career,” according to a 2004 Marine Corps “depot order” that prohibits recruiters from encouraging, soliciting or engaging in sexual relations with prospective recruits.

Despite such orders, the Marines and other branches of the military have been buffeted by a series of sex scandals involving recruiters during the past decade.

Some of those cases have involved allegations of rape, pimping and sex with underage girls.

In September 2009, Lt. Gen. Robert Milstead, then head of the Marine Corps Recruiting Command, sent a letter to all recruiting stations noting that “some very seedy sexual misconduct by a few” has threatened to overshadow the professionalism of everyone else, according to The Military Times, which obtained a copy of the letter.

These recruiter cases are part of broader revelations about the scope of sexual misconduct in the military that have caused bipartisan anger in Congress, where many say that the military leadership has failed to deal forcefully with the problem.

The most controversial legislative proposal, introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would transfer the power to decide whether to prosecute these cases from commanders to military prosecutors.

The Marine Corps, in response to an inquiry from The Seattle Times, said during the last fiscal year there were 16 sexual-misconduct cases among the 3,760 recruiters. The investigations resulted in five court-martial convictions and three cases that were resolved through disciplinary actions.

Two other cases ended up in civilian courts. Six are still pending resolution.

“Reports of sexual misconduct equate to less than half of one percent of recruiters each fiscal year,” said a statement released by the Marine Corps Recruiting Command.

The Marines’ investigation into the recruiter first was conducted by NCIS in a partnership with civilian law-enforcement officials, according to Dyer.

The Marine Corps Recruiting Command then conducted a second investigation to find any evidence of unprofessional behavior or misconduct. That investigator could not substantiate any misconduct and ended up recommending the case be closed, according to Dyer.

The investigation was sparked by calls from officials at the Eastside high school, where the prospective recruit had been a strong student.

School officials were concerned that she was missing a lot of classes and might not be on track to graduate.

The high school’s campus supervisor told the King County sheriff’s investigator that the student confided to her last November about at least three encounters with the recruiter.

The alleged contacts involved an encounter in September at a Marine recruiting office, where the recruiter went over some sexual-harassment paperwork and asked the student if she had ever been part of sexual harassment.

Later, in a back office, he hugged her, lifted her onto his lap and fondled her breasts, according to the high-school official’s statement in the investigative files.

In the incident in the car, the student said she stimulated the recruiter after he pushed her hand into his crotch. On another occasion in the recruiting office, the recruiter allegedly tried to get the student to engage in oral sex, according to investigative reports.

The student said she was concerned she would be blackballed or stigmatized if she reported her concerns, the high-school official told investigators.

After meeting with the student, the school official called the Marine recruiting station in Seattle to report the allegations.

“I felt very confident with all these conversations, and the way in which the Marines/NCIS are handling this. The sensitive nature in which they are treating this and the respect for (the student) is commendable,” the school official wrote in her December statement.

But she became dismayed by what she felt was a lack of follow-up. She told The Seattle Times that the Navy investigator never returned to the school for additional interviews, and eventually called her to say there wasn’t enough proof to move forward.

“It was like they fell off the face of the Earth,” the school official said.

The King County sheriff's investigation proceeded on a parallel track, with interviews of the student, school officials and suspect.

Prosecutors initially couldn’t find any violations of state law. On Dec. 4, the case was closed.

But later in December, a deputy prosecuting attorney asked that the case be reopened to investigate whether the recruiter violated the state’s sexual-misconduct statute.

The student graduated in June, but no longer has any dreams of joining the Marines.

“She was so goal-oriented. Her whole mantra was to be a Marine,” said the school official. “This girl lived it. But not anymore. This changed her.”

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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