FORT BRAGG, N.C. – An Army captain who says she was sexually assaulted by a general sobbed Friday as she testified that they had a three-year affair and that he threatened to kill her and her family -- and "do it in a way no one would ever know" -- if she ever told anyone.
The testimony came on the opening day of the trial of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. military officer ever court-martialed on sexual assault charges.
Asked by a prosecutor to identify her abuser, the woman looked quickly in Sinclair's direction at the defense table and pointed at the man with whom she admits violating military law by having an adulterous relationship.
She was given immunity in exchange for her testimony, which was expected to continue through Friday afternoon. She had yet to be asked about the explosive central allegation -- that Sinclair twice ended arguments about their relationship by unbuttoning his pants and forcing her head into his lap to perform oral sex.
The trial is unfolding with the Pentagon under heavy pressure to confront rape and other sexual misconduct in the ranks that even the military has called epidemic. On Thursday, the Senate rejected a bill that would have stripped commanders of the authority to decide whether to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes.
In opening statements Friday, prosecutor Lt. Col. Robert Stelle painted Sinclair, 51, as a man who used his authority to intimidate and coerce a female officer nearly 20 years his junior into sex.
The former deputy commander of the storied 82nd Airborne Division, Sinclair could be sentenced to life in prison if found guilty.
Defense lawyers portrayed Sinclair as the victim of a desperately infatuated woman who became angry when she discovered that another woman had sent the general an email that closed with "I love you." The defense also contends Sinclair is the target of overzealous prosecutors under political pressure to make an example of him, despite weak evidence and an accuser with a history of telling lies.
Defense attorney Ellen C. Brotman began her opening statement by reading the jury -- composed of five two-star generals -- excerpts from the woman's diary, written during the affair. Even after he was alleged to have threatened to kill her loved ones, she wrote of her desire for him, Brotman said, and the only fear she expressed was that he might still love his wife.
"I'm so in love with him," Brotman read from the diary. "I do know that I love him incredibly. ... I love him almost unconditionally."
The woman and Sinclair exchanged thousands of text messages, often sexually explicit, according to the defense, and she sent messages even after he tried to break it off.
Their relationship began in Iraq in 2009. He was her direct commander, a paratrooper revered for bravery under fire. She was a young intelligence officer and Arabic linguist, assigned to accompany him on trips to meet Iraqi leaders.
She said that after months of conversation and flirtation, she went to his quarters late one night. He asked her to put down her hair, which she typically wore in a bun while in uniform. She complied, and he began stroking her hair. They kissed that night, and the relationship soon evolved into frequent secret sexual liaisons.
"It was wrong," she testified. "I knew it was wrong."
She testified that he often spoke of his wife and children and that he described his spouse as an open-minded woman who understood he needed to have sex while overseas. She said she assumed Sinclair had told his wife about her.
Once, after sex, the captain testified, the general told her that she reminded him of his wife, and she replied that she looked forward to meeting her. The captain said Sinclair sharply told her that his wife could never know about their affair.
"He told me that if I ever told her or anyone else about he and I, he would kill me and then he would kill my family," the witness said, sobbing. "And he would do it in a way no one would ever know."
Still, the woman admitted, she continued to have sex with him. She said they twice had romantic rendezvous stateside, in Arizona and Texas.
On Thursday, Sinclair pleaded guilty to adultery and other charges that could send him to prison for up to 15 years -- a move sure to end his military career.
Sinclair's lawyers are hoping the plea will limit some of the salacious evidence prosecutors can present and reduce the case to his word against hers.