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Who urinated in her boots? A mystery at a California military base led to claims of a cover-up
For Staff Sgt. Jennifer Pineda, a 15-year veteran of the California Air National Guard, the military was a family calling. She followed her older sister and brother-in-law into the guard, where she now holds an administrative position at the elite 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno.
On a March morning four years ago, Pineda was about to dress into a uniform she had stored overnight in a stall in the women's bathroom when she made a foul discovery.
Someone had urinated in her boots.
The incident left Pineda humiliated and frightened and would trigger a series of behind-the-scenes investigations whose scope has come to extend beyond what happened that day at the Fresno base.
The defiling of Pineda's boots has led to allegations that high-ranking officers tried to bury the incident, including by destroying evidence that could have potentially identified a suspect through DNA, and retaliated against a male pilot who supported her efforts to find the perpetrator, according to interviews and guard records obtained by The Times. Some in the wing have begun calling the ongoing saga "Pissgate."
After The Times began asking questions about the Pineda episode, the California Military Department, which oversees the guard, asked the U.S. Air Force Inspector General's Office to conduct an investigation.
In the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, guard leaders are concerned about the degrading nature of the act aimed at a woman, according to two sources close to the investigation, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to publicly speak about the matter. Only about 20% of the officers and enlisted members in the guard are women.
The inspector general's inquiry is the third investigation into the Pineda affair and part of a broader probe into whether whistle-blowers at the 144th wing suffered reprisals for questioning the actions or conduct of their superiors on a range of matters. At least five guard members from the 144th wing, including a pilot who was killed in October in a crash during a training mission in Ukraine, filed formal complaints. The guard recently suspended a 144th commander for reasons it said were unrelated to the Pineda incident.
"This boils down to just unprofessional leadership and cronyism," said Maj. Dan Woodside, a retired 144th fighter pilot who is a witness in the inspector general's Pineda investigation and has complained about how she was treated. "If anybody had urinated in their boots, they would have done everything they could to find the perpetrator, even if it involved calling the FBI."
Two of the guard's top officers held key leadership positions at the 144th at the time of the Pineda incident: Maj. Gen. Clay Garrison, who has since become head of the air guard, and Col. Sean Navin, now one of its five wing commanders. Neither responded to requests for interviews.
Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, who heads the Military Department, declined through a guard spokesman to be interviewed. Baldwin said in a written statement to The Times that "in order to protect the integrity of that ongoing investigation, we cannot disclose additional details."
The California air guard is the second largest, after New York's, in the Air National Guard, which is a force of more than 100,000 pilots, other officers and enlisted people. Many of the pilots are part-time reservists, signing up after careers in the U.S. Air Force, and some fly in their civilian lives for commercial airlines.
The guards function as state militias whose leaders report to the governor. They patrol state airspace and stand ready to respond to natural disasters and large-scale terrorist attacks.
In California, the air guard helped fight recent wildfires, flying drones over the blazes to feed intelligence to fire crews on the ground. Its fighter pilots are regularly deployed to assist the Air Force in combat and other operations overseas.
The 144th is the biggest wing in the state. It is home to roughly 115 officers, including about two dozen fighter pilots, and more than 1,000 enlistees in support units. For every officer in the wing, there are about nine enlistees in roles that are essential but carry much less clout.
Pineda, 34, is one of them.
After joining the guard in 2004, she spent several years in the wing's command post as a dispatcher before moving to the operations group, according to interviews with guard colleagues. Pineda declined to comment for this story.
Soon after she reported that someone had urinated on her boots, members of the 144th's security forces, who police the base, arrived at the location, attempted to lift fingerprints and had photos taken of the scene, according to an internal investigative record obtained by The Times. The security airmen collected the urine from the floor and reviewed hours of security camera footage, the document states.
Investigative records describe the incident as "vandalism." If committed by someone with a rank of second lieutenant or higher, legal experts said, the act could also be considered the more serious crime of conduct unbecoming an officer. The perpetrator, they said, could be prosecuted and jailed in a court martial, forced to retire in an administrative proceeding at a reduced rank and pension, or handed a lesser punishment such as a reprimand.
The investigators asked Pineda, then a single mother of two, who she thought could have had a motive to target her, according to the report. Pineda named two women who "have had issues with" her in the past, and her supervisor later suggested one more, the report says. It states that all three women were questioned.
The results of the investigation were inconclusive, the report says.
About two months after the investigation began, the commander of the fighter squadron at the time, Navin, called Pineda and her supervisor into his office to share the results, according to May 2015 memos that Pineda and the supervisor wrote to document the conversation.
Navin apologized that the investigation did not find the perpetrator, according to the memos. In Pineda's memo, she wrote that Navin said killings go unsolved every day and these things just happen.
"I started to ask him how I was supposed to come to work and feel OK in a work environment where I have been violated like this," Pineda said in her memo.
Pineda said in the document that she had begun securing her uniform in a locker, parks where she can see her car from her work desk window and keeps the desk locked up each night.
Soon after the first investigation was shelved, a second was opened when "new information" revealed that pilots had been drinking in a nearby break room the evening before the discovery and "may have information regarding the incident or may have possibly been involved in the incident," according to a guard report and interviews. Navin, the commander who had shared the results of the first investigation with Pineda, had been in the break room as well that evening, the report says.
Investigators questioned 18 people, including Navin, Woodside and four other guard members who said they had been in the break room, called "The Merge."
The two investigators told at least some of the pilots that they might be asked to undergo polygraph tests and that the urine collected from the scene would be tested for DNA, Woodside said. Some were also questioned about how much Navin had to drink, he added.
In a second interview with investigators, Pineda said a couple of pilots told her they suspected Navin of urinating on her boots, the report says. She said she felt that Navin "doesn't trust her work abilities," according to the report.
Navin denied being involved, guard records show. He told investigators that he had no conflicts with Pineda and was never inside the women's bathroom where she left her boots and clothing.
The investigator who authored the report wrote that the interviews "did not lead to any new conclusions" or identify any suspects.
In August 2015, Pineda filed a whistle-blower complaint. She wrote that the main investigator told her that the evidence showed that a woman could not have urinated in the boots, but that she heard that officers speculated that she urinated in them "for attention." In the complaint, Pineda said that "makes me want this investigation to be complete and legit to prove that I did not do this to myself." She added that she feared she could be forced to leave the guard.
The guard declined to comment about the status of Pineda's complaint.
Last year, Lt. Col. Rob Swertfager, a 144th pilot, filed a complaint alleging that commanders punished him — including by withholding his pay on occasion — for going to bat for Pineda by telling a superior that the first investigation might have been mishandled. His complaint is part of the inspector general's investigation. He declined to comment for this story.
Woodside said the head of base security, then-Lt. Col. Dave Johnston, told him that 144th "leadership" ordered him to shut down the investigation and destroy all the evidence after investigators zeroed in on Navin. The evidence included Pineda's boots and a vial of urine that was never tested.
Woodside said he believes "there was a cover-up."
Johnston, since promoted to colonel, did not say who gave him the order, Woodside said. He said Johnston informed him about the destruction of the evidence during a 32-minute telephone conversation on Dec. 7, 2017. He produced phone records that showed such a call to Johnston's number.
In interviews with The Times, four current and former guard members confirmed that Woodside told them about his phone conversation with Johnston shortly after it occurred.
Johnston declined to be interviewed. He said in two statements provided to The Times that no one ordered him to dispose of the evidence. Johnston said he had consulted with Garrison, who ran the base at the time of the incident, about destroying the evidence. Garrison's only guidance, Johnston wrote, was that he first confer with the 144th's judge advocate general at the time, who did not respond to interview requests.
Johnston said he authorized the destruction because the second investigation had been closed for several months and the evidence was no longer needed. He declined to discuss why a DNA test was never conducted.
The lead investigator, Daniel Mosqueda, offered no explanation for not testing the urine.
"The way the investigation went, it didn't happen," he told The Times.
Woodside said he confronted Garrison about the investigation at a colonel's retirement party in March 2017, after the evidence had been destroyed. He said Garrison told him that there was "no actual crime here" and that it would have been inappropriate to spend "thousands of dollars" on a urine test that wouldn't produce usable information.
Depending on the condition of the specimen, a DNA analysis of the urine could have determined the perpetrator's sex and perhaps identified him or her definitively through a comparison test, forensic experts told The Times. Typically, it would cost about $1,000 to $1,300, they said.
Experts on military and criminal law questioned the decision to destroy evidence without conducting a DNA analysis. Southwestern Law School Professor Rachel E. VanLandingham, who served as a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney during a U.S. Air Force career, said if evidence was destroyed to impede an investigation or protect someone, a case could be made for obstruction of justice.
"That needs to be looked into," she said.
About a year after the incident, Navin was promoted to colonel and is now commander of the 163rd Attack Wing in Riverside County, overseeing more than 900 people and the deployment of the MQ-9A Reaper military drone.
A guard spokesman declined to say what prompted the recent suspension of the 144th commander, Col. Victor Sikora. Shortly after the suspension, Sikora called a meeting of pilots and support personnel at the Fresno base. He told the gathering that he had been informed he was suspended "due to the amount of investigations" the guard leadership was dealing with, according to a recording of the meeting The Times reviewed. He did not elaborate.
Sikora did not respond to requests for comment about the suspension.
Among the other complaints under investigation by the inspector general is one filed by Lt. Col. Seth Nehring shortly before he was killed in October in a crash during a training mission in Ukraine. No details of his complaint were available. The investigator leading the inspector general's probe, Lt. Col. Shawna Pavey, did not respond to interview requests.
Dave Bakos, a retired general who served in the guard for 32 years and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, said Garrison should have demanded a more thorough investigation from the start. Morale at the 144th has suffered, Bakos said.
"There are a lot of people unhappy up there," he said. "They need a change at the top."
©2019 the Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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