In a first-of-its-kind case under the military’s new way of handling crimes like sexual assault, murder and domestic violence, a soldier was recalled to active duty and charged in the military justice system with years-long sexual abuse of a stepdaughter.

Staff Sgt. William Rivers, 55, pleaded guilty to five counts of sexual abuse under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice last week and will serve more than six years in prison under a plea agreement. It was the first case in which a soldier was recalled to duty for a court-martial by the Army’s new Office of Special Trial Counsel.

Rivers’ sexual abuse of his stepdaughter occurred over multiple years while he was on active duty in Hawaii and Florida. Rivers retired in 2017. According to court documents, Rivers’ crimes included raping his stepdaughter in 2014. He also inappropriately touched her, exposed himself, and relayed his “sexual desires” to her in 2013 and 2014, according to the charge sheet.

A prosecutor for the Office of Special Trial Counsel said the case represents a sea of change for military sexual assault prosecutions. Prior to the establishment of the OSTC in 2023, it’s unlikely civilian or military prosecutors would’ve brought charges against him, said Maj. Steven Poland, the lead Army prosecutor on the case. 

“In this case, because it was unlikely any other person was going to prosecute him and hold him accountable because we looked at the evidence in detail and we knew we’d be able to prove the case – there was just no other option besides pursuing it,” Poland said.

The complications of a case like Rivers’ highlighted the unique authorities of the military and UCMJ. Rivers was an Army reservist assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 81st Armored Regiment at Fort Moore, Georgia whose service took him all over the world to places like Florida, Hawaii, and Japan. Rivers also got a job with Lockheed Martin in South Korea because of his Army experience, Poland said.

Poland said that pursuing the case in civilian court would’ve been much more complicated. Local prosecutors in the U.S., he said, “were likely not going to take the case” due to the international aspect. With the various agreements that the military has with foreign governments, the UCMJ was the best avenue for his stepdaughter to receive justice, he said.  

“I think it’s a unique case that presents a situation where there’s a risk that someone could escape justice,” Poland said. “We don’t want that to happen when part of the reason that they could escape justice was the fact that they were on active duty, able to move around, able to kind of get out of situations where they might be able to be held accountable.”

The court martial

Rivers was working as a contractor when he was arrested at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, by the Army Criminal Investigation Division in December 2023. 

The stepdaughter reported the crimes to NCIS in Japan on Jan. 14, 2021, after she had turned 18. She was given legal representation by the Marine Corps because the nearest U.S. installation was a Marine Corps air station. She was also assigned a special victim liaison who helps civilians navigate the UCMJ process and other logistics like traveling to be at the trial.

During the investigation, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service recorded a phone call between Rivers and his stepdaughter where he admitted to sexually abusing her for several years across multiple duty locations.

“It was just a conversation between the two of them and she brought up the abuse and they started the conversation about it,” Poland said. “We try not to influence in any way. There’s no script or anything like that. It’s just like having a conversation about it.”

Rivers was sentenced by a military judge to 108 months of confinement for sexual abuse but under the plea deal, he will serve 80 months in prison. The military judge also reduced Rivers’ rank to private and imposed a bad conduct discharge.

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Once officials had a plea or pre-trial agreement, both the prosecution and defense created a written document with the facts of the case that were negotiated ahead of time. Then, unique to the UCMJ process, they entered into a “providence inquiry” where the judge told Rivers the offenses he was pleading guilty to. Rivers had to “verbally explain” to the judge “why he was guilty of every element of every crime,” according to Poland.

“We do that in the military for a very important reason and it’s because we don’t want the perception that we’re forcing anybody to plead guilty because of the command structure,” Poland said. “I’m an officer. I’m a major and the accused was an NCO, a staff sergeant. I don’t want to feel like I’m coercing him to do it and so that’s just to make sure that it’s the right thing, and he’s actually guilty.”

The court martial focused on the crimes that officials could prove occurred while he was on duty meaning they had to cross reference dates from the stepdaughter’s allegations and human resource records.

“There were other instances that were outside of the jurisdiction because it happened either after he retired, or at a time where we couldn’t necessarily prove he was on active duty,” Poland said.

Office of Special Trial Counsel

The case was handled by the Army’s Office of Special Trial Counsel, a new set of offices stood up by the Pentagon to handle criminal cases like sexual assault, murder, and domestic violence. Each military branch has its own Office of Special Trial Counsel and the lead prosecutors report to their service Secretaries in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

The office was created in response to conflict of interest complaints about the way that the military previously handled legal proceedings – allowing service members to be investigated and prosecuted by legal teams under the same local chain of command. With the new offices, cases can now be referred to the Office of Special Trial Counsel to be handled by independent prosecutors who will decide what actions, if any, from a court martial to dismissal, a case requires.

In this case, officials had to recall Rivers back to duty. The authority to recall veterans lies solely with the command and in the Army, that is the General Court Martial Convening Authority, or GCMCA. Under previous UCMJ policies, these officials could refer cases to court martial, or find other avenues to avoid trials. Critics cited frequent cases of operational commanders “sweeping under the rug” sexual abuse accusations if the accused was needed in their operational job.

But with the new office, those commanders no longer have that authority for certain covered offenses like sexual assault and domestic violence. 

“If a GCMCA or one of these commanders wants to recall an active duty or reserve soldier or retired soldier to active duty, they have to consult with the [Office of Special Trial Counsel],” Poland said.

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