Trigger warning: Some details of the incidents in this article could be offensive or disturbing to some readers.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Army Pvt. Jameson T. Hazelbower went AWOL after learning he was suspected of raping a 15-year-old girl. Despite the potential threat that he posed, the self-described sex addict roamed free for nearly three months before local police collared him in Winnebago, Illinois, near where he grew up.
And that was only by chance, according to interviews, police reports and court-martial records obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act.
An officer responded to a call late on a Friday night in March 2014 about a suspicious vehicle parked in a cul-de-sac outside an apartment complex. Hazelbower, his pants down to his knees, was in the car with a girl, barely 14. She was unharmed.
Hazelbower’s case is a window into an obscure but significant aspect of the U.S. military’s legal system. Deserters suspected of serious crimes are to be prioritized for capture based on the severity of the offenses. But the Army never searched for Hazelbower and the U.S. Marshals Service was not called in, even though marshals have arrested more than 200 deserters over the past five years alone.
In fact, there was a lack of urgency to locate Hazelbower despite strident warnings from his superiors at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the records show. The military’s version of an arrest warrant described him as a “sexually violent predator” and a known drug abuser. Also, he had gone AWOL before.
The Army declined to discuss Hazelbower’s court-martial and why service officials chose not to pursue him. Army spokeswoman Tatjana Christian said the service typically does not conduct searches or pursuits to physically apprehend deserters “due to jurisdictional issues unique to each military installation.” She declined to say what those issues are.
Hazelbower, 24, is confined at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He declined to comment for this story through his civilian defense attorney in Kentucky, James Phillips.
Had anyone looked, Hazelbower may not have been hard to find. After fleeing Fort Campbell, he had gone home to Lanark, Illinois, a small town two hours west of Chicago.
Hazelbower enlisted in the Army in 2011 was stationed at Fort Campbell, in southern Kentucky near the Tennessee border. He was listed as AWOL on Jan. 10, 2014, a few weeks after Army Criminal Investigation Command agents informed him he was suspected of forcible sodomy and sexual assault.
The victim, 15 and from Kentucky, testified at Hazelbower’s court-martial that she met him on a social networking site. She said he drove to a remote area on Fort Campbell where he assaulted her.
In late February 2014, after the Army classified Hazelbower as a deserter, the service was informed of a second alleged victim. The sheriff’s office in neighboring Montgomery County, Tennessee, had established probable cause that he had raped a 14-year-old girl several months earlier, Army Criminal Investigation Command records show.
But it would be several more weeks before Hazelbower was caught in Illinois.
Just after 10:30 p.m. on March 29, 2014, Winnebago police responded to the suspicious vehicle call. An officer ran Hazelbower’s name through a law enforcement database and found he had an outstanding warrant for military desertion.
The girl in the car with Hazelbower told police she had been communicating with him through a social networking service and they had not met before. In her statement to police, she said Hazelbower grabbed her hand and placed it on his exposed penis. When she attempted to pull away, he held her wrist tighter.
Once in custody, Winnebago police found Hazelbower was pursuing still another teenage girl in Illinois. For the two incidents in Illinois, Hazelbower pleaded guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse and indecent solicitation of a child. He received 30 months of probation.
Hazelbower was then returned to the Army. By that time a third sexual assault victim from the Fort Campbell area had been identified. She was 15 and lived in Kentucky, according to the documents.
He pleaded not guilty in military court to all the charges. But he was convicted by a military judge in May 2015 of child rape, possession of child pornography, sexual abuse of a child, desertion and other charges. For those crimes, he was sentenced to 50 years confinement. But he could do less time if he eventually is paroled. In the military justice system, he will be eligible for release from prison after serving one-third of his term.
Hazelbower pleaded for leniency in long, handwritten note to Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, the commanding general at Fort Campbell. He said since enlisting in the Army, he had become a sex addict and an alcoholic and was suffering from depression. Yet the Army had ignored his problems.
“I was literally laughed at,” Hazelbower told the general. “How could I be completely to blame?”
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