Chapter one: The Plea

Innocent.

That's what Marine Maj. Mark Thompson declared the first time we met.

He'd been fighting to prove it ever since two young women accused the former history instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy of having sex with them while they were students.

One of the women said the 2011 liaison - amid a drunken night of strip poker at his Annapolis home - was consensual and part of an ongoing relationship.

Advertisement

The other called it rape. None of it was true, Thompson said as we sat at a quiet table inside the Hay-Adams hotel bar called Off the Record - ironic, considering how eagerly he wanted The Washington Post to write about the way the military had handled his case.

"They railroaded me," he would say later. At his court-martial, a nine-member jury had acquitted Thompson of the sexual assault charge but still found him guilty of five lesser offenses, including conduct unbecoming an officer, indecent conduct and fraternization.

The verdict devastated him, marring a career and reputation he'd built for more than two decades. On June 3, 2013, the combat veteran was sentenced to two months' confinement and fined $60,000, though his jurors stopped short of kicking him out of the military.

But Thompson's story didn't end there - and what happened to him next made it unlike any I'd heard before. After he'd served his sentence, the government got a second shot to end his career with what's known as a board of inquiry.

Three Marine Corps officers were assigned to decide whether Thompson should be discharged for his crimes.

It was at that hearing - in March 2014, at a time when the armed forces were under unprecedented pressure to eradicate an epidemic of sexual misconduct - that something remarkable happened: The board saw no proof that Thompson had done anything wrong and concluded he should not have been found guilty.

The officers had no power to reverse Thompson's convictions, but their ruling was still a momentous victory, saving his job and a generous pension. It also fueled his desire for vindication, which prompted him to ask a friend to approach The Washington Post on his behalf in late 2014.

And now, at the bar, I listened as he listed all who had wronged him: the accusers, the investigators, the prosecutors, the academy, the military justice system. He was convincing.

Thompson, a divorced father of two, had a dazzling command of his case's intricacies, able to quickly recall obscure details and testimony. He spoke with a slow, deliberate tone, selecting just the right language to illustrate his points.

About the women: "I hardly knew either of them."

About the academy: "It's a system built on nepotism and patronage."

About the Naval Criminal Investigative Service: "NCIS avoided the truth. They hid it when they could."

Despite those assertions, prosecutors had always maintained that their case against him was strong.

Thompson, who'd grown up in a rural Oklahoma town of about 3,000 people, had wanted to be in the Corps since third grade, when a math teacher described fighting for the Allies on D-Day.

Thompson enlisted at 17 and served for four years before leaving to start a family, join the Marine Reserve and go to college. He reentered the service as an officer in May 2001, just months before the twin towers collapsed and the Pentagon burned.

He stood 5 feet 7 but appeared taller, largely because he looked the way you expect a Marine to look: square jaw, strong chin, crew-cut hair.

Thompson risked his life during deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, taking fire on his way to Baghdad and once narrowly escaping an explosive that detonated behind his unarmored vehicle.

While serving, he also earned a master's degree in history that led to an extraordinary opportunity: a three-year stint teaching at the renowned service academy.

The tale of his life sounded inspiring, until the day it didn't. During that first meeting at the Hay-Adams in April 2015, Thompson, now 46, came across as determined, intelligent and, at moments, desperate.

Even with the board's decision, he explained, the convictions were unlikely to be overturned because his lone opportunity for exoneration was through a military appellate system that critics have long branded as tough for defendants.

He hoped The Washington Post could bring new attention to his case and, perhaps, uncover something revelatory that would lead to a retrial.

He'd already studied the work of experts who had detailed faults in the military justice system, reviewed accounts of service members wrongly accused of crimes and spent hundreds of hours analyzing the evidence against him - all in an intense effort to clear his name.

I didn't know it then, but Thompson was right about one thing: The investigation had been deeply flawed. In the coming months, as I sifted through hundreds of documents and interviewed people across the country, I'd discover that government authorities had made significant blunders.

Naval investigators had missed vital clues, and prosecutors had failed to call key witnesses at the court-martial while also presenting false arguments at the trial and board of inquiry hearing.

Most critically, though, none of them had found an essential piece of evidence - a cellphone with a bright yellow case and a cracked screen - that they long thought was lost.

Chapter two: The Accusation

A bundle of court documents thicker than three phone books was packed into the stained canvas tote bag that Thompson handed to me.

By our second meeting, the Marine major had already emailed the board of inquiry transcript and the eight-volume trial record, which included more than 3,500 pages of testimony and exhibits. The documents laid out a sprawling narrative that was both riveting and confounding.

Thompson's ordeal began on a crisp February day in 2012. He'd been summoned to an interview with naval investigators but wasn't told why. He met two agents in a building just off campus, where one presented him with a sheet of paper.

His eyes fixed on a single word: "Rape."

"I immediately understood," he told me, "that my world was about to crumble."

Thompson had been at the academy for two years, teaching naval history courses to dozens of young midshipmen in pressed blue uniforms.

He'd also volunteered as the military representative for the school's rifle team, traveling with students to matches and, sometimes, acting as their mentor. It was through the group that he met one of its managers, a 23-year-old senior named Sarah Stadler.

Sarah Stadler during her time at the Naval Academy.
Sarah Stadler during her time at the Naval Academy.

She had grown up in Carson City, Nev., where as a high school freshman she joined the Navy Junior ROTC to avoid phys-ed class. By her senior year, though, she commanded the entire unit and hoped to one day become a military attorney.

To make it into the Naval Academy, Stadler studied at its prep school for a year before heading to Annapolis in 2007 to major in political science. As Thompson later told the board of inquiry, Stadler needed help preparing for an important fitness test, so he often ran with her.

He acknowledged Stadler had a crush on him - and that she regularly called his cellphone - but he insisted that their relationship stayed professional. Stadler told a different story. They shared drinks at a hotel bar, she testified, during a trip to New York when the team was competing against the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

She said he invited her to his room, where they made out. Afterward, Stadler said, he told her during their workouts that her heavy breathing reminded him of sex and that he wanted to see her naked.

Over the course of four months, she alleged they slept together about seven times - including once when they were joined by a male friend of his, also a Marine. Initially, the investigation focused on just one of those supposed episodes.

The annual croquet match between the academy and St. John's College is among Annapolis's quirkiest traditions, a grand excuse for hundreds of young people to dress like "Downton Abbey" extras but still drink like college kids.

Stadler on the day of the 2011 croquet match in Annapolis.
Stadler on the day of the 2011 croquet match in Annapolis.

On April 30, 2011, just a month before her graduation from the academy, Stadler put on a black-and-white dress with yellow accents and a matching fedora, then headed to the croquet green.

She was joined by a 21-year-old female classmate who also knew Thompson through the shooting team. After a day of heavy boozing, they stopped by Thompson's house, just two blocks off campus.

He claimed they asked to use the bathroom, did so and left. The women claimed he served them shots of tequila before they played strip poker and staggered to his bedroom, where he had sex with both of them.

Under military law, a threesome is considered an indecent act - a serious crime. The 21-year-old later testified that she was too drunk to give him consent and remembered the encounter only in snapshots.

(The Washington Post generally doesn't identify victims of alleged sex crimes; Stadler, who never accused Thompson of assault, agreed to let me use her name.)

Stadler's friend told jurors that she didn't report the incident for months because she feared it would jeopardize her career in the military and her reputation at the academy. "I didn't really want to talk about it," she said.

"I just wanted to leave it alone."

No accusations surfaced until January 2012, when rumors about that night reached the rifle team's coach, Bill Kelley. He confronted Stadler's friend.

Crying, the student told him she remembered few details but knew she'd been raped.

"She's very clear," Kelley testified at the court-martial, "in telling me that she is aware of being sexually assaulted by Major Thompson."

Kelley took her that same day to an academy staff member trained to help victims of sex crimes.

She reported her allegation, triggering the investigation and shining an unwelcome light on the campus at an inopportune moment. The Annapolis institution, like the country's other service academies, had long struggled to integrate women into a male-dominated hierarchy. Even today, 75 percent of its 4,500 students are men.

By 2012, the Naval Academy had already tried for years to address problems with sexual assault, but Thompson's position of authority made the charges against him particularly embarrassing for the school.

Sleeping with a student could get a teacher fired at almost any U.S. university, but for service members at academies - the premier training ground for the country's military leaders - it's a crime, even if the sex is consensual.

For Thompson, the case's timing couldn't have been much worse. On May 24, 2013 - four days before jury selection in his court-martial began - President Obama spoke at the academy's graduation ceremony, where he condemned service members who commit sexual assault.

They "are not only committing a crime," Obama said, "they threaten the trust and discipline that makes our military strong. That's why we have to be determined to stop these crimes, because they've got no place in the greatest military on earth."

At least five of Thompson's nine eventual jurors attended the commencement and heard that speech. All but one had undergone sexual assault training in the months just prior.

And seven were naval officers who worked at the academy and therefore, Thompson argued to me, had a vested interest in protecting the school's reputation. During the jury-selection process, a political science professor acknowledged that he and a colleague had once discussed the accusations against Thompson with "disdain or disgust."

He was chosen for the court-martial anyway, along with six other men and two women. Thompson told me he never viewed the academy's professors as his peers. He was still the blue-collar enlisted guy who'd started with a high school diploma before slogging his way to a position of prominence.

Thompson wanted to be judged by nine Marines unaffiliated with the school. Instead, the jury included just two.

"It is beyond any reasonable person to think," he emailed me, "that a fair trial could be had inside the USNA."

Chapter three: The Investigation

The most critical moment in the investigation occurred just one week after it began.

Stadler had agreed to cooperate with NCIS in the days following their interview with her friend, who'd reported the alleged rape in late January 2012.

So, one day in February, Stadler got into her car on Naval Base San Diego, where she had been stationed after graduating from the academy nine months earlier. She called Thompson's number. He picked up.

"Hey," Thompson said.

"Hey," she responded.

"Long time no talk."

In the seat next to her, an NCIS agent recorded every word.

That conversation was key to the case prosecutors would present in court more than a year later. If Thompson admitted to the alleged threesome, winning a conviction would be far easier. If he didn't, jurors would have to rely on the word of two young women who could barely remember what had happened.

Stadler told him she knew he'd run into her friend at an academy event. He had "talked to her," Stadler said, "like nothing ever happened last year, and she's kind of weirded out about it and upset."

Thompson told her he "didn't know what else to do" and had "kind of avoided her."

Stadler explained that neither of them recalled many details from that night, so she asked what he could.

"I don't remember much," he said, "other than you guys just dropped by to use the bathroom and left."

"Oh, that's it?" she asked.

"That's all I remember."

The transcript suggests that Stadler had little idea how to maneuver Thompson into the admission investigators needed.

"I thought we, I thought you said we had sex," she finally told him.

"I thought we had sex that night."

Thompson laughed.

"Oh," he responded, "that sounds like a pretty good fantasy, but . . ."

At no point did Stadler bring up any of the other supposed sexual encounters she had described to investigators - and at no point did he say there had ever been any. The call established a level of familiarity prosecutors would highlight at trial, and Thompson did discuss once dodging the other woman.

But the sting's central purpose had failed: Thompson confessed to nothing. That left investigators with largely circumstantial evidence. Even Cmdr. Aaron Rugh, the lead prosecutor and a former academy instructor, acknowledged at the court-martial that investigators hadn't found a "silver bullet," but he contended that the totality of evidence proved Thompson's guilt.

Prosecutors offered receipts from the hotel bar near West Point - where Stadler claimed she and Thompson first kissed - that indicated both closed their tabs at exactly 11:57 p.m. They provided records that showed the two had shared more than 100 phone calls. They presented witnesses who testified that the alleged rape victim's mood darkened in the days after the croquet match.

They also noted that Thompson resigned from the rifle team four months after that night. The 21-year-old told jurors that she had asked Stadler to demand that Thompson quit. He didn't testify at the court-martial, but at his board of inquiry hearing, Thompson denied that anyone had pushed him to leave.

The lack of digital evidence was baffling. The case centered on events that occurred in 2011, a time when many other criminal convictions were won with the help of texts, emails and Facebook messages. Where was all that?

I later discovered a picture of the 21-year-old, still in the black dress and pearls she'd worn to the croquet match, sitting at a table inside Thompson's home on the night of the alleged threesome.

It had been posted openly on Facebook since May 2011, though prosecutors never presented it as evidence at trial. Investigators also never found Stadler's phone. It might have played a significant role at the court-martial, but Stadler believed she had thrown it away long before the probe began.

Its screen, she recalled, was cracked. Anyway, agents said Stadler told them she had "deleted correspondence" with Thompson. More than a year after the case was opened, investigators did retrieve the 21-year-old accuser's cellphone from her - and its contents were jarring.

On Jan. 24, 2012, according to court records, the alleged rape victim had sent a text to Stadler, alerting her to the military's investigation. She didn't know until then that Thompson was under scrutiny.

"Yikes," Stadler responded.

"What is the story so I don't mix up? Was I just there?" In another series of texts a week later, they discussed what Stadler should tell NCIS agents.

"Say anything and everything...haha," the woman wrote her.

"Haha," Stadler answered.

"Got it."

Chapter four: The Trial

It was the first day of testimony at his court-martial, and already, Thompson thought he'd won. To him, the accusers were disastrous witnesses, he told me. The stories they gave jurors at the Washington Navy Yard in May 2013 diverged from the ones they'd provided in the past and, sometimes, contradicted each other.

When the woman who claimed she'd been raped by him testified about the incident, she recalled seeing a walk-in shower in his master bathroom that he knew didn't exist.

"It's over," Thompson wrote in a notebook as he sat at a glossy wooden table no more than 10 yards from his accuser.

Again and again, his attorneys hammered on those inconsistencies, an issue prosecutors blamed on the passage of time. The defense portrayed the women as habitual liars who had colluded to craft a grand fabrication.

The Washington Navy Yard courtroom where Thompson's court-martial took place. Photo / Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post
The Washington Navy Yard courtroom where Thompson's court-martial took place. Photo / Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post

Five times during his opening statement, Marine Maj. Joseph Grimm called Thompson a victim. It was hard to understand, however, why two women with so much to lose would have concocted such a harmful - and, for them, shameful - falsehood.

In a dark-panelled courtroom filled with men in uniforms, Stadler's friend sat at a witness stand directly facing the nine jurors and described getting so drunk she couldn't recall how she wound up naked. She then recounted feeling Thompson penetrate her, throwing up afterward and stumbling back to her dorm room.

Stadler had to go even further, not just detailing that night, but also her other alleged liaisons with Thompson: sex for the first time in his bedroom, sex with him and another military officer she'd just met, sex on the night of her graduation.

And because she hadn't accused him of rape, Stadler was named in more than a dozen news stories about the case, including in the Baltimore Sun, Annapolis's Capital Gazette and Military.com.

Still, Thompson maintained that they had conspired against him, and he offered me his theory of why during a meeting at a Starbucks. Before the day of the croquet match in April 2011, Stadler's friend had broken up with a longtime boyfriend.

Thompson said he suspected that after she stopped by his home that evening to use the bathroom, the woman had hooked up with another man in her same company - despite an academy rule that prohibited such students from dating.

When the ex-boyfriend confronted her, Thompson conjectured, she made up the story about him, then persuaded Stadler to back her up. "It was a quick fix that spun out of control," he told me. His contention sounded like a stretch.

Why would the women have stuck to their stories for so long, even suffering through the humiliation of a public trial? Why would they have targeted Thompson, an officer who - even he acknowledged - had served as their mentor?

Why, if Stadler was just playing along to cover for her friend, would she have described such a long and intimate relationship that had nothing to do with that friend? Then again, Thompson bore no burden of proof; prosecutors did.

But that didn't prevent his defense attorneys from aggressively attacking the women. They depicted Stadler as an infatuated harasser, noting that she had initiated more than 90 percent of the 100-plus calls with him. In her testimony, Thompson's longtime girlfriend, Cristina Waters, described Stadler as a perpetual nuisance to him.

She texted Thompson often, Waters said, and called at inappropriate times.

Thompson with his girlfriend, Cristina Waters, at a Marine Corps Ball.
Thompson with his girlfriend, Cristina Waters, at a Marine Corps Ball.

Stadler's integrity became central to Thompson's defense. At least three witnesses, including two classmates, described her to jurors as untrustworthy.

His attorneys also discovered Stadler had failed to mention that, after seeing Thompson on the night of the croquet match, she met up with another student whom she kissed at a bar. Stadler claimed to have been so drunk she forgot about the episode.

Still, that revelation was not the most serious blow to her reliability. After leaving the academy, she had a relationship prohibited by military rules with an enlisted sailor, then lied about it under oath.

She later told the truth when confronted with proof, but the incident still led to her dismissal from the Navy in 2014. With Stadler's credibility in serious doubt, Thompson said he felt certain that his attorneys could use one specific claim she'd made to definitively prove his innocence.

She had told jurors that on May 27, 2011 - the night of her graduation and less than a month after the croquet match - she left her family's weekend rental home in Annapolis and headed to Thompson's place about 11 p.m.

Her mother and teenage brother were awake when she left, Stadler told investigators, adding that her sibling remained up around midnight after she returned from having sex with Thompson a final time.

"That night was planned," one of the prosecutors, Lt. Cmdr. Phil Hamon, argued in court.

"And that night happened."

But Thompson's attorneys offered compelling evidence that it didn't. Waters told jurors she had picked Thompson up from the airport around 8:15 p.m.

The couple then drove to his home, she said, where they shared wine and chocolate. Another student Thompson mentored told the court he stopped by between 9:30 and 10 p.m. and stayed for an hour.

Not once that night, Waters testified, did she leave her boyfriend.

"Sarah Stadler picked the wrong day to falsely accuse Mark Thompson of something," Grimm said in his closing argument.

"She completely fabricated that."

Reasonable doubt - that's all Thompson needed. And his attorneys had certainly tried to create it, stressing the women's inconsistent stories, their suspicious text exchanges, Stadler's truthfulness, Thompson's graduation-night alibi, the lack of any confession on the recorded call. But none of it mattered.

The jurors concluded that he'd had an inappropriate sexual relationship with both women. "Guilty," Thompson heard the jury president read over and over on May 31, 2013, diverging just once to acquit him of the rape charge.

He was astonished. The decision required only a two-thirds majority, which left Thompson wondering if the officers had reached a unanimous conclusion. Maybe those two Marines, he told me, had sided with him.

I reached one of the Marines, who would not discuss the case unless I promised not to name him. He wasn't certain of the vote count, but two other jurors told me all nine agreed on the verdict.

Why did the Marine believe Thompson was guilty? "There was enough circumstantial evidence, I think, to say at least for myself that something inappropriate happened."

What did he think of the inconsistencies in the women's recollections or the text messages they exchanged that implied collusion?

"There were so many different stories and so many different holes that I'm not sure it made much of a difference."

Before his sentencing, Thompson addressed the jurors, asking them to consider how much his two children depended on him for support.

Rugh addressed them, too, but asked that they instead consider Thompson's two victims. He requested a sentence of 18 months' confinement and expulsion from the service. On June 3, 2013, the jury gave Thompson just two months.

Moments after their decision was announced, a pair of armed guards flanked him in the courtroom. Dressed in his service uniform, the Marine major was escorted out. Soon, he was loaded into a van and driven more than 200 miles south to Chesapeake, Va., where beyond high beige walls and rows of razor wire, a 7-by-14-foot cell awaited him.

Chapter five: The Vindication

In his cramped jail cell, Thompson seethed. He spent the first week in solitary confinement, doing push-ups, reading books and obsessing over how badly he believed naval investigators had mishandled his case.

Among the alleged missteps eventually cited by him, his attorneys or his appeal: Authorities didn't attempt to interview his girlfriend until just weeks before the trial; they failed to track down the student who had gone out with Stadler on the night of the supposed threesome; they didn't retrieve private messages from either accuser's Facebook account; they lost 10 minutes of audio from an early interview with the alleged rape victim because the recording skipped; they never found Stadler's cellphone and only obtained her friend's device more than a year into the investigation.

Thompson at the Naval Academy earlier this year. Photo / Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post
Thompson at the Naval Academy earlier this year. Photo / Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post

NCIS wouldn't let me talk about any of those issues with its agents because the case remains under appeal. For the same reason, an agency spokesman declined to answer specific questions about any errors but said in an email that "the focus of the NCIS investigation was the alleged sexual assault," not the relationship between Stadler and Thompson.

When he walked out of the brig in the summer of 2013, Thompson was focused on vindication, but his future remained in doubt. He had no idea whether he would stay a Marine.

It was up to the board of inquiry. The board's three officers would determine whether Thompson's crimes warranted expulsion from the Corps. His guilt had already been decided at the court-martial.

"That kind of makes your job a little bit easier," Marine Capt. James Green, who helped present the government's argument, told the board on March 10, 2014. The members, who had reviewed the testimony, didn't hide their skepticism.

They pressed Rugh, the court-martial's lead prosecutor, for more evidence that proved the charges. The military's case that the Marine major had engaged in inappropriate sexual relations with both midshipmen, Rugh maintained, "was clear-cut and very strong."

For the first time under oath, Thompson defended himself. His attorney, Lt. Cmdr. Angela Tang, immediately addressed the women's stories.

"You deny their allegations?" she asked.

"Absolutely," he said.

"Are you innocent of the offenses that you've been convicted of?"

"Yes."

The board believed him. In a stunning decision, its members disregarded their instructions to assume Thompson was guilty, declaring in a 2-to-1 vote that he had committed no crimes whatsoever. All three agreed that he should remain a Marine.

As they announced the ruling in a small, stifling room in Quantico, Va., Thompson exhaled, turned to his supporters and smiled. "It was one of those few moments," he said later, "where nothing could have brought me down."

The victory saved his career and compensation - now $120,000 a year including a housing allowance, he said - and, once he retires, his $40,000 annual pension. That night, Thompson joined his girlfriend, Cristina Waters, and their friends to celebrate with beers, bourbon and steak at a Maryland pub.

"I beat them," he texted a buddy the next day.

The board's finding was so extraordinary, in fact, that the military wouldn't let it stand. A month after the hearing, Maj. Gen. Juan G. Ayala, then head of the Marine Corps Installations Command, ordered the officers to reconvene and acknowledge that Thompson had "demonstrated substandard performance of duty."

Still defiant and unwilling to boot him from the Corps, two board members - Lt. Cols. Kate Germano and James Kyte - wrote a letter of objection, saying that all three believed the jurors had "erred in their findings."

After reviewing "over 800 pages of court documents and hearing testimony from multiple witnesses," they wrote, "we were unable to determine how the court martial panel had arrived at the conclusion that misconduct had occurred in the first place."

They had no power to reverse his criminal convictions, but their stand cemented Thompson's fixation on clearing his name. His bitterness over the way he'd been treated stayed hidden no longer, spilling onto his Facebook page.

The slew of sexual assault allegations erupting in the military infuriated him.

"It's a false epidemic," he posted on April 4, 2014.

"NCIS, fact finders or Secret Police?" he wrote a month later.

"Stars and Stripes or Stars and Skirts?" he asked last year when he shared a sympathetic story by the military publication about former POW Jessica Lynch.

Amid his frustration, Thompson also struggled to find his place in a military he didn't think wanted him any longer. He wound up in paperwork-heavy administrative jobs instead of intelligence-related work.

Still, Thompson remained resolute, devoting much of his free time to examining testimony and evidence and paying a military defense attorney about $6,000 to formulate his appeal, which remains under review.

He eventually approached The Washington Post, too. From our very first meeting at the hotel bar, Thompson told me repeatedly what he believed was the key to his exoneration: the night of Stadler's graduation on May 27, 2011, nearly a month after the croquet match.

She had told jurors that her mother and brother were awake when she left the family's rental home in Annapolis to have sex with him one last time, but prosecutors had never asked her family members to corroborate in court whether Stadler had gone anywhere that night.

At the board of inquiry, one member asked Rugh how the government had proved Thompson and Stadler saw each other after her graduation ceremony. "We went and interviewed her family, her brother, et cetera," he said, under oath, according to a transcript.

"They remember her, you know, they verified that they had the rental house, that she was there for a little while and then left the house and came back later that evening."

But Thompson, his appeal argues, had never before been told of those interviews, despite their immense potential value to his cause.

He believed that if his attorneys could prove Stadler lied about seeing him on graduation night, her credibility - and, by extension, the government's entire case - would implode. I spent months trying to reach Stadler's mother, Laurel, by phone, but she didn't answer, and I didn't leave a message.

In my experience, people are more likely to talk, and do so honestly, if they don't have time to consider the ramifications of their response. I hoped that, one day, she'd just pick up. On the evening of Jan. 5, 2016, she did.

I introduced myself as a Washington Post reporter and told her I was working on a story about the case involving her daughter and Maj. Mark Thompson.

She didn't hang up. Had she ever been interviewed by federal investigators about Sarah's graduation night? "No," she said. Had she ever been interviewed by federal investigators at all about her daughter's case?

"No," she said. What about her son, John Dumbauld, whom Rugh specifically said investigators had questioned? She put him on the phone.

"No," he said.

The office of the Judge Advocate General of the Navy wouldn't allow me to interview Rugh, and a spokeswoman declined to discuss the case because it's under appeal.

But she said that the statement from Rugh - now a judge on the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals - "was accurate to the best of his recollection at the time." When I read to Stadler's mother what Rugh said at the board of inquiry, this was her response: "That's a complete and total lie."

Chapter six: The Discovery

Sarah Stadler, her mother announced, wanted to talk to me. I had always planned to ask for an interview, but I never expected her to answer any of my questions. During the court-martial, Stadler made it clear how painful the media coverage had been for her.

Now, three years after the trial, with her military career destroyed, she had asked for a reporter to call her? The 28-year-old woman who answered the phone in January knew what she'd sounded like back then: Struggling to explain the questionable text messages she exchanged with the other accuser.

Claiming to not remember meeting another man at a bar after the alleged threesome. Lying about her relationship with the enlisted sailor. Yet Stadler insisted she was being honest about Thompson.

She offered me a simple defense of her testimony: Why would anyone have suffered through the disgrace of publicly describing their illicit relationship if it had never happened?

"I was being prosecuted," she said, "as much as he was."

Since being discharged from the Navy less than two years ago, Stadler has married and started working as a clerk for a county government.

She doesn't want to say where and later asked that The Washington Post not photograph her face as it appears now. She said she still takes anxiety medication for stress she blames on the trial's aftermath.

Stadler told me she initially lied about her relationship with the sailor because of what she experienced after telling the truth about Thompson. "I was dishonest at first," she said, "because I was scared."

She can't fathom why the military expelled her but not Thompson. She said she's especially bitter that, as he collects a six-figure income for his administrative job at Quantico, the government is still trying to recoup more than $85,000 for the time she owed the Navy after graduating from the academy.

Stadler had never been told about the board of inquiry's actions: its attack on Thompson's conviction and its decision to let him remain a Marine. Neither had her fellow accuser, who resents that he will retire with the same distinguished title - Marine - that she has today.

Before he betrayed her, the woman said in an interview, she considered Thompson to be a mentor.

"I really admired him," she said.

"I don't think that he still deserves to be in." Both women told me the investigation had failed them, which Stadler blamed on the Navy's push to prove the rape accusation.

During her recorded phone call with Thompson, for example, she didn't press him to acknowledge any sexual encounters other than the threesome. "I was instructed by NCIS about what to try to say," she explained.

She also couldn't understand why authorities found no evidence of communication between her and Thompson on graduation night - an issue that had become considerably more significant after Stadler's mother and brother denied ever corroborating her story to authorities.

In fact, her family members couldn't confirm the story now even if investigators asked them to. Her mom said she could not clearly remember what Stadler had done that evening, and her sibling wrote in an email that he knew "nothing" about it, either.

"I don't know why there was no proof of a phone call or text," Stadler said, "but I know that it happened." She echoed what prosecutor Phil Hamon had told jurors during the court-martial. "That night was planned," he argued back then.

"That night happened." At the end of our interview, I asked Stadler if she wanted to say anything more. She told me she would think about it. An hour later, Stadler called back. She was sobbing. "I feel like an idiot," she said.

Discussing the case again, she told me, had made her think about her old cellphone. What if, Stadler wondered, she hadn't thrown it away? What if, somehow, it had survived? She immediately hunted through a collection of plastic moving crates, and within one she found a small tin box.

And there, inside it, she discovered a phone with a bright yellow case and a cracked screen. Stadler rushed to her computer to plug it in. The device hadn't been charged for five years.

She doubted it would work, and even if it did, what could she possibly salvage from it? Thompson, she said, always insisted that she delete any sexually explicit messages. Stadler waited.

Then, suddenly, beneath the web of fractures, her screen glowed.

Sarah Stadler holding her old cellphone, showing a text conversation with Mark Thompson. Photo / Phelan M. Ebenhack / The Washington Post
Sarah Stadler holding her old cellphone, showing a text conversation with Mark Thompson. Photo / Phelan M. Ebenhack / The Washington Post

She combed through her texts, found Thompson's name and scrolled down, searching deeper and deeper into their conversations.

Then she photographed dozens of the messages and sent them to me. Thompson was right - and the texts proved it. They hadn't seen each other on graduation night.

At 9:17 p.m. on May 28, 2011 - the day after she graduated - Sarah Stadler messaged Mark Thompson: "U gonna text me when u r home or am I just meeting u at 10?"

Thompson responded 20 minutes later: "I just got home."

Stadler: "Is 10:30 good? I just left to get food with my mom."

Thompson: "Sure."

Stadler: "K."

Stadler: "Is 11 to late. Traffic sucks."

Thompson: "I'm sure I'll be up. Too late for you?"

Stadler: "Never. LOL."

Thompson: "Ha."

Stadler, at 11:02: "Front or back door?"

Thompson: "Your choice ensign."

Stadler: "On my way."

Stadler: "Back."

Thompson, at 11:29: "Open."

Eleven hours later, as she left Annapolis to begin her career as a military officer, Stadler texted the Marine major again. "Thanks for last night!" she wrote. "I'll miss u."

Chapter seven: Confrontation

On a frigid January morning, Thompson sat across from me at a corner table in a Washington coffee shop. He stared down. In his hands were copies of the texts from Stadler's phone that I'd just given to him. Ten, then 20, then 30 seconds passed.

He reached the final page, then flipped back. His eyes remained trained on the words. His jaw clenched. Thompson knew I was recording our conversation. For nearly two minutes, he said nothing. Then Thompson exhaled.

"She, she came by and," he hesitated, "dropped off two glasses," another pause, "that had her name etched in them." She'd gotten the glasses at graduation, he explained, and wanted him to have them.

Why, I asked, hadn't he previously admitted they saw each other that night? Why had he lied about it to authorities? "I simply had to, when they were coming after me for 41 years," Thompson said, "I can't begin to say, you know, how terrifying that is."

If he'd also been convicted of the rape charge, he could have faced a sentence that long. Thompson didn't dispute the authenticity of the texts, though he still insisted he'd never had sex with Stadler.

If he had acknowledged the existence of flirtatious messages to authorities, he said, it might have implied that they had a relationship, "so I avoided anything that looked like it could be unduly familiar or flirtatious."

Their exchanges were even more incriminating than I knew at the time. I later met with Stadler and scoured her old phone's messages. It still held more than 650 texts between the two of them.

In mid-April 2011, Stadler asked him to pick her up from a bar one night. "I'm too drunk to go back to the hall and I can't drive. Can u give me a ride? Just tell her u r helping a friend. Please," she wrote at 10:17 p.m. in a message that mentioned Waters, Thompson's girlfriend.

They used references to exercise, Stadler told me, as a code for sex. On the Friday night before the croquet match, she texted him at 7:54 p.m., "Run soon?"

When he turned her down, Stadler sent him a provocative photo at 11:41 p.m. in which she's standing in a bathroom with her stomach exposed and her hand in her hair.

"This," she wrote "is what u missed."

"I had word on the fallout of the croquette match," she messaged him three weeks later before explaining that the 21-year-old had almost told her ex-boyfriend about what had happened - though Stadler offered no detail and Thompson offered no response.

"Was gonna talk to u about it today," she continued. At 10:08 on the ensuing Saturday night, she asked if he wanted to see her.

"I was hoping to hang," she wrote.

"Nothing sexual."

In another exchange on the day she left Annapolis, Stadler texted him that her cross-country drive would have been better had it included oral sex.

"I guess," he responded, "that would make it better!"

Days later, she asked him if he missed her. His response, at 10:02 p.m.: "Of course." At Thompson's board of inquiry hearing, he testified - under oath - that he was never friends with Stadler outside the rifle team, insisting that his interactions with her were appropriate, professional and within academy guidelines.

He also told the board she had created "a complete fiction about a relationship that never existed" - and specifically denied ever having any sexual conversations with her. Thompson didn't respond to my repeated requests for him to comment on those additional text messages.

His attorney, Phil Cave, told me in an email that he was "not prepared to litigate the case in the media."

But weeks earlier, at the coffee shop, Thompson and I delved deeper into his final rendezvous with Stadler.

He told me he had never been forced to explain that night after her graduation. "It never came up," he said.

"I was never questioned about it."

But Thompson had been questioned about the last time he saw Stadler before she left town - also under oath at the board of inquiry.

That's significant, according to military law expert Eugene R. Fidell. Service members who make a false official statement, he said, can face up to five years' confinement and a dishonorable discharge.

"You don't have a privilege to lie," said Fidell, who teaches at Yale Law School.

"It's serious. People do get prosecuted for it."

I pressed Thompson at our meeting for more detail on why he'd been dishonest. "I simply wanted to distance myself," he said, "from anything that looked like there was more familiarity than there was." His story about the etched glasses, I told him, didn't sound reasonable.

Why would Stadler come to his house at 11:30 p.m. - on a night when his girlfriend acknowledged to me that she had flown out of town? And why would he leave the back door open for a student with whom he claimed to have a strictly professional relationship? And why, the next morning, did she thank him?

"That, that's just her offering her typical humor," he said.

Thompson added that she had also given him a graduation portrait, which Stadler confirmed. He had discarded the etched glasses, but not the photo. Why had he kept it? "In case this ever came up," he said.

"It offers that there may have been another reason for her to come by."

Thompson had never tried to hide what he wanted from me. A major piece in The Washington Post on his case could help him win his long-shot appeal.

He grew irritated when other assignments interrupted my work on the story and, more than once, threatened to approach other news organizations. Be patient, I told him. And he'd agree to give me more time, always eager to answer the next question or provide the next document.

Sitting at that table with him, though, it was clear that Thompson never wanted the whole story told. I was angry that he had lied to me for so long, and I told him that. "I know," he said. "But you can see the dilemma that I faced, that I was in." At the end of the interview, Thompson asked to correct one point I raised about his sworn testimony.

Thompson walks through Bancroft Hall's rotunda at the Naval Academy earlier this year. Photo / Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post
Thompson walks through Bancroft Hall's rotunda at the Naval Academy earlier this year. Photo / Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post

"I think the board just asked me, 'Do you remember the last time you saw her?' "

The hearing transcript shows that, initially, Thompson did deny recalling the date of their final interaction.

But when pressed if the last time he'd seen her was on the evening of the April croquet match, he failed to acknowledge her May 28 late-night visit to his home.

"So the last time that you do remember seeing her was 30 April?" he was asked.

"Yes," Thompson told the three officers who would decide whether he should be dismissed from the Marine Corps.

"Positively."

Epilogue

In February - less than a month after I contacted the Judge Advocate General of the Navy with questions about the case - Vice Adm. James W. Crawford III personally reviewed Thompson's appeal and sent it to the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals.

Rugh is now an appellate judge on that court but won't be involved with the case because he was the lead prosecutor at Thompson's court-martial. It remains uncertain whether Rugh's career will be affected by his testimony at the board of inquiry.

It's also unclear if the text messages on Stadler's cellphone will impact Thompson's case - or trigger any additional charges. The Marine told me he intends to retire in the coming years. He had hoped that a successful appeal would let him reacquire the security clearance necessary for many defense contracting jobs.

Stadler said she is willing to cooperate with naval investigators - and give them her old phone - but wants the government to forgive the more than $85,000 that it has demanded she pay back. Soon, defense and military attorneys will begin presenting their arguments to the court. It could take months to resolve Thompson's fate.