More than three years after his wife fatally fell seven stories from their Belgium apartment building, a Navy officer has been charged in her death.
Lt. Craig R. Becker will be arraigned in a Naval Base San Diego courtroom this week, the latest twist in an unprecedented case that left the highly-decorated Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician in the hands of Belgian authorities for more than two years while American military leaders declined to assert jurisdiction.
Serving at a NATO command and living in the city of Mons at the time of his wife’s 2015 death, Becker fell under the alliance’s Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA.
Ratified in 1951, the SOFA allows for the U.S. military to take primary jurisdiction over cases involving alleged wrongdoing tied to personnel serving overseas.
But Navy leaders declined to take over Becker’s case and only relented when former Defense Secretary James Mattis ordered them to do so in January 2018.
Now in the military criminal justice system, Becker faces a premeditated murder charge in the death of his wife, Johanna Hanna Elizabeth Hove-Becker, who plunged to her death on Oct. 8, 2015.
Becker also faces an assault charge for “unlawfully” poisoning his wife that same day with a drug cocktail of the opioid tramadol and the sleeping medication zolpidem, charge sheets state.
Prosecutors contend that Becker physically and emotionally abused his wife until she died, beginning with an alleged strangling during a 2013 domestic dispute.
He also has been charged with conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, according to the charge sheet.
Authorities believe that Becker sent text messages to an unnamed individual and pretended to be his wife on the day she died, the charge sheets indicate.
Prosecutors allege Becker also lied to Belgian police that he didn’t know the password to his wife’s cellphone.
“My client is innocent,” said Jeremiah J. Sullivan III, Becker’s civilian defense attorney. “We will look forward to his acquittal after trial.”
Johanna Becker’s father, John Hove, did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
No trial date has been set.
Becker enlisted as a Navy deep sea diver in 1999 and was commissioned in 2007. He’s assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 12 Detachment Newport and returned to the United States last year from Belgium after he was freed from house arrest, Sullivan said.
Belgian authorities arrested Becker in early 2016 but the lieutenant stayed in Belgian custody and was denied a speedy trial in an American court, Sullivan argued in a series of letters designed to prod military authorities in Europe to take SOFA jurisdiction over the matter.
Sullivan feared that Becker had been abandoned to a judicial system that failed to uphold high standards for weighing evidence, including allowing witnesses to reconstruct their recollections of his wife’s final days in Belgium through the use of hypnosis.
Sullivan accused Navy leaders in Europe of forum shopping the case to a foreign court to circumvent Becker’s constitutional rights.
So Sullivan took his case to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in late 2017, warning that Becker’s expertise with nuclear weapons and lofty security clearances made him a terrorist or espionage target if he was sentenced and imprisoned in Belgium.
In a Dec. 21, 2017 letter to Tillerson, Sullivan accused the Navy’s top lawyer at the time, Vice Adm. James Crawford, of unwittingly creating “a national security threat by abandoning LT Becker in a foreign country that is a haven for terrorist cells and foreign intelligence agencies.”
About five weeks before he wrote Tillerson, Sullivan filed for mandamus relief in federal District Court.
The complaint sought to force Mattis, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and Crawford to invoke SOFA jurisdiction for Becker and put him in the military criminal justice system.
In his filing, Sullivan noted the irony of Becker being forced to stand trial in Belgium, a “system that does not provide the constitutional protections that LT Becker was prepared to die for on the battlefield.”
In a Jan. 2, 2018 memo, Mattis relented and Sullivan dismissed the federal case against him and the other military leaders.
Why the Navy never invoked SOFA jurisdiction in Becker’s case remains unclear.
Officials with the Naples, Italy-based 6th Fleet and other regional commands did not respond to Navy Times questions by Monday’s deadline.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at email@example.com.