CAMP LEJEUNE, North Carolina—Marine Col. Daniel H. Wilson sat with a plate of spare ribs and a Coke at Mission BBQ, a military-themed restaurant in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
“Land of the Free, Because of the Brave,” read a bumper sticker on the booth rail behind Wilson. The restaurant is a 15-minute drive from the main gate of Camp Lejeune, the largest U.S. Marine Base east of the Mississippi River.
Wilson is a physically imposing man: 6 feet 3 inches tall, 240-plus pounds, built by combat and CrossFit. But this past December, his hands shook from alcohol withdrawal, and his eyes were puffy and red.
For the two months after Wilson was charged with sexually assaulting a 6-year-old girl, and later, being accused of fondling her sisters, he was not jailed by the Marine Corps. In that time, while free and awaiting court-martial, he allegedly committed the same crime, sexually assaulting a 49-year-old woman.
Once the initial sexual assault allegations were made against him, Wilson said, his reputation was destroyed, most of his friends abandoned him, and his court-martial became inevitable, given his high rank and the nature of the charges.
“The victim’s word is believed over the word of the accused,” he claimed, “with or without any substantiation.”
His claims of innocence were interrupted by the Mission BBQ public address system, asking customers to rise and face the American flag for the playing of the national anthem.
Wilson stood, sang the anthem with his hand on his heart, and cried.
Wilson was born to a Christian missionary family that lived in African countries from South Africa to Zaire, with a large chunk of his childhood spent in the dusty town of Rumbek, Sudan.
Private First Class Wilson stood out from the moment he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was his battalion’s top recruit—named platoon and series honorman—when he graduated from training.
After almost a decade as an enlisted Marine, topping out at staff sergeant, Wilson was commissioned as a Marine Corps officer in December 1988. He is a “Mustang,” the rare Marine enlistee who rose high into officer ranks as a colonel, a powerful leadership post just below a one-star brigadier general. He is a war hero with a fruit salad of ribbons and medals on his chest, including the Legion of Merit and a Bronze Star.
He fought in the Persian Gulf War in 1990, and he took on a senior leadership role in the Iraq War that started in 2003. While fighting in Fallujah in 2004, his armored vehicle ran over an improvised explosive device, his wife Susan said, and he would later be diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
He was promoted to colonel in 2010 and was the commanding officer at Parris Island, South Carolina, before stops in Japan, Australia, and finally Camp Lejeune.
The Daily Beast spoke to multiple current and former U.S. Marines who served under Wilson when he was a commanding officer at Parris Island. One called him “one of the best Marine leaders I have ever served under.”
Wilson’s wife acknowledged her husband’s problems with alcohol but blamed the Marine Corps.
“He was not an alcoholic before all this began, but yes, he is,” Susan told The Daily Beast in February, as she began to cry. “He was good to go before these allegations popped up. [The Marine Corps] took his job, his Blackberry, his office, his meaning in life. He’s been in 36 years, all he knows is how to be a Marine…”
Wilson calls the Marines who served under him “sons.” The 6-year-old girl he was convicted of molesting was the daughter of one such “son.”
The girl’s parents said their daughter was sexually assaulted four times by Wilson at his home on Camp Lejeune between June 29 and July 12, 2016. The Marine Corps and the parents accused Wilson of fondling and digitally penetrating the girl, and even offering her alcohol.
Prosecutors also charged that Wilson licked and spanked the girl’s twin sister and offered she and a third sister, age 10, alcohol. (Wilson was later acquitted of those charges.)
The girls will not be named in this story because they are alleged victims of sexual assault, as well as underage. The parents’ identities will also be shielded to protect the girls’ anonymity.
The mother testified at Wilson’s court-martial that she and the girl were in the Wilsons’ downstairs bathroom during a dinner party on July 13, 2016, when the child alleged that “Uncle Dan” had assaulted her repeatedly over the preceding month.
“You’re a monster,” the mother told Wilson that night, multiple witnesses testified in court. “I don’t care if you are a colonel, I’m going to get you.”
The mother also said that on separate occasions, Wilson kissed her on the neck, put her in a play-headlock, and put his finger in her ear.
“I didn’t like it at all,” she testified, staring first at Wilson, then the four generals and three colonels on the member panel. “And I didn’t know then what I know now.”
The girl’s parents filed a complaint with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) Carolina Field Office, and Wilson was interviewed by NCIS two days later, on July 15.
Wilson denied the sexual assault accusations.
“There were adults around every minute,” he told NCIS on July 15, 2016, in an interview video obtained exclusively by The Daily Beast. “[The kids] were horsing around with me, I guess they like to pick on the big guy… They’re rambunctious kids. But certainly nothing like [sexual abuse] ever happened.”
The girl testified Sept. 1 in a partially cleared courtroom that while she sat on Wilson’s lap in his living room, he repeatedly touched her “private part” with “his hand,” over and under her shorts, and that it “hurt.” She said Wilson “would try to make me drink” his whiskey, but she was “grossed out” and refused. She testified that in the year since, she has been “sad a little bit.”
The parents testified that since the alleged incidents a year ago, their daughter has changed: She refuses to ride a bike or go to the bathroom by herself, and she has become prone to nightmares and anxious moods.
“She has these ‘moments,’” her father testified. “No one can talk her out of it unless you go into her hiding spot with her and ‘love her through it.’”
In court Thursday, the girl’s mother said she was ashamed she didn’t recognize the situation earlier.
“I didn’t see what was happening right before my eyes,” she testified through tears. “Now her happy little innocent world isn’t so happy anymore.”
A day after the 6-year-old girl told her mom about the alleged assault, her father called Wilson.
“When you get drunk, you get touchy-feely and you hug everybody,” the girl’s father said to Wilson in the call recorded by NCIS. “I’m so lost, sir. You’re a father to me, you’ve been a role model to me… but I know she’s not lying.”
Wilson maintained his innocence in the call. As it was played in court, the father, on the witness stand, turned and stared Wilson down.
“I would kill for your daughters,” Wilson said, after denying he had been alone with the girls. “I would pull a Dexter on anyone who threatened your daughters or mine,” he said, referring to the Showtime television show about a forensic analyst serial killer who murders criminals.
In the next day’s NCIS interview, Wilson said of the father’s decision to press charges: “He’s going to go with his daughter, I understand that.” He paused and looked at the NCIS agent before he declared: “But it didn’t happen.”
After those statements Wilson declined to be interviewed further by NCIS.
“I’ve spent 35 years in the Marine Corps, never accused of anything at all,” Wilson said, “and then, boom! Your whole world is upside down.”
Four months later, on Nov. 15, 2016, Wilson was charged with sexual assault, sexual abuse, and battery charges. Wilson was also charged with multiple counts of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman” related to 10 days he spent as a liaison officer in Australia in 2016.
Maj. Gen. Walter L. Miller, the base authority, made the decision not to incarcerate Wilson, who had been Miller’s operations officer for the two months before assault accusations surfaced. (Miller retired from the Corps in July.)
The decision not to confine Wilson was unusual, former Judge Advocate and Marine Lt. Col. James Weirick told The Daily Beast, saying a Marine of a lesser rank facing similar charges would normally be placed in the brig.
“The charges were serious enough to warrant the decision for pre-trial constraint,” Weirick said, “and for him not to be placed in the brig just shows the lack of legal expertise by the convening authority.”
Craig Harvey, the base magistrate who advised Miller on whether to incarcerate Wilson, testified at the colonel’s arraignment that decisions on pretrial confinement come down to whether the defendant is viewed as likely to flee or commit another offense. With 36 years of decorated service, Harvey said Wilson was considered low risk.
Wilson was relieved of most duties at work, and he began to stay at home and drink more, Susan Wilson said. That’s when his cat, Jimmy, was struck by a hit-and-run driver on the street in front of their home. The cat died on the way to the vet, and Wilson took the loss hard.
“[Someone] killed our adopted son, Jimmy, and left him to fucking die in the street,” Wilson wrote on Facebook. “If I find you motherfucker, I’m going to break every bone in your body.”
Before he could delete the post at his wife’s request, an unknown person took a screenshot that was forwarded to the base authority. Wilson was soon debarred, banning him from his home, office, and most other base facilities.
The day after Christmas 2016, the Wilsons drove to Beaufort, South Carolina, for a vacation Dan Wilson was not cleared to take. (He was later convicted of unauthorized absence.)
Joining them was Susan’s friend Jeri Walsh, the estranged wife of a U.S. Navy doctor at Camp Lejeune.
After a fall down stairs in 2014, Walsh suffered a serious neck injury and had disk-replacement surgery. Still recuperating, she met Susan Wilson in August 2016, and they grew closer after Wilson helped her travel to a surgery on her elbow, damaged in the fall.
“Susan attracts these women who are damaged in some way, like lost kittens,” Dan Wilson said.
Walsh is a small woman with ramrod posture who believes that she was not treated fairly by the Marine Corps or the Wilsons.
“I don’t feel safe here anymore,” she told The Daily Beast from her dining room table, gesturing to the dark windows of her home. She told the Marine Corps she felt vulnerable, and in response someone came and installed a light over her driveway, she said.
When she talked about Dan Wilson, Walsh’s voice grew higher-pitched.
“He’s a real predator, a professional,” she said. “He knows exactly what he is doing. I am talking about this to prevent other women from having to experience what I did. I am throwing myself on the sword.”
Walsh said her first extended contact with Dan Wilson was on Christmas Day 2016 when she, her husband Kane, and three children visited the Wilsons’ home.
Wilson was drinking that afternoon, Walsh said, and he continued to talk about and grieve Jimmy the cat. After a couple hours, Walsh said her husband and his two children left the Wilsons’ house, but she stayed.
Later in the evening, after drinking too much to drive home, Jeri Walsh said she accepted an offer to sleep over at the Wilsons’. There was no cable downstairs, Walsh said, so she went upstairs with both Wilsons and lay clothed on their bed to watch TV, with Susan Wilson in the middle.
At some point in the night, Walsh said, she awoke to Wilson’s hand on her face; when she pretended to be asleep, he moved his hand. But later she said his hand returned, and he put his finger in her mouth.
“I bit down on that finger as hard as I could,” Walsh said, adding that he then pulled away.
In the brig, Wilson denied that any such contact occurred, and he said that photos taken on their subsequent trip show no bite marks on his hands.
“I guess I didn’t get [Wilson’s finger] dead on,” Walsh responded.
Walsh said that after biting him, she rose and hid in the bathroom, and then she went downstairs to find another bed. Susan Wilson confirmed that Walsh left their bedroom in the middle of the night and that she followed her downstairs where the two spent the rest of the night without Dan Wilson.
That next day, Susan Wilson and Walsh got ready for a four-day trip to Beaufort, South Carolina, so Walsh could look for a house to buy. Dan Wilson announced he would accompany them, to visit some old friends living near the Marine Corps base at Parris Island.
All three piled into Wilson’s Ford Expedition, heading south.
On the first evening of their trip, Walsh and Susan Wilson settled into the General’s Quarters on Beaufort Air Base while Wilson visited his friends. When he returned later that night, the women said he passed out on a couch in an adjoining room.
Walsh said that’s when she drew a penis on Wilson’s face, “to mess with him.” She claims she got Susan Wilson’s approval for the prank, which Susan Wilson denies, but either way, Walsh drew a penis on Dan Wilson’s face with a black eyeliner pencil, and Susan Wilson took a photo.
“He said that in 30 years, nobody had ever done that to him,” Walsh said.
Susan Wilson later texted Walsh about the incident.
“Dan has brought up to me his humiliation with you drawing the cock and balls on his face,” she wrote to Walsh in early January. “I am feeling very much in the middle of you two.”
Two days after she drew on Wilson’s face, on the night of Dec. 28, Walsh alleges Wilson sexually assaulted her several times.
Dan Wilson was out visiting with friends that night, Walsh and Susan Wilson said, and since they did not expect him to return that evening, they slept in the bed in the master bedroom.
All parties agree that Wilson returned around midnight. From there the stories diverge.
“I did not go in that room on that night,” Dan Wilson said.
“He never came in the room,” Susan Wilson said.
“He came in and jumped right on top of me,” Walsh said. “Susan was asleep. He tucked his head over my shoulder and pinned me down so I couldn’t bite him or scratch him or even move at all. I felt totally immobilized. And then he put his fingers in my vagina and anus through my pajama bottoms.”
Walsh said she was taking pills related to her neck injury that, in combination with alcohol, left her feeling paralyzed. She alleged that Dan Wilson realized her condition and returned to assault her again, this time putting his hands underneath her pajamas.
“I remember hitting him, screaming at him,” Walsh testified on Sept. 5, “and Susan rubbed my head and told me it was going to be OK.”
In an initial interview with NCIS, two interviews with The Daily Beast, and her testimony in Wilson’s court-martial, Walsh told differing accounts of how many times she had been assaulted: twice in some accounts, three times in others. She blamed the discrepancy on the late hour of the incidents, and her disorientation from the alcohol and prescribed drugs in her system.
Before the trial, Wilson’s lawyer, Phillip Stackhouse, expressed confidence about undercutting Walsh’s testimony at court-martial.
“I’m confident that we will be able to show her lack of credibility,” Stackhouse said then.
During the interview at her home, Walsh brought out the pink and white pajamas she had worn the night of the alleged attack. She said she washed the thin flannel bottoms when she returned home, 14 days before she filed a complaint on Jan. 12.
“I was so scared, I just wanted to get home to my daughter,” Walsh said, explaining why she didn’t file a complaint against Wilson immediately. “Waiting as long as I did is very common after, and often people wait even longer than that.”
Walsh drove back to Camp Lejeune with the Wilsons, and soon after her relationship with Susan dissolved.
Susan Wilson and Walsh each gave The Daily Beast thousands of text and Facebook messages they had exchanged. The correspondence shows that two women had a falling-out in early January over Walsh exchanging messages privately with Dan Wilson.
“You have hurt my feelings, Jeri,” Susan Wilson wrote on Jan. 11. “I KNEW you and Dan were texting secretly!”
Before and after the alleged assault on the Beaufort trip, Walsh exchanged more than 100 texts with Dan Wilson. They bantered, occasionally in sexually charged language, about Walsh’s looks and her attempts to meet someone new to date. She texted him “I love you” twice, on Jan. 3 and Jan. 4; Wilson responded, “I love you too, kid!”
Walsh said those comments were more casual than they sound in retrospect, and that she was trying to stay on Wilson’s good side after the alleged assault because she feared him. Meanwhile, Walsh and Susan began to quarrel openly.
Wilson’s lawyer said Walsh and Susan Wilson’s disagreement, which came to a head in texts sent on Jan. 11, was the spark for Walsh’s complaint against Dan Wilson on Jan. 12, and that she timed the complaint to NCIS to hurt the Wilsons as much as possible.
“When Susan and Jeri had a falling out, Dan was a very soft target, and Jeri knew all the allegations against him,” Stackhouse said. “If she wants to get back at Susan, or something like that, all she has to do is make a complaint.”
Walsh filed for a protection order against Susan Wilson in a Onslow County, North Carolina, court, alleging that Wilson was an accomplice in her assault. She then sent one last Facebook message to her former friend.
“You set me up,” Walsh wrote to Susan Wilson on Jan. 12. “You know what a horrible person he is. What were you hoping would happen? I haven’t slept in weeks… How do you sleep at night?… You know what he is. I hope you are bawling your eyes out every single day and night like I am. You know what he did… You are not a victim. You are an accomplice. You set me up….”
NCIS interviewed Wilson on Jan. 13 about the trip to Beaufort, and the following day, Gen. Miller Jr. confined him in the Camp Lejeune brig.
At the time, on Jan. 11, Wilson had checked himself into a local rehab facility. Later, he acknowledged his problems with alcohol.
“Before the charges, I had a handle on [my drinking],” Wilson said. “But then things got worse, and I did a lot of soul searching, and that’s why I put myself in detox.”
Susan Wilson acknowledged that her husband had a problem with alcohol. In February, when asked if her husband was an alcoholic, she paused and replied: “Yes.”
Wilson was about to be transferred to a Virginia treatment facility for alcohol abuse in January when NCIS arrested him and put him in the brig.
Wilson was charged with 23 counts, or specifications as they’re known in military court: four of sexual assault; three of sexual assault and sexual abuse of a child; six of assault consummated by battery of a child under 16; one each of failure to obey an order and unauthorized absence; and eight specifications of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.
His trial began Aug. 29 on Camp Lejeune when the opposing teams of lawyers selected a star-studded member panel that included four generals and three colonels.
The court-martial lasted ten days. Wilson did not testify in his own defense, and Susan Wilson claimed spousal privilege in declining to testify as a witness for the prosecution. The three minor girls and their parents all testified, as did Jeri and Kane Walsh. The defense called only two witnesses.
“No one else can bring Colonel Wilson to justice,” the lead prosecutor, Lt. Col. John Stephens, said to the members in his closing argument. “Most of all, this is about [the six-year-old girl].”
For a conviction on any of the 23 specifications, at least five of seven members had to agree on a guilty finding. The members deliberated for eight hours before coming up with their mixed verdict.
Wilson was convicted of child sexual abuse and conduct unbecoming.
He was acquitted of child rape and the sexual assault of Jeri Walsh.
On Sunday, Wilson was sentenced to 5½ years in prison and dismissed from the Marine Corps.
Wilson’s dismissal will likely cost him and Susan their military pension, Weirick said. In court, Wilson’s defense lawyer estimated that pension, after 36 years, to be worth more than $5 million.
“The Wilson family is very disappointed and the impact is devastating,” Stackhouse said, adding that he plans a “considerable” appeal.
Walsh could not be reached after the verdict, but the six-year-old girl’s family spoke to The Daily Beast on Saturday in their first public comments since their daughter disclosed her sexual abuse.
“I hope that the courage of my child will allow other victims to be freed of the evil [Wilson] has done and perhaps have the courage to come forward,” the girl’s father said. “We believe we are just the tip of the iceberg.”
Editor’s Note: As a U.S. Marine, journalist James LaPorta served under the command of Wilson for a year but did not work directly for Wilson. While reporting this story, LaPorta was permanently debarred from Camp Lejeune. He is appealing the debarment.