Accused by Belgian investigators of murdering his wife more than two years ago, Navy Lt. Craig Becker was freed from house arrest last week and turned over to American military authorities, who have not charged him with a crime.
It’s the latest twist in a strange case that’s already seen the Oct. 8, 2015, death of Johanna Hanna Elizabeth Hove-Becker ruled a suicide before Belgian detectives decided it was a homicide. The 36-year-old explosive ordnance disposal expert has complained that military leaders abandoned him to a foreign criminal justice system.
Arrested by Belgian authorities and charged with homicide, Becker was suspected of drugging his 32-year-old wife and tossing her out of the seventh-floor window of their apartment in the French-speaking city of Mons. He maintained his innocence and petitioned American military officials to assert jurisdiction under Article VII of the NATOStatus of Forces Treaty.
With Belgian officials telling Becker’s defense team that he likely would not receive a trial until 2020, his attorneys argued that the lieutenant deserved to be tried by an American military court-martial, where he could get a speedy hearing before a jury of his peers.
On Jan. 2, Defense Secretary James Mattis issued a memorandum that overturned a late 2015 decision by U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa that ceded jurisdiction to Belgium authorities.
“This memorandum should not be read as expressing any opinions as to what actions, if any, should be taken within the U.S. military justice system,” Mattis wrote.
Naval Criminal Investigative Services had been conducting a concurrent probe with the Belgians and will take over Becker’s case, according to two high-ranking Navy officials.
“NCIS has taken over as the lead investigating agency and is coordinating with Belgian law enforcement authorities,” Navy spokesman Lt. Peter Pagano said by email.
On Nov. 6, the sailor’s American attorneys — San Diego’s Jeremiah J. Sullivan, III and David Patrick Sheldon in Washington, D.C. — sued Defense Secretary James Mattis, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer and the Navy’s top attorney, Vice Adm. James Crawford, in Washington, D.C., federal court.
The NATO treaty grants concurrent jurisdiction to Brussels and the United States because the woman’s death occurred on Belgian soil, but Sullivan said he can’t find any case in Europe or in Japan in which American officials surrendered jurisdiction when the alleged victims also were citizens of the United States.
“We’re still not sure what freed Lt. Becker but justice prevailed,” Sullivan said by telephone. “Lt. Becker shouldn’t be forced to litigate against his own country to exercise the constitutional rights that are afforded to him.”
A former Navy prosecutor, Sullivan blamed the Navy’s Judge Advocate General, Crawford, for trying to “game the system to deny someone his Constitutional rights” by forcing Becker into a foreign courtroom instead of putting him in front of an American judge.
Citing the ongoing criminal investigation, Navy officials declined comment.
So did the deceased woman’s parents, John and Yvonne Hove of Jacksonville, Florida. Their daughter was born in Sweden, raised in Florida and became a psychologist. She moved with her husband to Mons in 2013.
Becker’s family in Massachusetts has custody of their daughter while the case continues in Belgium.
In explaining why they deferred to Belgian prosecutors, Sixth Fleet leaders in Naples previously told lawmakers that they believed Becker would receive a fair trial in Mons and were concerned that some evidence uncovered by detectives there would be barred in American court-martial proceedings, handicapping a potential military case, according to military records obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Becker has reported to work at SHAPE. Permission to return to the United States for a vacation was denied, Sullivan said.
Sullivan said that Becker’s unique background as an explosives expert who worked in classified Joint Special Operations Command programs might have contributed to the decision by United States diplomats and military leaders to bring him back under American jurisdiction.
In a Dec. 17 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Sullivan emphasized that Becker had a deep understanding about nuclear weapons systems; possesses the military’s highest security clearances and likely would encounter foreign terror suspects if incarcerated inside a Belgian prison, putting the Pentagon’s secrets at risk.
The November 2015 wave of Paris terror attacks was plotted from Belgium. Islamic State also claimed responsibility for multiple bombings and stabbings inside Belgium in 2016.