Marines charging Virginia Beach corporal with attempted murder; family says she has PTSD after sexual assault
OCT 28, 2020 AT 12:28 PM
Cpl. Thae Ohu (Courtesy of Pan Phyu)
The Marine Corps is pressing charges, including attempted murder, against a Virginia Beach corporal who has been locked up in a Chesapeake brig for months while her family publicly pleads for her to get mental health treatment.
Cpl. Thae Ohu, 27, has struggled with PTSD and other conditions following a sexual assault by a fellow Marine years ago — trauma that led to a psychological break this spring, her family contends.
Military prosecutors say that’s when she attacked her boyfriend, and have also charged her with aggravated assault on an intimate partner, burglary and communicating a threat. She will face a general court-martial in March.
The victim, Ohu’s ex-boyfriend who’s also a Marine, previously asked officials not to pursue the charges, telling them he believed everything that happened could be tied to her service-related trauma.
Meanwhile, following her family’s push and The Virginian-Pilot’s reporting in July, Ohu’s story has been shared widely online and in advocacy circles as emblematic of broader issues with how the military treats sexual assault victims.
A Facebook page called Justice For Thae Ohu has more than 6,700 followers and an online fundraiser set up for her legal and medical fees has raised nearly $14,000. A group in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where Ohu grew up, held a rally for her in August, holding signs demanding justiSherman Gillums Jr., a Marine veteran and chief advocacy officer for AMVETS, wrote about her case for the Military Times in August, saying it enmeshes issues of the military justice and health systems.
“The co-occurring legal and medical problems she faced made it hard to determine whether she broke the law or the system broke her first," he wrote.
Ohu, an administrative specialist with the Marine Corps Intelligence Schools aboard Dam Neck Naval Base, was born in a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand, according to her sister Pan Phyu, a Navy sailor in San Diego. The family later settled in Fort Wayne and both sisters eventually joined the military.
In 2015, while stationed in Okinawa, Japan, a fellow Marine sexually assaulted Ohu, she later told her sister, boyfriend and others.
It’s unclear when exactly she first reported the assault to military officials, but she wrote in a letter to a senator earlier this year that she told her command in 2018. She was diagnosed with PTSD that year.
“I have continuously expressed my issues and I have mentioned my sexual assault to my leadership since,” Ohu wrote in the letter. “However, I did not receive the care from my Command that I needed and instead they put me in a more grieving and hostile working environment that was degrading my mental health treatments instead of improving it.”
The Marine Corps has declined to discuss allegations her case was mishandled.
“It is inappropriate to publicly comment about sexual assault investigations,” officials said in a statement this summer. “The Marine Corps takes allegations of sexual assault very seriously, conducting independent, thorough, and sensitive investigations of all alleged sexual assault incidents.”
Ohu’s mental health progressively worsened, and earlier this year she attempted suicide. She was pushing for medical retirement.
The alleged attack happened April 5, when Ohu had a psychological break, possibly resulting from a bad reaction to prescribed medication, her previous defense attorney has said. At a preliminary hearing at Naval Station Norfolk in August, military prosecutors briefly laid out what they say happened.
They played a home security video picturing the doorstep of the Virginia Beach home of Ohu’s then-boyfriend, Michael Hinesley. Ohu is shown entering the house with a key. Though the video does not capture what happens inside, Ohu can be heard screaming at whom prosecutors say is Hinesley, including profanities and “I’m gonna kill you.” Officials say she grabbed a knife from the kitchen and repeatedly stabbed a door behind which Hinesley stood.
Though Ohu’s charged with attempted murder, Hinesley wasn’t physically harmed.
That night, Ohu was arrested and taken to an inpatient facility. She was released a few days later with an order to stay away from her boyfriend.
Prosecutors say she violated it later that month by showing up at his house again and breaking in, and have charged her with burglary. But Hinesley said in an email to the Pilot Wednesday afternoon that Thae “never broke into my home.”
“She entered the home using her residential key as she was still a legal resident under Virginia Law,” he wrote. “No violence occurred that evening and in my opinion, the act was a cry for help.”
Hinesley declined to comment further, but added though he’s no longer Ohu’s boyfriend, “I am still and will always be her advocate."
On June 19, Ohu was taken to the Navy Consolidated Brig in Chesapeake, where she’s been locked up since. Her family says she needs mental health treatment that she’s not receiving. A Marine Corps spokesman said medical treatment is considered confidential but pre-trial detainees are afforded health services through Portsmouth Naval Medical Center.
At the August hearing, Ohu’s then-attorney Gerald Healy said she’s long had mental health issues — even prior to joining the Marines. She was granted a waiver to enter the service. Her problems have been documented for years — including those triggered by the sexual assault, Healy said. She had also been reduced from sergeant to corporal in 2018 following a non-judicial punishment.
“Cpl. Ohu is not a criminal. She’s a Marine who’s in mental distress,” Healy said. “What’s documented here is a plea for help.”
He said Ohu was on suicide watch in solitary confinement and “shackled all day" — which brig officials have disputed.
Capt. Evan Clark, trial counsel for the Marine Corps, said at the hearing that Ohu had been taken to a mental health facility in July, where she began swinging restraints “as a weapon” and shattered a window. She also folded a mattress in her cell at the brig to stand on and look out a window, and threatened to kill a guard who told her to get down, he said.
He added that he knew her mental health “is going to be an issue in this case.”
Hinesley wrote a letter to Marine officials in the spring — provided to the Pilot by Phyu — saying he didn’t think they should pursue charges.
“Thae has gone through serious turmoil, pain, and suffering since she was sexually assaulted by another Marine,” Hinesley wrote. “Taking care of victims of sexual violence is what we do as Marines and we don’t hang them out to dry. I don’t blame Thae for what she did because I know the reasons why. She needs help."
hu is now represented by attorney Eric Montalvo of the Washington-based Federal Practice Group. He served in the Marine Corps for over two decades, including as a prosecutor.
He said of all the cases he’s taken, Ohu ranks among the top five in terms of the severity of her mental health condition.
“I’m very concerned about her welfare,” Montalvo said. “I think her mental health issues are much more involved and impactful to the case than has been previously considered. I’m going to work to make sure they’re brought to full view for this to be accounted for.”
Gillums, of AMVETS, said this week in an interview with The Pilot that, when he first read about Ohu’s case, it reminded him of other cases he’s seen that revolve around military sexual assault in which an initial, unresolved trauma can lead to situations that spiral out of control.
He said since writing the Military Times column, he’s connected with Ohu’s family and looked into her case further, which has led to even more questions and concerns.
The fact Ohu was first taken to an inpatient facility before jail shows that officials knew she needed help, Gillums said.
“It appears to be a heavy-handed approach to her incarceration,” he said. “It seems to me another case of systematic retaliation against an accuser.”
Phyu said in an email this week that her sister is lonely, unable to talk to anyone while separated from other prisoners.
“Thae is not getting the care she needs. ... it just keeps getting worse,” Phyu said. “This is detrimental to her mental health, which has lasting affects(sic) not only on her, but her whole family. We are all struggling."
In August after her preliminary hearing, Ohu wrote a brief letter to family in which she said it’s often “unbearable when left to my thoughts” but she was trying to hang on to happy memories.
“I’ve been treated inhumanely, but Father’s guidance has taught me to be strong," she wrote. “Support from all around the world has elevated me to accept my trials are not only for my justice, but justice for all."
By KATHERINE HAFNER
Katherine Hafner is an enterprise reporter for The Pilot who writes about everything from dinosaurs to day cares to oyster reefs built of coal ash. She's a UCLA alum who joined the paper in 2015.