A TOP Army officer was yesterday cleared of "scandalous conduct" in his affair with a senior Wren at the end of a court martial which made a mockery of the armed services' approach to adultery.
Lt Col Keith Pople, 42, had admitted an affair with Lt Cdr Karen Pearce, 34, one of the most senior women in the Navy. After the nine-day case in Aldershot, which heard lurid details of the couple's three-year affair, Lt Col Pople left the court with his wife, Brenda.
His solicitor, William Bache, said: "The last 14 months have been very difficult for Col and Mrs Pople. All he wishes to do now is return to the service of his family and his country."
Friends who spoke to Lt Cdr Pearce shortly after the ruling said she was "astounded and outraged". Lt Col Pople had been accused of conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline by committing adultery with Lt Cdr Pearce at a time when he "was her immediate superior officer with an input into her confidential [assessment] reports". They both worked in the office of Admiral Sir Jock Slater, First Sea Lord.
Lt Col Pople had also been accused of scandalous conduct unbecoming the character of an officer for making threatening telephone calls to Lt Cdr Pearce and writing to Lt Nigel McTear, with whom she now lives, after the affair ended.
Although the relationship was admitted by both sides, the court accepted an assurance from Admiral Slater - the most senior officer ever to give evidence to a court martial - that Lt Col Pople was not Lt Cdr Pearce's superior officer even though he had a higher rank.
Rhyddian Willis, for the defence, asked: "Is this really the right court for this particular matter? Should adultery really come to be seen as a criminal offence?
"And when you look at the different views applied by different branches of the services you have to say that this might be ... a matter which could be dealt with administratively."
Quite simply, she argued, "this case is about an affair. An affair that started and where two people fell in love and an affair that ended when they fell out".
The prosecution said that Lt Col Pople's behaviour after the affair ended was intended to win back Lt Cdr Pearce, but Ms Willis argued that his attentions were not unwelcome even though, with hindsight, they were foolish.
"She was in his system, under his skin and the same applied to her," she said. "She was trying to come to terms with it in the autumn of 1996 but she could not get him out of her system because it had been a very intense romance."
Last night, a spokesman for the Army said Lt Col Pople, who is now attached to HQ Land Command at Wilton, Salisbury, may yet face disciplinary charges, possibly over bringing the force into disrepute.
It had been a tale of love and lust, of infidelity and promiscuity, of betrayal, revenge and, finally, regret, which exposed the military's outdated attitude to adultery. It began in November 1993 when the couple were colleagues in the office of Admiral Slater.
Lt Cdr Pearce was in the dying throes of a bad marriage to a Royal Marine; Lt Col Pople, a father of two boys, spoke of leaving his wife, Brenda, and for three years, they continued their affair, even naming children they planned to have.
She was transferred to the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious in April 1995, while he became military assistant to Sir John Willis, a Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff, whose role included briefing the former defence secretary Michael Portillo and the armed forces minister Sir Nicholas Soames. Later, Lt Col Pople served in Bosnia as the pounds 45,000-a-year commanding officer of the 4th Regiment of the Army Air Corps.
They kept their relationship secret but alive, often in love letters, some of which were read out to the court. One poem written by Lt Col Pople, entitled, "Welcome back, it's been some time", read:
When as in silks my Karen
Then methinks how sweetly
the sheen of her clothes.
Next when I cast my eyes and
Oh how that glittering taketh
However, in June 1996, Lt Col Pople, an experienced helicopter pilot, ended the affair when he found letters under Lt Cdr Pearce's bed suggesting she was seeing other men.
Lt Cdr Pearce told him she had been seeing Lt McTear since the previous February and with whom she had sex aboard HMS Illustrious in breach of the Navy's strict no touching rule. Later, she told the court martial that was a lie - sex had, in fact, taken place off ship in a hire car.
However, in the Army, adultery is an offence and so Lt Col Pople was accused of conduct to the prejudice of good order and scandalous conduct unbecoming.
During the hearing, Lt Col Chris Armstrong, for the prosecution, and Rhyddian Willis, for the defence, conducted cross-examination in an arguably more in-depth fashion than that seen in civil courts. Details of the couple's sexual practices, of the noises made by Lt Cdr Pearce during love-making and of gifts they gave each other - including gorilla dolls - were all mercilessly pursued.
In one exchange, which Vice Judge Advocate Edmwnd Moelwyn-Hughes allowed to continue despite Lt Cdr Pearce's protestations, Miss Willis asked about her "little pink friend", a vibrator bought for her by Lt Col Pople.
It was the kind of exchange that characterised a hearing that had no winners. And it highlighted the extent to which senior officers in the armed services are out of touch with the rest of society.
The hopelessness of the top brass was perhaps demonstrated best when it emerged that they had set up a committee on board HMS Illustrious to support servicewomen. The Sexual Harassment Action Group, was known as SHAG.
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