Sep 22, 5:02 PM EDT

Drill sergeant pleads guilty to sex assaults

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FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (AP) -- A Missouri drill sergeant charged with sexually assaulting eight female soldiers pleaded guilty Monday to three charges at the outset of his court-martial.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (bit.ly/1ymNnCK) reported that Army Staff Sgt. Angel M. Sanchez, 30, offered the plea before the start of the military judicial hearing.

Sanchez is accused of using his supervisory position with the 14th Military Police Brigade to threaten some of the women he was tasked with training. The incidents reportedly took place in the bathroom of the female barracks as well as in an office shared by drill sergeants.

Most of the allegations involved women at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, but some involved women in Afghanistan and Fort Richardson, Alaska. Sanchez also served one tour in Iraq, where he earned a Bronze Star and two other combat medals before arriving at the Missouri post in August 2013.

Sanchez remains accused of two dozen violations involving sexual assault and abusive sexual contact. Several additional accusations against Sanchez were dismissed after a pretrial hearing.

Ernesto Gapasin, Sanchez's attorney, said before the plea that the dismissals signaled an overzealous prosecution.

"I do believe the government has serious issues with the credibility of witnesses," he said. "I think that manifested itself in all the charges that were dismissed."

Gapasin said some of the initial accusers were either facing disciplinary action of their own or forced separation from the military at the time complaints against Sanchez were raised.

"There clearly are some motivations on the part of the accusers that could lead to false accusations," he said.

The charges against Sanchez were filed in May, days before a Pentagon study on sex assault in the military found that more than 5,000 reports of sexual abuse were filed in the previous fiscal year, a 50 percent increase from the previous 12 months.

Pressure from Congress led to several reforms in how the military justice system handles sex assault complaints. Accusers are now assigned lawyers to guide them through the legal process, and the statute of limitations has been eliminated. Anyone convicted of a sexual assault in the military faces a required minimum sentence of a dishonorable discharge.

The case against Sanchez, who is married, is expected to last for several days.

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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