Assault case forces tensions to surface Annapolis: 3 female midshipmen felt they were equal members of the academy community until they testified against a fellow classmate


No club has a more loyal membership, and no fraternity forges stronger bonds. And in their first months at the Naval Academy, Beth Schuette, Karri Zaremba and Kim McGreevy thought they belonged.

Then, in their sophomore year, they found out how wrong they were.

They testified against a male classmate accused of rape and discovered the visceral resentment that had greeted the first women midshipmen had not disappeared. It had merely gone underground.

Male classmates, caught up in the claim that Midshipman Stephen J. Ciccarelli III was the victim of a witch hunt by hysterical females, muttered obscenities when the women walked past.

They spat on the doors of the women's dormitory rooms, put a thumbtack through a photograph of Schuette's face and scrawled "Ciccarelli" on their T-shirts.

Shaken, McGreevy slept with a baseball bat under her bed. "You could feel the tension," Schuette says. "I felt uncomfortable, very uncomfortable, and, for a while, unsafe."

The alleged victims, identical twin sisters visiting for a summer program, canceled their plans to apply to the academy. Ciccarelli was acquitted of rape, convicted of lesser offenses and forced to resign from the academy.

But anger against his accusers remained. In the 1995 school year, the women had quit the academy, citing the Ciccarelli case and its aftermath as a major reason for their decision to leave.

In the 20 years since women began enrolling at the academy, incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault have periodically flared into public view.

Each episode has prompted indignant declarations from the administration that such misconduct would not be tolerated.

At the academy, cases of harassment and assault such as Ciccarelli's seem to cut a wider, more destructive swath than at civilian schools, tapping deeper emotions and stripping away the civility that usually governs gender relations.

Yet training on sexual assault didn't begin until 1993. Despite years of reports involving male midshipmen entering females' rooms uninvited at night, the academy didn't drop its rule requiring unlocked doors until August, after the messy case of a top-ranking midshipman accused of assaulting four female classmates.

Heavy drinking, a factor in almost every sexual assault at the academy, remains a stubborn tradition.

Matter of image

The image-conscious administration does not always seem eager to get a full picture of the problem. Official statistics provided by Adm. Charles R. Larson, the superintendent, to a congresswoman last summer reported 10 "sexual harassment incidents" since 1993 -- yet two-thirds of female midshipmen surveyed say sexual harassment is a problem at the academy and casual conversations with women can produce stories of far more incidents.

Larson's letter to Rep. Sue W. Kelly, a New York Republican, reports just two sexual assault cases since 1993. But in interviews, The Sun identified three additional cases.

Larson says there is no attempt to minimize the problems. He notes that midshipmen wishing to report harassment or assault have many people to go to: company officers, ranking midshipmen, chaplains, ombudsmen, peer counselors. Some cases may be handled informally and never show up in the statistics, he says.

"We want to encourage openness, not discourage openness," Larson says. "You encourage openness by allowing this to be informal grievances, not issue-bound reports."

Teen-agers coming to Annapolis enter a universe in which respect for military rank, obedience to orders and stoical endurance of difficulties are prime values.

Applied to sexual interaction, such rules can be disorienting, according to stories told by several dozen current and former academy women interviewed by The Sun.

What does a female midshipman do when her male squad leader, performing a routine uniform inspection, scrutinizes her breast pockets, inside and out, with special care? What if an upper-class male, telling a plebe woman that her "shirt tuck" is not as tight as it might be, proceeds unasked to push her shirttails deeper into her pants?

Does she confront her superior on the spot, taking the risk that she will anger a person who can make her life miserable and label her forever as a "whiner," or, worse still, in midshipmen parlance, a "feminist"? Does she take the chance of reporting the incident?

Difficult repercussions

Too often a report of sexual harassment or assault rebounds against the accuser. When freshman Jennifer L. La Raia insisted on reporting her male platoon commander, a senior, for making a crude pass during inspection in 1989, "other upperclassmen came and said, 'Don't do it, your life will be hell,' " recalls La Raia, now 25.

They were right. She was summoned by the academy's deputy commandant, who she says told her point-blank that he thought she was lying. She resigned from the academy and now teaches in a Houston junior high school.

Even when the charge is rape, a woman can meet with skepticism from peers and superiors. One woman, in 1989, was told by her company officer that no one would believe her and said that she should take two weekends off to "deal with it." The officer's concerns, the woman said, seemed to be keeping the story quiet and ensuring that the alleged rapist continue to play basketball; the officer even fabricated stories to tell her classmates and parents.

Another woman, in 1993, accused a fellow track team member of attempting to rape her. He denied it and received only a reprimand. But male classmates shunned her. "I had the reputation that I falsely accused another midshipman," she says. "There was no shaking what happened."

Devastated by the assaults and the lack of support they felt, both women left. The men they accused graduated.

Prompted by such cases, academy officials have dramatically improved training on sexual assault and harassment over the past year, replacing dry lectures with realistic role-playing. A new videotape on date rape features a male and female student giving blatantly different accounts of the same sexual encounter.

In a crowded classroom decorated with posters of ships firing missiles, 22 male and seven female sophomores watched a skit one afternoon last fall: a male senior invites an underclass female his squad back to his room for a back rub, hinting that her answer might affect the grade he gives her on an official "fitness report."

"Was she assertive enough to keep him from doing it again?" the instructor asks. There is a chorus of "no."

Mary Beth Antonelli, 19, of Reston, Va., says there's no reason to struggle over how to define harassment. "You've got to tell him: 'No matter whether you think you harassed her, it made her feel uncomfortable, so cut it out,' " she says.

At least in the classroom, no male disagrees.

Private warnings

In the summer of 1994, at a camp to introduce high school juniors to the Naval Academy, there was no formal training on sexual harassment. But several female midshipmen took it upon themselves to encourage the teen-age girls to report unwanted sexual advances.

The warnings would prove prescient. Two girls, twins whose grandfather was a well-connected academy graduate, alleged that Midshipman Stephen J. Ciccarelli III entered their dormitory rooms early June 17 and assaulted them. (The Sun's policy is not to identify sexual assault victims unless they choose to be named.)

One said he climbed into her bed and fondled her; she gave explicit details of what he did and said. The other said he raped her in bed, then followed her to the bathroom and raped her again.

Ciccarelli insisted that he never entered their rooms.

The case would echo themes familiar from sexual assault cases at civilian colleges: mutually exclusive accounts of the facts, ambiguous behavior by the alleged victims and an admission by the accused that he had been drinking heavily.

But the power of military rank played a critical role, and the ugly aftermath showed the dark side of the academy's vaunted camaraderie.

On that night in June, neither girl screamed or called out to sleeping roommates, which weakened their case against Ciccarelli at his court-martial. The 17-year-old girls said they were intimidated by the rank and authority of a squad leader like the 21-year-old Ciccarelli, whom they had been taught to obey.

Sleepily looking at him, one girl testified, she said: "Should I move over?" The other testified that she initially thought Ciccarelli was there for a bed check and responded: "I'm here, present and accounted for."

Both said later that they did not want to have sex with him but were afraid that if they refused his advances, he would retaliate.

"He's higher up," one of the sisters testified. "We'd been saying the whole week, 'yes sir,' and 'no sir.' I was afraid of him. I was afraid that he would not let me into the Naval Academy."

The case would have amounted to their word against his -- except for the fact that earlier the same night, Ciccarelli had repeatedly pressured another midshipman for sex. Beth Schuette testified that Ciccarelli, obviously drunk, had first accosted her at a midnight party in the dorm and later trapped her in a stairwell, grabbing her by the wrist.

"I felt I had no control of the situation," Schuette said in an interview. "He was pretty strong, and I couldn't get away."

She was rescued by the chance arrival of a classmate, Karri Zaremba, who yelled at Ciccarelli to leave Schuette alone.

Key testimony

In the ensuing months, as Ciccarelli faced an investigation and court-martial, Schuette's testimony was a key element in the prosecution. Zaremba backed up her account. Their friends and track teammates, Kim McGreevy and Andrea Johnson, recounted in court how they had watched a furious Zaremba confront Ciccarelli the next day about one twin's accusation.

"I was very angry," Zaremba, 21, said in a recent interview. "There's a total hierarchy at the academy, and here he had taken advantage of being the superior and forced himself on this girl."

Ciccarelli chose not to testify at either the investigative hearing or the court-martial. In a lengthy interview from his home in California, where he is attending community college and working as a drywall installer, he admitted that he had "hit on" Schuette but denied ever entering the twins' rooms.

He says one of the twins broke down twice under pressure during the weeklong camp and suggested that she invented the assault charge to explain her problems. "She failed. She needs an excuse to explain her emotional state," he says.

The other twin, he says, may have concocted the story of being raped to lend credence to her sister's tale. "You're talking about 17-year-old girls who don't realize the gravity of making a charge like that," Ciccarelli says.

In fact, a female Navy investigator initially recommended that all charges be dropped, but Larson insisted on taking the case to court-martial. Eventually, Ciccarelli was convicted of "conduct unbecoming an officer" for his advance to Schuette and fondling one twin but was acquitted of the rape charge.

In the end, Ciccarelli received a letter of reprimand and an honorable discharge from the Navy. He says the mild punishment suggests that the military judge found him guilty of minor offenses only because of pressure from Larson, who knew the girls' grandfather.

"I know the mind-set of the academy and of the Navy: If a woman says something, you're guilty until proven innocent," Ciccarelli says.

The female midshipmen who testified against Ciccarelli say that is preposterous. In fact, they say, the reverse is true: A Navy woman who accuses a Navy man invariably is doubted and branded a traitor. They remember worrying almost immediately after turning in Ciccarelli that there would be repercussions.

"It's a small school," says Zaremba, whose striking looks had drawn comments, jokes and come-ons from male classmates. She had experienced harassment from the men she beat to be honored as the toughest athlete at the end of plebe summer and from men in her company after she testified in an earlier assault case.

Making life miserable

"If the academy or anyone there has it in for you, they can find ways to make you miserable," she says. "I was already under the microscope, and I couldn't wait to become a wallflower. I knew this was going to blow up in my face."

McGreevy, 21, a star runner who set a school record in the 1,500-meter race, had felt she fit in. But she had heard enough stories from female classmates to know that getting involved in the case could be risky.

"My first reaction was 'I don't want to deal with this,' " McGreevy recalls. "It was hardly 'I can't wait to report this.' In any part of society, there's the thought that the girl is lying, and in the Navy, there's the thought of some girl conspiracy."

For her part, Schuette was uncomfortable when prosecutors sought to portray her as a "victim" of Ciccarelli. "I didn't want people to look at me as a person who files harassment charges," she says. "People would give you a hard time at school if they knew that."

There was another reason for Schuette's discomfort. She had seen Ciccarelli and some of his friends drinking what she believed to be alcohol-spiked punch at the party that night, she says.

"There was basically zero tolerance for that, and there were six people who could have gotten kicked out," Schuette says.

Ultimately, she testified about the illicit drinking, but Ciccarelli and several friends at the party denied it and were never disciplined. Ciccarelli did admit to drinking beer at a concert earlier; one friend testified, according to court records, that Ciccarelli had six 20-ounce beers.

Drinking offenses -- like coming in after curfew, wearing civilian clothes or sneaking "over the wall" into town -- are so common at the academy that midshipmen routinely cover for one another. The adage is never to "bilge," or turn in a classmate.

An unwritten code

It was this unwritten code that the women were deemed to have transgressed. The academy resembles "a dysfunctional family," says Andrea Johnson. "As a member of the family, there's a responsibility to keep things nice and quiet and not make waves. There's a big taboo against ratting on people."

The reaction was even worse than the women feared.

Male classmates rallied behind Ciccarelli, with a dozen friends from his military company and the academy prep school leading the charge.

At a meeting of the class of 1997 in Halsey Field House, some of his friends began to chant, "Free Ciccarelli!" Schuette felt intimidated, thinking "these guys are so mad, something could happen," and locked her door at night.

Even men who tried to stay neutral became noticeably cooler. "The guys in my company got definitely more unfriendly," McGreevy recalls.

The women were baffled that their male classmates could object to their testifying in a rape case. "I thought, 'How can these guys accept what he did?' " Schuette says. "I don't think they really knew, though, and I don't think they wanted to know. It was just that he was one of the guys, and they were backing him."

The women say they didn't complain about the harassment for fear it would only make tensions worse. But word of their difficulties eventually reached the commandant.

Capt. William T. R. Bogle, the second-highest officer, met with the four women and promised to put an end to the retaliation. But the climate improved only slightly, and the administration was wary of provoking a backlash that might make the situation worse.

All three resigned at the end of the year. While other factors contributed to their decisions to leave -- McGreevy wanted to run track at a bigger school; Zaremba had a fight with a roommate -- they say the Ciccarelli case had shattered their idealistic view of the academy. Johnson left as well, but for reasons of career choice, she says. She is studying anthropology at the University of Maryland College Park.

Marked contrast

After more than a year at civilian schools, the women say they are struck by the contrast. At the University of Dayton in Ohio, Schuette says such a case would never have been "so much of a female-hating thing as it turned into at the academy. There, it was like, 'Here's another woman getting one of us kicked out.' You're outnumbered 10 to 1."

Looking back, McGreevy believes that male attitudes toward women at the academy are passed down from one class to the next.

"In plebe summer, it was more of a camaraderie thing. I didn't ever not feel accepted," she says. "And then they watch the way the upper class treat women, the names they use, how they think women don't perform as well, the whole way they talk about women a certain way."

At Penn State University, where she is still setting track records, McGreevy says, "There's really no issue of men and women."


Part three: A Marine captain returns to her alma mater to lead midshipman and finds echoes of her own, pianful experiences in the stories of her students

Pub Date: 2/10/97

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