Naval Academy chief denies trying to hide rape of U.S. sailor Book accuses admiral of cover-up involving Soviet sailors in 1990

January 30, 1996|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In a scathing new book about misbehavior in the Navy, Adm. Charles R. Larson, the superintendent of the Naval Academy, is accused of having tried to cover up the rape of a U.S. female sailor by Soviet sailors in San Diego in 1990, a charge the admiral vociferously denies.

"The overriding concern was not marring the Soviet visit or Larson's career," Gregory L. Vistica writes in "Fall from Glory: The Men Who Sank the U.S. Navy."

"Absolutely false and ridiculous," Admiral Larson said last night. "I resent him saying I was worried about my career. My career never came into it.

"And if my career has been successful, it is because I have not worried about my career. I have worried about doing the right thing."

Admiral Larson was the Honolulu-based commander of the Pacific Fleet at the time and was visiting San Diego for a Soviet port call in July 1990.

The woman reported that she became separated from the tourists on the ships, was seized by Soviet sailors and raped.

A civilian rape crisis center, which treated her, informed the Naval Investigative Service. David Ussrey, the investigator who handled the case, is quoted as having told Admiral Larson: "We believe this is a very legitimate case."

The book says: "But after Ussrey laid out the facts of the case to Larson, [Admiral Larson] became defensive and refused to believe the woman's story. 'I talked about this to my wife, and she doesn't believe this happened, and neither do I. I talked to the Soviets and they said it couldn't happen,' Ussrey recalled Larson telling him."

Mr. Vistica describes Mr. Ussrey as "dismayed and angered" at what he perceived to be Admiral Larson's effort "to thwart the investigation." He quotes Mr. Ussrey as saying: "A member of his command was assaulted, and that didn't seem to be a concern."

Mr. Ussrey, who retired from the NIS in 1992, yesterday confirmed the remarks attributed to him in the book. "What [the author] did put in there that I said, I did say," Mr. Ussrey said. "I am not verifying his description of the events, but I did say what he quoted me as saying."

Admiral Larson said: "Those quotes are just outrageous. I can guarantee those quotes never happened."

The admiral said he spent the weekend reviewing the investigative report on the case. The alleged rape, he said, was ++ brought to his attention the night before the Soviet ships were due to sail home. The woman could not identify her assailants, and the investigators had no leads.

"What are my options?" he asked rhetorically. Without either suspects or leads, he decided to let the ships sail after the Soviet admiral promised to carry out his own investigation.

"I certainly was very concerned about the young woman, to make sure if there had been any lead or anywhere to go we would have gone there. There just wasn't."

William Branniff, who was U.S. attorney in San Diego when the rape was reported, said the main obstacle to an investigation was the issue of jurisdiction: If U.S. investigators insisted on boarding a Soviet ship, it could set a precedent for foreign investigators to board U.S. warships. Mr. Branniff, in an interview, said he did not talk with Admiral Larson about the rape case but met with Mr. Ussrey.

"Ussrey did tell me that Larson was concerned about the incident . . . whether or not you could prove it, whether or not it happened," Mr. Branniff said.

The book is essentially an indictment of recent Navy leadership, ranging from former Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr.'s political maneuvering for a 600-ship Navy in the early 1980s to the Tailhook scandal in 1991, when scores of women attending a Naval aviators convention in Las Vegas were groped and assaulted.

The book also includes these accusations:

* Two Navy pilots were killed in the mid-1980s after taking off drunk from the Cubi Point air station, the Philippines, and ejecting to avoid crashing into a mountain.

* Top admirals lived the high life at the expense of taxpayers.

But the central target of Mr. Vistica, an investigative reporter for Newsweek, is former Navy Secretary Lehman.

Chuckling as the book's allegations were read to him, he declined to discuss any of the issues until he had read the book, except to say: "I find such attention flattering some 16 years after I became Navy secretary."

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