Expulsion unravels Mid's dream Academy says she was caught in lie

father vows battle

July 18, 1996|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

As a seventh-grader in Massachusetts, Jennifer Della Barba saw the movie "Top Gun" and immediately told her parents of her future path: She would attend the U.S. Naval Academy and become a fighter pilot.

Her dream was about to come true, before it unraveled this week over what her father insists is just a bit of confusion or semantics.

Della Barba, 21, was to have graduated in May from the academy. She was to spend the summer training plebes as a Navy ensign, before heading off to work in the Pentagon. In February, she was to have begun flight training in Florida.

But her Navy career flamed out like a Top Gun's jet. This week, the senior midshipman was expelled by the academy's superintendent, Adm. Charles R. Larson, accused of breaching the academy's strict honor concept -- lying about a visit to a Navy physical therapist.

"The fact is that she lied," said Capt. Tom Jurkowsky, an academy spokesman, defending the actions of officials.

That's not how her father sees it. John Della Barba of Weymouth, Mass., says the lying charge amounts to confusion or semantics. It was pursued, he says, by other midshipmen only after they "got egg on their faces" by wrongly assuming she was guilty of sexual misconduct in her dorm room.

The midshipmen thought she was in bed with her boyfriend, curled up in a lump under a quilt. As it turned the lump was only her stuffed animals; she was on a bus heading to a field trip on Assateague Island.

"It's destroyed a fine young woman's life," said her father, a carpenter, who added that his daughter now faces an $87,000 bill for her taxpayer-supported education. "How can she ever be the same?"

Her Boston attorney, Samuel Sichko, an academy graduate, blames her predicament on the charged atmosphere these days at the school. About the time of the incident, midshipmen had finished a performance "stand down" -- a weeklong period of on-campus soul-searching -- because of a rash of troubles, including sexual assaults, drug use and car thefts.

"I'm disappointed the system hasn't fixed this," said Sichko, who will appeal next week to Larson to reverse his decision.

If that doesn't work, the midshipman's family is determined to take the case to Navy Secretary John H. Dalton. "We'll keep going. We won't stop," her father said.

Privileges downgraded

Meanwhile, Jennifer Della Barba is still at the academy waiting for the appeal process to conclude. Her privileges at the academy have been downgraded to that of a sophomore: She can't have a car or wear civilian clothes.

She declined through her father to be interviewed, as has her boyfriend, James Steidle, now a Marine second lieutenant training plebes for the summer.

Steidle, who has admitted staying in Della Barba's room all night, graduated in May from the academy -- after being given a punishment of two days' campus confinement. He is spending this summer training in-coming freshmen.

According to academy documents and interviews with the midshipman's father and Sichko, Della Barba's dream began to evaporate about 8 a.m. April 14. (John Della Barba asked that the names of the other midshipmen involved in the incident -- who have graduated and are now officers -- not be used.)

The incident unfolded this way:

A female midshipman walked into Della Barba's dorm room at the academy's Bancroft Hall dormitory to look for something and noticed Steidle sleeping on her bed, along with a large lump under the covers that she assumed was Della Barba. At the academy, males and females aren't allowed to sleep in the same room; having sex in a dorm can lead to expulsion.

The midshipman called another and both then reported what they saw to the company commander, the midshipman leader of the academy's 6th company. One midshipman went back and awoke Steidle, asking him where Della Barba was. He said she was not there.

When Della Barba returned late in the afternoon, she was questioned by the company commander about a possible sexual misconduct charge. She said she rose around 5: 15 a.m. and went to the academy clinic to see a physical therapist, a petty officer who was to check her knee after her recent surgery -- an operation that her put her on strong painkillers.

Clinic wasn't open

The investigating midshipmen found she had boarded the field trip bus at 6: 30 a.m. and therefore could not have been in the room at that time. But they also called the clinic and learned it was not open at that early in the morning.

Confronting Della Barba, the midshipmen said they had caught her in an honor offense: lying about seeing a petty officer. But Della Barba told them she was nervous during their questioning and that she hadn't actually seen the petty officer -- but had gone to the clinic and found it closed.

"It was semantics," her father said. "Where was the intent to deceive?"

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