Admiral kept investigators in dark But Navy secretary expresses confidence in academy's chief

September 15, 1996|By Tom Bowman, JoAnna Daemmrich, Scott Shane | Tom Bowman, JoAnna Daemmrich, Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Naval Academy Superintendent Adm. Charles R. Larson was forced to apologize last week for knowingly violating military regulations when he kept Navy criminal investigators in the dark about evidence that a freshman might have committed murder, Navy sources say.

Fearing publicity that would further tarnish the image of the academy after a year of scandals, Larson and his top staff decided to deal quietly with Texas police rather than contact the Navy's own investigators in Annapolis, the sources say.

Larson, a four-star admiral, has acknowledged the wrongdoing, apologized to top officials of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and pledged that it will never happen again.

Navy Secretary John H. Dalton said "his [Larson's] actions along with those of two courageous midshipmen who came forward helped resolve the situation in six days. Faced with an extraordinary circumstance, Admiral Larson quickly took action that achieved appropriate results. Senior leadership understands the rationale for his making the decision which he did. As Admiral Larson has already stated, he will call NCIS earlier in any future situations involving criminal activity.

"We fully stand by Admiral Larson and his leadership capabilities. He's a superb superintendent and we have complete confidence in him," Dalton said.

Under Navy regulations, suspected or alleged crimes "coming to command attention must be immediately referred to NCIS" -- regardless of whether they are being investigated by other police agencies. By deliberately violating the regulation, Larson broke the law, said one Navy lawyer.

The freshman midshipman, Diane M. Zamora, and her fiance, Air Force Academy Cadet David C. Graham, have both been charged with murdering a 16-year-old Texas girl with whom Graham had a brief sexual encounter. Both are 18 and grew up in suburban Fort Worth.

Through Capt. Tom Jurkowsky, an academy spokesman, Larson declined to answer specific questions about his actions in the Zamora case. But Jurkowsky said Larson defended his decisions.

"Admiral Larson took the action he felt was appropriate as a commander," Jurkowsky said. "He made a decision, made a call. He explained his call to leadership in Washington, and everyone understood each other and why Admiral Larson made the call he did. In retrospect, Admiral Larson should have called NCIS earlier, and will do so in the future."

As the case turned out, the academy's failure to alert NCIS about the murder case had no serious consequences. But some senior Navy officers say Larson's action may have delayed Zamora's arrest and could have jeopardized the case.

Larson arrived at the academy two years ago vowing to restore the academy's reputation after a major cheating scandal. He has overhauled the curriculum to emphasize honor and integrity and cracked down on student misconduct, expelling some midshipmen for one-time infractions of academy rules.

On Aug. 29, the same day Larson's staffers were bypassing NCIS and calling Texas police with Zamora's roommates' report that she had admitted involvement in a murder, Larson gave a "State of the Academy" speech insisting on the highest standards of conduct and character.

He reviewed his 10 "Guiding Principles" -- maxims such as "Lead by example (meet the standard you are holding others to)" -- and declared that everyone at the academy should abide by them. "We are serious about measuring ourselves against these guidelines," he said.

In the same speech, he expressed annoyance at negative media coverage of the academy during the past year, saying that the reporting had made the academy's work more difficult.

"Our theme this year is: 'We've been under a microscope, we've made some mistakes in the past, but we've learned. We've changed our culture and raised our standards, and we're going to enforce them.' Ask the press to back off and stop regurgitating the past. Look at what we're doing today," he told the academy's faculty and staff.

The killing of Adrianne J. Jones in Grand Prairie, Texas, had gone unsolved for eight months before Zamora told her two roommates in a late-night dormitory conversation Aug. 25 that she had been involved in a murder.

The roommates told a chaplain and a psychologist, who passed the information up to top academy officials. At least one academy official, Lt. Cmdr. Patrick McCarthy, an attorney and legal adviser to the academy's No. 2 officer, raised the fact that regulations required that NCIS be informed, sources say.

But Larson, with the backing of other officers, decided not to tell NCIS anything, Navy sources say.

The decision was based partly on the officers' hope that the academy could be kept out of media reports of the murder, which had allegedly been committed hundreds of miles away by Zamora months before she arrived at the academy.

In addition, the sources say, Larson was angry at NCIS because he felt it had not kept him fully informed on earlier investigations of a drug scandal and car-theft ring involving midshipmen.

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