Academy chief defends actions He says Sun reported 'blatant falsehoods' on murder case response

September 21, 1996|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

In two letters to students and staff of the Naval Academy this week, Superintendent Adm. Charles R. Larson defended his handling of a murder case involving a midshipman and criticized The Sun's coverage of his actions.

Larson's letters have been the subject of intense discussion at ,, the highest levels of the Navy, as officials considered his explanation of why he chose not to bring the Navy's criminal investigators in on the case of Midshipman Diane M. Zamora, accused in the slaying of a Texas teen-ager.

On Monday, Larson sent a letter to The Sun denouncing an article in Sunday's editions about his handling of the murder case as "filled with several blatant falsehoods." He sent electronic copies of the letter the next morning to every midshipman and academy staffer.

By Larson's account, the article was wrong and unfair, accusing him of deliberately ignoring a regulation when he actually never knew the regulation existed.

"I was not aware of the secretary of the Navy's instruction" requiring him to notify the Naval Criminal Investigative Service of the murder investigation, Larson said in an interview this week in his Annapolis office. "No one called it to my attention."

But his first letter included a number of statements that worried his superiors, Navy sources say.

On Wednesday, Larson asked The Sun not to publish the letter. Yesterday he sent a second electronic letter to midshipmen and staff saying "I meant what I said" in the first letter but seeking to clarify the situation and softening his criticism of the newspaper.

Because the first letter had been sent to thousands of people by electronic mail, Joseph R. L. Sterne, the Sun's editorial page editor, decided to publish both in today's editions.

"We thought the letter had been so widely disseminated that it was part of the public record and we owed it to our readers to let them have this information," Sterne said. "We also wanted to avoid the impression that we were suppressing the admiral's letter."

It was a difficult week for Larson, who in two years has won the loyalty of most midshipmen with his campaign to raise standards of conduct and honor and to refocus the 151-year-old academy on its mission of training officers for the Navy and Marines.

Larson came to the Naval Academy in 1994 to set things right following a major cheating scandal that was badly mishandled by academy leaders. He has been tough on midshipmen who break rules or fail to tell the whole truth, which is one reason his own conduct in the Zamora case has come under such scrutiny.

The academy's superintendency is traditionally a billet for a two-star admiral. Larson, who graduated from the academy in 1958 and had served as superintendent from 1983 to 1986, had four stars and had just completed a stint as command in chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific. He brought unprecedented clout and prestige to the top job in Annapolis.

But after a smooth first year, Larson faced an unrelenting series of scandals involving midshipman misconduct. While the cases together involved only about 1 percent of the 4,000 midshipmen, they tarnished the academy's image with unwanted epithets: LSD, car theft, burglary, sexual assault, sexual child abuse.

And then, in a confessional conversation in her room in Bancroft Hall on Aug. 25, Zamora, an 18-year-old from Fort Worth, Texas, told her two roommates she had been involved in a murder.

In all the other cases involving suspected criminal wrongdoing, Larson or his aides had called in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. This time, they didn't. Instead, an academy lawyer called Texas police departments until he found an unsolved murder that seemed to fit Zamora's sketchy confession.

After four Texas police investigators questioned Zamora, her roommates and another midshipman, the academy placed Zamora on leave and took her to the airport for a flight home to Texas. Instead, she flew to Colorado to visit her boyfriend, David C. Graham, 18, the Air Force Academy cadet who would confess along with Zamora to the brutal killing of 16-year-old Adrianne Jones.

NCIS officials were furious when they learned of the murder case -- from their counterparts in the Air Force and from a reporter's query -- one week after Larson and his aides began to look into it.

They complained to top Navy officers that Larson had jeopardized the case by allowing Zamora to leave after being questioned in the murder. They acknowledged that no real harm was done, because Zamora traveled from Colorado to Texas and was arrested at her grandmother's home.

But NCIS officials also pointed out that the Navy secretary's "instruction" -- which has the force of law for naval officers -- required Larson immediately to report the suspicions of Zamora to NCIS.

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