Rape allegations haunt academy, former plebe

Assault case: A young woman reflects on her only year at Navy, and how it all went so wrong.

October 19, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

The daughter of a Navy pilot and a Navy nurse, the 18-year- old woman with perfect grades saw the Naval Academy as a gateway to her dreams of flying fighter jets for her country.

But disillusionment set in soon after the freshman put on a Navy uniform. A senior midshipman raped her last fall, she says, and then used his rank to try to bully her into silence.

Shaken and afraid, she hoped that a school renowned for high moral standards would bring her alleged attacker to trial and keep her safe while the case was pending.

But she was let down again.

The academy charged the midshipman with rape. Then it let him stay on campus, where she claims he attacked her again.

Four months later, the school's acting superintendent, Vice Adm. Charles W. Moore Jr., decided that there was enough evidence to court-martial him. Then, just as the trial was to begin last month, the academy dropped all charges. The case couldn't go forward, officials said, because the woman wouldn't answer questions about alleged childhood sexual abuse.

"I thought that when I was attacked [last fall], that was going to be the worst thing I would ever have to go through," she said in one of a series of interviews that offer the first inside look at the case. "That wasn't true. This has been so much worse."

Her alleged assailant, Robert A. Curcio, 24, of Antioch, Calif., has maintained his innocence. His lawyer says the woman's claims are outright fabrications. Curcio would not comment for this article. He has also refused to talk to Navy investigators about the woman's accusations, invoking his Fifth Amendment rights, according to Greg D. McCormack, his attorney.

McCormack contends that the woman's childhood sexual abuse had so traumatized her that she could not distinguish between her abuser and Curcio.

"It was very obvious right up front that this was someone that should not have been charged," McCormack said of Curcio, who had been selected as a naval aviator before the woman's allegations threw his future into doubt.

In a recent interview in his office in Virginia Beach, Va., McCormack accused the academy of making Curcio a "political scapegoat" to display its concern about sexual assault after a recent scandal at the Air Force Academy.

As in many rape cases, there were no witnesses or physical evidence. Though the lead investigator concluded that the case amounted to one of "he said, she said," he found the woman credible enough to recommend that Curcio be court-martialed on charges of rape and other criminal misconduct.

For Curcio, the academy's decision to drop the charges was proof that the case had never been more than a house of cards.

For the woman, it was the academy's final insult, the last in a string of callous failures to take her allegations seriously.

By the time the woman left the academy in May, she said, her classmates had stopped talking to her and a school psychologist had told her that she might be delusional. Her straight A's had plummeted to D's and F's because of what she viewed as retaliatory work assignments from upperclassmen.

"I wish I could make your readers understand what it is like to be in the position that I put myself in at the academy, if for no other reason than maybe the next woman raped will know what will happen," the woman said. "She will realize that if she intends to prosecute her attacker, she needs to resign from the academy or it will destroy her completely."

The woman told her story in a series of in-person, telephone and e-mail interviews after the academy halted its prosecution of Curcio last month. The Sun verified portions of her account through law-enforcement documents and through interviews with academy officials and others close to the case. The newspaper does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.

Wider inquiry

The sudden withdrawal of charges in the Curcio case comes as the Defense Department's inspector general is concluding an investigation into how the country's military academies handle reports of sexual assault. This spring, a slate of senior leaders at the Air Force Academy was replaced after dozens of female cadets complained that their reports of sexual misconduct were brushed aside or turned against them.

The former plebe's account, together with student surveys and statistics, suggests that confronting sexual misconduct remains a forbidding and perilous course for women at the Naval Academy.

A survey last year found that nearly four out of five midshipmen who said they suffered sexual harassment did not report it. None of the 14 cases of alleged sexual assault at the academy since 2001 has led to a court-martial. Instead, most of the suspects were expelled or pressured to leave the academy, sparing the school the taint of a public trial while leaving unanswered the central question of guilt or innocence.

The Naval Academy spokesman, Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, said student-privacy laws and a continuing investigation into Curcio's conduct prevent the school from talking about the case.

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