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Ex-midshipman sues former soccer teammates, coaches at academy, alleging abuse

The suit alleges a pattern of emotional abuse and misconduct as well as a sexual battery by some of his teammates.

The entrance to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

The entrance to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point on April 21. Photo Credit: Danielle Silverman

A former U.S. Merchant Marine Academy soccer player says former teammates verbally and physically abused him, including by a sexual assault, and their conduct was unchecked and sometimes encouraged by coaches, according to a federal lawsuit.

The suit, filed on behalf of a former midshipman, seeks $5 million plus punitive damages and interest, and names as defendants seven then-seniors on the men's soccer team and three former soccer team coaches. The federal service academy, based in Kings Point, is not named as a defendant in the case but faces similar claims in a separate civil action by the same plaintiff that also seeks $5 million in damages.

The new suit, filed Aug. 31 in Central Islip, alleges a pattern of emotional abuse, willful misconduct and gross negligence by the named students and coaches during the summer and fall of 2016. The freshman student, referred to in the suit as "John Doe," said the abuse culminated on a bus trip to Baltimore when he said he was held down and sexually battered by several players.

"This is about accountability," said Thomas Grasso, the plaintiff's New Jersey-based attorney. "The coaching staff and senior members of the team need to be held accountable for what happened. This is a federal institution that is expected to graduate individuals of exemplary character. And this demonstrates exactly the opposite."

A U.S. Maritime Administration spokeswoman declined to comment on the suit, noting that the school was not named in the action and the matter remains under criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney's office. The administration, known as MARAD, is the U.S. Department of Transportation agency that oversees the academy.

"The United States Merchant Marine Academy remains committed to providing a safe and secure living and learning environment for its students," the spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

Newsday reported in January 2017 that sexual harassment, bullying and coercion had persisted at the academy for nearly a decade, despite the government’s own records of complaints and corrective efforts. Students there are trained to serve on U.S.-flagged cargo ships and work in the commercial shipping industry, and graduates are eligible for an officer's commission in the U.S. armed services.

The new lawsuit provides the most detailed picture to date of alleged campus hazing, verbal abuse and sexual misconduct by senior members of the soccer team.

And for the first time, the suit contends that members of the coaching staff were aware of the alleged abuse. Michael Smolens of Great Neck, then the head coach, is accused of participating in the public ridicule of the student.

The suit claims Smolens, the winningest coach in USMMA soccer history, frequently ridiculed the student, who was raised in West Virginia, as an "inbred," accused him of having sex with family members and joked that his family lived in a trailer.  

Messages left with Smolens were not returned. He no longer is the soccer coach, the MARAD spokeswoman said. The academy's website gives his title as associate athletic director for physical education.

Smolens' comments "opened the door" for members of the team to make similar derogatory statements against the freshman on a near-daily basis, the suit says.

The complaint contends that members of the team, often influenced by excessive alcohol, drew sexually offensive pictures on the student's desk, super-glued his sandals to the floor and threatened to urinate on his physics book if he brought it on soccer team trips. 

"The Academy's men's soccer team culture was pervasively hostile and abusive, encouraging hazing, humiliation, and subjugation of plebes to the lewd whims of first class soccer players, encouraged, unchecked and unreported by the coaching staff," the suit states.

Grasso alleges that two assistant coaches, John Fitzgerald and Geoff Cochrane, turned a blind eye to the alleged abuse and failed to report the behavior to school administrators.

Messages left with Fitzgerald and Cochrane were not returned. Fitzgerald is no longer with the school while Cochrane is a member of the athletic staff.

The seven former students named in the suit are Connor Culiver of Scottsdale, Arizona; David Burkhardt of Cutchogue; Michael Heckmuller of Cypress, California; Gavin Yingling of Salisbury, Maryland; Cory Maier of Hampton, Virginia;  Brennan Becker of Weston, Florida, and Timothy Hughes of upstate Ballston Lake. 

Shaun Hogan, a Jericho-based attorney who represented Culiver, Burkhardt, Heckmuller, Yingling and Maier in a previous action against the school, said he has not been retained by the men in the civil suit. Attorneys for Becker and Hughes did not respond to requests for comment.

The suit provides new details on the alleged sexual assault that occurred Sept. 2, 2016, as the soccer team was traveling to Maryland to play Johns Hopkins University. 

The student claims Maier and Yingling forcibly held him down near the back of the bus and sexually assaulted him. During the assault, the suit claims, Heckmuller poured a "foul-smelling liquid, possibly urine" onto the student's head.

The sexual battery occurred in full view of the named defendants, the suit contends. Maier and Yingling later dismissed the attack, telling the student this "happens to every plebe," the suit says.

The student declined to report the attack to authorities for fear of retribution, the suit said. He eventually quit the team, resigned from the academy and moved back to West Virginia where he is attending college, Grasso said. He continues to suffer severe psychological and emotional distress, the suit said.

In February 2017, the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General opened a probe into the alleged assault. The case was later forwarded to the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District for potential criminal prosecution, according to public statements by retired Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, head of the Maritime Administration. John Marzulli, a spokesman for the Eastern District, declined to comment.

Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the academy’s superintendent, placed the seven soccer players on deferred graduate status shortly before the June 2017 commencement and suspended the NCAA Division III soccer program.

Those seven seniors filed suit in federal court against the academy, Helis, the Transportation Department and MARAD, saying their constitutional right to due process had been violated.

U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler, now deceased, allowed the students to walk in the graduation ceremony. They later received their degrees and other documents after participating in individual, closed administrative hearings at the academy. It is not known if any of the seven were offered commissions in the U.S. Naval Reserve.

Helis reinstated the soccer program in mid-February.  

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