A cargo ship captain accused of raping a female Merchant Marine Academy cadet and attempting to assault another after plying both with spiked alcoholic drinks has surrendered his mariner's license, making him ineligible to work at sea, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
John Christopher Merrone, 50, voluntarily surrendered his Merchant Mariner Credentials to the Coast Guard on Oct. 25, weeks after the agency filed a complaint documenting the captain's alleged misconduct toward cadets from the Kings Point school on Sept. 9, 2019, while aboard the Liberty Glory vessel, officials told Newsday.
Merrone, who has not been charged with a crime, has denied the allegations.
The Coast Guard Investigative Service, which investigated the allegations, initially said that it referred the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District, which declined to prosecute.
But shortly after Newsday published a story on the case, the Coast Guard said it learned that the criminal case against Merrone remains open.
An Eastern District spokesman declined to comment.
In a statement, the Coast Guard said it considers "sexual assault and sexual harassment occurring on commercial vessels serious offenses, and investigates each and every report over which we have jurisdiction."
Merrone, now of South Carolina, did not respond to multiple calls seeking comment. The Liberty Maritime Corp. in Lake Success, which employed the captain at the time of the alleged misconduct, also did not respond to a request for comment.
The Aug. 3 Coast Guard report added to ongoing allegations against the Merchant Marine Academy of women being sexually abused by their male superiors at sea.
The school, which trains men and women to be midshipmen working on deep sea vessels and in the military, is one of five federal service academies and the first to admit women.
“[The Maritime Administration] has strengthened measures that will help prevent sexual assault and harassment, aggressively prosecute perpetrators, and improve support for survivors — while supporting urgently needed culture change in the maritime industry to make it safer for all mariners," Maritime Administrator Ann Phillip said in a statement.
The administration declined to comment on the allegations against Merrone, citing the "sensitive nature" of the investigation and the "importance of student privacy."
Merrone allegedly invited two cadets to his stateroom, according to the investigative report, and, without their knowledge, gave them alcoholic drinks spiked with an undisclosed drug or intoxicant, according to the report. Once the women were incapacitated, Merrone allegedly sexually assaulted one cadet and attempted to molest the other, the investigation concluded.
In addition to the assault allegations, the Coast Guard found Merrone violated Liberty Maritime's policies prohibiting sexual harassment, discrimination and drinking alcohol aboard their vessels.
The Coast Guard Investigative Service said it launched its investigation immediately after receiving the allegations last year. Other alleged victims of Merrone came forward after the complaint was filed, the Coast Guard said.
In August, the Coast Guard's Suspension and Revocation National Center of Expertise filed a complaint against Merrone, who issued a response denying the allegations, officials said. But before a hearing could be scheduled, Merrone surrendered his credentials, preventing him from working in any position that requires a Coast Guard license, the service said.
Merrone was previously accused of sexual assaulting a woman in his Florida Keys apartment in March 2011, according to court records. The woman said Merrone held his arms against her neck as he raped her and broke her toe to prevent her from reaching a cellphone to call for help, records show.
Merrone was convicted of false imprisonment and two counts of battery and sentenced to two years in prison in the case. But an appeals court overturned his conviction, arguing the trial court erred in not allowing the defense to recall a witness who could have provided testimony beneficial to their case.
It is unclear whether the Coast Guard was aware of the allegations when Merrone obtained his Merchant Mariner Credentials.
Last year, then-USMMA cadet Hope Hicks of Georgia made headlines after disclosing — anonymously at the time — on a maritime whistleblower website that an engineering supervisor 40 years her senior plied her with alcohol, waited until she was incapacitated and raped her on a Maersk commercial ship in 2019.
When Hicks, who was 19 at the time and the only woman onboard, confronted the supervisor, he told her "no one is ever going to believe you," she said.
Hicks' disclosure prompted the U.S. Department of Transportation to suspend, for the second time, the Sea Year program, in which midshipmen are required to complete more than 300 days of work on commercial vessels in international waters.
Hicks and another female midshipman, who alleged she experienced extreme sexual harassment and unwanted touching from a Maersk electrician while on board the same vessel in 2021, filed a lawsuit against the international shipping giant in June. The second woman said in the suit she was so frightened of being raped that she slept in a locked bathroom holding a knife.
In 2016, reports of sexual misconduct forced the first USMMA suspension of the Sea Year program. But the program resumed in 2017 after USMMA, Maersk and other shipping companies enacted new policies to protect midshipmen from sexual assault and harassment.
The following year, a former academy soccer player filed a $5 million federal lawsuit against seven then-seniors on the team and three former coaches, claiming he was verbally, physically and sexually abused. He alleged that the conduct went unchecked and, in some cases, was encouraged by coaches. The DOT, which oversees the academy, paid the victim $1.4 million in a settlement.