New $5M civil suit filed against USMMA soccer players, coaches

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The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy has been the subject of a federal investigation into a sexual assault that allegedly occurred on a soccer team bus. (Photo from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy website)
The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy has been the subject of a federal investigation into a sexual assault that allegedly occurred on a soccer team bus. (Photo from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy website)

A former midshipman and men’s soccer player at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy suffered sustained abuse from teammates before a sexual assault on a team bus, a newly filed lawsuit claims, with coaches allegedly standing at the sidelines or encouraging it.

The federal civil suit, filed in Central Islip on Aug. 31 and amended Monday, seeks $5 million plus punitive damages, and targets seven now graduated student athletes, two assistant coaches and the soccer team head coach. The plaintiff was not identified in the suit.

“It’s about accountability,” Thomas Grasso, one of the plaintiff’s two attorneys, said in a phone interview. “We are seeking to hold [accountable] those who had direct involvement in the behavior directed at my client and who were in a position to stop it.”

The complaint claims that Cory Maier and Gavin Yingling forced the plaintiff to the floor, pulled down his boxers and shorts, and “forcibly tried to shove a banana and their fingers into Plaintiff’s anus and privates” on the way to a soccer game in September 2016.

Michael Heckmuller, the complaint alleges, also poured a “foul-smelling liquid” – possibly urine – onto the plaintiff’s head while yelling. “Plebe we told you to shave your pubes!”

“The entire sexual battery attack occurred in full view and in close proximity to all named Defendants, who knew or should have known that Plaintiff was attacked, yet none took any action to stop, prevent, interrupt or report the attack or render any aid to the Plaintiff,” the suit alleges.

During this, the other four students named in the suit were near the site of the attack, the suit said, meaning the plaintiff would have to get through them if he wanted to use the lavatory.

In addition to naming seven students allegedly involved – Maier, Yingling, Heckmuller, David Burkhardt, Brennan Becker, Conner Culiver and Timothy Hughes – it also accuses the coaches, including then assistant coaches John Fitzgerald and Geoff Cochrane, as well as then head coach Michael Smolens of Great Neck, of failing to take action.

This civil suit also outlines a period of alleged escalation before the alleged assault on a team bus traveling to Maryland for a soccer game.

Smolens, the head coach of the men’s soccer team, allegedly made derogatory remarks and “made Plaintiff the targets of jokes and ridicule often with sexual innuendo and connotation” based on his home state of West Virginia.

This in turned “opened the door” to future harassment, the suit claims.

“Plaintiff believed the harassment was going to stop the first month, but the longer it went on, the more often and more hateful the soccer team coaches and players comments became,” the suit claimed.

Smolens could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Among the alleged actions were teammates drawing sexually offensive pictures on the plaintiff’s desk with red marker, supergluing his sandals to the barrack floors and waves of verbal harassment on and off the soccer field.

There had also been threats that his physics book would be urinated on if he took it on a soccer team trip, according to the suit.

“The harassment got to a point where Plaintiff could not go to practice without the team making a comment about his family and that he did sexual things with them,” the suit claims.

The suit also claims that Fitzgerald and Cochrane failed to do anything to prevent, protect or help the plaintiff, who feared reporting the attack because of possible retribution. The plaintiff then filed a confidential report and personal statement to the academy, the suit says, before leaving the academy.

Cochrane, who still works at the academy, could not be reached for comment on Monday. Fitzgerald declined to comment on Tuesday.

While the Kings Point-based academy is not named in the civil suit, it is a subject of a separate $5 million civil claim from the same former midshipman alleging that the U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. Maritime Administration and the academy it oversees failed to “provide adequate sexual harassment and assault training and resources to students, faculty and staff.”

Shaun Hogan, who represented Culiver, Burkhardt, Heckmuller, Yingling and Maier in a previous suit when the seven students had their diplomas withheld, said on Monday that he has not been retained by the five former students.

At the time of the original $5 million claim being filed against the academy and students, Hogan had said his clients “categorically deny” the accusations and said there are “numerous problems with the allegations set forth there.”

“I’m confident that my clients are not guilty of any of the allegations that are alleged against them,” Hogan previously said.

An attorney was not listed for the defendants as of Monday.

“The United States Merchant Marine Academy remains committed to providing a safe and secure living and learning environment for its students,” a spokeswoman for the Maritime Administration, which oversees the academy, said. “Since the government has not been named in the lawsuit, and as the subject matter of the lawsuit is still under investigation by federal agencies, we have no comment on it.” 

Federal investigators have been looking into the incident of alleged abuse on the soccer team bus.

On June 2, the academy’s superintendent, Rear Adm. James Helis, notified the seven students that they were barred from graduation because of the investigation by the U.S. Transportation Department’s inspector general. This prompted the students to sue the school, the Transportation Department and Helis in federal court.

The investigation also led Helis to cancel the academy’s men’s soccer season in the fall, although the team ultimately returned in 2018.

The seven students, after being placed on deferred graduation status pending the investigation, took the school to federal court, where they denied the charges and argued that they were not given due process before action was taken against them.

A federal judge allowed them to walk during graduation. Following later private executive board meetings, the midshipmen received their degrees and licenses.

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