Lawsuit alleges sexual assault by former USNS Carson City skipper

by Tommy Grant

A civilian mariner has filed a lawsuit against the Navy’s Military Sealift Command alleging she was sexually assaulted in her bed aboard the expeditionary fast transport ship Carson City by the ship’s civilian skipper in December 2021.

The Nov. 29 complaint alleges that the command failed Elsie Dominguez through inadequate security and protection procedures and for providing inadequate resources and support after the alleged assault, among other shortcomings.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, also alleges that victim advocates intimated that she’d lose her job if she reported the rape.

MSC is a command that runs about 125 civilian-crewed ships that provide ocean transport across the Defense Department, replenishing Navy ships, overseeing strategically pre-positioned combat cargo and moving service members and supplies as needed.

Dominguez opted to identify herself publicly in the lawsuit, but not the captain who allegedly raped her and whom the lawsuit alleges is still employed by the command.

Christine Dunn, one of the attorneys representing Dominguez, told Navy Times the alleged assailant is left unnamed in order to keep the focus on the man’s position as captain of a Navy ship, and MSC’s systemic failures that allowed the attack to happen in the first place.

MSC spokesman Thomas Van Leunen said the accused captain was on administrative leave pending completion of a Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation.

Dominguez formally reported the alleged rape to authorities in June. The NCIS and the Coast Guard’s equivalent agency opened investigations and the captain was relieved and returned to the U.S. for questioning.

Van Leunen declined further specific comment, citing the ongoing investigation and litigation.

“MSC takes allegations of sexual assault very seriously and remains committed to ensuring a safe and respectful environment for all personnel,” he said.

Navy Times could not independently verify the man’s identity or reach him for comment.

“We have not identified the mariner yet as investigation is not yet complete,” Van Leunen said in an email. “He hasn’t been charged with anything at this point and remains on leave.”

Dominguez served aboard Carson City until late October and remains employed by the command while in leave status.

According to the lawsuit, Dominguez began working onboard the Carson City in October 2021. She first met her alleged assailant and future captain of the Carson City in 2014 aboard the Spearhead, another of the catamaran-like expeditionary fast transports, on which he was second mate. For the two years they worked together on Spearhead, Dominguez and the man had a “cordial and friendly” relationship that was never intimate or sexual, the lawsuit states.

But during her first month aboard Carson City, the man, now the ship’s captain, invited her to his stateroom to watch a movie, then initiated sex, according to the suit. The experience, the lawsuit alleges, was “demeaning and upsetting” to Dominguez, who felt she couldn’t tell him to stop since he was her boss.

After that, the lawsuit states, she declined his invitations and avoided him, making clear she wasn’t interested in his advances.

But when the Spearhead was docked in Brindisi, Italy, on Dec. 18, 2021, the two went ashore to a bar together. The lawsuit states Dominguez only had a beer and a single shot of liquor, yet found herself intoxicated to the point of being incapacitated and blacking out. She believes she was drugged.

From conversations with crew after the fact, she learned, according to the suit, that she had been helped back to the ship, her shirt covered in vomit, and returned to her stateroom. According to a WhatsApp chat log cited in the lawsuit, the captain called her at least 14 times while she lay unconscious, and texted her about his desire to spend the night with her.

The ship’s captain used a master code issued by MSC to gain access to her room, according to the lawsuit, and Dominguez woke, still incapacitated, to discover him sexually assaulting her.

The following day, when Dominguez told the ship’s chief engineer that she wanted to go into Brindisi and get a drug test, the suit alleges the engineer “strongly discouraged” her from getting the test, leaving her feeling unable to override him.

When she confronted the captain, he threatened her, saying she would probably get taken off the ship if she requested a drug test, the lawsuit alleges.

Dominguez’s attempts to report her rape were likewise thwarted by lack of support and resources, according to the lawsuit. It alleges MSC had failed to post information about its sexual assault prevention and response program, including contact information for the assigned coordinators.

Dominguez said she had to find information on MSC’s website about her options, ultimately calling MSC’s 24-hour sexual assault hotline. The civilian advocate she reached told her she could not make a restricted report, concealing her identity, but had to make an unrestricted report because she was a civilian, the lawsuit alleges.

The advocate warned Dominguez that “if she made an unrestricted report, she would be immediately removed from her position … and then flown from Italy back to the United States where she would be interviewed by federal law enforcement agents and forced into a highly public process,” the suit states.

Fearing the loss of her job if she pursued this reporting option, Dominguez began sleeping with a chair wedged against her door to keep the captain out and requested that a deadbolt be installed on her door.

That bolt would not be installed until the following August, the suit states, and no one followed up with her about the danger her request implied.

Dominguez remained with the Carson City, “trapped aboard the vessel with her attacker, who was also her boss,” the suit states.

Hope Hodge Seck is an award-winning investigative and enterprise reporter covering the U.S. military and national defense. The former managing editor of Military.com, her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Politico Magazine, USA Today and Popular Mechanics.

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