Failed oversight, lax punishments: How the Coast Guard has allowed sexual assault at sea to go unchecked
By Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken
(CNN) -- Women don't belong out at sea working on ships with men, the 62-year-old engineer told the 19-year-old trainee just weeks before she says he raped her.
The young woman, Hope Hicks, was a student at the US Merchant Marine Academy. The man, Edgar Sison, was her boss. He worked alongside her every day on the ship her school had sent her to for mandatory training. His bedroom shared a wall with hers.
The morning after Hicks said she was attacked, she woke up with blood on her sheets. As she pieced together the events from the night before, she said Sison called her incessantly, telling her she needed to come to his room. Clutching a knife in her pocket for protection, she went.
"I think we need to go over some stuff that happened last night," Hicks recalled him saying. To her, it was clear what occurred: Sison and other top officials on the boat pressured her to take shot after shot of hard alcohol until she became incapacitated. Then, he raped her.
He denied it, saying he only helped her back to her room. Then, she said, he pushed his chair next to hers, touched her thigh and leaned in so close she could feel his breath on her face. "We mariners get lonely out here at sea, ok?" Hicks remembers him saying.
As she stood to leave his cabin, she said, Sison issued a warning many women in her position have long thought to be true: "No one is ever going to believe you."
A broken system
Hicks didn't know it at the time, but her encounter with Sison would launch what some in the shipping industry have likened to a "Maritime Me Too" moment and shine a critical spotlight on the one agency with the most power to do something about it: the United States Coast Guard.
As a branch of the US military overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard is known for protecting the nation's shorelines, rescuing those lost out at sea and cracking down on drug smuggling, oil spills and potential security threats.
But one of the agency's lesser-known duties is overseeing the thousands of commercial ships that do business in American ports and waterways. It is the Coast Guard's job to ensure that the more than 200,000 people known as merchant mariners, who are given government credentials to work on vessels ranging from tugboats to large cargo ships, do not pose a safety risk.
The Coast Guard is responsible for the initial vetting of mariners as well as continued monitoring and enforcement of misconduct on land or while on the job that would make them ineligible for a credential. When a mariner is accused of committing a crime on a US-flag ship, the responsibility for investigating falls on the agency's law enforcement division, which can pursue criminal charges. Investigators and judges at an entirely separate administrative enforcement unit, meanwhile, can take away a mariner's ability to work at sea.
Yet hundreds of pages of the Coast Guard's own records, as well as interviews with shipping company and union officials, current and former government employees and dozens of mariners, show that the Coast Guard has failed to use its power to prevent and punish sexual assault and misconduct for decades — despite growing evidence that this kind of behavior is a longstanding problem at sea.
"Not only does this happen to women in the industry, it happens many, many times," said Linsey Knight, a longtime merchant marine officer and member of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots union. Knight said she was cornered and kissed by one crew member and fondled by another as an apprentice on her very first sailing voyage and was raped by an officer on a ship years later.
"I did not report my incidents because of shame, fear of retribution, firing, being labeled as ... that bitch who ruined a good man's life or career or reputation," she said.
The Coast Guard has acknowledged to Congress that sex crimes at sea are an underreported problem. The agency told CNN that in the past 10 years,it opened 25 criminal investigations into alleged shipboard sexual assault, some of which remain ongoing. It couldn't point, however, to a successful sex crime prosecution of a credentialed mariner in the last 30 years, and the Justice Department declined to comment.
The Coast Guard's administrative judicial process requires a lower burden of proof than criminal court. Still, no mariners had their credentials revoked for shipboard sexual misconduct in the last decade and, as of the end of last year, only four mariners had received a suspension. Four others voluntarily surrendered their credentials after complaints were filed against them.
When compared with outcomes from cases where mariners used drugs, including marijuana, records show that the Coast Guard has long been lenient and inconsistent with sanctions for mariners found to have committed sexual offenses.
For example, a mariner who failed a drug test after using CBD oil for knee pain had his credential revoked, while a chief mate who raped his female second mate multiple times, according to a Coast Guard administrative complaint, was allowed to keep his credential. The mariner, who the agency also accused of using the ship's master key to break into the room of a young student training aboard the ship to solicit sex, served a 30-month suspension and attended sexual harassment training — one of the harshest punishments for sexual misconduct from the records reviewed by CNN.
"For too long, reports of sexual assault and harassment at sea have not been addressed with the seriousness and response necessary," Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, from Washington said in a statement to CNN. The senator has been outspoken on this issue in recent years through her role as chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
The Coast Guard has a difficult task. Sexual assaults are notoriously hard to investigate, and those that occur in the middle of the ocean present even more obstacles. Evidence collection is challenging, and rotational crews can make tracking down witnesses more difficult. Victims are often hesitant to come forward in the immediate aftermath of a crime, while still working in close quarters with their attackers. If they do, the closest doctors and investigators may be hundreds or thousands of miles away, back on shore.
The Coast Guard did not widely publicize its role in investigating sexual misconduct that occurs on commercial ships until the end of 2021, and many mariners interviewed by CNN said they had no idea they could report incidents directly to the agency.
When a case does come to the attention of the Coast Guard, it can take months and sometimes years to resolve investigations and for any sanctions to be levied, case files show. As cases languish, mariners continue to hold their credentials and employers are kept in the dark, meaning suspected predators can move from ship to ship.
And, even though agency regulations restrict convicted sex offenders from obtaining credentials, CNN identified more than 25 mariners who held credentials after being convicted of sex crimes including rape, sexual battery, sexual assault and child molestation, according to files dating back to 2000 obtained through public records requests.
In about half of the cases, Coast Guard officials were aware of the convictions and deemed the mariners suitable to work on ships anyway; in others, convictions appeared to have initially gone unnoticed by the agency.
When asked about CNN's findings, two top Coast Guard officials said they were concerned about how certain sexual misconduct cases were handled, acknowledging inconsistent investigations and outcomes, as well as problematic gaps between background checks. Beyond that, the officials declined to comment on specific situations highlighted by CNN, and said that given the complexities of every case, they would not categorize past decisions as "failures." They emphasized changes aimed at improving outcomes moving forward, including the creation of a centralized reporting system, outreach to mariners to build trust with potential victims and better promotion of the agency's ability to investigate sex crime allegations. In the wake of these moves, the agency noted a significant uptick in reports last year.
"We're continuing to look for ways to close gaps to hold those accountable that create that toxic environment," said Admiral Wayne Arguin, the Coast Guard's assistant commandant for prevention policy. "Tomorrow is different and so are we."
'I was trapped'
Hicks had just celebrated her 19th birthday when she boarded the Alliance Fairfax in Jacksonville, Florida, before sunrise one morning in the summer of 2019.
After a grueling "plebe" year cooped up in classrooms at the US Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, she was looking forward to getting hands-on experience working in an engine room on a large, commercial vessel where she could learn directly from professionals.
She tried not to worry about the warnings she received from academy graduates who hosted a pizza party for female students back on campus before leaving for the school's "Sea Year" training program: that crew members were known to steal bras and underwear from the laundry room, that wearing anything "provocative" would cause trouble and even working out in the gym on board could lead to unwanted attention.
But as soon as Hicks stepped on board for her 100-day stint at sea, the harsh realities of being a woman on a ship full of men hit her. The other engineers in her department stared at her and commented on the outline of sweat around her bra after hours of working in the engine room, which could get as hot as 130 degrees. They remarked about everything she ate and got unnecessarily close when talking to her. She only worked out in the gym with the other male student on board and would wear sweatpants and baggy shirts even in the oppressive heat. She had initially looked forward to getting to swim during some of her breaks, but she knew the very first day she would never be getting into her bathing suit. The towering vessel, which was carrying military and commercial cars for delivery all over the world, spanned the length of nearly two football fields. But there was nowhere she felt comfortable.
She said her boss, Sison, who did not respond to CNN's requests for comment, went farther than the rest -- making it clear he wanted to have sex with her. He would comment about her body and appearance, she said, made sexual jokes and told her how attracted he was to her. He insisted on showing her photos of barely dressed women he said he had dated in the past and would scroll through selfies of himself in the mirror. Hicks said he even referred to her as his "wife."
Then one night, after a stop in Aqaba, Jordan, Sison and other engineering officers gathered on the boat's pool deck and then later in Sison's small stateroom getting drunk. The men called for Hicks who was in the cabin next to Sison's.
As their demands that she join them continued, Hicks felt she had no choice.
She doesn't recall exactly how the night unfolded, but she does have vivid memories of specific moments, including being unable to move and Sison climbing on top of her as she lay naked. She awoke the next morning, bruised with blood on her sheets, knowing she had been raped.
She said she went straight to her fellow cadet's room and told him what had happened to her. But she didn't want to tell the captain because he was close friends with Sison. She feared she wouldn't be able to graduate if she told her school and was unable to finish the mandatory training program. And she didn't know that directly reporting the incident to the Coast Guard was even an option.
Her ship was in the Middle East, and it would be two weeks until it reached port. "Back in my room I decided that the only thing I could do was to tough it out," she recounted. "No one was going to believe me."
No one else spoke up either, though she believed others knew she had been victimized. One crew member, she said, even told her he had left Sison and her alone in her cabin that night.
She suffered through the next 50 days aboard the ship, working with her alleged rapist every day.
"I was trapped."
Lax punishments, flawed background checks
The Coast Guard has a long history of minimizing sexual misconduct in the commercial shipping industry, agency records from the past two decades show, and its failures have sometimes started before mariners even boarded a ship.
Some mariners' criminal histories were missed during background checks as part of the application and renewal process, according to Coast Guard enforcement summaries. At times, the agency only learned about convictions that would have prohibited the granting of a credential through tips from mariners or unrelated investigations. In other situations, mariners sailed for a year or longer after convictions because they occurred during the five-year gap between credential renewals. And even when the Coast Guard learned of criminal histories, it did not always stop convicted sex offenders from holding credentials.
In one case, a captain was tipped off that a crew member had been convicted of child molestation, but when he reported the information to the Coast Guard, the agency determined it was already aware of the conviction but had allowed him to continue sailing. Another registered sex offender worked aboard commercial ships for years, records show, only surrendering his credential after being charged with murdering his father.
A number of mariners who served prison sentences for sex crimes committed away from the job, as well as those accused by the Coast Guard of committing rape, sexual assault and other egregious offenses, managed to keep their credentials by negotiating settlement agreements with the agency.
Mariner Michael James Verdin, for example, began negotiating his agreement while serving a one-year prison sentence for sexual battery after being accused of rape, according to court records. He agreed to a seven-month suspension in 2012. Verdin told CNN he denies the allegations but pleaded guilty to sexual battery to avoid a longer prison sentence and return to work sooner. He said that once his credential was returned, he continued working in the industry for around five more years before retiring.
Even when Coast Guard officers have tried to strip mariners' credentials for sexual misconduct, the agency's administrative judges have sometimes overruled them in favor of more lenient punishments.
According to prosecutors in Michigan, mariner James Ryerse "chose to sexually assault a child in the living room" and pleaded guilty to attempted felony criminal sexual conduct involving a victim between the ages of 13 and 15 in 2009. Ryerse still holds his credential today, according to the Coast Guard, after an agency judge ruled against revoking his credential. He returned to work after a six-month suspension. Ryerse said he denies anything happened with the young girl, and that the conviction was unrelated to his work, so he was confused why the agency attempted to take away his credential. He said it would be unfair to bar all sex offenders from the industry, saying each case is very different and should be assessed individually.
Another Coast Guard judge recently rejected a revocation recommendation for captain Mark Stinziano's credential after an investigation revealed he had groped multiple male crew members. The Coast Guard deemed his behavior to be abusive sexual contact, while the judge described it as hazing. Stinziano's attorney declined to comment, saying the case was sent back to the Coast Guard's administrative court after being appealed so the matter is still open.
Out of roughly 40 reported cases involving sexual misconduct from the last 20 years reviewed by CNN, more than a dozen of the mariners received lesser punishments than initially proposed due to settlement agreements or a judge's decision, while a handful had no action taken at all.
Actions such as revocations and suspensions are intended to be "remedial, not punitive," the agency said in a statement. Arguin, who oversees the credentialing and enforcement processes, said he could not speak to judges' "logic or thought process," but did say that looking forward, agency officials want to "set a standard and reinforce that this kind of behavior is unacceptable."
The Coast Guard reviews criminal histories any time a mariner applies for a new credential or attempts to renew an existing one. Arguin acknowledged "there may be instances where something falls through the cracks" and said the five-year gap between renewals can result in less "visibility" of convictions that should result in a credential revocation. Most of the convicted sex offenders identified by CNN no longer work as mariners, according to the agency, and Arguin said anyone with a sex crime conviction who is currently holding a credential should be "nervous." He pointed to a new continuous monitoring program that would alert the Coast Guard if a mariner loses their security clearance, issued by the Transportation Security Administration. Sex crimes targeted by this program, however, are limited to rape and aggravated sexual abuse.
Jeffie Massey, one of the only women to ever serve as a Coast Guard judge, said a cultural transformation at the agency is long overdue.
"It was very clear to me that there is a culture of misogyny in the Coast Guard," said Massey, who was employed by the agency from 2004 to 2007 and publicly clashed with the chief judge of the court after leaving. She said the agency was "rabid" in the way it went after even minor drug offenses and that sex crimes were not recognized as a serious issue. "All the boys were running the show."
A female judge has not served on the Coast Guard court for more than a decade.
Hicks returned to campus hoping to move on from what happened to her at sea. But she fell into a depression. She could barely sleep, she said, and considered dropping out of school entirely.
Her experience haunted her. When she learned that two female students had been assigned to Sison's ship, she privately urged them to get a new assignment. And even though she wasn't ready to come forward about her alleged rape, she thought she might be able to help others in her position, so she became a certified advocate for sexual assault victims. That's when she learned of nine other female students currently on campus who were allegedly coping with their own Sea Year rapes — a figure that stunned her given how few women even attended the academy.
Hicks became increasingly concerned that people in power were ignoring a serious problem. She remembers being told at a campus resume workshop to remove her work as a victim's advocate because it might make people in the industry feel "uncomfortable."
Two years after her time at sea, Hicks decided she needed to do something. Sitting at a desk in the barracks one night, she typed out the details of her alleged assault and sent it to a former mariner who became an attorney and outspoken advocate for reform in the industry after allegedly experiencing sexual misconduct himself. He ran a blog and Instagram account that had been attracting increasing attention in the maritime industry, and she told him he could publish her story.
Within days, her anonymous account was popping up on screens on ships in the middle of the ocean, dorm rooms at the Merchant Marine Academy and in offices in Washington, DC.
The academy issued a statement saying it had immediately referred the allegations to the Coast Guard Investigative Service, and in the months that followed, the federal agency overseeing the school halted its hallmark Sea Year program and rolled out new safety measures that were enacted before students could go out to sea again.
The vessel's operator, shipping giant Maersk's US subsidiary, zeroed in on Hicks' alleged assailant and fired him when he refused to participate in an internal investigation.
At the Coast Guard, however, investigators faced an uphill battle from the moment they were assigned Hicks' case in the fall of 2021. There had been no surveillance cameras outside the room where Hicks' assault allegedly occurred. Sison and the other ship officers who she said had been there that night refused to cooperate with the company's investigation. And while Hicks said she had told close friends and family about her alleged rape in the months that followed, more than two years had passed by the time she published her then-anonymous account online — meaning any physical evidence was likely long gone.
At first she feared speaking with investigators, intent on staying anonymous. But about three weeks after her story was posted online, she agreed to sit down with two agents at the Coast Guard's investigative service office in Battery Park in lower Manhattan.
She said she described what happened in painful detail, but she wasn't confident the agents were going to help.
"I don't want to criticize the investigators, but they both seemed to lack empathy for me and for my situation and seemed to be unsure of themselves," Hicks said. "Maybe they just didn't have much experience interviewing victims like me."
Near the end of the meeting, Hicks asked about next steps, and the agents warned her that these kinds of investigations could take time. After nearly two hours, she returned to campus.
"I just walked back through the gate, back to the barracks, and had no idea if anything would ever happen because of the interview," she said. But she was hopeful that by telling her story, Sison "might face consequences for what he had done."
Becoming a mariner means committing to months at a time away from home in a floating workplace, where employees live and work alongside each other in a confined space with no means of escape. This unusual setup makes the stakes particularly high if bad actors make their way onboard.
But in many cases, there is little stopping an alleged perpetrator from continuing to work after an assault is reported. The Coast Guard's investigations have been slow and secretive, and when these inquiries result in an administrative complaint alleging that wrongdoing has occurred, employers and unions say they are still not notified by the agency.
Even if a victim reports an assault to an employer and a mariner is suspended or fired, that same mariner can still find a job on a new ship with a new crew that has no idea that a sexual predator could be lurking in the cabin next door.
"There is a small minority who may use the opportunity on ships to take advantage of others. [This group] has been able to move from company to company undetected," shipping giant Maersk, Sison's former employer, said in a statement to CNN. The company said it wants the Coast Guard to share information about criminal convictions, past enforcement actions or ongoing criminal or administrative investigations with employers.
The Maritime Administration has also proposed a "perpetrator information exchange" to help companies share red flags with each other. And the new director of the Coast Guard Investigative Service, Jeremy Gauthier, said the scenario where an accused rapist is continuing to work on ships concerns him too. "Trust me, I'm just as worried if my daughter was in this industry," he said.
Recently, as a Coast Guard investigation dragged on, Captain John Merrone kept his ability to work on commercial ships for more than a year after the agency launched an investigation that resulted in administrative charges accusing him of drugging two students on his ship and raping one of them.
The operator of the ship said that despite asking the Coast Guard for information, it was kept in the dark about details of the probe. The company only learned about the scope of the allegations and that a complaint had been filed as a result of inquiries from CNN.
Following CNN's story on the case, the American Maritime Officers union kicked Merrone out, saying it acted in response to "increasing reports" from alleged victims: Two weeks later, Merrone voluntarily surrendered his credential.
Merrone, who denied the allegations in a filing with the Coast Guard, previously held his credential throughout his more than a year in prison for battery and false imprisonment of a woman who arrived at a Florida hospital bruised and beaten, saying he raped her "with his arms against her neck." The Coast Guard said it didn't learn about his conviction until he renewed his credential. By then, his conviction had been overturned due to an error by the trial judge.
The Coast Guard confirmed that it has also received reports from other alleged victims of Merrone.
Gauthier told CNN he is working to ensure investigations take place as "efficiently and timely as possible" and recently began engaging federal prosecutors sooner in the hopes that prosecution decisions are sped up so that actions taken against a credential can also happen more quickly.
He said there is only so much the agency can share with employers and unions without potentially jeopardizing an ongoing investigation or violating the privacy of victims. The accused mariner, he said, must also receive due process. Gauthier added that encouraging immediate reporting could result in better evidence collection and stronger investigations that lead to arrests — which would be more likely to keep an alleged assailant from working until the case was resolved. "Our whole goal is to increase reporting. Report. Report. Report," he said, adding that the agency instituted a 24/7 phone line and email address to increase the reporting avenues even more.
Recently passed legislation will also give the agency additional tools to crack down on such crimes, including mandatory surveillance cameras on vessels, improved tracking of who uses master keys and stronger reporting requirements for operators. The law also added sexual harassment as grounds for revocation and strengthened the agency's ability to remove mariners found guilty of sexual assault from ships in the same way it already strips credentials from drug users.
Many who work in the industry, however, said the new measures don't go far enough and are skeptical that operators and unions will take the issue seriously after decades of looking the other way. They argue that there should be a way for the Coast Guard to temporarily suspend the credentials of mariners accused of sexual misconduct while criminal and administrative investigations are pursued. The agency has done so in drug and alcohol cases but has not for sexual misconduct in at least the last decade, saying there are limitations within the current law that make it unfeasible.
"If you are accused of rape...your (credential) should be suspended until that is figured out. There is no reason for you to be on a ship," said Madeleine Wolczko, a junior ship officer who has worked in the industry for almost a decade. "It's too tight of a situation. You are out at sea for who knows how long, and there is nobody out there to help you."
Around four months after Hicks went public with her rape allegation, the Coast Guard completed its criminal investigation in early 2022.
Coast Guard agents had boarded the ship, taken pictures and measurements of the room where the alleged assault occurred and sought to interview potential witnesses. They sent their findings to prosecutors at the Department of Justice to determine if criminal charges should be filed, according to government correspondence reviewed by CNN.
Hicks graduated from the Merchant Marine academy in June and now works as an officer in the Navy.
A lawsuit she filed against Maersk detailing her alleged rape settled late last year for an undisclosed amount, and Maersk told CNN it has recently expanded and improved sexual misconduct training, made it easier for incidents to be reported and created new positions to focus on the problem, among a host of other reforms.
Shortly after graduating, Hicks and her attorney met with Justice Department and Coast Guard officials to get an update on the case, but they received no real answers. What she did glean from the meeting left her furious: a Coast Guard agent revealed that even though Maersk had fired Sison, another shipping company had picked him up.
"They didn't seem outraged by that or seem to think that presented a danger to other women who might find themselves on a ship with him. It makes me sick that this process is so broken," she said. "This industry is not safe, and the Coast Guard must do more."
Since that meeting, nearly nine more months have passed.
Sison's union told CNN that despite knowing he had been fired for failing to cooperate in Maersk's internal investigation into an alleged rape, labor laws have kept the union from temporarily suspending Sison's membership without any information or action from the Coast Guard.
The Department of Justice, meanwhile, still hasn't announced a decision about whether to file charges, and the Coast Guard hasn't taken any disciplinary action against Sison.
The agency did, however, renew his credential last year.
Do you have a tip about sexual assault in the maritime industry or the international yachting and sailing community? Or do you have an idea for another investigation? Email us at [email protected]
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