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Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010
THE ZEIT GIST
Justice not served in navy abuse case
Victims of alleged molester of 23 women angry at plea deal that saw doctor freed after one week in brig
This summer, a U.S. Navy doctor, Lt. Cmdr. Anthony L. Velasquez, 48, walked free after serving seven days in the brig at the Yokosuka base in Kanagawa Prefecture. He had admitted to two counts each of wrongful sexual contact and conduct unbecoming an officer. He had, however, gotten off lightly, with a two-year prison sentence, $28,000 fine and forfeiture of all pay and allowances suspended for a year in a deal struck with naval authorities. Twenty-nine further charges were dropped in exchange for his guilty plea.
Some 23 women have come forward, in both Japan and Kuwait, with allegations they were sexually assaulted by Velasquez, and those victims do not feel that justice has been served. Amanda and Jennifer, American spouses of navy personnel whose real names have been withheld, spoke to The Japan Times about their experiences with the case and their sense of having been victimized twice: first at the hands of Velasquez, then by the U.S. Navy.
"My doctor was out of town so I had to see Velasquez. In the examination he untucked my shirt and fondled my breasts. Then he asked me to come back to do a pap smear, and I told him I had had a full hysterectomy and there was nothing to be checked," said Amanda, a woman in her 40s who was based in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, at the time of the incident. "He still said that I should have one done. I looked at him like he was crazy because I had worked in the medical field."
In Japan, Velasquez is accused of committing sexual misconduct in 2007 and 2008. Jennifer was pregnant with her son when the first incident took place.
"Velasquez mostly made me feel very uncomfortable. He would do extra vaginal checks that I found out later were probably not necessary. When I was in the exam room and therefore half-naked, he would talk to me while rubbing my knee and make me feel super uncomfortable," she recalls.
"He seemed like he was being nice and helpful and overly concerned, but at the same time there was something about him that was creepy and weird. You would walk away and think 'That was not right.' Then when you spoke to other people, you realized that maybe it was not you, and maybe it was him. I switched doctors after my first trimester because I couldn't handle him any more."
Amanda had long been a pillar of the military community here in Japan, and has actively worked to support other victims of Velasquez. She is determined to see that the disgraced doctor pays properly for the serial abuse he apparently subjected scores of women to.
"With other women he was doing vaginal exams that were not necessary, with some of the victims he was penetrating the victims without any gloves on while conducting unnecessary inspections; he did a vaginal exam on a woman who had already had a hysterectomy, and some of the other women were very young.
"I was there one time and I brought one of the spouses in. He came in the room and was examining her and he just put his hands down her pants without a glove or anything on, and we were just looking at him like 'What was that for?' A lot of times he would get the standby who's supposed to be with him to leave the room, and that's when he would abuse the victims."
Four women came forward at the Atsugi base, where Velasquez was practicing, and put in complaints about the doctor. The claims of three of them, however, were not investigated until much later.
"I put in my complaint and I didn't hear from them for a year and a half. I assumed that my complaint was not legitimate enough," says Jennifer. "I actually had to see him (again) because of illness. He was not removed from the hospital, even after we complained. They said to see him or see nobody until a later date while my husband was deployed."
Velasquez was then sent to the Middle East, where a further 17 accusations of sexual misconduct were to be filed by women related to the U.S. military between December 2008 and June 2009. Both victims that spoke to The Japan Times said that these cases could have been prevented if the navy in Japan had taken the spouses' claims more seriously.
The navy tried, however, as details emerged, to calm the anger of the women in Japan who had seen their accusations against Velasquez dismissed.
"They begged us not to go to the press. They asked us to give them a chance to rectify things and said they were going to do everything they could to put this guy in jail," Amanda said.
Velasquez eventually made a plea bargain with the navy, however, that saw him serve little more than a week's jail time. He is now based in the United States, where the Associated Press reports he was arrested in August for not registering as a sex offender. At this point, the victims who had been based in Japan contacted the navy to ask whether action would be taken since the doctor had violated the terms of his plea bargain. Nothing was done, however.
"When Lt. Cmdr. Velasquez moved to Washington state in August 2010, it was alleged that he failed to register as a sex offender," Lt. Justin Cole, a navy representative at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., explained to The Japan Times. "After . . . careful consideration, Washington state authorities determined that Lt. Cmdr. Velasquez had in fact come into compliance with the law and he was not prosecuted for failing to register, which is a criminal offense in Washington. He is currently properly registered in the states of Washington and Kentucky, where he resides."
But how could a naval officer be allowed to get away with sexual offenses for such a long period of time? President Barack Obama has made it clear that he has no tolerance for sexual offenders in the military.
"We can (prevent sexual crime) by confronting and changing insensitive attitudes wherever they persist. Survivors too often suffer in silence because they fear further injury, are unwilling to experience further humiliation or lack faith in the criminal justice system," Obama said in a statement released during the military's Sexual Assault Awareness Month this April. "No one should face this trauma alone, and as families, friends, and mentors, we can empower victims to seek the assistance they need."
Velasquez's victims, however, feel the military has clearly let down service members and their spouses in this case.
"I know of a few people who haven't come forward and never plan on coming forward because it's a small base where everybody knows everybody's business, and people are embarrassed and scared of the consequences of this still," Jennifer said. "Nobody wants to lose their job over it."
Rear Adm. Richard Wren was the General Court Martial Convening Authority in the Velasquez case, meaning he could "create courts-martial, refer cases to trial, and may enter into a pretrial agreement with an accused in accordance with the Rules for Courts-Martial," explained Cole. Amanda wrote to Wren demanding an explanation for the plea bargain given to Velasquez upon hearing that it meant none of the 23 who complained about abuse would have a chance to testify.
"I'm not just some young spouse, and I asked Wren to reconsider," Amanda explains. "I asked him how he would feel if it was his wife or his daughter — would money still be an issue then? Wren never replied, but within 30 minutes of sending the mail I was called from Yokosuka with a request to forward the e-mail because Lt. Emily Dewey, the prosecutor, had been reprimanded because Wren was upset by what I had sent him. She got in trouble because of my e-mail."
Asked who she thought was to blame for the mishandling of the case, Jennifer said: "I think it's NCIS (Navy Criminal Investigative Service) for not following up, I think it's the hospital for not taking action and I think it's JAG (the Judge Advocate General's Corps) for not talking to those two organizations. They could have followed up but they didn't even speak to us until after the complaints came from the Middle East.
"This is a violation of protocol — they just tried to sweep it under the rug. They figured it would just go away because it was just a few isolated incidents, but it turned out that they weren't isolated at all."
Amanda, meanwhile, believes that the problem lies with the way the highest- ranking staff in Japan treated the Velasquez accusations, and their desire to save money.
"He was a navy officer and all the navy were concerned about was the money it would cost to put him away," she said.
"The prosecutor did not consent to the deal, the NCIS did not consent to the deal, of course the victims did not consent to the deal. But somebody had told Adm. Wren it was going to cost $200,000 to go to trial, and he thought it was going to come from a separate budget," said Amanda, citing sources within the navy. "When he found out it was to come from his budget, Wren forced them to make a plea deal, behind our backs, which is a violation of our rights, they gave him one week's jail time . . . and they kicked him out."
In light of the continuing controversy over the plea deal, the navy has now decided to look at the case again.
"Because of allegations by victims in this case, we are currently conducting a targeted inspection," Cole told The Japan Times.
But for Amanda, the way the case has been dealt with has already had a profound effect on her view of the navy.
"It's very difficult because I was a sexual assault victims advocate, then it happened to me and they sweep it under the carpet. When this happens to you, you realize that all they really care about is their money."
Jennifer, meanwhile, will no longer see male staff at hospitals.
Cole contends that the U.S. Navy takes allegations of sexual assault "very seriously."
"We also take seriously any allegations that we have failed to comply with the Victim and Witness Assistance Program (VWAP)," he explained in an e-mail. "As a result (of the plea deal), Velasquez last practiced medicine in the military April 2009.
"His clinical privileges have been revoked by the Surgeon General of the Navy. U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine (BUMED) has reported the conviction and adverse privileging action to Velasquez's state of licensure (California); the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) and the National Practitioner Databank on Nov. 18, 2010. Velasquez is no longer in the Navy. The Secretary of the Navy approved Velasquez's dismissal from service Oct. 20, 2010."
A full investigation without a plea deal, however, would likely have led to much harsher consequences. As Amanda argues, "In the real world, Velasquez would have been locked up for a long time."
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