A civilian mariner on a Military Sealift ship alleges that the ship’s captain raped her after being drugged by a spiked drink while ashore, according to a federal complaint filed Wednesday.
Elsie E. Dominguez, a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, says she was working as the civilian 1st Assistant Engineer aboard the USNS Carson City when she was raped by the vessel’s captain and that Navy and Military Sealift Command (MSC) officials failed to protect her from sexual assault, according to a complaint filed in New Jersey federal court.
According to the lawsuit, Dominguez says she was ashore in Brindisi, Italy on the evening of Dec. 18, 2021, when someone slipped a drug into her drink which caused her to black out. Dominguez was so incapacitated that she had to be carried onto the ship by fellow crew members, she said. She awoke the next morning to find the captain — who the lawsuit does not name — raping her as she lay unconscious, court documents allege.
“MSC takes allegations of sexual assault very seriously and remains committed to ensuring a safe and respectful environment for all personnel. We firmly hold our crews accountable for their actions, promote a culture of trust, respect, and zero tolerance towards any form of misconduct or abuse within our ranks,” said Thomas Van Leunen, a spokesperson for the MSC.
The captain has been put on administrative leave. As a civilian federal employee, the accused in this case is not subject to the military justice system, according to Van Leunen.
“By bringing this suit under her own name, at great personal and professional risk, Ms. Dominguez seeks to help prevent other civilian mariners and service members from having to endure the same horror that she experienced,” the complaint states.
Working as a civilian engineer, the lawsuit said, was “an accomplishment achieved by very few female mariners” in the male-dominated world of the merchant marines.
The USNS Carson City, like all United States Naval Ships or USNSs, is operated by the Navy’s MSC. The command’s fleet of 125 vessels provides sealift and ocean transportation for military services and federal agencies. The unarmed ships are considered non-commissioned ships in the Navy and carry the USNS designation, rather than USS, which denotes a commissioned Navy warship. Around 80% of the crew on MSC vessels are so-called “civilian mariners” or civil service mariners who are federal employees in the U.S. Merchant Marine but are not in the Navy. MSC ships follow civilian commercial ship rules and regulations, according to the command.
According to Dominguez’s complaint, she sought help from her Navy superiors and the MSC Sexual Assault Prevention and Response helpline. She was discouraged by her boss, the ship’s chief engineer, from reporting the incident and seeking a medical test for date rape drugs.
When Dominguez contacted the MSC’s sexual assault helpline, an official said that an investigation would include Dominguez’s immediate removal from her position and that she would be thrust into a highly public process without being able to work.
“When Ms. Dominguez told the Civilian Victim Advocate that the process she was describing sounded like she was going to lose her job for reporting a rape, the Civilian Victim Advocate told her that was correct,” according to the complaint.
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A Navy official told Task & Purpose that the policy is to remove the accused from their position and offer the victim or person who reports the assault, an option to stay or leave.
The complaint alleges negligence on the part of MSC for allowing the captain unrestricted access to her room with a master key. Lawyers for Dominquez also allege that the cameras in the hallways leading to her room were broken for more than a year and failed to deter the captain’s behavior.
The complaint also alleges negligence by the U.S. for failing to have adequate sexual assault prevention training and reporting systems on the ship.
A ‘dream job’ became ‘a nightmare’
Dominguez previously met the captain at her first mariner posting on the USNS Spearhead where he was working as the 2nd Mate in 2014. They maintained a cordial relationship for her two years on the ship.
When Dominguez arrived aboard the USNS Carson City in October 2021, the lawsuit said, the man was the master of the ship and, she soon discovered, had a “well-known reputation for excessive alcohol consumption” and habitual drunkenness.
According to the complaint, high-ranking MSC and Navy officials were aware of the captain’s alcohol abuse and angry, drunken outbursts towards crewmembers. Despite this, the Navy allowed him to remain in charge.
Throughout her time on the ship, Dominguez says, the captain tried to pursue a sexual relationship with her, which she made clear to him she did not want.
At one point, the captain allegedly told Dominguez that he had no one else to talk to or hang out with on the ship and that he appreciated their “friendship.” That same night, she said, the captain initiated sex with Dominguez. Due to the power dynamic between their ranks, Dominguez said she “did not feel like she could tell him to stop.” The complaint called the experience “demeaning and upsetting.”
Dominguez says the assault at the heart of her lawsuit came when the ship was docked in Italy in December 2021. Dominguez went to a bar with the ship’s chief engineer in the evening after work. The ship’s first officer and the captain eventually joined them.
A round of shots were ordered for the group and Dominguez drank one. Soon after, Dominguez says she blacked out and was far more intoxicated than she expected to be after one shot and part of a beer. She threw up on herself while at a different restaurant which she did not have any recollection of. She was helped back onto the ship and into her room by colleagues.
According to her WhatsApp chat log, the captain texted that night and called Dominguez at least 14 times. Incapacitated, she did not answer any of the captain’s messages which included: “Me voy decepcionada. Una noche contigo era mi deseo…” [I’m leaving disappointed. A night with you was my wish…] and “Una persona débil” [“(You are) a weak person”].
Her next memory was “the horrifying image, sensation, and realization of someone penetrating her vagina with his penis while pinning her arms down,” according to court documents.
Dominguez realized what was happening but was unable to control her body, speech, or movements. She also recalled losing control of her bladder and urinating all over the captain and the bed. As he raped her, the captain allegedly told Dominguez that she was the “love of his life.”
“Dominguez did not consent to having sex with the captain. Due to her extreme incapacitation, she was incapable of consenting and struggled to even maintain consciousness,” the complaint states.
After the rape, the captain violently pushed Dominguez towards the bulkhead at the end of her bed which she hit and collapsed, face down. The captain fell asleep on top of Dominguez, she said. When she regained consciousness, she attempted to push him off of her body.
Dominguez says she yelled at the captain and asked him what he was doing in her room. He responded in Spanish, saying, “Amor de mi vida, que te pasa? Por que [me] tratas asi. Amor calmate” [“love of my life, what’s wrong with you? Why are you treating me like this. Calm down, my love”]. As Dominguez got angrier, the Captain called her a “weak person” and “a slut.”
Later when Dominguez confronted the Captain, he claimed he had also been drugged and could not be responsible for his actions and began crying. When she told him that she wanted a drug test, he threatened her job, telling her that if she requested a drug test, he would need to report her on suspicion of drug use which could get her removed from the ship.
Dominguez believed that the captain was “deliberately threatening to derail her career and weaken her professional standing if she pursued medical testing and treatment,” the complaint states. Dominguez did not take a drug test or seek any additional treatment, such as a rape exam for fear of losing her job.
A day after the alleged rape, the captain sent a WhatsApp message in Spanish to her: “I am so embarrassed by what I did to you that I do not even have the strength to see you face to face. . . I hope that someday you can forgive me. You have a very special place in my heart and I appreciate you very much. Perhaps more than I should. I wish you the best.”
Dominguez tried to go through the MSC process for reporting but was told that her job would be in jeopardy. She later texted MSC’s Civilian Victim Advocate to report the “extreme measures she had to take to feel safer on the ship.” The advocate did not respond to any of her texts. MSC officials finally responded a year and a half later after she reported the rape through official Navy and Coast Guard channels.
Over several conversations with the captain, he admitted to the rape and pleaded with Dominguez to not report it because he would lose his family and career.
“This psychological manipulation by the captain caused Ms. Dominguez tremendous additional pain and confusion about how she should proceed. Furthermore, Ms. Dominguez felt helpless because her prior attempts to report the rape had been met with indifference and opposition,” the complaint states.
According to the complaint, the captain promised he would change positions to convince her not to report the rape. She reported the rape when he became the vessel’s permanent master. She reported the incident to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and Coast Guard Investigative Service.
The Navy and Coast Guard offices did not comment on whether they were investigating.
“Rather than taking any concrete steps to address what happened to Ms. Dominguez or to hold the Captain accountable, the Navy has protected the Captain, shielded him from scrutiny, and continued to employ him,” according to the complaint.
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