Woman at center of alleged Naval Academy gang rape testifies for first time

Midshipmens Tra'ves Bush, Eric Graham and Josh Tate. A hearing has begun to determine whether the three men will face a court-martial on charges that they sexually assaulted a female midshipman. U.S. Navy Football via AP

WASHINGTON — The female U.S. Naval Academy midshipman at the center of a sexual assault case testified for the first time Wednesday, describing the events that led to three of her fellow midshipmen allegedly attacking her.

The three men — Tra'ves Bush, Eric Graham and Joshua Tate —are accused of sexually assaulting the woman on April 14, 2012 after she passed out drunk at a party.

During her testimony at the preliminary hearing Wednesday, the female midshipman, said she remembered waking up with back pain and few memories of the previous night.

"I noticed I was really disheveled," she testified. "I was really nerve-wracked because I didn't know what had happened."

Later that day, Tate, who had invited her to the party, told her that she had sex with him and Graham, she testified.

"He was like, ‘What? You don't remember?'" she said. "He told me that we had sex and he was going to have to refresh my memory."

"He was laughing," she added, "and then I was like, ‘I don't want to hear anymore.'"

The Article 32 hearing, held at D.C.’s Navy Yard, is one of the highest-profile military sexual assault cases since President Obama made his first public condemnation of such actions, at the Naval Academy’s commencement ceremony in May.

“It only takes the misconduct of a few to further erode the people’s trust in their government,” Obama said that day in Annapolis, Md.

The results of this case, and others like it, may have policy implications for how the military deals with reports of sexual assault, which have increased exponentially in recent years. A Pentagon study estimated that unwanted sexual contact in the military jumped by 37 percent in 2012 to 26,000 cases. 

Several pieces of legislation that would change the reporting and prosecution structure of such military code violations is currently making its way through Congress, and cases like this one have the potential to draw the attention of, and potentially influence, public opinion towards sexual assault in the military.

The alleged victim, who was in her sophomore or “youngster” year at the Academy when the alleged attack occurred, said during her direct testimony Wednesday that she had been drinking heavily that day. She was only 20 at the time, under the legal drinking age.

She and several friends had gone to an off-campus residence, known as the “Football House,” for a “Togas and Yogas”-themed party, in which men dressed in togas and women in yoga pants. The atmosphere was frenzied, she said, with hundreds of guests, many spread out on the front lawn, and a Disney-themed bounce house in the yard.

She said that as she kept drinking, her recollection of the night faded to snippets: first dancing with friends, then sitting on a bed as Bush stood over her. The woman and Bush had recently ended a casual sexual relationship, she said.

During cross-examination with Bush’s defense counsel, she said she could not definitively recall whether or not she and Bush had had sex in the bedroom, but that he had subsequently told her that he had informed investigators from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) that they had, in fact, had sex.

The next snippet the woman said she remembered was crouching down in a car later that night, with two of the other alleged attackers, Graham and Tate, as well as one other Academy classmate.

She recalled Graham’s body angled towards her, she said, and that she repeatedly said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” and felt upset at the time. The rest of her time in the car was a blank, she said, with her final memory of the night being falling asleep on a couch inside the house.

The next day, she said she woke up, feeling groggy, and began talking to another Navy football player who was cleaning up the house. She said she told him her back hurt and asked him to feel the knots in her back, which he agreed were large.

About 45 minutes later, the woman testified that she and the player had consensual sex, after which he suggested she get a ride back to the Academy with his friends. Entering his friends’ car, she realized it was the same one she had been in the night before, and noticed there was an open, empty condom wrapper on the floor of the car.

Trying to piece together the rest of the night, the woman texted Tate, asking him to come to her dorm room. While waiting for him, she noticed derogatory comments being made on social media by her classmates towards an unnamed woman. One Twitter message read, she testified, “She’s loving the crew, that’s my ho too.”

When Tate arrived, she asked if they had had sex. “What, you don’t remember?” she says he asked, with what she described as a “suggestive” look on his face. “I’m going to have to refresh your memory, then,” he added.

She asked if she had also had sex with Graham, to which he responded that she had been “too turnt up,” slang for excessively drunk, and said they had indeed had sex.

The woman told Tate she didn’t want to hear any more, but allowed him to stay in her room for a while longer, during which they both checked social media on their phones. The woman said she saw that since he had been in the room, Tate had tweeted: “The train tickets were on the low,” suggesting, the woman said, that she was “easy to drive a train through,” meaning to have sex with multiple partners one right after the other.

The woman testified that rumors began to spread about her via word of mouth and social media. She said that she finally “buckled” and became emotional when she went to the Brigade Medical Unit on campus the following Wednesday and told an employee there that she had had sex over the weekend, without a condom, but did not know who her partner(s) were.

The alleged victim was still reluctant to come forward with her story because, she said, she didn’t want to “make it a big deal.” She also began tearing up as she said she didn’t want to disappoint her mother.

And although she knew other women who had reported sexual assault, “I guess I just didn’t have the courage,” she said.

But once she heard that the NCIS was targeting people the woman knew had not been involved, she decided to make her first sworn statement, in September 2012.

She said she held back portions of information, however, and informed the NCIS that she did not want to cooperate completely. It was not until January 2013 that she decided to fully cooperate and participated in wiretapped conversations, among them one in which Tate indirectly acknowledged that they had had sex that April night.

Cross-examination for the alleged victim will continue Thursday – the hearing’s investigating officer suggested all parties should be prepared to spend the weekend in court if it took that long – but Bush’s lawyer, Andrew Weinstein, got through what he suggested was about 40 percent of his examination on Wednesday evening.

He questioned the motivation of the woman’s private lawyer, Susan Burke, who has been vocal on the issue of sexual assault within the military, saying she had only taken the case for the publicity.

He also suggested that the woman’s interaction with Bush inside the bedroom had been flirtatious, as she testified she had jokingly said that she wasn’t “good enough to be [his] girl.” Weinstein also noted that the woman’s other sexual encounters with Bush had all been consensual.

Weinstein submitted the woman’s prescription for anti-nausea drug promethazine, which may have been in her system the night of the alleged attacks. He cited the website as saying promethazine is known to cause dizziness and muscle stiffness, both of which the woman said she had experienced that night or the following morning.

Weinstein concluded the evening’s questioning with the assertion that the woman may be facing perjury charges because she neglected to correct an erroneous point in the NCIS sworn statement regarding her diagnosis after she visited the Brigade Medical Unit.

She told the NCIS that she had denied any "positive diagnoses" to Tate and Graham, which Weinstein noted was actually false, because she had in fact received a "diagnosis" (the specificity of which has not yet been admitted to the hearing).

But the final NCIS sworn statement asserted as fact that the woman had not been diagnosed with anything — which was not actually what she had told the NCIS investigators (rather, she only said she told the two midshipmen that she didn’t have any diagnosis). But when the woman reviewed the NCIS statement before it was submitted, she did not correct that detail.

Weinstein asked the woman if she was prepared to face perjury charges over this inaccuracy.

The woman said she would, but added that she was unfamiliar with the sworn statement process. “This is the first time I’ve been here. I don’t know how this works,” she said.

The hearing resumes Thursday morning.