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Fears in wake of Coast Guard sex assaults

U.S. Coast Guard Island in ALAMEDA, Calif. with Oakland and San Francisco in the background March 3, 2003.

A U.S. Coast Guardswoman looked down while using a restroom stall on the military service's Alameda base to see a man peering up.

"Are you sick?" she asked.

It was November 2011. The woman said later that she wanted to believe the man was ill. But this was the women's restroom. She reported him the next morning.

Still, Petty Officer First Class Christopher Molloy went unpunished. He continued providing medical care at the Coast Guard sick bay on Yerba Buena Island, and the woman continued to see him at the Alameda base.

At a court-martial hearing last month, the cost of inaction was clear. Molloy, 31, admitted he went on to watch or film a dozen others, including eight more guardswomen, in states of undress. He admitted as well to fondling women after setting up unneeded tests.

The hearing, which saw emotional testimony from most of the victims, highlighted the devastation of sexual assault in the armed forces, a crime military leaders have called a cancer in the ranks.

It also raised questions about how the case was investigated and prosecuted by the Coast Guard, which like the other branches is under immense pressure to get a handle on sexual abuse.

Comprised of more than 42,000 active-duty personnel, the service had 200 reports of sexual assaults in the 2013 fiscal year - up from 78 reports in fiscal 2009. Officials said the rise was due in part to an improved climate and an increase in resources for victims, who now are more likely to come forward.

Systemic problems blamed

The officials said the service diligently investigated Molloy and is dedicated to fighting sexual assault. But to some of the women and victim advocates, the abuse was enabled - and the harm magnified - by systemic problems.

"I spoke to multiple people to make sure this wouldn't happen to anyone else," Molloy's first victim testified. "And so many people who wore the same uniform as us looked the other way."

The anger stirred by the case peaked with the result of the court-martial. After Molloy pleaded guilty to 30 charges that carried a maximum term of 155 years in prison, his case went to a shortened hearing, where a military jury sentenced him 15 years. But Molloy will serve just five years - the agreed-upon cap in a pretrial deal.

As in other military proceedings, the agreement was sealed from the judge and jury. A defendant can try to "beat the deal," but can't get more time than the negotiated cap.

A Coast Guard spokeswoman said she could not comment on the reason for the agreement, but said authorities generally consider how a long, contested trial would affect victims.

The father of one of the victims said the deal was inappropriate in what seemed to be an airtight case. He noted that 11 of the 13 women still testified.

"They were dragged through the mud anyway," said the retired Army officer, who asked that his name be withheld to protect his daughter's identity.

He said his daughter had met with an admiral and had told him she opposed the agreement.

"I feel like my daughter was a victim more than once," he said.

'Under the radar'

Lt. Anna Dixon, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, said the service had been working hard to eliminate sexual assault, developing a four-year strategic plan that includes mandatory training to create "a culture intolerant of sexual assault" and provides victim advocates.

The service's "policies and procedures are made very clear to all members of the Coast Guard," Dixon said. "Any violations of them will not be tolerated."

Advocates for victims, though, said the Coast Guard remains behind the other branches in some ways.

Some reforms by the Defense Department were undertaken later in the Coast Guard because of its classification under Homeland Security. The other branches established a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office in 2005, for instance, three years before the Coast Guard.

A provision of this year's National Defense Authorization Act would guarantee that all reforms in addressing sexual assault would apply to the Coast Guard.

That includes guaranteeing victims the right to legal assistance and to request an expedited transfer away from an attacker - protections signed into law for the other branches by President Obama in 2011.

"The Coast Guard in particular has flown under the radar," said Greg Jacob, a former Marine and policy manager at the Service Women's Action Network.

Coast Guard officials disagreed, saying the service had begun its own initiatives to combat sexual assault.

"We've always taken sexual assault seriously," said Capt. Tony Hahn, a Coast Guard spokesman in Washington, D.C.

Commanders in charge

A chief problem military-wide, Jacob said, is that sex crimes are still viewed as a form of "professional misconduct" by commanders who have authority over cases. As a result, he contended, some abusers see lighter consequences than they would in civilian courts.

Last year, a Coast Guardsman working at a Petaluma training center was accused of rape by a guardswoman. A military jury acquitted Fireman Elmer Molina of rape, but found him guilty of five charges including sexual assault in off-base attacks on two other guardswomen.

He was given two months of base restriction, three months of hard labor and a bad-conduct discharge and had to register as a sex offender, but got no jail time.

Panayiota Bertzikis, who started the Military Rape Crisis Center after she was raped by a fellow Coast Guardsman in 2006, said she had worked with many victims who said attacks weren't fully investigated until more victims came forward.

"Especially with the Coast Guard, it's common that the first victim or the second victim aren't taken seriously," she said.

According to Coast Guard officials, just 27 sexual assault cases have gone to court-martial since October 2012. Fourteen people were ultimately convicted of charges relating to sexual assault.

Molloy's hearing, though shortened, was emotional. The judge, Capt. Christine Cutter, had to speak to a court reporter who cried during the victims' testimony, and the defense had to call for a recess when Molloy's surreptitious videos played.

Though the footage was shown out of the view of the gallery, the mother of one of the victims sobbed and shook, while her ex-husband, the retired Army officer, clasped his hands over his ears and squeezed his eyes shut.

Spurring much of the emotion was the testimony of Molloy's first victim, the woman from the restroom stall. Some of the victims had not, until she took the stand, known that the man who violated them could have been stopped.

'Good soldier' defense

One of the woman's mentors, Cmdr. Bernard Sandy, testified that she had become more and more defeated as she realized nothing was going to be done about the restroom encounter.

"She trusted her senior leadership to do the right thing," Sandy said.

Dixon, the Coast Guard spokeswoman, said Molloy had explained that he was in the women's restroom to vomit, and investigators felt that "there was insufficient evidence to conclude Molloy was peeping."

She said, "The Coast Guard takes reports like this incredibly seriously."

Advocates for sexual assault victims said the military's "good soldier" defense could have played into a case like Molloy's, with commanders considering a service member's aptitude and value to his unit. Coast Guard officials, though, said the defense did not play a role in the 2011 investigation.

The feature of military justice would be eliminated in a bill now pending in Congress.

A year after the restroom peeping, Molloy's ex-girlfriend discovered a cache of videos in his e-mail account on a computer in their Oakland home, videos she brought to the Coast Guard in April 2013.

Among those he had filmed while undressing were the woman's best friend, her stepsister and her brother's girlfriend, all civilians. One woman depicted in the footage has never been identified.

Learned from investigators

The rest of the victims were guardswomen, and they testified that did not know they had been wrongly touched or recorded until investigators contacted them.

The daughter of the ex-Army officer had been trying to complete her overseas screening in 2012 - "I wanted to deploy like my dad deployed," she testified - and saw Molloy twice at the Yerba Buena Island sick bay.

Each time, he told her he had to perform an electrocardiogram test, even though he was not certified to perform such tests and it was against policy to do so without a female chaperone. He later admitted his purpose was to fondle her and film her naked with a hidden iPhone.

Molloy cited the same motives in his attempt to give the woman a shot in one of her hips, without gloves.

"I always feel uncomfortable in a medical office now," the woman testified.

She and the other victims painted a bleak picture of the trauma of sexual assault. Some said they felt betrayed, and saw their military careers dashed by anger, depression and listlessness.

"I didn't think it would impact me as much as it had," one woman said. "It's made me see people in a negative way, and I've never been that type of person."

'You deserved better'

Molloy sat in his dress blues with his head low for much for the trial. At the end, he tearfully read an apology letter, saying a tough childhood - which included being molested by his grandfather and losing his alcoholic mother to cancer - had created demons.

He said he had been going to church and counseling. His new girlfriend and her family testified that they would stick by him and support him when he is released, despite his sex offender registration.

To the first victim, Molloy said, "You came forward alone, and you were right. ... I apologize. I should have alerted my command. ... You deserved better."

She stared back, arms crossed. She had obtained a restraining order against him after the videos came to light, saying he made obscene phone calls to her as apparent retribution. Molloy was accused of harassment, but the charge was later dropped. The Coast Guard would not comment on why.

Because most of Molloy's victims did not initially know they were being abused, defense counsel argued to the jury that his actions didn't merit a heavy sentence.

'Respect the uniform'

But some of the women had a different view. One woman whose father was a Navy corpsman cried as she described feeling guilty for not speaking up after suspicious visits with Molloy.

"I let go of what I thought was right because he was in that position," she said. "I was raised to respect the uniform, to respect the rank. That makes it worse."

Two victims testified that they did not blame the Coast Guard for Molloy's actions.

"I think once they found out about it, they were quick to act on it," one woman said. "I don't think it's their fault that someone can hide behind their success like that, and abuse their power."

Others said they were waiting out their enlistments, preparing to leave the institution they once longed to spend their lives serving.

"This whole week, I've been only putting on my uniform to come to this," the first victim testified, trying to smile through tears. "The only way I can describe it now is that it's so heavy."

Vivian Ho is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: vho@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @VivianHo

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