Captain accused of drugging, assaulting cadets surrenders license

By Casey Conley

Florida Department of Corrections

The captain of an oceangoing ship accused of drugging two female cadets in his stateroom while underway in the Atlantic Ocean and then raping one of them has surrendered his license.

John C. Merrone, 50, is accused of drugging the two female U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) cadets several years ago. Documents released by the U.S. Coast Guard allege Merrone placed an unknown substance into both women’s drinks then attempted a sexual act on one of the impaired women, identified as Cadet 1. He is also accused engaging in a sexual act with the other impaired woman, identified as Cadet 2.

“Respondent’s act of intentionally administering an intoxicant to a subordinate without their knowledge or consent and subsequent engagement in a sexual act without their consent constitutes rape as described by 46 CFR 5.61(a)(3),” according to a Coast Guard complaint released through the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The complaint describes the act committed against Cadet 1 as “sexual molestation.”

The Coast Guard issued a complaint against Merrone in August indicating that it was pursuing revocation of his Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC).

“Other victims came forward after the original complaint was filed,” Coast Guard spokesman Kurt Fredrickson said via email.

CNN first reported the allegations against Merrone, who denies them. The network said the USMMA cadets were on the ship as part of their Sea Year training, which could not be independently verified.

The U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd), which oversees the USMMA, declined to comment on the students’ status. It also would not discuss whether the alleged incidents occurred during Sea Year, citing privacy rules.

U.S. Maritime Administrator Ann Phillips, speaking for the MarAd and USMMA, said the safety and well-being of students was their top priority.

“Under this administration, MarAd has strengthened measures that will help prevent sexual assault and harassment, aggressively prosecute perpetrators, and improve support for survivors — while supporting urgently needed culture change in the maritime industry to make it safer for all mariners,” she said in a prepared statement.

Liberty Maritime Corp. of Lake Success, N.Y., operated the 623-foot Liberty Glory at the time of the incident. In a statement, the company said it takes sexual assault and sexual harassment (SASH) allegations extremely seriously.

“We condemn in the strongest possible way such behavior and emphasize that the company maintains a zero-tolerance policy for SASH,” the company said in a statement. ” This incident violated every tenant of our corporate ethos, our HR policies, training, and the expectations we have for each and every one of our valued employees.

“Our focus is on understanding how these events unfolded and ensuring the safety of all seafarers on our vessels. As such, we are conducting an internal investigation into the allegations,” the statement continued.

Merrone could not be reached for comment.

According to the Coast Guard complaint, Merrone invited both cadets to his stateroom for an alcoholic beverage. He allegedly placed a drug or other intoxicant into the drink that substantially impaired both women. Merrone is then accused of molesting Cadet 1 and raping Cadet 2.

The complaint does not share more details about the incident or explain what happened afterward. The cadets have not been identified.

The Coast Guard did not say when it first learned of the accusations against Merrone. Its investigators found the allegations credible. In April 2022, the service referred the matter to the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York for possible criminal investigation. The federal case remains open, authorities said.

Separately, in August 2022, the U.S. Coast Guard Suspension and Revocation National Center of Expertise (S&R NCOE) filed a complaint seeking revocation of Merrone’s credential. That process was moving toward a conclusion when Merrone handed it over voluntarily.

“Further, as Mr. Merrone no longer holds a valid MMC, he cannot currently sail in any position that requires a Coast Guard-issued MMC,” Fredrickson said.

Separately, the American Maritime Officers (AMO) union booted Merrone from its ranks. It also took steps to ensure he was not referred out for employment on other vessels, the union said in resolution released on Oct. 12. The union cited “multiple credible allegations” made against Merrone for those actions.

“Permitting John Merrone to sail and benefit from union membership poses an immediate threat to the safety of our members and that of their crew and also threatens the interests of the union,” the AMO said.

The cadets’ allegations against Merrone are not the first time he has been accused of rape. Court documents from Florida indicate he was charged in 2011 with false imprisonment, sexual battery and aggravated battery of a waitress he met at a Florida Keys bar.

Documents allege he invited the woman to his nearby apartment with an offer to rent her a room. She accused him of raping her multiple times and preventing her from leaving. She later told acquaintances she escaped by fighting him off. Merrone told police the encounter was consensual.

Jurors ultimately convicted Merrone of false imprisonment and the two simple battery counts, and the court sentenced him to two years in prison. An appeals court later reversed the ruling due to errors during the trial.

The sexual assault allegations made by the two cadets are just the latest involving female students enrolled at USMMA. Hope Hicks’ 2021 online essay under the name “Midshipman X” brought new attention to the issue, including the second stand-down of Sea Year training in five years.

Spurred by Hicks’ essay, MarAd also established new rules to prevent sexual harassment and assault, and new response standards when a crewmember reports such behavior. The rules, known as Every Mariner Builds a Respectful Culture, or EMBARC, are intended to protect all American mariners, not just cadets serving on vessels.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove the date the incident is alleged to have occurred. This was done to help protect the identities of the victims. 

By Casey Conley