NORFOLK (Courtesy of HamptonRoads.com)
Pepper-spraying two subordinates while they showered. Handcuffing sailors and kneeing them in a technique learned to subdue suspects. Stapling junior sailors’ skin.
Those are among the accusations made against the former head of the security department of the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush during a preliminary hearing Friday. Senior Chief Petty Officer Kevin Curtis is charged with more than a dozen counts of abusing junior sailors and disobeying orders.
Curtis served as the senior law enforcement officer aboard the Bush from 2008 until a few months ago.
Now, his 18-year career may be in jeopardy. After the hearing concludes next week, the investigating officer overseeing the proceeding will recommend whether Curtis should be court-martialed.
Two witnesses testified Friday, one junior to Curtis and one senior. Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Edmonds, a master-at-arms and the lead investigator on the Bush, spent more than five hours describing Curtis’ treatment.
He said Curtis, his boss, routinely threw him into a set of metal lockers in the office, so much so that they curved and warped. He said Curtis used pepper spray on him and other sailors, and that Curtis regularly used an office stapler to staple into his skin, mostly on his back and upper thigh. Curtis stapled him that way more than 100 times, Edmonds testified.
“He would come into the investigations office, open it up longways, and staple me in the upper thigh,” Edmonds told the court.
The behavior lasted from mid-2009 through June, he said. The alleged mistreatment occurred aboard the ship, in the security department offices and occasionally in junior sailors’ berthing areas.
Edmonds said Curtis didn’t initially start out abusive and didn’t seem out to get him personally – in fact, he wrote two glowing recommendations for Edmonds, who won the Sailor of the Year award on the Bush in 2009.
The masters-at-arms, or internal security and law enforcement personnel, initially looked up to Curtis when he came aboard in September 2008, Edmonds testified.
“He was so squared away, he was right on,” Edmonds said, becoming emotional before regaining his composure. But as time went on, “this stuff happened. It spun out of control so fast.”
Sailors in the department recognized the problem, he said, but it appeared the ship’s top leaders had full trust in Curtis.
Asked why he didn’t report Curtis, Edmonds said he was afraid of reprisals. “I didn’t have any confidence in my chain of command, that it would be handled properly,” Edmonds said, noting that Curtis often talked about his tight relationship with the ship’s command master chief and commanding and executive officers.
“Senior Chief was the man, sir,” he said. “He was the sheriff of the ship.”
On cross-examination, Curtis’ civilian lawyer, Rick Morris, tried to get Edmonds to acknowledge that horseplay and roughhousing were standard in the department, and Curtis’ subordinates dished physical and verbal abuse right back at him.
Edmonds said yes, the sailor did sometimes play along with Curtis, and occasionally fight back. After Curtis had put him in handcuffs multiple times, Edmonds also began carrying a pair of cuffs in his waistband. One time, a group of about six sailors decided to play a trick on Curtis, holding shut an office door when he tried to enter. Curtis responded, he said, by spraying pepper spray into the room’s vents. When the group opened the door and Curtis rushed in, they tackled him. For about 10 seconds, Edmonds said, they had handcuffs on him.
“I think it started as horseplay that got taken too far,” Edmonds said.
The charges against him include one count of hazing, but Edmonds said he didn’t consider Curtis’ actions to be hazing, or some sort of initiation.
One of the scariest incidents Edmonds said he experienced was being strangled by Curtis inside his office. When Edmonds entered the room, he said, Curtis grabbed a 4 -foot-long elastic exercise band, wrapped it around his neck and pulled it tight.
“The longer he held it, the more I couldn’t breathe,” Edmonds said. His vision began getting hazy, and he couldn’t speak. Curtis stopped only when another master-at-arms shoved the senior chief into a door, Edmonds testified.
The second witness Friday was one of Curtis’ bosses on the Bush, Master Chief Petty Officer Rick Beaber.
Beaber described Curtis as something of a rebel, mentioning three times Curtis conducted off-ship investigations against explicit instructions.
In one case, he went to the home of a sailor accused of stealing tools from the ship and brought them back, Beaber said. Another time, Curtis conducted surveillance at the home of a chief suspected of fraternizing with a junior sailor.
The third instance involved an allegation of domestic violence, with Curtis leaving the ship to confront someone. That prompted an angry e-mail from the ship’s chaplain, who thought Curtis was out of line. Beaber said he agreed, and told Curtis not to conduct off-ship investigations. The ship’s operations officer issued him a letter of instruction reiterating the point.
Beaber testified that Curtis borrowed more than $1,000 from a chief in his command, a violation of regulations governing “unduly familiar” relationships between sailors of different ranks.
Some of the charges against Curtis involve shoddy paperwork and dereliction of administrative duties.
Beaber, who has been in the Navy for 29 years, described Curtis as “a horrible administrator” who often was late with paperwork. At one point, after a sailor complained about not getting leave approved despite months of notice, Beaber said he went into Curtis’ office and discovered 60 to 70 pounds of unfinished paperwork, including leave chits, qualifications certificates and even awards for sailors who’d already left the ship.
“It just sickened me,” Beaber said.
Beaber said he knew Curtis’ administrative skills were subpar and consistently reminded him to work on them. But he said he knew nothing of the alleged physical abuse.
Kate Wiltrout, (757) 446-2629, firstname.lastname@example.org