A chief master at arms is charged with mistreating five sailors on deployment, denying them food, water and bathroom breaks for up to 11 hours at a stretch over a three-day period in March, allegations that have exposed turmoil at his command, the Virginia Beach-based Coastal Riverine Squadron 2. A second sailor implicated in the unlawful detentions is suspected of committing suicide last week, the 3rd suicide at CRS 2 this year.
Chief Master-at-Arms Thomas Lillis allegedly punished the sailors in Rota, Spain after they had a liberty incident while on an aviation security mission to Sigonella, Italy. Over the next few weeks, Lillis allegedly impeded the investigation, shredding the sailors’ statements and rights advisement forms and denying them access to a lawyer, according to charge sheets released by Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, which oversees CRS 2.
The charges, first reported by the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, came to light after Lillis’ arraignment on Monday at Naval Station Norfolk.
The allegations and suicides have revealed considerable issues at CRS 2, a command that has approximately 500 sailors. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is examining the three apparent suicides, including that of MA1 (SW/AW) Doug Spiewak, who was accused of mistreating the five sailors along with Lillis. A whistleblower complaint launched an inspector general probe. And NECC has begun a command climate investigation.
NECC has made chaplains and counselors available to help CRS 2 sailors grieve after the three apparent suicides and is examining whether the atmosphere at the command played any role in these tragedies or the alleged mistreatment.
“The health and the welfare of our sailors there are our primary concern and we want to make sure we take care of them first,” said NECC spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Stephanie Murdock. “We trust the leadership at other commands to make the right decisions and when find out that something is going on, we want to hold people accountable. Right now NECC is working on a command climate investigation to make sure there were no other causal factors at play.”
Lillis, 38, who’s been released back to his command, did not respond to emails seeking comment Dec. 13. Capt. Erich Diehl, the commanding officer of Coastal Riverine Group 2, referred the charges on Oct. 21 to a special court martial.
Lillis stands accused of 11 violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, seven of which stem from his alleged mistreatment of the five sailors in Rota, Spain, where the squadron was based on a deployment. The sailors got drunk off-base in Sigonella and yelled at the gate guards when they came back, according to the Va. Pilot. Upset with the liberty incident, Lillis and Spiewak allegedly questioned them about what happened when they returned to Rota, an interrogation that investigators believe went too far.
Spiewak, a father of three, was found dead on Dec. 2 of what investigators believe to be a self-inflicted wound. The Navy subsequently dropped the charges.
The investigations also uncovered evidence of separate UCMJ violations on Lillis’ part. He’s accused of pointing an M-4 service rifle at an unarmed civilian on the pier while he was assigned to High Speed Vessel 2 Swift, a reckless move whose motivations were not explained in the charging documents. He also was found to be intoxicated while on duty in May, for being asleep while on watch in January as Swift’s tactical supervisor under instruction. And he’s accused of verbally abusing a subordinate in late November, 2012; the charges did not specify anything Lillis is alleged to have said.
Lillis’ special court-martial is scheduled for mid-March.
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