NORFOLK -- Attorneys for a Virginia Beach-based Navy SEAL charged with raping a member of his unit in their hotel while they were on a training mission in Kentucky said Tuesday that the woman making the accusations was simply seeking revenge because she was jealous that he wouldn't leave his wife for her.
Prosecutors say Chief Petty Officer Stephen Varanko III refused to let the woman leave his hotel room and assaulted her after he learned she had slept with another man.
Attorneys for both sides said during the opening day of Varanko's general court-martial at Naval Station Norfolk that Varanko and the woman had been carrying on a consensual relationship for nearly two years before the night in question. They painted a picture of a complicated relationship that the two had largely tried to keep secret as the SEAL and analyst worked side-by-side at Joint Expeditionary Little Creek-Fort Story, in Afghanistan and on training trips.
Varanko is charged with four counts of rape, four counts of sexual assault and one count each of aggravated assault and battery. He also is charged with violating a general regulation and with making a false official statement. The Virginian-Pilot does not identify the victims of reported sexual assaults.
If convicted, Varanko could face a life sentence without parole.
The question of Varanko's guilt or innocence will reside with military judge Cmdr. Heather Partridge. The general court-martial is scheduled to last through Friday.
Defense attorneys noted during questioning that the woman had sent a text message to Varanko the night of the alleged assault while they were at a strip club with other members of Special Reconnaissance Team Two, saying she wanted to have sex with him.
During questioning, she said she had hoped that Varanko would leave his girlfriend before he got engaged and then married to her. The two had exchanged thousands of explicit text messages and said they loved each other.
The woman said that she had planned to have consensual sex with Varanko in Kentucky, but things turned sour after he discovered a text message from another man she briefly dated eight months earlier indicating that she had sex with him.
The woman said they started out having a conversation in Varanko's hotel room about that text message when Varanko became violent, strangling her, throwing her against a wall and placing in her in a submission hold.
"This is it. I could die," the woman recalled thinking.
She said Varanko had on a "fake, evil smile" as he placed his forehead against hers, squeezed her cheeks and called her degrading names. In an interview with Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents, Varanko acknowledged he pushed her on the bed and held her.
"I never hit the girl," he told investigators.
The woman said Varanko wouldn't let her leave and eventually had sex with her on two occasions before they fell asleep. Varanko would later write to the woman that he was "embarrassed and ashamed" about what happened between them.
"What I did to you terrifies my very existence," he wrote.
Varanko also is accused of sexually harassing the woman on the same training trip and after they returned to Virginia. During cross-examination, Lt. Cmdr. Mike Hanzel, one of Varanko's attorneys, questioned whether the text messages, notes and gifts Varanko had sent to the woman after the night in Kentucky were unwelcome because she had done likewise.
After the alleged assault, the woman had said she loved Varanko and the pair exchanged about 1,000 text messages over the next few months. At one point, she sent Varanko a video professing her love for him in a series of messages written on sheets of paper.
The woman said she was very confused at the time and had difficulty processing the idea that someone she loved would rape and abuse her.