WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A man accused of physically assaulting a woman at a U.S. research station in Antarctica was then sent to a remote icefield where he was tasked with protecting the safety of a professor and three young graduate students, and he remained there for a full week after a warrant for his arrest was issued, documents obtained by The Associated Press show.
Stephen Tyler Bieneman entered a plea of not guilty for the misdemeanor assault charge stemming from an incident that occurred in November at McMurdo Station. His lawyer claims that the incident was merely playful and not a serious offense. The trial for this case is scheduled for Monday in Honolulu.
The National Science Foundation refused to respond to inquiries from AP regarding the reason for Bieneman’s deployment in a crucial safety position while still being investigated. This incident brings up additional concerns about the decision-making process within the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is currently facing scrutiny.
In August, an investigation by AP revealed that women at McMurdo reported having their complaints of sexual harassment or assault downplayed by their employers. This often resulted in them or others being put at risk again.
The NSF’s watchdog office announced on Friday that it will be dispatching investigators to McMurdo this month. This move is part of an expansion of their investigative duties to include crimes like sexual assault and stalking.
According to the prosecutors, on either November 24th or 25th of last year, a woman was in a dormitory lounge waiting for her laundry. At this time, Bieneman entered the lounge after celebrating his birthday with numerous alcoholic beverages.
According to prosecutors, while he was using the restroom, the woman played a prank by taking his name tag from his jacket and then evaded returning it by running around a sofa.
According to the prosecution, Bieneman proceeded to take the woman to the ground, placing her on her back. He then positioned his left shin over her throat while searching through her pocket for the tag. The woman struggled to convey that she was unable to breathe, gesturing as if choking and tapping on his leg. After a minute had passed, Bieneman finally located the tag and released his shin from her airway, as stated in the indictment.
The woman allegedly went to a medical facility, according to prosecutors.
According to the indictment, when Victim A returned for a check-up a week later, she noted that her muscle tightness had improved. However, she was still experiencing difficulty sleeping and eating, as well as feelings of anxiety and depression due to the attack. Shortly after, Victim A decided to quit her job at McMurdo Station.
According to a statement from attorney Birney Bervar in an email to the AP in August, eyewitnesses did not support the woman’s account and a doctor who examined her shortly after the incident found no indication of the described assault.
Prosecutors stated that Marc Tunstall, who serves as both the NSF station manager and a sworn Deputy U.S. Marshal, was made aware of the incident on November 29 and initiated an investigation.
On December 10, two weeks after the event, Bieneman and the group of scientists traveled by Twin Otter aircraft to establish a base at the isolated Allan Hills icefield, located over 100 miles (160 kilometers) away from McMurdo. Their purpose was to gather radar information in order to determine a suitable location for potential ice-core drilling in the future.
As a mountaineer, Bieneman’s main duty was to ensure the group’s safety in the harsh environment. According to records obtained by the AP, the person originally assigned to this role had experienced a minor stroke two days prior to their deployment.
Initially, Tyler Bieneman, who usually goes by his middle name, worked effectively with the team in establishing the camp.
“Nevertheless, it was soon apparent that there was an issue with Tyler,” stated Howard Conway, a professor at the University of Washington, in a complaint to the NSF on behalf of the COLDEX field team. The complaint was obtained by the AP.
Requests for comment from Conway and the graduate students went unanswered by the AP.
According to the complaint, Conway stated that Bieneman was initially “controlling and judgmental” towards the two female graduate students at the camp.
During the initial week, while in the kitchen tent one evening, Conway recounted to the graduate students an altercation he had with a woman in McMurdo earlier in the season. In the midst of the fight, he grappled with her and as a result, she experienced difficulty breathing and required medical assistance.
The professor stated that Bieneman presented himself as the victim in the situation due to being closely examined. He also mentioned that the graduate students were afraid of potential repercussions if they shared their experience, causing them to be cautious around Bieneman.
Conway expressed discomfort and tension when in his presence, as it was impossible to feel secure both physically and emotionally.
According to court records, a warrant for the arrest of Bieneman was issued on December 12th.
According to the professor, Bieneman was replaced at the camp on December 19. He stated that there was no prior notification of an investigation into Bieneman or any explanation for his removal from his assignment. The information was only discovered later when the case was made known to the public.
Conway filed a complaint expressing surprise at (1) Tyler being placed on our team despite already being known to be under investigation, and (2) his continued presence in the field for a week after being charged with assault.
The National Science Foundation stated that inquiries regarding Bieneman’s camp placement were related to an ongoing law enforcement issue and should be addressed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Hawaii. There has been no response from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Hawaii regarding a comment request.
Based on legal documents, after leaving the camp, Bieneman returned to McMurdo where he was terminated from his job. He was provided with a plane ticket to go back to the U.S. and upon arrival in Hawaii, he was arrested. He was later released on $25,000 bail and is scheduled to stand trial on Monday.
This report was aided by the contributions of New York-based AP researcher Jennifer Farrar.