Antarctic Researcher Faces Assault Charges Amid Concerns Over Field Assignment

McMurdo Station, a United States Antarctic research station.

A United States government agency employee, Stephen Tyler Bieneman, pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor assault following allegations of a physical assault on a woman at McMurdo Station, an Antarctic research facility operated by the U.S. Antarctic Program under the National Science Foundation. Despite the allegations and the issuance of an arrest warrant, Bieneman was assigned to a critical safety role on a remote icefield. This decision has come under scrutiny as it involved his responsibility for a professor and three graduate students’ safety.

The incident occurred last November, and Bieneman is set for trial in Honolulu on Monday. In January, a grand jury in Hawaii indicted Bieneman, charging him with assault by striking, beating, and wounding the alleged victim. The details of the indictment, acquired by CBS News, state that Bieneman tackled the woman, placing his shin over her throat, causing pain and potential strangulation.

After the alleged assault, the National Science Foundation dispatched Bieneman to an icefield for a week, even though a warrant for his arrest had been active, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. This move by the U.S. Antarctic Program has raised questions, especially in light of an AP investigation that exposed claims of sexual harassment and assault at McMurdo Station being downplayed by employers, endangering personnel.

Moreover, the NSF’s watchdog office has announced an expanded investigative mission to McMurdo, looking into crimes including sexual assault and stalking. According to the indictment, the assault occurred when the victim, sitting in a dormitory lounge, engaged in a prank involving Bieneman’s name tag, leading to the alleged attack. Prosecutors say Bieneman incapacitated the woman, causing her to experience muscle tightness, sleep deprivation, anxiety, and depression following the event, which led to her resignation from her position at the station.

Bieneman’s defense attorney, Birney Bervar, contests the accusations, stating eyewitnesses and medical examination shortly after the incident do not support the severity of the alleged assault. Marc Tunstall, NSF station manager and Deputy U.S. Marshal, initiated the investigation a few days after the reported incident.

Despite the ongoing investigation, Bieneman was flown with a scientific team to Allan Hills icefield, to assist in the collection of radar data crucial for future ice-core drilling. The original person for the role had suffered a health issue, and Bieneman was tasked with the safety of the group in the challenging Antarctic environment.

The University of Washington Professor Howard Conway, leading the COLDEX field team, lodged a complaint with the NSF, obtained by the AP, expressing concerns over Bieneman’s behavior towards the team, particularly two female graduate students. He detailed an incident where Bieneman admitted to a physical altercation with a woman at McMurdo.

Conway’s complaint revealed that the team was unaware of the investigation into Bieneman and only realized the gravity of the situation once the case gained public attention. He voiced their astonishment upon learning that Bieneman had been charged with assault while still being allowed to remain in the field.

The NSF has declined to comment on Bieneman’s field assignment, citing the active law enforcement matter, directing inquiries to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Hawaii, which has not responded to requests for comment.

Court records indicate that upon Bieneman’s return to McMurdo after his field assignment, he was terminated from his position, sent back to the U.S., and apprehended upon arrival in Hawaii. He was released on a $25,000 bail with the trial pending.

Chris Morris
Author: Chris Morris

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