For Erin Scanlon, a junior Army officer in the artillery branch, Fort Bragg was a prime posting. The blond 25-year-old from suburban Phoenix had secured a lieutenant’s slot in the storied 82nd Airborne Division thanks to the good offices of one of her ROTC instructors at the University of Arizona. “He was a really good mentor that I looked up to,” she tells me recently. “He had been in Delta Force.” Scanlon lived off-post in an apartment in Fayetteville, a moody military town in the North Carolina pines just outside of Fort Bragg, the biggest Army base in the U.S. On the evening of Sept. 9, 2016, a friend of hers from the gym, a military wife whom I’ll call “Tina” to protect her privacy, invited her to a charitable event at a barbecue restaurant and bar called Mac’s Speed Shop. It was a fundraiser to honor five slain Green Berets, hosted by “some SF guys,” Tina texted.
The Special Forces of the U.S. Army are based out of Fort Bragg, as is the powerful and secretive Joint Special Operations Command, making this spot, inland of the Eastern Seaboard, the central node in the United States’ global special-operations complex. But Scanlon’s unit, despite its distinguished pedigree going back to World War I, is a division of the conventional Army, which is kept separate from top-secret JSOC by high walls, both literal and figurative.
Scanlon and Tina arrived at Mac’s shortly before 10 p.m. A number of motorcycles were parked out front. They belonged to members of the Coast x Coast motorcycle club, made up of active-duty soldiers on Delta Force, a classified manhunting unit that is the Army component of JSOC. A nonprofit associated with the club, the Coast x Coast Foundation, raises money through annual cross-country motorcycle rides to honor fallen special operators. The founder and CEO of the nonprofit is a 39-year-old man, Cristobal Lopez Vallejo, who goes by the alias Cris Valley. He was host of the event at Mac’s that night. Right as Scanlon and Tina walked into the crowded barbecue joint and beer hall, Vallejo stopped them, “tried to flex, laughed, and walked away,” Tina would later recall to a Fayetteville detective.
Vallejo, dressed in camouflage cargo shorts and a T-shirt, was tall, lean, strong, and fiercely handsome, with a black beard and shaggy brown hair much longer than most soldiers get to wear. “Throughout the whole night he kind of acted like a celebrity,” Scanlon says. “Going around chatting with people like a politician.”
At the time he met Scanlon, who was nearly 10 years his junior, Vallejo was a sergeant first class. He had done three combat rotations with Delta Force — two in Afghanistan and one in Iraq — but she never guessed that he was a “trained killer,” in her words. She took him for a run-of-the-mill special-forces veteran, retired from the Army or otherwise discharged, because she’d been taught that it’s against regulations for active-duty personnel to solicit donations for a military cause, and that was the whole point of the Coast x Coast Foundation. “A guy who’s in Delta Force would not be flashing his name around and having a nonprofit and partying at a bar. He was not a ‘quiet professional,’ ” she says, using a term that special-operations generals came up with in the 1980s to describe themselves, and since repeated endlessly in the news media.
Shortly after she and Tina arrived at Mac’s the night of the fundraiser, Scanlon recognized the Coast x Coast club’s logo from a Facebook photo of her old ROTC mentor, the ex-Delta soldier, which made her implicitly trust Vallejo and his crew, she recalls. “I asked him if I could take a picture in front of their logo to send to my instructor,” she says. “He gave me his card and invited us to go to the next bar with everyone.”
They exchanged phone numbers, and a group of about nine, led by Vallejo, relocated from Mac’s to a bar called Paddy’s, an over-the-top Irish pub out on Raeford Road that has a metal detector at the front entrance, bartenders in Scottish kilts, brass bathroom door handles cast with anatomical exactitude in the form of male genitalia, and urinals shaped like a woman’s mouth. At one point, while posing for a group photo, Vallejo “grabbed my ass,” Scanlon claims. “I didn’t say anything when he did that. Sad as it is, that happens a lot. That’s being a girl at a bar.”
According to text messages she sent a girlfriend the next day, Scanlon “was drunk and flirted with him.” But she didn’t consent to what later ensued, she immediately added. “I said no over and over.”
Scanlon claims that Vallejo raped her that night, and says that the trauma still haunts her to this day. Reached through his lawyer, Vallejo declined to comment for this story. Vallejo says the sex was consensual and was acquitted of all charges arising from the incident in a June 2018 court-martial on Fort Bragg. He was originally set to be tried in civilian court, but Army prosecutors assigned to Special Forces swooped in at the last minute and caused the Cumberland County district attorney to drop the charges so that Vallejo could be tried by the military. No reporters attended the subsequent court-martial, and no transcript was made of the proceedings. As soon as it concluded with an acquittal, the Army deleted the audio recordings.
Scanlon maintains that her case was mishandled. She says that she was excluded from hearing the testimony of the other witnesses, that her military-appointed attorney was swapped out five separate times, and that one of them was called to provide testimony against her. Her experience with the military-justice system illustrates the myriad difficulties faced by women in the overwhelmingly male armed forces who report being raped, and raises questions about the adequacy of the uniformed chain of command to protect the interests of victims of sex crimes allegedly committed by service members.
Scanlon previously told her story to Ella Torres of ABC News, who published a thorough report on her case in 2020, and The Fayetteville Observer covered aspects of it in 2019. But neither ABC News nor the Observer named Vallejo, and ABC only mentioned in passing that the alleged rapist was a member of Delta Force. That’s a significant omission, because Scanlon’s case is also a signal example of another systemic issue in the military: the entitled attitudes and hard-partying lifestyles of some elite soldiers more than two decades into the war on terrorism; the apparent breakdown in good order and discipline in the Special Forces in recent years, with rising instances of alleged criminality among Green Berets and Navy SEALs; and the special treatment often accorded to special operators by civilian and military law enforcement in and around Fort Bragg. Scanlon agreed to go on the record again, in greater detail, “if you would be willing to reiterate that my perpetrator was Delta Force. And that was the reason why my case was handled the way it was.”
Well after midnight, with Paddy’s about to close down, Vallejo invited Scanlon and Tina to “the after-afterparty” at a place he called “Warehouse 13.” Thinking it was some kind of lounge or club, they took a cab to the location on Worth Street in downtown Fayetteville, only to find that it was literally a warehouse. “Sketchy-looking,” Scanlon describes it, comparing it to a rundown CrossFit gym, “with a roll-up garage door, by a railroad track and a junkyard.”
This industrially zoned property, which Vallejo rented from a chemical company, is cut off from any obvious street access, being surrounded on all three sides by train tracks, storage buildings, and scrap yards. The only entrance is hard to find and closed off by a chain-link gate.
Arriving at the site in the early morning hours of Sept. 10, 2016, Scanlon and Tina were immediately creeped out by the griminess of the location. “We’re not staying more than 20 minutes,” they agreed. They only stayed that long because Tina was famished and there was a Crock-Pot of food on a folding table.
There were three Delta Force soldiers, plus a retired bomb technician, in addition to Vallejo who went back to the warehouse that night, all of whom were Coast x Coast members. Women made up the rest of the party: two young Army officers, the widow of a slain Green Beret, and a Las Vegas woman who belonged to “a traveling company of women bartenders that dance and sing,” according to her blog posts.
Scanlon derisively refers to the latter four as “groupies.” A Fayetteville police detective used the same language in his report on her case. “Mr. Vallejo is considered a ladies’ man and ‘groupies’ hang out at the ware house [sic] looking for an opportunity to sleep with Mr. Vallejo.” This, the detective noted, was according to an employee of the Fayetteville Police Department who had to recuse herself from the case because she herself had once spent the night at Vallejo’s apartment.
No more than 10 minutes after arriving, Scanlon sent a text message to a 25-year-old staff sergeant, another soldier at Fort Bragg, whom she occasionally hooked up with. This was in violation of regulations that forbid “fraternization,” or close personal relationships between officers and enlisted soldiers, but as the staff sergeant wasn’t in her unit or her chain of command, she thought of it as little more than a peccadillo. The staff sergeant had invited her over to his house earlier in the evening, but she and Tina hadn’t wanted to leave the party. Now, she told him that she would be over shortly, and used her phone to order an Uber to take her there. An Uber driver started toward the warehouse at 2:50 a.m., according to screen shots of the app that Scanlon gave police.
On the point of leaving, Scanlon says she asked Vallejo where she could find the restroom. But the warehouse had no plumbing; there was only a portable toilet out back. “You’re lucky I’m the Army,” she told him jokingly, setting her phone and purse on the folding table. “Because otherwise I would not be using a port-a-potty.”
She went outside and crossed the blacktop to where the toilet was set up against the exterior wall of a metal building. It was a warm night in the Carolinas, with a quarter-moon in the sky. She passed a covered motorcycle trailer with a looming portrait of a slain Delta Force soldier printed on the side. The adjacent alley was full of junked cars. “The jury should have been brought to the location at night,” she says. “I don’t see how anyone could have believed that consensual sex occurred there.”
When she finished using the toilet and opened the door, she was startled to find Vallejo standing right there. “He just ambushed me,” she says, repeating what she told Fayetteville police, according to the written report of the detective assigned to the case, Paul Matrafailo. “That’s what it felt like. He didn’t let me get past him. He started kissing me, and I was pushing him away. I said, ‘No, find someone else. I’m not doing this.’ ”
She remembers being pinned against the grille of a vehicle, Vallejo putting his hands up her dress, into her underwear, and penetrating her with his fingers. He was seven inches taller than her and 70 pounds heavier. “He literally picked me up off the ground, and my shoes fell off.”
He set her on the flaking hood of a defunct Saab convertible that was sunk in tall weeds. He then allegedly forcibly “penetrated her vagina with his penis against her will,” Detective Matrafailo wrote in his report. After that, she put up no more physical resistance. “Ms. Scanlon realized that this was not going to stop,” Matrafailo wrote, “and gave up fighting back in the hopes that it would end quickly.”
At one point the Green Beret’s widow, a red-haired woman, came around the corner and saw what was going on. She yelled something unintelligible before disappearing. Scanlon says the detail initially slipped her memory. She says she didn’t tell her lawyer about it till months later.
Vallejo didn’t use any form of contraceptive. As soon as it was over, Scanlon says, “I jumped up and grabbed my shoes and ran inside to get my stuff. It was right around 3 a.m. My phone was being blown up by my friend [the staff sergeant] and the Uber driver, who was there trying to find me.”
Tina had gone out front to smoke a cigarette. She looked up and saw Scanlon emerge from the warehouse and start toward the only outlet to the street, a narrow strip of dirt parallel to the train tracks. Tina watched Vallejo walk up behind Scanlon, causing Scanlon to “dart off,” according to the statement Tina gave Matrafailo. “I followed her,” the detective’s notes of the conversation read. “She was shaking, acting odd, pacing. She told me, ‘I feel like I just got raped.’ ”
Scanlon had to order another Uber, as the first one had given up and driven off. On the way to the staff sergeant’s house, where she’d spend the night, she looked at her phone and saw that Vallejo had sent her a text: “How are you? Let me know when your [sic] home safe.” To this he appended a heart emoji and a kissy-face.
“Do you realize what you did?” she replied at 4:25 a.m.
He didn’t respond.
The next morning, Scanlon went directly to the Womack Army Medical Center and underwent a sexual-assault forensic examination. The nurse who did the rape kit noted in her report that Scanlon’s eyes were red and her makeup was smeared. She described Scanlon’s “general demeanor” as “tearful.”
The examination revealed multiple small lacerations on her vulva, as well as a contusion and four scratch marks on her left flank and lower back, from the hood of the car. The nurse took swabs from Scanlon’s vagina and cervix, and collected as evidence her soiled underwear. The samples proved a match to Vallejo’s DNA.
Scanlon agonized over what to do next. “Maybe I wasn’t clear enough,” she texted a girlfriend at 8:59 a.m. on Sept. 12. “I was pushing him away saying no stop but I think by the time he got me back to the cars in the dark and he wouldn’t stop so I just let him do it.”
“Anything other than you saying yes or asking for it is not consent,” her friend replied.
“I feel guilty,” Scanlon texted. “Like maybe I’m making a bigger deal out of it than it was.”
“It is not your fault,” her friend responded, “and it is a big deal.”
“Monday morning I went into work,” Scanlon says. After speaking with a chaplain, she met with her unit’s SARC, or sexual-assault response coordinator, who took her to meet with agents from the base’s Criminal Investigation Division. She still didn’t know that Vallejo was an active-duty soldier, much less that he was on Delta Force. “There are recordings somewhere,” Scanlon says. “After I gave my statement, the CID agents left the room. The main one came back and said, ‘Because it occurred in Fayetteville, we can’t help you.’ ”
“That is not accurate,” a spokesman for Army CID, Jeffrey Castro, writes in a statement. According to him, agents initiated a “collateral investigation” with Fayetteville police. But Castro can’t say when that investigation began, why Scanlon felt that her initial complaint had been dismissed, or whether the recordings she mentioned still exist.
Scanlon went to the Fayetteville police the next day. After taking her statement and reviewing her text messages, Detective Matrafailo drove her the three blocks to the warehouse in an effort to identify the precise location. “Ms. Scanlon began to cry,” he wrote in his report, “as she pointed out the building.”
Matrafailo obtained a warrant, took DNA samples from the hood of the Saab, reviewed security footage, visited Mac’s, and interviewed Tina, among other witnesses. On Sept. 30, he arrested Vallejo on a felony warrant for second-degree rape, second-degree sex offense, and sexual battery. In his mug shot, Vallejo appeared freshly shaved, his beard gone. Only then did Scanlon learn the real identity of the man she knew as Cris Valley. “The detective told me, ‘This guy’s active-duty,’ ” she recalls. “ ‘He’s in JSOC.’ ”
According to Vallejo’s enlistment-record brief, obtained by Rolling Stone, he was born in California and joined the Army shortly before 9/11, when he was 19. He transferred to Fort Bragg three years later to attend the JFK Special Warfare School, the completion of which entitles a soldier to wear a coveted green beret. He proceeded to rack up practically every qualification an infantryman can attain, undergoing advanced training in land navigation, reconnaissance, surveillance, sniping, and high-altitude parachuting. He was taught how to survive behind enemy lines, resist interrogation, and escape from POW camps. He learned to read and understand Arabic, but could not speak it.
His first deployment was to Mali, in 2007. Next came back-to-back tours in Iraq. As of 2010, the document shows, he was a “TEAM MEMBER/OPERATOR” in the organization demarcated “1ST SFOD-D (DELTA FORCE).”
Like SEAL Team 6, its sister unit and only military peer, Delta Force is what’s known as a Special Mission Unit. There are at least two other SMUs, one dedicated to surveillance and the other to aviation, reportedly. Together they make up the core of JSOC, the “black ops” component of the military. Unlike Tier 2, or “white,” special-operations forces, made up of ordinary Green Berets, Army Rangers, and Navy SEALs, JSOC units operate under Title 50 of the U.S. Code, which was controversially reinterpreted after 9/11 to permit the military to carry out “covert” actions, defined by the statute as foreign operations “where it is intended that the role of the United States will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.”
One of the four Delta Force soldiers present that night was a 33-year-old from Michigan, Master Sgt. William “Billy” Lavigne II, whose violent life and cryptic death in the woods outside of Fort Bragg I wrote about for Rolling Stone last year. Lavigne was a member of the Coast x Coast club and a good friend of Vallejo’s. At the time Lavigne’s path crossed Scanlon’s, his cocaine habit was firmly established, but he remained a team member in good standing on Delta Force, and still had a clean arrest record in Cumberland County.
Scanlon never knew Lavigne, not by name. She only met him and Vallejo that one night in her life. One woman who was much better acquainted with both men, and the whole Coast x Coast crew, is an ex-soldier whom I’ll call “Jane” for the sake of anonymity. During a stretch of Jane’s military career, her social and professional circle overlapped with the five men, who made up the core of the motorcycle club, all active-duty soldiers on Delta Force. She has photos to prove that she knew them. “I was with them for years, constantly,” she says.
Jane is out of the military now. She lives a very different life and has no contact with the elite soldiers who had been her colleagues, friends, and lovers for the better part of a decade. It had been, in retrospect, a dark period in her life, she says, a damaging, booze-soaked run of years in her twenties.
Jane was once deployed to a country in Southwest Asia and was stationed on the same base as a contingent from Delta Force. At times, she observed their operations on a video feed. “On deployment, they literally go around blasting people’s brains out,” she says. “They have zero remorse.” She doesn’t mean that any of the killings she witnessed were illegal or outside the rules of engagement. “It’s very controlled,” she says. “I don’t think they go around on shooting sprees. But I know they don’t feel how I would feel if I shot somebody.”
She vividly recalls the day that one Delta soldier, a Coast x Coast guy (neither Vallejo nor Lavigne), came in from an operation outside the wire. “He had a dude’s brains on his boot,” she says, “and he just flicked it off,” as if completely unfazed.
Stateside they lived intense lives, too. “We drank so much,” she says. “Everything revolved around drinking booze and hooking up. I don’t know how we survived.”
Jane was well-acquainted with the site known as Warehouse 13. “Cris came up with the idea for getting this warehouse,” she says. “They would have these epic parties, tailgate pool parties, where they would put a liner in the back of a truck and fill it up with water.” On one occasion, they “hired midget wrestlers to come out,” she says. They outfitted the warehouse with couches, a full bar, foosball and ping-pong tables, a stripper pole, and something called a Sybian. “It’s like a saddle vibrator,” she explains. “Once people started getting drunk, they would bust it out, and drunk girls would try it and get all hornied up. That was how they operated.”
This little black site of a party spot is situated directly across Worth Street from the Cumberland County jail, a “no-drone zone” that is the biggest law-enforcement facility in the county. The warehouse is three blocks from police headquarters, but a spokesman for the Fayetteville PD denies knowing anything about the place, and had no relevant incident reports pertaining to the address. The location was well-known, though, to other municipal authorities, who suspected it of being an illegal bar and a fire hazard, according to internal emails between city and county officials that I obtained.
Four months before the night in question, Cumberland County’s Alcoholic Beverage Control received a tip from a police officer in Hope Mills, another satellite town of Fort Bragg, about “a party occurring in downtown [Fayetteville] in which ‘donations’ would be accepted,” an ABC agent wrote in an affidavit attached to a warrant to search the warehouse and seize alcohol. The tipster “also indicated that drugs would be present,” the affidavit attested.
Two ABC officers went to the location to check it out. “What we noted was a warehouse that appeared to pull double duty as a gym and party location,” the ABC officer wrote in an email to a colleague. There were several people present, and the ABC officers learned that “the men were military with security clearances.” Out of deference to their “service of our nation,” the ABC officers let them off with a verbal warning.
Later that day, a city fire inspector went to the property and found multiple storage buildings in disrepair, surrounded by junked vehicles, barbecue grills, piles of wooden pallets, tiki torches, and other combustible materials. “This is a very secluded parcel,” the fire marshal wrote in an email to the zoning department. “It appears that a lot goes on here.”
Years of proximity to military violence, as well as a culture of functional alcoholism and casual sex, left Jane feeling “unworthy,” “damaged,” and “lost.” Jane has dated multiple men on Delta Force at various times in her life. She’s troubled by the memory of a night in 2012, when she woke up after having passed out drunk to find a man she knew having sex with her without her consent, she says. The next morning, she told the guy she was dating at the time that his buddy had raped her, but he didn’t believe her, she says. Both men were on active duty in Delta Force at the time. There is “zero respect for women in that community,” she says. “I know this was specifically Delta Force, but it’s like this across the whole of USASOC,” using an acronym for the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command.
Most Delta Force soldiers keep a very low profile. They avoid social media, and their traces on the internet tend to be very few: an old photo with mom, a defunct phone number, a real-estate deed. Vallejo is a notable exception. There are a dozen-plus local-news hits under his Anglicized name, Cris Valley, and a simple Google search turns up numerous photos and videos of him. In September 2015, he went on the Fox affiliate in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with a military dog named Gunner. In August 2016 — just two weeks before he met Scanlon — he threw out the first pitch at a Padres game in San Diego.
Jane never saw Vallejo doing drugs, and unlike Lavigne, he didn’t run around getting arrested, but she remembers him being at the center of a social scene that she describes as “toxic.” This was at the tail end of the Obama years, on the cusp of Trump’s election. The wars that Delta Force had been on the bleeding edge of since 2001 had deteriorated into lost causes, but the special-operations forces had completed their takeover-from-within of the military, becoming the paramount force in the Pentagon, with the most political clout in Washington. In Fayetteville, the Coast x Coast club was riding high, leading “rock star” lifestyles, in Jane’s words. “Those guys, they would drink, and they would need to have sex,” she says. “They didn’t care with who. It was drink, sex, drink, sex. They lived like there was no tomorrow.”
The relentless physical drive that she describes is part of what made these men the very best at what they did. In the event of a terrorist strike, international hostage situation, or loose nuclear weapon, it’s Delta or Team 6 that the president will call on to respond. Guys like Vallejo and Lavigne are constantly told that they’re the elite, the best of the best, the ultimate badasses, and when it comes to killing and capturing people overseas, they are. In the military and in popular culture, their kind is revered. Among some operators, the result can be an “unhealthy sense of entitlement,” in the words of a Special Operations Command internal ethics review made public in 2020. The hard-partying antics of the Coast x Coast club could certainly be seen as a manifestation of that sort of attitude, a sense of exemption from ordinary strictures and petty rules. As Jane puts it, “They did what they wanted when they wanted, and wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
A brief report by CBS 17 in Raleigh-Durham on Sept. 30 named Vallejo as an “N.C. soldier” who had been accused of rape, and published his photo. There’s no doubt that he was charged in Cumberland County, yet strangely, there is no trace of his arraignment or indictment in a publicly accessible database of North Carolina court records. It’s possible that it was expunged, a clerk tells me.
Vallejo was briefly detained in jail on a $100,000 bond. Thereafter, things moved very slowly toward a trial. Scanlon and Vallejo both continued to live in Fayetteville and work on Fort Bragg. It took her months to get a military protective order against him. On one occasion, she says, she had to hide in the bathroom after he walked into a tavern in Southern Pines. The police were called, and Vallejo left without incident.
Finally, the trial was set to begin in late-February 2018. Scanlon was looking forward to getting the ordeal over with. Then, just before the opening arguments were scheduled to take place, military lawyers from Fort Bragg intervened. They were officers in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, assigned to the Special Forces.
They convened a “weird meeting,” Scanlon says, with her and the district attorney, Billy West, whose office declined to comment on this case or on Lavigne’s record of arrests. “Mostly doing the talking, that I remember, was Capt. Joseph Morman,” Scanlon says. “It was him and Maj. Stacey Cohen.”
Army investigators with CID had initially washed their hands of the case, but the two JAG prosecutors, Morman and Cohen, claimed to have only belatedly learned that the victim and defendant were both soldiers, which gave the military parallel jurisdiction to try Vallejo. Scanlon recalls Morman urging her to consent to a change in venue, arguing that a court-martial offered a better chance to convict, among other reasons, because a guilty verdict does not have to be unanimous under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
In fact, studies show that the conviction rate on penetrative-rape and forcible-sodomy charges is generally lower in military courts than civilian ones. And when it comes to courts-martial — for whatever crime — where the accused is a Navy SEAL or Green Beret, they can be more full of anomalies and surprises than a cheap legal thriller. Consider the bombshell testimony that relieved ex-SEAL Eddie Gallagher of murder charges in 2019 or Trump’s intervention in the Fort Bragg court-martial of Mathew Golsteyn, a Special Forces officer who admitted on live TV to killing an unarmed man.
“I don’t think there was an agenda there,” says Col. Adam Kazin, chief of the Army JAG Corps’ criminal-law division. “It was not a decision to try to sneak it out of Cumberland County.” The only purpose of convening the meeting with the DA, Col. Kazin says, was to make sure that the JAG prosecutors understood whether Scanlon preferred to have a military or civilian trial. But he couldn’t really explain why the Army waited 16 months to intervene on the eve of the trial, rather than let civilian justice take its course.
“It was very frustrating,” Scanlon says, “that all these people had waited till the last minute, then were trying to put the decision on me, when I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a police officer. I had no idea why they were making me decide this. I defaulted to what the USASOC prosecutor and the DA would decide,” and consented to removal of the case to Fort Bragg, which resulted in an unanticipated four-month delay. “I was pissed that another obstacle had gone up,” she says. “I wanted this all behind me.”
During this time, and the months to come, Scanlon was represented by an SVC, or special-victims’ counsel, a military-appointed attorney. Her first SVC was at the meeting with the DA, but did not advise her that she might be better off pressing her case in civilian court. Subsequently, the Army swapped out her SVC four separate times. Some were deployed, others reassigned, or otherwise bureaucratically reshuffled. As a result, she says, she had to retell her ordeal to five different SVCs, some of whom were unprepared or missed meetings.
Finally, on June 25, 2018, the court-martial convened: United States v. Sergeant First Class Cristobal Vallejo. It was held in the main courthouse on Fort Bragg, a red-brick, Greek-revival building typical of the Carolinas. The trial began on a Monday morning. Though open to the public, no reporters were in the courtroom. “It was on a public docket, so people can go look it up,” says Col. Kazin; however, “it was not necessarily on everyone’s radar.”
The Army never made a transcript of the court-martial, and destroyed the audio recordings as soon as it concluded, leaving no record of the testimony the witnesses gave, the arguments the lawyers made, or the judge’s oral rulings. But Scanlon was in the courtroom on the first day of trial, and Rolling Stone obtained the trial record, which includes a list of witnesses, the lawyers’ written motions, the judge’s orders, his instructions to the jury, and other documents that make it possible to reconstruct much — if not nearly enough — of what happened.
Vallejo, wearing his full-dress uniform, was seated at the defense table, next to his defense attorney, Kris Poppe, a former JAG prosecutor who previously served as an infantry officer. The jury panel of nine included two women and was a mix of colonels, majors, and senior sergeants, all of whom served in the Special Forces. They would have been able to see from the many badges, patches, stripes, and braids on Vallejo’s embroidered blue coat that he was a military superstar, a veteran operator of the sort that all of USASOC exists to support. He had entered a plea of not guilty. He never denied having sex with Scanlon, but maintained that it was consensual.
Even with the rape kit and the testimony of witnesses like Tina, much would have hinged on Scanlon’s credibility. She was the first witness called to the stand, on day one. The jury would have been able to see from her dress blues that, in stark contrast with Vallejo, she was a rookie officer in a conventional unit. “I had no deployment stripes,” Scanlon says. “No unit patch. No awards. Because I had been in for 18 months. And he’s sitting there decked out. You want to think they’re not comparing?”
According to Scanlon, Poppe’s initial line of questioning was not subtle. She says he grilled her on the quantity of alcohol she had consumed, implying that inebriety had inclined her toward promiscuity. To buttress his depiction of her as a woman on the prowl, he put up photos of her taken that night in which she was wearing a sleeveless dress with a short skirt, and texts between her and Tina joking about going out “braless” or “commando.”
“Isn’t it true you were flirting with him?” she recalls him asking. “Weren’t there plenty of people you could have called out to? It wasn’t really that dark out.”
“I don’t remember the precise questions that I asked her,” Poppe says today, “or what exhibits were introduced in evidence,” but “I remember the facts of the case,” and “the evidence supported that she consented to the sexual acts with Cris Valley.”
A major weakness for the defense was Scanlon’s apparent absence of a motive to fabricate a rape claim, complete with a trip to the hospital and all. In this regard, Poppe says that she was a commissioned officer — a lieutenant — who got caught having sex in a “compromising position” with an enlisted man, Vallejo, technically her military inferior. Because she was already guilty of one instance of fraternization, with the staff sergeant to whose house she had been headed to that night, she had a motive to lie and pretend that the encounter with Vallejo was nonconsensual, in Poppe’s theory of the case.
But Scanlon didn’t get “caught” with the staff sergeant, nor with Vallejo. Her superiors didn’t know about the former, and she herself had reported the latter. If her aim was to avoid disciplinary action or professional embarrassment, she could have simply said nothing and no one would have been the wiser. But pressing this line of inquiry served a clear ulterior purpose, Scanlon says: “Trying to slut-shame me, and say that I did that all the time.”
Poppe says he “take[s] exception” to this “absurd” characterization. All of his questions were directed at Scanlon’s honesty and candor, he says. He maintains that Scanlon and Vallejo were witnessed in the act by people at the warehouse that night. That would have been enough, Poppe argues, to spook Scanlon into making a false accusation of rape, lest word get out and she be reprimanded for fraternization.
Because of societal prejudices toward women’s sexuality, and the potential for abuse, “rape shield” laws, including Military Rule of Evidence 412, generally block defense attorneys from bringing up an accuser’s sexual history at trial. But the instructions to the jury show that the judge, Col. Jeffrey Nance, allowed the panel to consider Scanlon’s relationship with the staff sergeant insofar as it was probative of “her motive, if any, to fabricate her allegations against the accused.” The judge cautioned the panel that they were forbidden to conclude that Scanlon, having willingly slept with one enlisted man, was likely to do it again; but to use an old legal cliché, that was a bit like throwing a skunk into the jury box and instructing the jurors not to smell it.
Scanlon was on the stand for eight hours, she says. “My testimony was so long and painful.” Throughout, she rigidly refused to make eye contact with Vallejo or even look at his side of the courtroom. Twice she broke down in tears and the court had to call a recess, she says. Finally, at the end of the first day of trial, she was allowed to step down.
The rest of the court-martial is a black box to her, because she spent it sequestered in the prosecution’s witness room, which she says she was not permitted to leave. This would have been in violation of regulations that prevent the military from excluding crime victims from the trials of their alleged perpetrators, and USASOC says it didn’t happen. “Scanlon was not excluded from the proceeding,” a spokesman wrote in a statement.
Either way, Scanlon was immersed in an unfamiliar process and taking her cues from military lawyers and the judge, all of whom outranked her. Even if she weren’t actually barred from the trial by order of the court, she believed that she had to stay in the witness room until called, and according to Scanlon, the SVC did nothing to correct the misapprehension.
The trial record shows that the prosecution called only four more witnesses, half as many as the defense. Besides Scanlon, the only people who testified for the government were Tina, the staff sergeant, the nurse who did the rape kit, and the friend who encouraged Scanlon to go to the police. Efforts to reach these people by phone were unsuccessful. The prosecution did not call Matrafailo, the Fayetteville detective who had investigated Scanlon’s claim, interviewed witnesses while their memories were fresh, collected evidence before it disappeared, and concluded by arresting Vallejo for second-degree rape.
Instead, on June 26, Matrafailo was the first person called to the stand by the defense. Poppe couldn’t recall why that was the case, but conceded that it was somewhat unusual for the main police witness in a criminal trial not to align with the prosecution. Poppe was unable to remember the substance of Matrafailo’s testimony, only that it involved “some aspects of the investigation that had not been discussed.”
A few months after the trial, Matrafailo would be accused of making inappropriate contact with Scanlon on social media: sending her suggestive emojis, making weird comments about ads for lingerie, and the like. The police department promptly fired Matrafailo, who had allegedly done the same to two other alleged rape victims. “It was shocking,” Scanlon told The Fayetteville Observer in 2019, and “honestly a little bit unbelievable.” (Attempts to reach Matrafailo by phone were unsuccessful.)
The trial record shows that Vallejo’s defense called eight additional witnesses. The three Delta operators who had been at the warehouse that night took the stand, as did the retired bomb technician, the two civil-affairs officers, and the dancing bartender, as well as the red-haired widow. Attempts to reach these people by phone were unsuccessful, but pretrial filings show that at least two of them were summoned to buttress Vallejo’s defense of consent.
In a motion dated June 12, the defense stated that one of the civil-affairs officers was expected to testify that she had observed “close, friendly, and flirtatious interaction” between Vallejo and Scanlon all night. In the same filing, the defense notified the court of its intent to call the Green Beret’s widow, who would testify that she “walked past the portable toilet and saw Cris with the blond girl having sex on a car,” and that “the female was obviously enjoying it.”
This was the red-haired woman whom Scanlon had briefly glimpsed during the alleged assault, a detail she had failed to relate to police. The apparent lapse in memory had given Poppe an opening to hammer away at her credibility. “Why didn’t you tell anyone about the witness that came around the corner?” she remembers him asking. She felt the implication was clear: “Obviously you’re a liar.”
Scanlon’s testimony was that she had told her special-victims’ counsel about seeing the Green Beret’s widow, albeit months after the fact, and that she had instructed the SVC to inform the prosecution of her belated recollection. Seeking to impeach Scanlon’s credibility and establish that she had tried to conceal the existence of an eyewitness, Poppe sought and obtained the SVC’s testimony on this point. Though attorney-client privilege normally protects the SVC-client relationship, Judge Nance found that Scanlon had waived the privilege by including the prosecution in the supposed conversation with her SVC. Nance’s legal reasoning may have been sound, but it still resulted in a rape counselor providing testimony against her own client at trial, a result that another judge might have bent over backward to avoid.
“I represented 1LT [First Lieutenant] Erin Scanlon as her special-victim counsel,” Capt. Alycia Stokes’ written testimony read. “1LT Scanlon never told me that she remembered seeing a female” — the Green Beret’s red-haired widow — “who may have witnessed a portion of the alleged assault.”
It looked like Scanlon was lying, or at a minimum, misremembering what had happened. “She wasn’t credible,” Poppe says. “She wasn’t being truthful about her encounter with Cris Vallejo.”
“They should not have allowed my lawyer to testify against me,” Scanlon says. “That was a crazy ethical mistake.”
Master Sgt. William Lavigne was the sixth witness for the defense, the trial rec-ord shows. At the time, he was so depressed, anxious, guilt-stricken, and strung out on drugs that it’s a wonder he was able to put on his full-dress uniform that morning. As I wrote in “The Fort Bragg Murders,” Lavigne’s dozen-plus deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere had left him addled with trauma and addicted to hard drugs and alcohol. He was a broken operator, a worn-out military part, destroyed by PTSD and substance abuse.
Just three months before he was called to the stand, in March 2018, at Lavigne’s house in Fayetteville, he had shot and killed his closest friend, a Green Beret named Mark Leshikar, with whom he had been drinking and doing drugs for days on end during a family vacation to Disney World. For reasons that remain a mystery, Lavigne had pulled out the .40-caliber sidearm he carried and double-tapped his best buddy right in front of two horrified little girls, his daughter and Leshikar’s.
The military had kept it quiet, though. In local news reports, the shooter wasn’t named. The sheriff’s office and the DA had treated it as a justifiable homicide, and Army investigators would later come to the same conclusion, for reasons that both civilian and military authorities decline to disclose to the Leshikar family or to the public. Even if Lavigne had been charged with or convicted of murder, says Col. Kazin of Army JAG, Vallejo would have had a constitutional right to call him as a witness, if he were in possession of relevant information.
Poppe says he can’t recall the substance of Lavigne’s testimony, but discloses that after the court-martial concluded, he took him on as a client, too. “I was Billy’s attorney,” Poppe says. “I represented him in Cumberland County.”
Poppe does not find it remarkable, he says, that he simultaneously represented two members of the most elite military unit in the United States, one suspected of murder, the other accused of rape. But he was in JAG for 20 years and has represented such high-profile military clients as Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, and is unable to recall another time when a JSOC operator was arrested for a violent felony against a fellow soldier on U.S. soil, as was the case for both Lavigne and Vallejo.
Poppe says there was no connection between the two cases. Lavigne retained him while still under Army investigation into the shooting death of Leshikar, he says. Ultimately, “both CID and the sheriff’s office determined there was no criminal culpability.”
Between the summer of 2018 and the fall of 2020, Lavigne’s behavior became increasingly erratic and dangerous. Cumberland County sheriff’s deputies named him as a suspect on incident reports for crimes including possession of cocaine and crack paraphernalia, weapons infractions, hit-and-run, harboring an escapee, maintaining a dwelling place to manufacture a controlled substance, and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The latter was for firing shots at a guy outside a crack house on Enloe Street in Fayetteville, a very serious offense, but Lavigne was not prosecuted for any of these crimes. North Carolina court records show that the sheriff and DA’s office dismissed the charges every time.
Then, on Dec. 2, 2020, Lavigne turned up dead, shot multiple times in the chest, his body wrapped up as if for disposal, and placed in the back of his truck, which was left abandoned on a dirt road near Lake MacArthur. An anonymous Army source leaked to CBS News that authorities suspected “a double homicide from a drug deal gone wrong,” but to date, there is no clear evidence to support that theory.
The other person killed in the apparently professional hit, a 44-year-old ex-soldier named Timothy Dumas, was an Afghanistan vet who had served in the 7th Special Forces Group before being separated from the Army for unspecified “unacceptable conduct.” Like Lavigne, Dumas had a long record of being arrested but not prosecuted in Cumberland County, for crimes including assault on a female, impersonating a police officer, making terroristic threats, and shooting into an occupied dwelling place. His truck, a black quad-cab Dodge Ram, was found some 40 miles away, in Scotland County, “burned to a fucking crisp,” according to his 24-year-old son. “They even took his license plates off.”
“Billy, we love you and will miss you,” the Coast x Coast club posted to its Instagram page two days later. “RIP, bro.”
One year later, the authorities have identified no suspects, arrested no perpetrators, and disclosed nothing about the evidence they’ve gathered to date. It’s not even clear what agency, military or civilian, is investigating. “I’ll have to refer you to Army CID,” Shelley Lynch of the FBI’s Charlotte, North Carolina, office writes in an email. “We are only assisting.” But Chris Grey, spokesman for CID, tells me, “FBI is leading that investigation.”
On the third and final day of Vallejo’s court-martial, June 27, the prosecution and defense delivered their closing arguments. Scanlon’s SVC — her fifth — discouraged her from attending, she says. “What the prosecution has to say, you already know,” she remembers the SVC telling her. “What the defense has to say, you don’t want to hear. It’s not going to be good for you.”
For the jury, it must have been a somewhat close call, because they submitted at least 18 questions to the witnesses. “How did the Uber driver react to the distress shown by 1LT Scanlon?” a juror asked Tina. “If you felt that 1LT Scanlon was sexually assaulted, why was she not taken to the hospital as soon as possible?” another asked the staff sergeant. A third juror asked the nurse who did the rape kit, “In your experience, is it abnormal for the victim to smile in an exam photo?”
Scanlon was called in for the reading of the verdict. She had brought with her a victim’s impact statement that she was prepared to read if Vallejo were found guilty. “That night he shattered my whole world,” the statement read. “I had to get shots and blood drawn to get tested for STDs so many horrible times.” Constant appointments with lawyers, detectives, investigators, and advocates had disrupted her military career, and caused her to miss out on her unit’s 2017 deployment to Iraq. “Which is all I wanted to do: deploy with my soldiers.” Out of fear that Vallejo “[would try to] come looking for me,” she wrote, she moved from Fayetteville to another small town nearby. “I was too scared to go to stores, the gym, and other crowded places. Because every man with a dark beard or a hat terrified me.”
But, the statement continued, “I am strong. I will keep fighting to put my life back together. This is not how I wanted my time . . . in the Army to go. But I have accepted this new path. I firmly believe that I had to be his victim because I was strong enough to report him.”
She never got the chance to lay any of this on Vallejo, or the court. As the jury filed in, everyone stood. “I held really, really tightly to my [family members’] hands and stared straight ahead,” she says. “I was resolved to be stoic no matter what, because I knew I had stood up for myself as much as possible. As soon as they said ‘not guilty,’ my people just kind of quickly escorted me out.”
From the perspective of the Army’s image-conscious leadership, the failure on the part of the press to catch wind of Vallejo’s court-martial was a lucky break. Someone might easily have connected the rape case to the unexplained shooting of a Green Beret by a fellow Special Forces soldier three months earlier. They might have noticed that the shooter was a witness for the alleged rapist, and that they both belonged to the same motorcycle club, made up of soldiers from the Army’s most elite unit. A sort of Delta Force biker gang — that story wouldn’t have been good for the Army, not at a time when the Navy was getting hammered by allegations of rampant drug abuse, fratricidal violence, and sexual assault in the ranks of its SEAL teams. The following year, the legal travails of ex-SEAL Eddie Gallagher would make national headlines for months on end. In 2020, The New York Times, Associated Press, and CNN would cover the sexual-assault allegation against a Navy SEAL on a base in Iraq. The alleged perpetrator, Adel Anayat, eventually copped to a misdemeanor. Like Gallagher, Anayat was an ordinary Tier 2 special operator, of whom there are as many as 10,000. Lavigne and Vallejo were on an altogether different level, one rarely touched by scandal. Other than the one local-news blip on Vallejo’s arrest, the allegations against them remained confined to Fort Bragg.
By the time of Vallejo’s trial, it was clear that the Army had missed a chance to intervene in the boundary-pushing, motorcycle-borne debauchery of the Coast x Coast club as early as September 2016, when Scanlon went to CID and alleged that Vallejo had raped her behind their un-permitted clubhouse in downtown Fayetteville, which just happens to be adjacent to the county jail, a building full of cops.
The Army missed another chance to rein in rogue elements in Delta Force’s enlisted ranks in 2018, after Lavigne killed Leshikar in a drug-fueled altercation that was proof positive of something rotten in the state of Special Forces. Instead, everything was hushed up. Both Vallejo and Lavigne were exonerated. And every time Lavigne reoffended, the charges against him mysteriously vanished. His spiral into drugs and paranoia culminated in him shooting at a man on the streets of Fayetteville in July 2020. He busted a few rounds in the direction of Ian Detar, an inveterate burglar who has no fewer than 29 mug shots on file with the county.
In September 2021, I visit the crack house where the incident occurred, a run-down home on Enloe Street accessible by a dirt road that a spokeswoman for the sheriff describes as a “known drug house.” Seven or eight people are sitting on the stoop or standing around the driveway. None are able to say why the shooting took place, but they all remember Lavigne. It seems he crashed there from time to time.
“We all knew him,” says Roy Lynn Parker, 35.
Parker says that Lavigne once gave him money to cover some court costs. He says Lavigne smoked crack, that was his main thing. He denies that Lavigne was ever into dealing any sort of narcotics. He’s vague about the shooting incident. “I remember hearing some shots. I think Ian, he said Will shot at him. They picked him up down at the stop sign.”
“A big, crazy white man” is how a 52-year-old woman named Renee Locklear describes Lavigne. “He loved weapons.” Locklear shows me the spot where she says he once threw a knife into the trunk of a tree in the front yard, which is littered with hundreds if not thousands of cigarette butts. “He always had something in his hand,” Locklear says. “If he didn’t have a knife, he would be toting around, like Rambo, some bow-and-arrow-type shit.”
I only recently learned about Lavigne’s July 2020 arrest from a police report that the sheriff’s office initially withheld. The offense was aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a class E felony that could have landed Lavigne in prison for years, but as usual, he wasn’t charged with a crime.
When Jane read that Lavigne had killed a man with impunity, only to be murdered in turn, “I was trembling,” she says, “sitting out in the cold, chain-smoking. It’s like watching a scary movie. I’m still spooked.” She read USASOC’s statement in “The Fort Bragg Murders” that some unspecified adverse administrative action had been pending against Lavigne at the time of his death. “How coincidental is it?” she says. “Billy’s about to be questioned, or face some sort of retribution. And then he’s taken out. It’s like someone didn’t want him to talk.” She adds, “I’m scared to say words like this out loud.”
For good reason: The person or persons who killed Lavigne and Dumas remain at large. Whoever they are, they were capable of taking out one of the world’s most skilled and experienced gunfighters, without leaving any apparent clue for the FBI or CID to follow. And no one seems to know quite why.
While awaiting trial, Vallejo had stood down as an active-duty operator, attached to USASOC as an ignominious “SURPLUS SLDR,” according to his enlistment-record brief. It’s unclear if he ever returned to Delta Force or what he did for his last three years in the military. In September 2021, almost 20 years to the day that he joined the Army, he held a retirement party in Colorado, where he now lives, not far from where he began his military career, at Fort Carson.
Around the same time, he went on a cross-country ride with the Coast x Coast motorcycle club, starting out of Los Angeles and bound for Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. It was their annual “Ride for the Fallen,” a coast-to-coast convoy of ex-military bikers to raise money for wounded special operators, and the families of those slain in battle. Each year, they hold a string of events in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia, where they sell merchandise, take donations, and raffle off items such as bottles of wine printed with portraits of fallen Delta Force soldiers, concealed-carry holsters, and pistols painted in the colors of the American flag. The Coast x Coast Foundation raised $450,943 in tax-free contributions from 2016 to 2020, according to IRS records. Over those five years, it paid out grants totaling $187,143.
On Sept. 8, 2021, the Coast x Coast club holds a public event in Fayetteville, at their usual haunt, Mac’s Speed Shop. On the back patio, they are standing around a red tent with the Coast x Coast logo, drinking beer, chatting at the bar, and smoking cigarettes. According to a 2014 ATF report leaked to The Intercept, outlaw motorcycle gangs are proliferating in the military in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but aside from their vests and patches, the present-day Coast x Coast club looks more like customers in a Bass Pro Shop than Hells Angels.
The person who seems to be in charge is a tall, barrel-chested man of about 40, whose long, scraggly beard is streaked with gray. He is courteous, with an iron handshake, and gives his name as Joe.
“I knew him,” Joe says of Lavigne. “He was a great dude. He came with us, rode the ride. Other than that,” he says, “I don’t think you’re going to get any comment from anybody around here.”
I ask whether “Cris Valley” is in attendance. “No,” Joe says. “He’s at home, doing work shit.” That’s all he’ll say about Coast x Coast’s founder and CEO.
There might be a good reason for Vallejo to avoid the spot where, almost five years ago to the day, he met Scanlon. Since he was tried by the military, a branch of the federal government, the double-jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution would not bar the state from prosecuting him all over again. And in North Carolina, there is no statute of limitations for rape.
For her part, Scanlon tried hard not to show any emotion in public, and accepted the jury’s July 2018 decision with stoicism. But it was a “disheartening” conclusion, she says, to a difficult and drawn-out ordeal that she insists was “not my fault.”
She understood that “beyond a reasonable doubt” was a high burden of proof, and evinced no particular desire to see Vallejo in prison. “It is a lot for a jury to make a decision like that,” she says. “It didn’t necessarily mean they didn’t believe me.” Unfortunately, her experience with the military-justice system greatly set back her career, and would overshadow her whole time in the Army.
She attained the rank of captain, but the missed deployment, the transfers between units, and the stigma that attaches to female soldiers who report being raped — all the “gossipy, nontangible ways,” she says, that marks you out as a “problem child” — diminished her prospects of advancement. When her contract was up in 2019, she resigned from the Army.
Once out of uniform, Scanlon began to meet advocates, lawyers, and people knowledgeable about sexual assault in the military. In 2020, she sued the Army in civil court for allegedly mishandling her case, but the lawsuit was blocked by the so-called Feres doctrine, established in 1950 by a Supreme Court decision that a broad range of legal scholars variously describe as archaic, unfair, irrational, unconscionable, and immoral. The doctrine, long a target of legislative reform, bars soldiers and sailors and Marines from recovering damages resulting from wrongful acts by the military.
More than she questions Vallejo’s acquittal or the jury’s decision, Scanlon simply wants to know what happened at the court-martial. She filed a FOIA request for the transcript in 2019, and the Army gave her the trial record instead. It’s hundreds of pages long, but does not include the testimony of witnesses or the arguments the lawyers made.
A spokesman for USASOC tells me that no transcript of the audio recordings of the trial proceedings was ever typed up because Vallejo was acquitted, so there was no possibility of an appeal. The Army couldn’t give Scanlon a transcript because no transcript ever existed. In addition, according to USASOC, the court reporter deleted the audio.
“It was standard practice at the time,” Col. Kazin says. “It is something that has changed now, for exactly this reason. Starting in 2019, victims who testify get a copy of the court-martial record, including audio, whether it was an acquittal or conviction.”
When Scanlon learns that the audio was destroyed, she unexpectedly breaks down in tears. It’s the first time during many hours of interviews that she has lost her composure, and I can understand why. The Army’s destruction of records means that she will never know what was said in her absence at trial. Those deleted files were the only record of the testimony the jurors chose to believe over hers.
Looking back on the court-martial, “it was a solid case and my testimony was powerful,” Scanlon says, “but I was this lowly lieutenant up against Delta Force and USASOC and JSOC, and all that entails. Only afterwards did I realize I didn’t stand a chance.”