A victim advocate formerly assigned to the Special Forces at Fort Bragg, North Carolina was placed on administrative leave, investigated for two years, and ultimately fired after she raised questions about the military’s handling of a Delta Force soldier accused of rape.
The victim advocate, Lindsey Knapp, was a civilian employee of the US Army’s Special Operations Command, known as USASOC, and attended the court martial of the accused Delta Force soldier, Cristobal Lopez Vallejo, in order to support the alleged victim, a young artillery officer named Erin Scanlon, whose harrowing ordeal with the military justice system Rolling Stone recounted in a recent investigation, “Delta Force’s Dirty Secret.”
Knapp reached out to Rolling Stone shortly after the article was published. In a recent interview, she corroborated Scanlon’s account of the Army’s alleged mishandling of the case and added new, previously unreported details. “My job was to attend the trial,” Knapp says. “There were all kinds of things that went wrong.”
In September 2016, Scanlon went to the agents with the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division, or CID, and told them that Vallejo had raped her on the hood of a junked car behind a metal warehouse in downtown Fayetteville, the military town surrounding Fort Bragg, after a drunken fundraiser at a nearby bar. Her allegation was supported by ample evidence: Immediately after the alleged assault, she had sent Vallejo an accusatory text message — asking him “do you realize what you did?” — to which he didn’t respond. Within the hour, she had told two different people that she’d been raped. The next morning, she’d gone directly to Womack Army Medical Center to undergo a sexual assault exam that had identified injuries consistent with forcible penetration. She told all of this to the CID agents. Nevertheless, they declined to investigate. Because it took place off-base, they told her, they had no jurisdiction.
Scanlon went to the Fayetteville Police Department the next day. A civilian detective interviewed witnesses, reviewed security footage, collected DNA evidence, and concluded by placing Vallejo under arrest for second-degree rape. He was indicted and faced up to 19 years in state prison, but two weeks before he was set to be tried in civilian court, in February 2018, military prosecutors assigned to the Special Forces swooped in, caused the district attorney to drop the charges, and moved his trial onto Fort Bragg.
What followed was a swift, quiet court martial that Scanlon was excluded from attending and in which all the jurors were senior Special Forces soldiers. No transcript was made of the trial, and as soon as it concluded with Vallejo’s acquittal on all counts, USASOC deleted the audio recordings, leaving no record of the testimony that was heard, the arguments the lawyers made, or the judge’s oral rulings. Vallejo faced no legal repercussions, while Scanlon’s career and reputation were left in shambles.
Knapp, who observed the trial firsthand, says she was “livid” about what she saw as a carefully managed legal process that minimized Vallejo’s chances of being convicted and left Scanlon at a severe disadvantage. She drafted a detailed, five-page letter, dated August 10, 2018, and emailed it to the commander of USASOC, Lt. Gen. Francis Beaudette, requesting review of what she perceived as a number of deficiencies and irregularities. “As an Attorney myself, I can certainly appreciate the nuances of the justice system,” she wrote. “But in my view, [Scanlon] never had a chance.”
In response, USASOC swiftly opened an investigation into Knapp, accusing her of “conduct unbecoming a federal employee.” She was put on administrative leave for the next two years, at the conclusion of which, she was harshly reprimanded in writing, then terminated from a position she’d held since 2014. She has not worked for the military since.
Knapp is now pursuing a workplace discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Due to ongoing litigation,” a spokeswoman for USASOC wrote in a statement, the Special Forces command “cannot comment on Ms. Knapp’s claims.” . Delta Force, a classified manhunting unit dedicated to covert overseas “black ops,” could not be reached for comment.
Knapp believes that Scanlon’s experience is emblematic of the many difficulties faced by military women who report being raped, as well as a case study in why the uniformed chain-of-command should not be trusted to handle cases of sexual assault — especially where the alleged perpetrator is a member of an elite unit. It came at a time when members of Congress were actively working to remove the authority to prosecute major crimes, including rape, from unit commanders and place it in the hands of independent prosecutors — a push that the Pentagon brass fiercely resisted. Had the details of Vallejo’s trial come to light, Knapp believes, it would have been Exhibit A in the case for legislative reform. That gave USASOC a powerful motive to keep the court martial quiet and silence Knapp.
“I thought if I told the commanding general, they would have to take action,” she says. Looking back, “I was naïve to think that they were actually going to do something.”
The military judge who oversaw Vallejo’s court martial, Col. Jeffrey Nance, appeared before a Pentagon advisory committee on sexual assault in the military in February 2020. Asked by one of the panel members if he could explain the very low conviction rate of soldiers accused of rape, Nance replied that many of these cases are factually weak, because commanders are under “an incredible amount of pressure” from politicians and the media to press charges — even where proof is lacking. As a result, he said, very often “it’s a bad case,” with “bad facts,” and “you’re going to get any acquittal.”
But Knapp didn’t see a “bad case” or “bad facts” in Scanlon’s case. She saw a miscarriage of justice, and she was determined to do something about it. Of the many things that gave her cause for concern, one had to do with Scanlon’s military-appointed attorney, known as a Special Victim Counsel, or SVC.
To begin with, USASOC swapped out Scanlon’s assigned SVC no fewer than five times. It’s not clear why USASOC switched the SVCs so frequently, but it left Scanlon disoriented and confused about the process. Then Judge Nance ordered Scanlon’s first SVC, Capt. Alycia Stokes, to provide testimony against her, finding that attorney-client privilege had been waived.
At issue was whether Scanlon had accurately reported glimpsing an eyewitness during the alleged sexual assault. While Vallejo was allegedly forcibly penetrating her up against a car behind the warehouse, a woman with red hair came outside, saw what was going on, yelled something unintelligible, and then went back in. Scanlon says the detail initially slipped her memory and that she didn’t remember it until months later.
At trial, Vallejo’s defense argued that Scanlon had tried to conceal the existence of this witness; Scanlon’s testimony was that she had in fact told Capt. Stokes about seeing the red-haired woman, albeit belatedly. In order to get to the bottom of this, Judge Nance ordered Stokes to appear at trial and testify about confidential conversations she’d had with Scanlon in her capacity as a rape counselor. “I specifically find that any attorney-client privilege that may have existed concerning these statements has been waived,” Nance wrote in an order dated June 26, 2018.
Knapp says that the prosecution team resisted this “insane” ruling by putting Stokes on leave, so that she would not be available to testify. This appeared to infuriate Nance, Knapp says. “He ordered her to appear or else he was going to send US marshals for her. Then he berated her on the stand for being elusive and not showing up right away.”
Against her will, Stokes disclosed, in written testimony, that Scanlon had not in fact reported to her the existence of the red-headed eyewitness. This had the effect of undercutting Scanlon’s credibility and sowing doubts about the accuracy of her memory, a critical part of the prosecution’s case.
Knapp says that never before in her four years’ experience as a victim advocate had she seen a case in which the judge ordered an SVC to testify against her own client. “He was adamant about her testifying,” she says. “It was clear that he didn’t give a damn” about attorney-client confidentiality between Stokes and Scanlon.
More broadly, she says, Nance was contemptuous of SVCs in general. “Judge Nance stated in open court and on the record that ‘SVCs just do whatever they want,’” she wrote in her letter, “and further indicated his disgust for SVCs in general.”
Attempts to reach Judge Nance by phone were unsuccessful. USASOC previously declined to make him available for an interview.
Military courts operate under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ, a legal system entirely separate from that which applies in civilian courts. However, the UCMJ statute governing sexual assault, and the related procedural rules, are substantially the same as would apply in state or federal court. In theory, then, Vallejo’s trial should have proceeded much the same as it would have in Cumberland County, had civilian justice been allowed to take its course. In practice, Scanlon’s lawyer being forced to testify against her was just one of several anomalies, all of which operated in Vallejo’s favor, that were made possible by the military’s assertion of jurisdiction over the case.
Another was that police were blocked, on national-security grounds, from interviewing key witnesses. As Knapp pointed out in her letter, the Special Forces command refused to disclose to Fayetteville detectives the names of two other Delta Force soldiers, friends of Vallejo’s, who were present at the time of the alleged assault. “Fayetteville asked to interview those people,” Knapp says. “USASOC declined. They would not give up their identities.” This hobbled the ability of the civilian detectives, whose investigative file military prosecutors relied on at trial, from building a case against Vallejo.
In this, USASOC’s image-conscious, scandal-averse leadership may have had motivations outside this specific case, because one of the Delta Force soldiers whose identity they withheld was William “Billy” Lavigne II. As Rolling Stone reported in a previous piece, “The Fort Bragg Murders,” in March 2018 — right around the time that military prosecutors took control of Vallejo’s trial — Lavigne shot and killed a Green Beret in the living room of his house in Fayetteville without suffering the slightest legal consequences.
Sheriff’s deputies arrested Lavigne and took him downtown, but released him that same night into the custody of his Delta Force teammates, who showed up in force to pick him up and take him home. The district attorney quickly concluded, in spite of considerable evidence, that the shooting had been a justifiable homicide. Army CID came to the same conclusion, for reasons that it refuses to disclose to the victim’s family or to the public.
About eighteen months later, on December 2, 2020, Lavigne was found dead in the woods outside Fort Bragg, the victim of an apparently professional hit by skilled assassins. An unnamed Army official told CBS News that authorities suspected “a double homicide from a drug deal gone wrong.”
Shortly after she sent the letter, USASOC opened an investigation into Knapp. Her security clearance was yanked, and she was sent home on administrative leave. She spent the next two years under investigation for supposed “spillage” of classified information – namely, the fact that Vallejo was a member of Delta Force, which Knapp had included in the letter and sent by email over an unclassified network. Knapp didn’t believe and still maintains that nothing contained in the letter was a secret.
In truth, everything to do with Delta Force, including the identities of its members, is classified; officially, the Army does not even acknowledge that it exists, though nobody doubts that it does. The unit, which may have recently been renamed the 3rd Operational Support Group, is an elite raiding and intelligence team dedicated to operations that the US government denies took place, or denies responsibility for. By identifying Vallejo on paper as a member, Knapp was probably in violation of Department of Defense regulations that she’d agreed to abide by when she took a job with the Special Forces.
But nailing Knapp to the wall over what would seem to be a relatively minor technicality smacks of whistleblower retaliation, especially since Vallejo has made little secret of his special-operations background over the years.Vallejo is the leader of a Delta Force-affiliated motorcycle club known as Coast x Coast, and in the course of eight annual cross-country motorcycle rides to raise money, he has given multiple interviews to reporters, appeared on television, and even threw out the first pitch at a major-league baseball game. From Coast x Coast’s Instagram page, replete with photos and bios of slain Delta Force soldiers, it’s obvious what unit the motorcycle club pertains to. And Knapp’s email was limited to a handful of senior Army officers; in addition to Gen. Beaudette, she sent it to the US Army Forces Command, and the Fort Bragg equal employment office.
USASOC reacted as if she had sent Vallejo’s home address to Al Qaeda.
“Your behavior is very serious in nature,” Timothy Hill, the executive director of the 1st Special Forces Command, wrote to Knapp in a scathing memo recommending her removal from her position as a victim advocate. “Your flagrant disregard for operational security was a significant disruption to USASOC operations.” Hill added, “Your actions are deliberate and intentional. You have shown a pattern of behavior that is totally inconsistent with Army and USASOC values. Your repeated unauthorized disclosure of classified information placed the security of the organization at risk.” In conclusion, he wrote, “I do not believe that any alternative sanction other than removal is appropriate.”
Knapp contested the decision, but without success. On May 1, 2020, she was fired for “conduct unbecoming a federal employee.” Her career, like Scanlon’s, came to a crashing halt as soon as it conflicted with Vallejo’s. He alone emerged from the whole sordid ordeal with his career intact.
Members of Congress, led by Sen. Kristin Gillibrand and with the support of President Joe Biden, very nearly succeeded in including provisions in the 2022 military-spending bill that would have given independent prosecutors, not the uniformed chain-of-command, the power to prosecute service-members accused of any felony that carries a maximum penalty of more than a year in prison. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also supported the proposed reforms, but other Pentagon leaders, as well as Senators Jack Reed and Jim Inhofe, fought them tooth-and-nail. The outcome was a watered-down bill that only allows independent prosecutors to recommend charges in cases of sexual assault, murder, manslaughter, and kidnapping but leaves the actual administration of courts-martial in the hands of unit commanders.
As Gillibrand told reporters at a news conference, commanders will still have the power to select the jury, choose witnesses, adjudicate immunity requests, order depositions, and approve hiring expert witnesses, as well as the power to separate a service-member from the armed forces in lieu of a court-martial.
“At the end of the day,” Knapp says, “commanders are still going to be a part of this process. So what does it really change?” She adds that the chain-of-command will still retain the power to short-circuit a criminal case because military investigators like Army CID can decline to investigate from the outset, as CID did in response to Scanlon’s initial complaint, preventing a rape claim from reaching the independent prosecutors in the first place. “It’s going to get stopped before it gets there,” Knapp predicts. “We’re going to have this same problem.”
The reforms to military law also do nothing to change the favoritism shown to members of the Delta Force community in Cumberland County and other surrounding jurisdictions. As documented in “The Fort Bragg Murders” and in “Delta Force’s Dirty Secret,” charges against special operators, even serious felonies, have a way of mysteriously vanishing in this part of North Carolina. Knapp is only the latest in a long line of people — mostly women — who have told Rolling Stone that around here, active and retired Delta Force men are their own kind of royalty, who enjoy the same sort of impunity as privileged rich kids, the pals of politicians, or professional athletes. “Everybody,” she says, “wants to rub elbows with these Delta Force folks.”
This is especially true in the ritzy village of Southern Pines, a half hour’s drive from Fort Bragg. In stark contrast with the rest of North Carolina, a relatively poor state where wages have been stagnant for decades, Southern Pines is a retirement haven for corporate executives, known for its vast mansions, expansive horse farms, and its hosting of the US Open golf tournament. Less well known, except to locals, is that Southern Pines is also the social base of the Delta Force community, where the Army’s most elite soldiers mix and mingle with the super-rich equestrian class.
“On any given night at any random bar, there will be an operator there, telling people that he’s an operator. To pick up chicks, basically. They’re like celebrities. In large part that’s kind of why Erin [Scanlon] got [allegedly sexually assaulted],” Knapp says. “Delta guys aren’t accustomed to being told no. They’re accustomed to being able to go wherever they want and get whatever they want. That’s the environment here.”