Col. David “Wil” Riggins, after a highly decorated Army career that included multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was on the verge of promotion to brigadier general in July 2013 when he got a phone call at the Pentagon from the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division to come in for a meeting. Once there, he learned that a blogger in Washington state had just accused him of raping her, when both were cadets at West Point in 1986. An investigation was underway.
Riggins waived his right to an attorney and immediately gave a statement denying any sexual assault of the woman, Susan Shannon of Everett, Wash. Shannon also cooperated with the CID investigation, which could not “prove or disprove Ms. Shannon’s allegation she was raped,” the CID report concluded. But in the spring of 2014, with the armed forces facing heavy criticism for their handling of sexual assault cases, Secretary of the Army John McHugh recommended removing Riggins from the list for promotion to general. Riggins promptly retired.
Then, Riggins sued Shannon for defamation, claiming that every aspect of her rape claim on the West Point campus was “provably false,” and that she wrote two blog posts and a Facebook post “to intentionally derail [his] promotion” to brigadier general. During a six-day trial that ended Aug. 1, a jury in Fairfax County, Va., heard from both Riggins and Shannon at length. And after 2½ hours of deliberation, they sided emphatically with Riggins, awarding him $8.4 million in damages, an extraordinary amount for a defamation case between two private citizens. The jury ordered Shannon to pay $3.4 million in compensatory damages for injury to his reputation and lost wages, and $5 million in punitive damages, “to make sure nothing like this will ever happen again,” according to one of the jurors.
In Virginia, punitive damages are limited to $350,000, and lawyers for both sides said the compensatory damages would likely be reduced to $2 million, leaving a final judgment of $2.3 million against Shannon, a stay-at-home mother of three teenagers. The verdict came just days after a jury in Dallas awarded more than $1 million in damages to a wedding photographer who was harshly criticized by a beauty blogger, causing the photographer’s business to collapse.
Shannon, 52, said she was devastated by the verdict and fearful for her family’s future. “I feel like I’m a financial slave for the rest of my life” to Riggins, Shannon said. “I told the truth in my article and at trial.” She and her lawyer, Benjamin Trichilo, said in an interview that they felt Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Daniel E. Ortiz wrongly prevented them from presenting witnesses and evidence about Riggins’s past and the Army CID investigation findings, and they plan to appeal.
Riggins, 52, said the jury took the right steps toward restoring his life. “This journey we’ve been on the last four years,” Riggins said, “it’s been a nightmare. … The large dollar amount is meaningless. All I was looking for was the opportunity to be vindicated, to set the record straight, to take every action to get my reputation back to where it was before the 15th of July , when she published that false accusation.”
The scope and speed of the Internet can compound the damage for the subject of a false story, and the liability for the author, according to Tom Clare, a defamation lawyer who represented University of Virginia assistant dean Nicole Eramo in her lawsuit against Rolling Stone. “People really understand the value that a reputation has,” Clare said. “Especially in today’s Internet environment when even a blog post or a tweet can have such a broad impact. It can literally go around the world. And if something out there is false, juries are prepared to issue significant awards.”
Riggins now lives in Alexandria, Va., and works as a pilot for the Federal Aviation Administration. Both he and Shannon entered the United States Military Academy in 1983. Shannon resigned from the academy in the spring of 1986, near the end of her junior year, and claims she did so shortly after being raped by Riggins, although she denied any sexual assault to West Point officials at the time, court records show. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1989, married in 1990 and had three children.
Shannon wrote in a court filing that “the demons from the rape haunted [me] for years” and that a “decade of suicidal depression led me to Christ.” She writes frequently on her blog, Short Little Rebel, about her Christian faith. She has acknowledged staking out controversial positions on her blog, including that the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn., was “a planned event” and that “I believe our GOVERNMENT shot those kids and teachers and used Adam Lanza and his family to pull it off.” That post was not presented to the jury in Fairfax, but other inflammatory comments by Shannon were placed in evidence, Trichilo said, while witnesses who were prepared to testify against Riggins’s past were not allowed to testify.
Meanwhile, Riggins graduated from West Point in 1987, was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, and was awarded a Bronze Star for his combat role in the 1990 invasion of Iraq. He joined the Army Rangers, began rising through the command ranks, served two tours in Afghanistan in 2003 and was promoted to colonel in 2007. He was working at the Pentagon as chief of Army weapon system investments when his nomination to become a one-star general was announced July 2, 2013.
Thirteen days later, Shannon published a blog post titled “The Rape of a Female Cadet at West Point: Me.” She noted the recent media reports about sexual assault in the military, and wrote that “both I and my roommate were raped at West Point — and we never reported it. The man who raped me, Will [sic] Riggins, class of 1987, is now a Colonel in the Army. The rape is the reason I left West Point. So, while his military career is soaring, I left mine far behind.” She reported that she “was out cold from stupidly drinking myself unconscious at Eisenhower Hall” after being provided with “FREE beer” on the West Point campus.
Eight days after that, Shannon published a second blog post, revealing that she had been contacted by the Army CID to investigate her claims. “I didn’t want to give them a statement,” Shannon said, noting that she did not want to hurt Riggins’s family or put her own family through a trial. But she said the investigators pressured her and revealed to her that Riggins was in line for promotion to general. “They appealed to my sense of duty,” she said. “That’s when I agreed to do it.”
Shannon said she didn’t know that Riggins was up for a promotion until the investigators told her. “I had no idea, I don’t read the military press,” she said. But one of her own witnesses testified that Shannon did know, and that it was the motivation for her writing her first blog post. Shannon said the witness misunderstood the question, but the information remained unchallenged for the jury to consider.
The CID also contacted Riggins. A report in court records shows that Riggins described a consensual sexual encounter with Shannon after a Halloween party in 1983, and a short relationship with an amicable breakup. Riggins said he had no significant contact with her in 1986. In Washington state, Shannon told investigators there was no sex or relationship in 1983, only a rape after Riggins saw her staggering out of a pedestrian tunnel on campus in the spring of 1986. She claimed Riggins offered her a ride in his car, and that she had no memory of the actual assault, although she said Riggins “smugly admitted he did indeed rape” Shannon, according to a Fairfax court filing.
Shannon called Riggins’s story about the 1983 encounter “a complete fabrication.” She said she presented a witness, another cadet, who testified that he — the witness — drove her home from the Halloween party. Shannon stands by her version of the events in 1986.
“Everything in that blog post was provably false,” said Stephen Horvath, Riggins’s lawyer, “and could not have happened.” He said no free beer was provided on the West Point campus, that drinking was prohibited by cadets, that Riggins did not have a car in 1986, would not have been allowed to drive it on campus, and that anyone emerging from the pedestrian tunnel couldn’t have been seen from the road. Shannon’s claims that her grades plunged after the event and that she returned her class ring were also untrue, Horvath said.
The CID investigation found that, in light of the vastly different stories provided by Riggins and Shannon, and interviews of more than 30 people from that era, there was no “testimonial or physical evidence to corroborate Ms. Shannon or Col. Riggins’ version.” Trichilo said the jury should have been allowed to hear that Riggins’s version of events also was not substantiated. But shortly before the trial began, the judge ordered references to the findings on Riggins’s version struck from the trial, Trichilo said.
Riggins’s nomination for brigadier general was returned to McHugh, the secretary of the Army, who wrote that “I do not have faith and confidence in Colonel Riggins’ judgment and character. Consequently, I do not support his promotion to brigadier general.”
With Congress furious at the failure of military authorities to crack down on sexual assault, “there was absolutely tremendous fear,” Riggins said, “that had to do with loss of the Uniform Code of Military Justice jurisdiction by commanders in the Army.” Horvath added, “Once the allegation of rape had been made, there was no way Col. Riggins was going to get the position at that time, in that atmosphere.” As an expert witness at trial, Horvath called retired Major General Peter Fuller to testify that the rape allegation would have caused Riggins’s promotion to be rejected. Horvath said Riggins’s income, both as a general and as a retired general, would have been much greater than that of a colonel.
Trichilo said Fuller should not have been allowed to testify to his opinion about the impact of the investigation without firm data. He said that enabled the jury to speculate about what damages the investigation caused.
The trial began July 24 with the testimony of Riggins and his wife, Nancy, and later in the week Shannon took the stand. Riggins testified a second time on rebuttal, and closing arguments were held on the afternoon of Aug. 1. As night fell, the jury told Judge Ortiz they wanted to deliberate that night, rather than return in the morning. Court records show they began at 6:30 p.m. and returned at 9:04 p.m.
“Honestly,” said juror Marshall Reinsdorf, “we thought who was telling the truth was too obvious to be discussing. We held a vote, and everybody believed the colonel. The only argument was how big the damages were going to be.” Of the four women and three men on the jury, two other jurors declined to comment, two jurors did not return messages and two could not be reached.
Reinsdorf said he had numerous problems with Shannon’s testimony. “Her story had so many details in it that couldn’t have been true,” he said. “They started questioning her about the [pedestrian] tunnel, she kind of backed off. … She was so evasive. It was unbelievable.”
Horvath had not suggested a dollar figure for damages, so the jury came up with roughly $3 million for his compensatory damages, Reinsdorf said. For punitive damages, the jury decided, “We need to make sure nothing like this will ever happen again,” Reinsdorf said. He said one juror suggested that as the rationale for the $5 million figure, and “basically got unanimous support for that.” Reinsdorf said the jury agreed that Shannon’s accusation derailed Riggins’s promotion. “There was no doubt in anybody’s mind the colonel had made his case,” Reinsdorf said. “He was believable.”
On the verdict form, the jury was asked whether Shannon made her statements knowing they were false or reckless or negligent, and checked “yes” for every one.
“The bottom line,” Shannon said, “is when the judge struck the [Army] CID findings at the beginning of trial” and prevented her witnesses from testifying about Riggins’s character, “we could not switch gears and defend me in a certain way.” She acknowledged that her blog post sparked an investigation which otherwise wouldn’t have happened, but that Riggins had the burden of proof to show that the investigation stopped his promotion.
“I think the jury’s verdict,” Riggins said, “not only that they found her statements were false and defamatory, but the amount of the damages they assessed, speaks volumes.” Although Shannon had claimed, on a GoFundMe page seeking help with her legal bills, that Riggins’s suit would discourage sex assault victims from making reports, Riggins responded that “this will discourage other false accusations but would not discourage legitimate accusations of sexual assault.”
Clare, the defamation lawyer, said, “We have tons of clients who want their reputation back. What they really want is a public vindication of the falsity.” He said a successful claim enables victors to take the judgment to websites like Facebook and Google and convince them to remove defamatory material.
On Tuesday, a week after the verdict, Shannon deleted the two blog posts from 2013 about Riggins.