A young soldier’s superiors ignore her pleas for help, and then she’s killed
When the skeletal remains of Army 101st Airborne Pfc. Shadow McClaine were found in late January, it ended a months-long search of the rugged Tennessee-Kentucky mountains for the Yuba City native. The discovery also ended the hope of family members who had joined the effort to locate the missing 25-year-old in the area surrounding Fort Campbell, where she’d served her country.
A little more than a week later, loved ones were joined by military and law enforcement personnel in uniform to greet her flag-draped casket in the darkness of a winter morning at the Sacramento International Airport. The respect she was shown in death was ironic in a way, said McClaine’s mother, London Wegrzyn, speaking at the airport to local news stations.
“[T]hem finally giving her the respect she deserves, it’s just a little too late, but I love it,” she said.
Wegrzyn is convinced McClaine was killed by her ex-husband, Sgt. Jamal Williams-McCray, and Spc. Charles Robinson, an accomplice. Military prosecutors believe this as well, though a cause of death has not yet been determined. Nearly two months after McClaine went missing, the Army’s main investigative body, the Criminal Investigation Command, arrested both men. They’ve since been charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with kidnapping, conspiracy and premeditated murder. Williams-McCray later was also charged with rape, aggravated assault and obstruction of justice.
McClaine’s death underscores concerns about the U.S. military’s commitment to protecting female soldiers from their male counterparts and the epidemic of military sexual trauma, or MST. That’s the term used by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to describe psychological trauma that “resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the veteran was serving on active duty or active duty for training.”
Wegrzyn, who lives in Yuba City, said the Army and personnel at Fort Campbell, which straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky border, failed to protect her daughter, and she and other relatives lay much of the blame for McClaine’s death on her commanding officers. Just over a year before she went missing, McClaine had accused Williams-McCray of rape, and while she was in desperate need of these officers’ help, they turned their backs on her.
Wegrzyn is now determined to “go after the Army” because she believes leadership at Fort Campbell—from McClaine’s commanding officers all the way to the base’s generals—could have prevented her daughter’s death.
“Several people from her command knew the dynamics of her relationship with her ex-husband, yet none helped her,” she said. “She told them she was in fear for her life. They instead told her she wasn’t fit to be in the Army. She will get justice, and I will not stop until this never happens again.”Pleas unanswered
Preliminary hearings for both suspects were held in military court in April. According to a press release from the 101st Airborne Division, prosecutor Maj. Rebecca Farrell argued Williams-McCray was physically violent and sexually assaulted McClaine during their marriage. She charged that Williams-McCray killed McClaine because he wanted to take a military assignment in South Korea but couldn’t because the sexual-assault allegation remained unresolved.
Thus far, evidence in the case is circumstantial but compelling.
The prosecutor said Robinson’s wife told investigators she overheard her husband and Williams-McCray talking about the highway exit in Tennessee near where McClaine’s body was discovered. She also said her husband washed his truck—including its bed, with bleach—not long after McClaine went missing. DNA tests on hair and blood reportedly found in the vehicle are pending.
Military defense attorneys for the suspects told the court the investigation is not complete and there isn’t enough evidence for the case to go to a court-martial—the military court where armed-forces members are tried. Both suspects are being held at a local jail and could face the death penalty.
McClaine’s parents and other family members were present at the hearings and remain convinced the Army failed her after she’d reported the alleged assault. Wegrzyn says her daughter told commanding officers multiple times that she feared for her life and wanted to be transferred off base, but that those pleas went unanswered, as both she and Williams-McCray remained stationed at Fort Campbell. It was revealed during the preliminary hearings that McClaine had at one point recanted the rape accusation, but that she’d subsequently told her commanding officers she’d done so because Williams-McCray had intimidated her.
According to online posts by McClaine, the intimidation escalated. She wrote on Facebook that she was “always looking over [her] shoulder” and alleging her brake lines had been cut. Wegrzyn said when her daughter told her about the incident, she urged her to again ask for a transfer off the base. But McClaine’s request was again refused.
“Commanding officers took the ex-husband’s side,” Wegrzyn told SN&R. “She was viewed as the aggressor because of her ex-husband’s narcissistic ways of trying to destroy her life. The Army looked the other way, and he succeeded.”A flawed structure
McClaine entered the service when she was barely out of her teens. The draw for women her age includes the steady pay, college tuition assistance programs and the opportunity to learn valuable skills. But the military is far different from any entry-level civilian job or college.
Enlisted women often become the center of attention of their male counterparts, who outnumber them 10 to 1. According to a 2014 RAND Corp. study, roughly a third of women in military service experience some gender-based discrimination and harassment. One female veteran told the online publication Cracked, “All of the females were considered either ’sluts’ or ’lesbians.’”
But, unlike the civilian workplace, there’s no civil recourse.
Lindsey Sin, deputy secretary for Women Veterans Affairs at the California Department of Veterans Affairs, known as CalVet, in Sacramento, promotes military service while also supporting and serving California’s women veterans, the second largest population in the nation, behind Texas. Some are MST survivors suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder.
Sin says her time in the Navy was a “fantastic experience” that launched her career serving veterans. She faced challenges, which she wouldn’t elaborate on, but she wants to make it clear she does “not want to mischaracterize that every woman [who] goes into the military experiences a huge amount of harassment and assault.”
Sin’s job requires a balancing act.
“We walk a fine line between encouraging women to serve in the military and highlighting that military service is something very positive, and also understanding that systemic change or cultural change also has to happen in the military,” Sin told SN&R.
“There is a reality that it doesn’t go well for everybody, and that doesn’t excuse what goes on in the military by a long shot,” she continued. “[My job is] to balance the fact that we want to see women serving in the military, because that’s truly how we change an organization for the better, while also recognizing the military is not in any way perfect, and in fact criminal activities can happen within it.”
Sin’s office has researched MST by surveying California veterans, resulting in an outreach and lobbying effort to raise awareness and pass veteran-friendly legislation, such as Assembly Bill 1509, a 2014 law that developed a program assisting vets, including those who have suffered from MST, with the transition to civilian life.
“Many women I speak to don’t regret their military service,” she said. “They are devastated and profoundly affected, unfortunately, by something such as an assault that may have happened to them, but they still, for the most part, are very proud to have served in the military.”Internal affairs
The subject of MST hit the mainstream in 2013 with the release of a Pentagon study based on a confidential survey of 108,000 active-duty members. The study estimated that 26,000 military personnel had been sexually assaulted the previous year—although only 3,374 were reported.
In response to the revelation, then-President Barack Obama called for the military to take a zero-tolerance stance: “If we find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period.”
In 2014, a study released by the Pentagon revealed just over 5,000 cases of sexual assault were reported in 2013, 50 percent more than in the previous year. That increase was attributed to improved reporting protocols. Meanwhile, according to a CalVet study also released in 2014, 73 percent of respondents experienced sexual harassment and 40 percent said they’d been victims of sexual assault while on active duty.
Pentagon officials attribute the discrepancy between the estimated number of assaults and the number of those reported to a fear of retaliation.
Indeed, those who do file a report may face what many MST victims refer to as “the second assault.” Bullying, demotions and ostracism were well-documented by Human Rights Watch in a series of studies released in 2015 and 2016, including one titled “Embattled: Retaliation Against Sexual Assault Survivors in the U.S. Military.” CalVet reports that 60 percent of its veterans who had reported sexual assault or harassment also reported retaliation.
MST victims and advocates say a more telling statistic from the Pentagon regarding MST is this: In 2015, the military received more than 6,000 reports of sexual assault. But only 250 of these reports (4 percent) led to a conviction.
Further controversy surrounding MST relates to the fact that, under military law, the commanding officer decides whether an alleged assailant faces a court-martial. Moreover, that superior has the authority to overturn a military jury’s verdict.
In the male-dominated service, female MST victims say, the military’s unwritten code of “brotherhood” exerts heavy influence on whether the accused will ever face judgment.
Members of Congress have tried to move decisions on sexual-assault prosecution to experienced military prosecutors—rather than leaving them to commanding officers, as is customary—but the Senate voted down bipartisan legislation on that front in 2014.AWOL, or missing?
McClaine, who had served in Afghanistan and South Korea and at the time of her death worked as an air traffic controller at Fort Campbell, went missing in her fourth year of enlistment. She was last heard from when she texted her mother on September 2, a Friday and the start of Labor Day weekend. She failed to report for duty the following Monday morning. Eleven days later, her abandoned car was found in a parking lot in Nashville, about 70 miles from the base.
Prior to joining the Army, McClaine was a happy and loving young adult, her family insists. Pictures of her as a vibrant child, teen and 20-something fill a Facebook page titled “Justice for Shadow McClaine.” The Yuba City native had a passion for photography and wanted to return home to California when her service ended. She was scheduled to leave the military last October.
After McClaine’s disappearance, her family held two candlelight vigils near Fort Campbell. They were shocked when they recognized no one from her chain of command at either.
Officials there have been tight-lipped about McClaine’s killing. In response to inquiries for this story, Lt. Col. Chevelle Thomas, from the 101st Airborne’s Division of Public Affairs at the base, issued this statement to SN&R: “The circumstances leading up to and surrounding Private McClaine’s death remain part of an active and ongoing investigation and no final actions have been taken.”
Thomas noted that McClaine’s commanding officers, following her accusation of rape against Williams-McCray, did contact a Fort Campbell sexual-assault response coordinator, which led to an investigation. However, Williams-McCray wasn’t charged with rape until after McClaine’s body was discovered.Swirling rumors
Despite the military’s culture of masculinity and ultradiscipline, some women seek a sense of belonging from male soldiers. McClaine’s family says she wed Williams-McCray on impulse. The couple’s marriage did not last a year. They remained in close proximity following their separation in 2015.
Seeing each other on a daily basis reportedly resulted in a fallout of jealousy and revenge. Both of them filed protective orders against each other as their loathing played out on controversial websites such as Shesahomewrecker.com and Liarscheatersrus.com.
Army investigators and local law enforcement outside the base say that McClaine made up multiple fake identities to get back at her ex-husband for his alleged infidelities. In fact, military and local police were so convinced her harassment had crossed a line that McClaine was arrested last summer for stalking, criminal impersonation and contempt of court. She was scheduled to appear in court on September 6, according to local law enforcement court documents. But she never showed. She’d gone missing days earlier and initially was considered AWOL, as publicly stated at the time by Master Sgt. Kevin Doheny, spokesman for the 101st Airborne Division.
McClaine’s family says designating her AWOL didn’t afford her a massive search by the Army. However, Thomas says McClaine’s chain of command, based on the information known at the time, were correct when they reported her as AWOL.
“The AWOL designation did not interfere with conducting a thorough search,” Thomas insisted. “The command, however, cannot take steps to protect AWOL soldiers because their location is not known.”
The family questions how thorough a search was actually conducted. It wasn’t until a month later, on October 8, that uniformed Army soldiers told them the Army had changed McClaine’s status from AWOL to missing. Why and when exactly her chain of command decided she was possibly in trouble and not AWOL may or may not come out during a murder trial.
The family thinks Fort Campbell officials assumed McClaine went AWOL based on her recent arrest. After all, there were rumors on base suggesting she’d fabricated the story about her severed brakes, which she had posted about on her Facebook page, complete with pictures.
Thomas says the Army investigated McClaine’s report that someone had tampered with her vehicle. She was never charged with filing a false police report.
McClaine’s loved ones fume at the accusations that she was a liar and a stalker. They say her ex-husband and his friends, through fake online profiles, deliberately created the appearance that she was stalking him and other women near Fort Campbell. They also believe his strategy was an attempt to cast doubt on her allegation of rape. His lies convinced police to wrongly arrest McClaine, says the family.
Her own words back this up.
“I got arrested for allegedly ’stalking’ a woman I have never met in person,” McClaine wrote online just before she reported her brake lines had been cut. “I have only had very brief email correspondence with the alleged victim, and two weeks prior, she called my work to complain that I was going to her work and threatening her. I have not been to that restaurant in over a year and have spent every moment of my time the last two months with my [new] boyfriend. They are trying to make me out to be a crazy stalker when I am not.”No escape
After repeated unanswered texts to her daughter during that fateful Labor Day weekend, McClaine’s mother knew something was terribly wrong. Wegrzyn flew to Kentucky, where she urged her daughter’s commanding officers at Fort Campbell to determine that she was missing.
“I went there to find my daughter and get answers by being in the Army’s face,” Wegrzyn said.
But she couldn’t convince McClaine’s chain of command that her daughter was in trouble. So, she turned to Army Criminal Investigation Command investigators stationed at Fort Campbell. In many ways, CID is the FBI of the Army. Its mission is to investigate all serious felony crimes committed by Army personnel.
Wegrzyn, who had access to her daughter’s bank and phone records, says when she showed CID investigators there had been no activity for either, they took McClaine’s disappearance far more seriously than her chain of command had done.
“CID has been the only ones [in the Army] that helped us,” she said.
Outside of the Army, the National Veteran Search and Recovery Program, a nonprofit made up of veteran, first responder and enlisted volunteers, organized a search for McClaine and issued a “Missing Warrior Alert,” which the group says is akin to an Amber Alert.
One of McClaine’s biggest champions besides her loved ones is MST survivor Colleen Bushnell, a retired Air Force veteran and noncommissioned officer who worked closely with McClaine’s family during the months she was missing.
Bushnell does not get paid for her activism, but in the MST survivor community she’s a firebrand. Raped twice by commanding officers in two consecutive years over a decade ago, Bushnell sought justice but faced the “second assault” of retaliation. When her enlistment ended, she suffered from PTSD, became homeless and lost custody of her children.
Bushnell, who now lives in Phoenix, has become an advocate for female soldiers and their families when they are victimized. She rallied McClaine’s family and demanded Fort Campbell list the young woman as missing and not AWOL. She sent letters to Fort Campbell leadership, but she was met with silence.
Bushnell’s own time in the Air Force in many ways mirrored McClaine’s in the Army. Bushnell was an early 20-something when she enlisted. She met a fellow airman and married in a hurry, and then she endured a messy divorce.
“I trusted and trusted this man,” said Bushnell, who also, incidentally, shares a birthday with McClaine. “I did what McClaine did, very similar. I was very naïve, and that trusting nature inspired me to serve my country. It drove me to serve. Had I known what the military was truly like, I wouldn’t have.
“My instinct about McClaine is that she was a good girl, a bookworm. She barely dated in high school. … She decided in her early 20s to strike out on her own and joined the military on a whim. She was not prepared to meet a guy who had street smarts and was not pure of heart. This guy didn’t mean his vows. He was out for himself. He wanted sex and fun. But with her trusting nature, he thought he could have both worlds.”
Bushnell thinks McClaine felt so strongly about her vows she fought back.
“She started trying to track down what he had really done to her,” she said. “Would I track down the woman my husband cheated with? No. But she was only 25 years old, and these kids are different with the internet. The mistake I think McClaine made was not realizing the danger she put herself in by fighting back so openly.
“But this girl had no psychiatric history, no criminal history. And all of a sudden she’s a stalking, manipulating, brake-cutting histrionic problem?”
In one of her unanswered letters to Fort Campbell, Bushnell asked officials to provide a victim’s counsel to the family, independent of the military. That didn’t happen. Bushnell’s personal goal is for the military to someday establish an independent special-victims entity at all major U.S. military installations. McClaine was assigned a special victim’s counsel after the alleged rape, but her attorneys were military personnel.
“If there was a special-victims unit on base, an independent one, McClaine and her mom could have turned to them for help,” she said. “McClaine’s case is precisely why we need to take the reporting, investigation, adjudication, prosecution and sentencing of criminals out of the hands of the local unit commanders and into the hands of trained law enforcement and legal professionals. This is a prime example of a situation where her death could have been prevented had outside experts taken over the situation.”
Perhaps it is McClaine, in another online post, who said it best about her predicament within the military—a place and a culture she seemingly could not escape.
“I really wish the legal system would actually work like it is supposed to.”