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On the morning of May 28, 2009, Staff Sgt. Chad Wille, a recruiter for the Arizona Army National Guard, was confronted at a Phoenix gas station by an angry bicyclist.
The bicyclist pointed to the soldier's military Humvee with distinctive camouflage paint, noted its license plate and said he'd seen that same vehicle drive down Seventh Street six weeks earlier while its occupants shot pedestrians with paintballs.
Wille, who had been away at recruiting school during that period, returned to his office in Sunnyslope and reported the allegation to 1st Sgt. Lucas Atwood, his supervisor in the Recruiting and Retention Command.
Wille also questioned Master Sgt. Joseph Martin, a colleague in the recruiting unit who had custody of the Humvee keys at the time of the alleged paintball attacks. According to military records, Martin said he had given the keys to another recruiter, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Amerson, then asked Wille, "You're not aware of the bum hunts?"
Over the next year, Arizona National Guard commanders would learn about clusters of alleged criminal and unethical behavior by Guard members that included patrols through north Phoenix to assault and humiliate homeless people. Witnesses alleged Amerson and other soldiers were involved in sexual misconduct, recruiting improprieties and cover-ups. Military investigators ultimately substantiated allegations, concluding that the recruiting office was infected with corruption because of command leadership failures.
But as the investigations progressed, Wille became a target, military and police records show. Instead of being rewarded for integrity, he was subjected to a two-year campaign of harassment. Records show he was falsely accused of groping a teenage girl and threatened with a bullet to the head. His confidential military records were provided to an ex-convict. His National Guard photograph was stolen and posted on derogatory fliers outside National Guard headquarters, known as the Papago Military Reservation, in Phoenix. He was subjected to other allegations, investigated and pressured to resign, but refused.
This story, drawn from interviews, police records, court files and thousands of pages of military investigations, begins with the "bum hunts."
Wille, a former Indiana reserve police officer, told military investigators that the bicyclist's allegations, if true, amounted to criminal assault, misuse of a government vehicle and other offenses.
Atwood told him that Amerson denied knowledge of paintball attacks. No other soldiers talked. The issue was closed. Atwood told Wille, "Just let it go."
Wille insisted on filing a written report. Within hours, he began getting calls from fellow officers. They demanded to know if he was a team player, then warned him to back off. According to National Guard case files, Amerson sent Wille a taunting text: "Ha, ha, ha ... First Sgt. Atwood ain't going to do anything."
Wille later told investigators he was outraged by pressure tactics and challenges to his integrity. "I got a little angry, and the police department (training) came back out of me," he noted.
Wille started talking with young enlistees. Within hours, a 17-year-old private admitted taking part in missions targeting the homeless. (A recruit may sign up at age 17, the minimum age, with a parent's signature.) The teenager said she and other female cadets were pressured by Amerson to cruise with him and flash their breasts at indigents, who were induced to dance, sing or show their own bosoms for money.
In one case, the private said, Amerson offered a homeless woman $10 to expose her breasts, refused to pay, then screeched away as the lady grabbed onto the recruiting vehicle's passenger window. "The female was pulled along and then spun off the car, landing on the ground," notes an investigative report. "She (the soldier) did not know if the female was hurt because they did not stop."
Wille took the cadet to a supervisor, where the allegations were repeated. More soldiers were interrogated. Some received phone calls from colleagues as they were being interviewed, warning them to lie or remain silent, according to military records.
But the Pandora's box had opened. Witnesses eventually testified that Amerson, while in uniform, led 30 to 35 nighttime raids through north Phoenix to harass homeless people. At least a dozen Guard members and recruits took part, while others looked away.
Confessions led to more disclosures of wrongdoing, more investigations. One private, who was enlisted by Amerson and joined in the escapades, told investigators: "I wasn't following the Army Code of Conduct — the rules of the Army — and I guess I sort of got that idea from Sgt. Amerson that ‘You can do whatever you want, as long as people don't know.' "
Reached by phone, Amerson declined to be interviewed. "There was nothing behind any of that," he said before hanging up.
Military witnesses later testified that Amerson, a top recruiter, was known for bragging and exaggerating.
Lt. Col. Keith Blodgett, then commander of Army Guard recruiting operations, told a panel of officers Amerson was "a big muscular guy, kind of like Johnny Bravo, you know, that cartoon character."
Even Atwood, Amerson's supervisor and friend, testified that the sergeant was "one hell of a bulls—tter," adding, "That's why he was a good recruiter."
All testified they had heard Amerson describe bum-hunting expeditions, but claimed to believe the tales were fabricated. Martin, a supervising officer, heard the stories so many times he was able to recite a detailed anecdote about the abduction of a homeless man.
"Supposedly he was like a Vietnam veteran or something, and that's why they named him ‘Checkpoint Charlie,'" Martin told investigators. "So they buy coffee and Checkpoint skips out on the tab, so now they're pissed at him. So the story goes, ‘Hey, we're going to take you out in the desert, dump you out in the desert.' Maybe to scare him. I don't know.
"Checkpoint had his cell phone and was going to call the police. So Amerson swung around the back seat, grabbed his cell phone, was going to smash it. Then they get back to wherever it is that they picked up this Charlie guy at, and they're all standing around and Checkpoint has like a railroad tie (spike) or something and grabs (another soldier) puts him in a headlock and says, ‘I'm going to kill you.' I guess somehow Amerson diffused the situation or something to that affect (sic)."
Martin told investigators that he never believed the stories — even after Wille began asking questions. When Amerson was suspended after young soldiers confirmed the bum hunts were real, Martin testified, he and other recruiters became so fearful of retaliation that they brought guns to their office in a Phoenix mall, violating Guard regulations.
"He (Amerson) had his own guns," Martin explained. "I started wearing my pistol to work, kept it in my backpack."
Fraternization offered yet another sign that some in recruiting command were out of control.
Military command policies prohibit fraternization, or non-official relations, between National Guard officers and subordinates or prospective enlistees.
In January 2007, Blodgett, who oversaw recruiting, published a command philosophy that warned of danger areas. "Do the right thing," Blodgett wrote. "Be self-policing and hold each other accountable when you see your brother or sister slipping. Guard your integrity jealously."
Yet, according to National Guard records, Amerson avoided discipline throughout a years-long series of improper relationships with recruiting prospects and cadets.
During military inquiries known as 15-6 investigations, soldiers told military investigators that Amerson held pool parties where potential enlistees and new soldiers — male and female — were served alcohol and engaged in topless "chicken fights." One recruit, only weeks in the National Guard, wrote a letter to the commander giving notice that she was quitting because Amerson pressured her to take part in bikini parties.
A teenager in training claimed Amerson took her into his private office alone and instructed her to remove her shirt so he could determine whether she was pregnant. According to investigative records, she wept describing how he used a tape measure and fondled her, making her feel "dirty and disgusted," then took her to a pharmacy to get a pregnancy test, which came out negative.
Amerson acknowledged to investigators that another prospective recruit moved into his home as a minor, according to his 15-6 interview. The relationship was exposed when the teen was accused of stealing a credit card from the residence. Amerson received no formal punishment. The female, by then a new soldier, was ostracized and subsequently agreed to be discharged.
Finally, witnesses told of another recruit who became Amerson's third wife. Sgt. Atwood denied being derelict in oversight but acknowledged serving as best man at the wedding. Atwood told investigators he had counseled Amerson repeatedly for conduct issues, but never imposed or recommended formal discipline because his bosses did not instruct him to do so.
Atwood declined comment for this story.
Sgt. 1st Class Marie Ann Neilson told investigators she reported an Amerson affair with a teenager, but supervisors reacted by forcing the female soldier to quit the National Guard. "Everybody was yelling at her for an inappropriate relationship," Neilson told them. "But he (Amerson) was the guy: ‘Hey, good for you. You got the young girl.' And that was their attitude.
"This is a very young, naive girl ... You look at her and think she's a high-school cheerleader, the president of the glee club. Her career is over and nobody cares because Amerson was a superstar at the time. It was just washed under the rug."
Within days after exposing corrupt conduct and lax supervision in recruiting operations, Wille was rebuked for breaching the chain of command. He also was given a reprimand because he had fallen one enlistment shy of his recruiting quota.
Still, the wheels of military justice churned with inquiries. Soldiers were punished for misconduct. Some non-commissioned officers were reprimanded or demoted.
Wille became a pariah. At one point, he told an investigative panel he was shunned for trying to do the right thing. "Now I'm the narc," he said. "Now I'm the one going wrong."
On June 25, 2010, a man named Don Lee Scott called the recruiting command and requested a meeting to discuss soldier misconduct. At a coffee shop near National Guard headquarters, Scott told Master Sgt. Daniel Cardiel that a 16-year-old girl had met a recruiter weeks earlier while stopped at a traffic light. He claimed the National Guard officer got the girl's phone number and arranged a rendezvous on a later date, where he touched her breast. The officer Scott accused: Chad Wille.
According to military files and Phoenix police records, Scott gave Cardiel handwritten pages containing Wille's Social Security number and Army records that could only have been obtained from confidential military files. In a written statement, Scott said discipline of Wille should be "nothing less than discharge from the Arizona National Guard."
Cardiel reported the accusation to his supervisors. An inquiry was assigned to Capt. Reinaldo Rios.
Wille told Rios he didn't know Don Scott, had never met the alleged victim, and didn't know what was going on.
Scott did not make the girl available for an interview, and declined to tell how he obtained military records protected under federal privacy laws. Rios reported to his supervisor that the story was suspect: Scott had not filed a police report about the alleged fondling, and provided no evidence for it.
Rios concluded that Wille was being set up. National Guard records show Rios then became the subject of an investigation, and received a reprimand, because he provided information to Wille about Scott.
Maj. Benjamin Luoma was assigned to a deeper probe of Scott's accusation. Once again, Scott failed to cooperate. Luoma found "no credible evidence" of sexual abuse by Wille.
While that inquiry was under way, three other recruiters filed unrelated complaints against Wille, claiming he violated recruiting protocols, made inappropriate comments and misused a government vehicle.
On July 1, 2010, Wille was ordered to meet with superior officers, including the recruiting commander. Upon arrival, Wille said he was pressured to quit the National Guard and handed a pretyped resignation letter. Wille refused to sign, left the meeting, and returned later with his own letter alleging that he was a victim of retaliation.
A parallel investigation was by then under way to determine how a civilian had obtained Wille's confidential military records, a breach so serious that the Arizona National Guard was locked out of the Pentagon's personnel system for a week.
Scott, who claimed to be a former U.S. Marine, told investigators Wille's personnel information was given to him by someone "back East." When pressed for details, Scott announced he wanted the entire probe dropped.
The military investigator recommended a full inquiry by the Department of Defense. He also concluded that Wille "was likely the target of a personal grudge."
On Oct. 1, 2010, Wille received an anonymous call at work. He put his cellphone on speaker mode so other soldiers could listen. According to a Phoenix police report, the caller warned that at an unexpected moment he would "walk up behind (Wille) and put a .45 against his head and blow his brains out."
Soldiers who heard the conversation were later given a recording of Don Scott's voice and filed sworn statements declaring that it sounded the same as the threat call.
Scott denied responsibility when police contacted him.
A month later, someone taped fliers in public places outside National Guard headquarters on McDowell Road. The posters featured Wille's military photograph with disparaging information, including a warning that the sergeant was "a professional tattle-teller."
Wille delivered them as evidence to Phoenix police, asking for fingerprint tests. The National Guard verified that the photo was stolen from Wille's personnel file, though investigators could not identify the thief.
Wille sought an anti-harassment order against Scott in Phoenix Municipal Court. A hearing was held Dec. 8, 2010. According to a police report, as Wille exited the court afterward, he overheard Scott on a cellphone speaking with Brig. Gen. Alberto Gonzalez, the National Guard's chief of staff.
Phoenix police Officer Jonathan Alberta visited Gonzalez, who confirmed that he spoke with Scott but said the call was not about Wille. Rather, Gonzalez said, Scott called to complain that Capt. Rios, who first investigated the groping allegation, testified in court on behalf of Wille. Gonzalez told Alberta that he and Maj. Gen. Hugo Salazar, the top officer in the Arizona National Guard, "had told Don he could call them anytime with any concerns he may have."
Salazar said he was dealing with a civilian who had lodged a serious complaint against a soldier, and sought to be open and transparent.
Amid the turmoil, Capt. Scott Blaney, the National Guard's deputy judge advocate general, or JAG, was assigned to investigate Wille's retaliation complaint. Blaney found "no evidence that the AZNG or any of its members have taken an unfavorable personnel action" against Wille.
Blaney also rejected Wille's complaint that someone in the National Guard stole his personnel records. Instead, the captain suggested, Wille may have been "a little careless in safeguarding his own personnel documents."
Fingerprints and calls
On Jan. 20, 2011, Phoenix police-lab testing of adhesive tape used on disparaging posters contained a print "identified to the right middle finger of Donald Lee Scott."
According to the police report, Scott suggested that Wille must have "gone to his house, gone through his recycling bin, found an aluminum can, lifted a fingerprint ... and placed it on a flyer in order to frame him." Scott also denied knowing any recruiting officers in the National Guard.
The police probe escalated. Officer Alberta joined forces with Juan Concha of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, who was trying to learn who stole Wille's personnel records.
Several NCOs in the Recruiting Command were ordered to appear for questioning at the JAG office. They were told that they were not suspects and, for reasons that remain unclear, they were not given Miranda warnings. All of them, including Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Martin, denied knowing Don Scott.
Wille, meanwhile, had submitted a public-records request for National Guard cellphone records. In February 2011, he received a list of eight recruiting officers whose phone records showed repeated contacts with Don Scott, some before Wille was accused of sexual misconduct. According to police, a phone assigned to Sgt. Martin was linked to 173 calls to Scott's phone.
Alberta wrote that Martin "lied" about not knowing Scott. He concluded that "members within the Army National Guard conspired with Don Scott to have Chad Wille demoted or removed."
Martin could not be reached for comment, and his attorney declined to be interviewed.
Scott was charged in March 2011 with misdemeanor use of a telephone to terrify and with harassment. The case is pending.
Court files include a rambling, 16-page memo by Scott that accuses Wille of harassment. In September, Scott was ordered to undergo a mental-health screening. A court hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
According to court records, Scott has criminal convictions for harassment, endangerment and aggravated assault dating to 1987. Arizona Department of Corrections records show a 1999 conviction for harassment and a yearlong term in prison for probation violations.
In a recent interview with The Republic, Scott said he suffered a head injury in March and lost all memory of the past five years.
Nevertheless, he discussed the National Guard controversy in detail, claiming he based his knowledge on written notes and official records.
He admitted being friends with recruiting command officers before he accused Wille of sexual abuse. He acknowledged receiving personnel files from a National Guard officer. But he claimed to be a victim of harassment, not a perpetrator.
Numerous recruiters tied to Sgt. Wille's case have been demoted or reprimanded. Among them, according to military records and Maj. Gen. Salazar:
Investigators found Amerson culpable for fraternization, vehicle misuse, recruiting improprieties and dishonesty. He was demoted to private and given an other-than-honorable discharge. He was not criminally prosecuted or court-martialed. His discharge evaluation says: "Failed every soldier, NCO and officer in the command by using his position for his own pleasure and personal gain."
Atwood was found to be derelict, demoted and discharged from the National Guard.
Martin is the only soldier to face court-martial. He was charged with being an accessory to Scott's harassment campaign, making false statements and general misconduct. Salazar said he believes it was the first court-martial case in Arizona Guard history. "I wanted to go after him. I wanted to send that signal," he said.
In April, charges against Martin were dismissed after a military judge suppressed Martin's statements because investigators failed to read him his Miranda rights.
Salazar said Martin was near retirement age at the time, and therefore in a protected status known as "sanctuary." Under military regulations, firing him would have required approval from the Secretary of the Army. So Martin was reduced in rank for misuse of a government cellphone. He was placed on leave, then retired with benefits.
Wille said in an interview earlier this month he feels betrayed by National Guard colleagues and leadership.
He said he was forced to conduct investigations in his defense for two years. He said he filed complaints with the Defense Department's inspector general, but got no response.
He said a staffer with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., set up an interview at the Governor's Office that was later canceled because, he was told, Maj. Gen. Salazar was dealing with the matter.
"They don't try to do the right thing," Wille said of the Guard. "They're too busy looking out for the agency and trying to cover up."
Salazar said each allegation and complaint by Wille was investigated, and National Guard leaders tried to accommodate his needs under the stress.
"To allege that this organization reprised against anyone, to include Sgt. Wille, is unfounded," Salazar added. "I am not saying Wille didn't have a target on his back. Somebody was out to get him ... (But) we made every effort to try to protect him ... To be honest, Wille just never felt that we did enough."
Salazar said he recently updated the National Guard's whistle-blower policy and ordered training to clarify prohibitions against reprisal.