Exclusive: Retired Virginia Army Colonel sues woman accusing him of rape

A retired Army colonel from Alexandria is suing one of his classmates from West Point in the 1980’s, claiming her recent allegations of a rape from 30 years ago cost him a military promotion. (WJLA)

A 7 On Your Side I-Team exclusive: It's a he said, she said battle for the ages, with multi-million dollar consequences. And it's all playing out in a Fairfax County courtroom.

A retired Army colonel from Alexandria is suing one of his classmates from West Point in the 1980's, claiming her recent allegations of a rape from 30 years ago cost him a military promotion. The 7 On Your Side I-Team is shining a light on the case that experts say could impact what you say on social media.

West Point cadets follow a simple code, just three words: duty, honor and country, which two former cadets say let them down for drastically different reasons. One of them, retired Army Colonel Wil Riggins told 7 On Your Side, "I did feel like I'd been abandoned by the Army."

His classmate, Susan Shannon, said, "There's what we call a silent code. You don't turn people in."

Shannon waited nearly three decades to talk about what she says happened during the years when she wore the West Point uniform and followed its code.

"I was raped in 1986 by another cadet," she said.

But it was writing about that alleged rape 27 years later that changed the career of Riggins, who had been Shannon's classmate decades earlier. He called the allegations a blindside.

Riggins, a decorated colonel from Alexandria and combat veteran, was on the rise in 2013. But he says that changed when Army leaders saw Shannon's rape allegation on her blog, which listed Riggins by name.

"Frankly the day I started saying his name was the day I started blaming him instead of myself," Shannon said.

"I never got a day in court," Riggins told 7 On Your Side, "Susan Shannon decided to play judge and jury on her own."

But now Riggins will get his day when the accused and accuser meet in a Fairfax County courtroom. Earlier this year Riggins filed a multi-million dollar defamation lawsuit against his former classmate, saying her claims of rape on what some consider a radical blog, cost him a promotion to general in the United States Army.

Responding to the suit, Shannon's attorney, Ben Trichilo, told ABC7, "We have a pretty basic defense here and it's the truth."

But Riggins is mounting his own case, denying the rape occurred, saying, "I did not rape Susan Shannon. Reading into her blog, every aspect of that story is verifiably false."

That blog is where Shannon talked about her own alleged rape in 1986 after reading about sex assaults in the military. It's also a place where Shannon has written about controversial topics including whether the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut was a planned conspiracy.

But it was her 2013 post that's now getting attention. The alleged rape Shannon wrote about is something she did not report before unexpectedly dropping out of West Point. She even denied it when asked during an exit interview.

"There was no way I was going to report that. The blame would fall squarely on me," Shannon said.

Shannon, now a mother living on the West Coast as she fights an East Coast court battle, says she originally told friends and then kept silent, for decades. Her blog entry was published following the announcement that Colonel Riggins was nominated for general. Shannon maintains she was not aware of the nomination until contacted by Army officials following her post.

"It was euphoric," Riggins said of the nomination, "Unlike any experience I've ever had."

But euphoria quickly turned to fear when Riggins was summoned to Fort Myer in Arlington for questioning by the Army's Criminal Investigations Division. He was fingerprinted and had DNA samples. He said, "I went through the process like I had already been convicted."

The 7 On Your Side I-Team obtained copies of the investigative file from the case as well as hundreds of pages of other court documents and Army files. The official Army report shows investigators couldn't prove or disprove Shannon's allegation. But internal Army emails show Riggins' promotion was pushed to what's called a Promotion Review Board because of the investigation.

Army memos obtained by ABC 7 show the review board ultimately decided Riggins was "fully qualified for promotion". But documents show Secretary of the Army John McHugh chose to pull Riggins' name from the promotion list. Army representatives wouldn't say why that decision was made.

Riggins tells ABC 7, "When the Secretary of the Army had to put his name on the line, he wasn't willing to expend his political capital to defend the process."

So now Riggins is defending his honor in court. As Susan Shannon honors what she calls her duty to women that have kept silent.

"I didn't ask for this day. I'm being forced into a courtroom," Shannon said, "It's costing me and my family pretty much all that we have saved. I knew that risk when I wrote it and I don't regret it a day."

Both parties disagree on many things in this case, ranging from whether the sex was consensual, what year the act happened, even whether beer was served the night Shannon claims the alleged rape happened.

But experts tell us one thing is sure: a lawsuit like this could have a big impact on what potential crime victims say on the web moving forward. Advocates for survivors of sexual assault are watching the case, including Lisae Jordan with the Sexual Assault Legal Institute in Maryland, who says, "Survivors who come forward do run this risk."

Jordan explains the defamation case against Susan Shannon is not the first of its kind. These types of cases are becoming more common as people turn more often to social media.

"People don't think of Facebook or a blog as something that's out there in the wide world," Jordan said, "They think of this as my community. These are the people who will give me support. These are the people I want to share my story with."

Jordan says the case could have a chilling effect, keeping victims from coming forward.

"It's something people consider and make their own choices," Jordan said.

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