WASHINGTON -- Former Marine Charles Allen Chavous was facing prison for his role in a decades-old murder. His attorney portrayed him as a Vietnam War hero who deserved leniency, telling the court he was a POW who escaped captivity and was awarded numerous combat valor medals, including the prestigious Navy Cross.
When the judge handed down his sentence, Chavous, 63, walked away a free man.
But in a case of stolen valor, none of the claims turned out to be true.
The proceedings in Augusta, Ga., were first reported by The Augusta Chronicle. After Chronicle readers expressed skepticism about the alleged war record, Stars and Stripes tried to verify attorney Scott Connell's unchallenged claims.
The Defense Department and other experts' databases have no record of anyone named Charles Chavous being a prisoner of war. Only 684 Americans were held as POWs in Vietnam and returned alive. Of those 684, only 37 escaped captivity on their own. Chavous was not one of them, according to the DoD.
When contacted by Stars and Stripes, Connell provided a copy of the DD-214 military service record allegedly belonging to Chavous.
"The information [presented in court] was confirmed by a vast array of information I reviewed from the VA and other historical military documents. This includes his DD-214," Connell said in an email. He declined further comment.
The validity of the documents was not questioned in court.
Stars and Stripes sent the DD-214 to Doug Sterner, a leading military records expert and the chief archivist for the Military Times Hall of Valor website. Sterner is a Vietnam veteran who has spearheaded efforts to protect the integrity of the military awards system, including the Stolen Valor Act, which would have made it a crime to falsely take credit for unearned medals. The Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional, saying it violated the right to free speech.
Sterner noted "very serious discrepancies" that suggested the DD-214 was phony, including:
- Parts of Block 24 (Awards) and Block 25 (Education and Training) clearly are in a different font than the rest of the DD-214.
- The word "Gallantry" is misspelled "Gallentry" in Block 25.
- The "Navy Cross Medal" and the "Silver Star Medal" -- as they appear in the document -- are referred to simply as "Navy Cross" and "Silver Star," without the word "Medal" appearing after them.
- Block 30 (Remarks) states that Chavous served in Vietnam 30 Jan 1970-1 December 1970 and then again from 15 Jan 1971-6 July 1971. But the font listing the second tour is different from the text above it, which indicates it came from a different typewriter.
- Block 30 (Remarks) states that Chavous was "(Missing in Action) November 21-24, 1970," but the (month/day/year) date format is different from the date format used just above it, and it is not the proper (date/month/year) format used by the military. This suggests the "Missing in Action" part was added later by someone else.
- In Block 5a & 6 (Rank), his rank is shown as "Sgt." with a date of rank of Jan. 3, 1970, but the "g" in "Sgt" is in a different font than the "g" in "Augusta," which indicates that "Sgt" was written with a different typewriter.
"That DD-214 is BOGUS AS HELL," Sterner said in an email.
Stars and Stripes contacted the Marine Corps' records department in Quantico, Va., and an official there who pulled Chavous' service record confirmed that the DD-214 given to Connell is phony in many respects. The former Marine was never awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Achievement Medal, Joint Service Commendation, Presidential Unit Citation, or Meritorious Unit Citation. He never completed Reconnaissance School, Jump School or Jungle Survival School. He never received a battlefield commission to 1st Lt., nor did he retire at the rank of Sgt., as the doctored DD-214 states. (He was discharged as a Lance Cpl.) According to the Marine Corps, Chavous did serve in Vietnam as a rifleman, but he only served one tour. The Marine Corps has no record of him being missing in action or a prisoner of war.
Retired Navy Capt. Mike McGrath is a historian and the former president of Nam-POWs, an association of Vietnam-era POWS. He was a POW for nearly six years after his plane was shot down over North Vietnam.
"We're a very strong social and fraternal organization of all the POWs of the Vietnam War," McGrath said. Chavous "was never with any other POW in the Vietnam War, and we've never heard of him."
There is also strong reason to doubt that the former Marine was repeatedly wounded or seriously injured in Vietnam, as his lawyer claimed. He never received a Purple Heart, which the military awards to all servicemembers who are wounded in combat. And he has not claimed any disabilities stemming from his one verified tour of Vietnam in 1970, according to the Veterans Administration. Chavous receives $2,852.24 each month in VA disability benefits, according to the VA, but officials would not disclose what service-related disabilities he has claimed, citing patient confidentiality rules.
Efforts by Stars and Stripes to contact Chavous for comment were unsuccessful.
The murder and its aftermath
Chavous went to the Augusta home of Bronzi Leon Peppers with three other men on the night of Feb. 3, 1975. His associates had hatched a plan to abduct Peppers because of a dispute over illegal drugs. When Peppers fought back, one of the men pulled out a gun and shot him dead.
The four men fled the scene and none of them contacted law enforcement. The case went cold until 2009, when new information came to light. In 2010, Chavous, Mark Hill and William Coffey III were indicted on murder charges.
Chavous ultimately pleaded guilty to concealing a death and hindering the apprehension of a criminal and was sentenced to 5 years' probation and a $1,000 fine.
However, the two other surviving defendants received much stiffer sentences. One got a five-year jail sentence for the same reduced charges. A second pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and a weapons charge and drew a seven-year prison sentence. The alleged triggerman, Tony Ouzts, was killed about 10 years after the crime in a car crash.
Judge Michael Annis of the Richmond County, Ga., Superior Court, did not respond to queries about whether Chavous' purported service record played any role in his sentencing decision, handed down in April.
Assistant District Attorney John Markwalter said he did not recommend any particular sentence as part of the plea agreement. Markwalter said the punishment was left to the discretion of the court, and he would not speculate as to why Annis chose not to give the man any prison time.
Kay Levine, a professor at Emory University Law School in Atlanta who specializes in criminal law, said that a defendant's history often plays a big role in sentencing, especially their criminal history.
Unlike Hill and Coffey, Chavous appears to have had no criminal record (excluding traffic violations). Hill was on probation for felony theft when he was arrested for his involvement in Peppers' killing. In 2004, Coffey was arrested and charged with a felony count of criminal attempt to manufacture methamphetamine; he later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of reckless conduct and was sentenced to 12 months incarceration. The criminal histories of Hill and Coffey could explain why they received much heavier sentences than Chavous, according to Levine.
But Levine said Connell's portrayal of his client as a war hero could have been a major factor in him avoiding prison.
"The war hero story, I think, would function pretty heavily in this calculation of what's his just dessert," Levine said. "There are all of these things that [suggest that] the past is this record of heroism, and also tragedy ... to the extent that he was injured in Vietnam fighting for the country. ... That factors into how much punishment does he deserve now, because it kind of serves as a counterweight to the wrongdoing of the crime. Somebody who doesn't have that, there is no counterweight."
A pattern of stolen valor
Chavous' legal defense wasn't the first time that his war record was exaggerated.
The Heroes Overlook in Augusta honors local veterans who have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross or the Distinguished Service Cross -- three of the nation's highest awards for combat valor. Chavous -- or someone connected to him -- convinced the Augusta-Richmond Country Historical Society that he had received the Navy Cross and the Distinguished Service Cross by providing award citations describing in detail the actions that he allegedly carried out to earn the awards.
Stars and Stripes obtained copies of the citations that were given to the historical society. They are nearly identical to the Navy Cross citations for Vietnam veterans Dieter Dengler and Joseph Crockett Jr., which suggests they may have been plagiarized. Dengler and Crockett's citations appeared in books years before the historical society received the ones allegedly belonging to Chavous.
The former Marine never received the Navy Cross or the Distinguished Service Cross, according to the Marine Corps. But in 1994, two bronze plaques were created for him and were slated to appear on the Heroes Overlook. However, some challenged whether he received the awards, and just days before the plaques were to be unveiled, a representative of Chavous asked that they be removed from the monument, according to Jack Widener, who spearheaded the Heroes Overlook project.
There is, however, a brick in Augusta's Memorial Walkway dedicated to Chavous. The inscription says he was a Vietnam POW. Individuals are able to purchase bricks and have them inscribed for $75. Information on the bricks is not vetted, according to Widener. Widener does not know whether Chavous purchased the brick or whether a relative bought it for him.