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Mar 18, 2017

Richard Spencer’s cotton farms

Co-produced with PRX Logo

On this episode of Reveal, we follow up on three stories at the center of controversy.  

White nationalist Richard Spencer has left Montana to set up shop in the nation’s capital – so, how’s it going? Well, he’s been punched on the streets of Washington, D.C., and kicked out of a major conservative political gathering.

Host Al Letson catches up with Spencer, who claims donations to his organization promoting a “white ethno state” have increased tenfold since the election of Donald Trump. But how much is his own money supporting his work? Our reporting has identified one source of Spencer’s family wealth: cotton farms in Louisiana, held since the days of Jim Crow segregation and now worth millions of dollars. We asked Spencer about his cotton farming wealth; he didn’t want to talk about it.

Next, we hear the story of the Marine veteran who broke the news that hundreds – possibly thousands – of naked photographs of female service members were being shared online.

The photos, distributed through a Facebook page called Marines United, were reported on by former Marine-turned-journalist Thomas Brennan. Al talks to Brennan about what he found. They also discuss the backlash against Brennan – his family’s been threatened and people have dug up Brennan’s social media past in which he made lewd comments about women. Al also speaks with one of the women whose photos were found.

And finally, we follow up with a man who was at the center of a recent Reveal episode about a decades-old arson case. Bryan Sheppard was recently released from federal prison after serving 22 years for a crime he says he didn’t commit. He and four others were given life sentences for the deaths of six firefighters in Kansas City, Missouri.

Sheppard talks to Al in his first extensive interview since being released. We hear from Sheppard on what it’s like to be free and reunited with his family.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: White nationalist gets his money from cotton fields – and the government

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

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Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

 

  Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Al Letson: From the center for investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

White nationalist Richard Spencer says he's building a movement, but who is keeping him afloat? It turns out his family has deep pockets in the deep south.

 

Richard Spencer: We've all benefited from white privilege. I think we should be proud of it. I want my children to have white privilege.

 

Al Letson: We also dive into the marine photo scandal.

 

Female Marine: A former marine posted a comment asking if anyone had any good photos of us.

 

[00:00:30]

Al Letson:

 

And talk to a former marine who broke the story who says trolls are now targeting his family.

 

Male Marine: It feels like I signed my wife and daughter up to become a new victim. I've stirred the hornet's nest enough to where they're going to be the target from now on.

 

Al Letson: And the last time, we heard from Bryan Sheppard. He was behind bars for over twenty years for a crime he says he didn't commit. Now, he's a free man.

 

Bryan Sheppard: I believe that prosecutors is the devil, man.

 

Al Letson: That's today, on Reveal.

 

Fem. Announcer: Support for Reveal comes from Squarespace. Create a beautiful website with Squarespace's all-in-one platform. There's nothing to insteall, patch, or upgrade, ever. Squarespace provides award-winning, 24/7 customer support. For a free trial and 10% off your first purchase, visit squarespace.com/reveal. Make your next move with a beautiful website from Squarespace.

 

[00:01:00]

Al Letson:

 

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

We cover a lot of news here at Reveal. Some of it never makes it on air. So today, we're going to bring you three stories that we have been reporting at revealnews.org, and we're going to bring you up to date on these investigations through interviews with people at the heart of those stories.

 

[00:01:30] First, is Richard Spencer. Now, you might remember him. He's a white nationalist dreaming of an ethnostate, where only white people are allowed. He coined the phrase "Alt Right". Donald Trump's advisor, Steve Bannon, later used that term to describe the Breitbart news site that he ran for years. Last time I spoke to Spencer was the morning after Donald Trump's election, and he was thrilled. This is what he told me about America then.

 

[00:02:00]

Richard Spencer:

 

White Americans, European Americans, in particular, Anglo-Saxon Americans, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, were this essential historic people. They defined it in a way that no other people did. So, of course African Americans have influenced American culture and American identity. Of course Asians have, and so on. But, it really was Anglo-Saxons who truly defined it, who made America what it is, who are indispensable.

 

[00:02:30]

Al Letson:

 

During that interview we asked, "Who is funding him and his small national policy institute?" Spencer didn't give us a lot of answers, so we started looking into it ourselves. His non-profit hasn't filed the required paperwork for the past three years and the government pulled his non-profit status this past week. The paperwork he did file does not give donor names. It also shows Spencer didn't draw a salary. So, what does he do for money? We found that Spencer's family is well-off, and a fair chunk of their wealth comes from something we never expected: cotton farms in one of the poorest parts of Louisiana. Yeah, that's right. A white nationalist makes his money in the cotton industry in the deep south. His family owns more than 5000 acres worth millions of dollars, and those farms have received more than $2 million in government subsidies. We wondered, "Are those cotton fields and government subsidies in any way keeping Spencer's white supremacist organization afloat?" So, we reached out to him again.

 

[00:03:30] Alright, so, the last time we spoke, it was right after President Trump won.

 

Richard Spencer: Yes.

 

Al Letson: And I'm curious how life has changed for you since that happened.

 

Richard Spencer: Well, life has changed pretty dramatically over the past year, I would say, and over the past six months.

 

[00:04:00]

Al Letson:

 

For starters, on inauguration day, he got punched in the face by protesters, which was seen by the entire world on YouTube. Last month, he got kicked out of a major conservative conference called CPAC. All of this after he had moved his office from Whitefish, Montana to just outside Washington D.C. to take advantage of what he believes is a new position of power since Donald Trump was elected. I asked him what it's like to be rejected by people he thought were his natural allies.

 

[00:04:30]

Richard Spencer:

 

As long as I've been doing this, I've gotten used to the fact of my natural allies attacking me. I recognize that my life is going to be one of being a heretic. That is that we are touching on those things that disturb everyone.

 

Al Letson: So, you moved your office from Montana to D.C. Do people come to your offices, like in the dead of night, covered up, trying not to be seen by their compatriots?

 

[00:05:00]

Richard Spencer:

 

Well, maybe something like that is occurring. We have ways of maintaining privacy to be sure. But basically, nothing has happened. I mean, they can't protest 24/7. On Sunday afternoons, there are some very polite protesters that will come out. That's perfectly fine, I don't have any problem with them.

 

Al Letson: How are you funding all of this, because last time we talked you said something along the lines of, like, you're sure that there are some millionaires, billionaires out there that believe in the same things that you do.

 

[00:05:30]

Richard Spencer:

 

Yeah, it's ... the fact is, we've always accepted donations. Those donations have certainly increased. There is going to be a major step forward in our movement where these kind of funds that are coming in are going to increase exponentially.

 

Al Letson: Our reporters began to look into where all the funding is coming from. Specifically, they found that your family, you have farm land. That your grandfather got in the Jim Crow era of the south. They're cotton farms in Louisiana.

 

[00:06:00]

Richard Spencer:

 

I'm not going to comment about my personal finances.

 

Al Letson: So, do you own the farms, though? Because what we've been looking into is that you own these farms in Louisiana, your family does - you, your sister and your mom own the farm - and you've gotten, like, millions of dollars from the government for subsidies. I'm just curious because you talk a lot about how America is a corrupt system and how everything is not working correctly, but you're benefiting off of that.

 

[00:06:30]

Richard Spencer:

 

Look, I am not involved in any direct, day-to-day running of these businesses, and I've never criticized agricultural policy, to my knowledge. So, yes, sure there is so much about American cited government and private that is not functioning. But, I don't really see what you're saying.

 

[00:07:00]

Al Letson:

 

Okay, so let me play you a clip from a speech you gave in November that, I think, will show you exactly what I mean.

 

So, this is you giving the closing speech at your National Policy Institute Conference. A lot of people might remember this because this is the place where you held up the glass and said, "Hail Trump".

 

Recorded audio: "This is a sick, disgusting society, run by the corrupt, defended by hysterics drunk on self-hatred and degeneracy. (Applause) We invade the world and emphatically invite entire populations who despise us. We subsidize people and institutions who make our lives worse just by the sheer fact of their existence. We run up deficits and pretend the laws of history simply don't apply to us because of 'American Exceptionalism'".

 

[00:07:30] The reason why I played that clip is because you talk about, "We subsidize people and institutions who make our lives worse just by the sheer fact of their existence". Now, is that just reserved for people who don't look like you? I guess what I'm getting at here is that your family farm owned by you, your mom, and your sister, it's like 5000 acres of cotton land, and it brings in an impressive amount of money, but you're getting subsidies from the government.

 

[00:08:00]

Richard Spencer:

 

Yes, the agricultural industry is heavily subsidized by the government. It's been like that since The New Deal. I don't know what to say. At no point have I been accused of breaking laws.

 

[00:08:30]

Al Letson:

 

I'm not accusing you of breaking any law whatsoever. What I am asking, though, is the optics on a person who identifies himself as a white nationalist owning cotton plantations in the south, in a place where the majority of the African American households around there are extremely poor, the optics of that look really bad. One, so I'm asking about that. Two, is that when you talk-

 

[00:09:00]

Richard Spencer:

 

I'm proud of my grandfather. I'm proud of what he built. I have absolutely no ... the optics for that are wonderful.

 

Al Letson: So, you don't understand how it makes people, like, say me, uncomfortable when I talk to people who are owning huge cotton plantation in the south, whereas you're proud of your grandfather, but I know that my grandfather was on the other end of those transactions.

 

[00:09:30]

Richard Spencer:

 

Right. Look, I can understand why you have a different perspective. That's what makes life beautiful, is the fact that there are varieties. People will see the same thing differently.

 

Let's look at a different country, because sometimes we can be more objective about another world. Let's look at Germany and Angela Merkel. Since 1945, Germans have suffered from a kind of guilt complex. Germans are very good at-

 

  Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
  Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Speaker 1: From a kind of guilt complex. And Germans are very good at guilt. But they've had a very peculiar one and that is this Hitler guilt, this Nazi guilt, syndrome, where all of German history was leading up to Hitler. Angela Merkel, I think probably quite genuinely, wants to assuage this guilt. And she is doing that by being open to mass immigration. But, what she's ultimately doing is destroying everything that's wonderful about Germany.

 

[00:10:30]

Speaker 2:

 

Richard, I'm more concerned with your thought process destroying this country than I am with her thought process destroying hers. I can tell you that I have the lived experience of what American history feels like and I can tell you that having the lived experience in America. Like, the future is made for you to go and correct what has happened in the past so that everybody can move forward and we can be equitable. But, in relationship to the work that you're doing right now, the movement that you're creating right now is being funded by the government because on all the forms that we've found about your organization, it doesn't have you listed as making a salary and, you know, you gotta eat. So, if the money that you're using is coming from those farm subsidies, do you see what I'm saying?

 

[00:11:00]

Speaker 1:

 

I don't see what you're saying. Look, I live in this world. I mean, I'm not, I don't know what you want me to become, a monk, or something, because I'm critical of America, therefore I have to become a monk.

 

Speaker 2: I want you to do what feels comfortable for you. I'm just saying that there seems to be a disconnect. When you talk about America as this corrupt bad place and then you're profiting off of it at the same time.

 

[00:11:30]

Speaker 1:

 

I mean, yeah. I live a decent life. I think lots of people live decent lives. That doesn't mean that I don't have radical criticisms of the direction that the country... There's nothing to be gained by being Polly Anna and being like, it'll all be okay because American exceptionalism. That's not a very manly perspective on the future. This is something that the left has always been very good at. They've always thought about the day after tomorrow. Of communism. Of utopia. Or whatever. The right's always failed at this. I think the right needs to have these kinds of big dreams.

 

[00:12:00]

Speaker 2:

 

I'm curious. Where do your beliefs come from? Where did these ideas begin to form? Did it start with your grandfather? Did it start with your father?

 

Speaker 1: I think it started in the womb. I think that I do think about the world the same way that I think about it when I was five. But it wasn't a case... I think a lot of people want to say, oh, I bet his parents were racists and they instilled... It's not like that at all, really. My parents are pretty, very mainstream, you know, Episcopalian, Republicans in Dallas. They were not political radicals or heretics by any stretch of the imagination.

 

[00:12:30]

Speaker 2:

 

But they also very comfortably benefited off the fruits of the Jim Crow South.

 

[00:13:00]

Speaker 1:

 

Not really, I mean.

 

Speaker 2: Yeah. I mean, like if your grandfather had such a big cotton plantation and was making a lot of money, your mother got that money, and I mean, they benefited off of Jim Crow plantations. I'm not saying that, like, they benefited directly off of slavery. But the conditions that, and I do not know the specific conditions of your grandfather's farm. But I would say that the conditions that most people had to work in in those days, most black people had to work in in those days, were not good.

 

[00:13:30]

Speaker 1:

 

Look. I mean, my father's a physician. I mean, they have not benefited from these things. But, look. We've all benefited from white privilege. I mean, I would never deny the existence, the reality of white privilege. That is a real thing. I think we should be proud of it. I want my children to have white privilege. I want more white people to have white privilege, because a lot of white people don't have white privilege. I think this is some place where you would actually agree with me.

 

Speaker 2: Well, I agree that white privilege exists, yes. But I... White privilege. [crosstalk 00:14:05]

 

[00:14:00]

Speaker 1:

 

You'd also agree that there are millions of white people who do not benefit from privilege of any kind.

 

Speaker 2: I think the privilege... I think we all carry different types of privilege, right. I think that I have different privilege from black women. I think that as somebody that makes a decent salary, I have more privilege in a lot of financial ways. So, I think that there's privilege all around, to go around. But when you're talking about white privilege in America, like it is such a huge thing that affects American society. And I think the work is to break down privilege and not to spread it out. I mean, you're basically saying you want white people to be treated deferentially over everybody else.

 

[00:14:30]

Speaker 1:

 

I agree with what you were saying before. Basically, everyone comes from somewhere. Everyone has a perspective, everyone has a privileged standpoint, to some degree. I think privilege is good. I think a sense of ourselves, a sense of whites having a destiny, of having a purpose, of being able to do things that other people simply can't. I think that is a wonderful thing. That's what we want.

 

[00:15:00]

Speaker 2:

 

Are you able to run your organization, because of your personal wealth, that is built on cotton plantations and benefits from government subsidies? Is that how you are funding yourself? Because the amount of money that we're talking about with these farms isn't a small about of money. This is millions of dollars.

 

Speaker 1: I'm not going to talk about my personal finances. Like, look, I'm doing it. I mean, you can, you know, I need to have some privacy. I mean, you know. And there are, certainly, the organization could not run without generous donations.

 

[00:15:30]

Speaker 2:

 

I honestly don't believe that people are donating en masse to your organization.

 

Speaker 1: I mean, look. It is what it is. They are. Donations have increased ten-fold over the past six months.

 

Speaker 2: Ten-fold from what?

 

Speaker 1: Ten-fold from not a lot, no. As a heretic organization, I mean, we were operating on, like $100,000. Yeah, it's hard. But the fact is, it's like, you have to start somewhere. And I've struggled. But I knew that this was all going to be a big struggle. And I like struggle, at some point, because what I can accomplish... When you accomplish something and you're struggling, when you accomplish something and people aren't just giving you something, it feels all the better. I mean, it really feels joyous.

 

[00:16:00]

Speaker 2:

 

Richard, this is exactly what I'm talking about, though. You just said, when you accomplish something and people aren't giving you anything it feels great. But, farm subsidies is the government giving you something. That's what I'm talking about. The disconnect from, like, how you make your personal wealth to the work that you're talking about right now, it's right there.

 

[00:16:30]

Speaker 1:

 

Well, first off, I have never been a, well, at least not over the past ten years or so... I'm not a Libertarian, okay, I don't think government action is inherently wicked or something. So, I'm not hypocrite in this sense. And I don't know what to say to you, I mean, I've said it over and over. Like, I navigate the world in which I live.

 

[00:17:00]

Speaker 2:

 

That was white nationalist Richard Spencer. He feels the Trump election is an endorsement of his worldview. Thanks to Emily Harris for producing this interview. If you want to learn more about where Spencer gets his money, go to revealnews.org. Reporter Lance Williams dug into Spencer's cotton farms and his family's connection to the Jim Crow South.

 

[00:17:30] While you're at our website, you might notice a story we first broke there about photos of female servicewomen being spread around the internet. When we come back, we'll talk to the Marine turned journalist who uncovered that story. He says Marines are now threatening him and his family.

 

Speaker 3: My wife has gotten email alerts that people are, like, ordering my life reports on her and stuff like that. It feels like I signed my wife and daughter up to becoming a victim. I don't know of what, yet, but it feels like I've stirred the hornet's nest enough to where they're going to be the target from now on.

 

[00:18:00]

Speaker 2:

 

That's next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Speaker 4: Today's show is sponsored by Talk Space, the online therapy company. For as little as $32 a week you can work with an experienced, licensed therapist handpicked just for you. On Talk Space you can send texts, audio, and video messages to your therapist and talk about your life or just work on feeling a bit happier. To sign up or learn more, go to talkspace.com/reveal. And to show your support for this podcast, use code reveal to get $30 off your first month. That's code reveal at talkspace.com/reveal.

 

[00:18:30]

Speaker 5:

 

Hey there. Julie B. Chan here. Reveal's digital editor. With the internet these days, all the news that's fit to print is, well, a lot. It can be tough to keep track of everything that's going on. But here at Reveal we want to help track a big theme we really see emerging in the news, and that's hate. Every week we have reporter Will Carless zeroing in on the latest round of threats, attacks, and desecration in today's America. We're calling it The Hate Report. For example, last week Will listed the racist attacks that shook communities throughout the country. So, to sign up to receive The Hate Report newsletter, go to revealnews.org/hate. We'll send you the most important stories on hate-based threats and violence from our newsroom and beyond, every Friday. Again, that's revealnews.org/hate.

 

[00:19:30]

Speaker 2:

 

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. 23-year-old Erica Butner is a former Marine who worked as a radio operator.

 

[00:20:00]

Speaker 6:

 

My name is Erica. I was proud to be an active duty...

 

  Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
  Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Erica: My name is Erica. I was proud to be an active duty Marine for four years and became a civilian as of June 2106.

 

Speaker 2: She was deployed to Jordan, Oman, and Israel during her four years of service, and at a recent press conference, she revealed what happened to her just two months after leaving the Marines. A warning, this story is not for young listeners.

 

Erica: I learned that a photo of me was posted on Marines United Facebook page without my consent. As a result of that posting, a former Marine posted a comment asking if anyone had naked photos of me.

 

[00:20:30]

Speaker 2:

 

Marines United is that Facebook page where thousands of nude and explicit images of servicewomen were posted. Days after the press conference, we got a hold of Erica at her home in Nevada, where she says she's still fending off attacks.

 

Erica: They're actively looking for naked photos of me right now through different social media platforms. I've seen screenshots and what they're referring to now as a win, so they're asking if there's any wins on this wook, referring to me and posting again photos of my social media.

 

[00:21:00]

Speaker 2:

 

Wook is a derogatory term for female Marines. Erica knew about the posts well before the press conference, but she stayed quiet at first.

 

Erica: We're taught as women in the Marines at least, to go with the grain, just accept it, be one of the boys. This is what it is, so yeah of course ... I never came forward with any of it when I was in the Marine Corp because I thought it was part of the culture.

 

[00:21:30]

Speaker 2:

 

But then in January, she reached out to military authorities after she realized how many other women's photos were being posted.

 

Erica: I learned about the share drive with the essentially smorgasbord of naked women that was being shared. I had multiple people contact me and say, "Oh my god. Look at this." So what I did was I took the link, and it's not like this link is private. If you had this link and you clicked on it, you can see everything. Now I reported it to NCIS, and I never heard anything back from NCIS at all.

 

[00:22:00]

Speaker 2:

 

NCIS. That's the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. They now say they're investigating since the story became huge national news. We're going to hear more from Erica in a minute, but first, let's turn to the former Marine who uncovered it. Thomas Brennan first broke the story on our website. He fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and joined the Marines United Facebook page to stay in touch with other Marines.

 

[00:22:30]

Thomas Brennan:

 

I wasn't even looking for a story. I was sitting on the couch with my daughter the first time that I saw the Google Drive come across my Facebook feed. I didn't look at it at first obviously because I was sitting next to her, but when I looked at it, I knew what it was when I first saw it. I absolutely knew what it was.

 

Speaker 2: And he knew it wasn't good for the women or for the Marines. These weren't family friendly photos, and a lot of those pictures were of his fellow Marines.

 

[00:23:00]

Thomas Brennan:

 

Some of them were screenshots from the woman's social media accounts, you know, Facebook, Instagram, whatever else is out there. Other ones looked like people may have submitted nude photographs that were sent consensually between two people. Then the other part of it ... There were instances where it appeared as though a woman was performing their basic military duties and they had been photographed unknowingly. So there was a wide array of stuff that was included in there, and it wasn't until I saw somebody that I knew in the folder that it really hit home for me.

 

[00:23:30]

Speaker 2:

 

Men were commenting on all of these. While some of the pictures in there were not sexual in nature, men were commenting in sexual ways.

 

Thomas Brennan: Uh, yes, yes. There was one instance in particular in the comments sections where a man ... where a member of Marines United commented something to the effect of, "I always knew that so-and-so had great breasts." Even if the argument was like, "I was joking," obviously if you look at the progression of how things went from being just talk in the comment section to a Marine standing behind another Marine stalking them on base, that wasn't just inappropriate comments that people were writing. That was straight up criminal.

 

[00:24:00]

Speaker 2:

 

So you put this report out. What happens?

 

[00:24:30]

Thomas Brennan:

 

It was very surreal for me watching it unfold because just the anxiety that was building up on top in me was insane because I knew that lots of people were seeing it, and I was beginning to see the ... The media outlets were starting to share it. People were talking about it. It was the exact outcome that I had been hoping for, like I truly wanted the victims of this to have a voice, and victims of other crimes like this to have a voice. I've gotten more of a response from victims than I have from the haters.

 

[00:25:00]

Speaker 2:

 

The haters were pretty nasty. My understanding is that part of that harassment has been aimed at your wife and your kids, with people offering a bounty to get explicit photos of your wife. How are you handling that?

 

Thomas Brennan: I don't know how I'm handling that. There's a lot of guilt that goes along with publishing this story, and I don't want to make it about me, but I made my wife and daughter a target. That doesn't make you feel good as a husband and as a dad. It really doesn't. It feels like I signed my wife and daughter up to becoming a victim. I don't know of what yet, but it feels like I've stirred the hornet's nest enough to where they're going to be the target from now on.

 

[00:25:30]

Speaker 2:

 

Are you scared?

 

Thomas Brennan: No, I'm not scared. I'm nervous. I'm not scared. The reason I'm not scared is because I know what Marines are capable of, and Marines also know what Marines are capable of, and I'm a Marine.

 

[00:26:00]

Speaker 2:

 

So through all of this ... You write this big story about men both sexually harassing women and but also commenting on women on a Facebook group in some really lewd ways. But at another time, you've made comments about women that are questionable at best.

 

[00:26:30]

Thomas Brennan:

 

I have said stuff, and I'm going to own up to it right now. There's stuff out there that is real. I have written stuff on Facebook that I regret, that I am sorry for, like my daughter will read these for the rest of her life. When I wrote them, I did not expect them to get out. I've said dumb stuff. I've written dumb stuff. I've written gross stuff. So yes, I am going to completely take ownership of this. This story came about because people were complacent about what they were putting online. Some of the screenshots that are factual, that are out there right now, like they came out in a similar fashion. Somebody took screenshots, just like I did, but my screenshots weren't condoning rape and stalking. My daughter will read them for the rest of her life, and I will need to own that in front of her. She's the person I'm going to take accountability with.

 

[00:27:00]

Speaker 2:

 

So let me ask you this. Just a couple of months ago, in January, three women were allowed into a Marine infantry unit for the first time. Given everything you just said to me-

 

[00:27:30]

Thomas Brennan:

 

That's my old unit. I was with one eight.

 

Speaker 2: So your old unit, now ... You've got a personal connection to this unit.

 

Thomas Brennan: Yeah.

 

Speaker 2: How do you think they're going to be treated?

 

Thomas Brennan: I think they're going to be treated like shit. No, I think there's going to be ... Back when I was still in uniform, and I was serving in the infantry, I had no interaction with women. I believed all the terrible stereotypes. I reinforced a lot of them with things I would say on my own. I think a lot of what the problem was was a lack of exposure on my part. I never got to work with women in uniform. I never got to see what the dynamic was like because we were an all male unit. Then of course, when the women would come with the female engagement teams or back when we were in Iraq, and it was called Lioness, all those kind of negative perceptions that I had reinforced over time ...

 

[00:29:00] I really hope there's not footage of the way I may have said things about them in the past, but once I started working as a reporter, and I began interacting with a lot of the public affairs officers and interviewing women Marines and other women in uniform ... is very eyeopening for me. They have to work harder to run just as fast. They have to work twice as hard to get half as much credibility.

 

Speaker 2: So you talked a lot about how in the Corp, when you're in a war zone, whether you're at war or not, there's a certain camaraderie that comes out there, like a closeness between the people there. Will that closeness extend to the female members of the unit? Because if it does extend to the female members of the unit, then they should be protected and loved just like everybody else is. But if it doesn't extend, then these women are going to have problems.

 

[00:29:30]

Thomas Brennan:

 

I think it will. I think that there's going to be growing pains, but I think that in the long run, we're going to be okay. I know that for me personally, I have never made the argument about women in the infantry being about women not being able to do it. For me personally, the reason why ...

 

  Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
  Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Thomas Brennen: Me personally that the reason why my objection to women in the infantry is because I'm not ready for it. I personally do not think that I would have it in me to hear a woman screaming for her life. That to me ... When I try to imagine something like that because I've been in those situations before. I've heard men screaming for their life. I've seen the blood and I've seen the body bags and I've seen the bullets going both ways. I've been there. To me, and maybe it's because I was raised in a Marine Corp that was all male infantry. To me, I imagine it as having to listen to my daughter and my wife scream for their life. I would rather not have to listen to that.

 

[00:30:30]

Speaker 2:

 

Haven't the Israelis been doing that for years?

 

[00:31:00]

Thomas Brennen:

 

I'm taking accountability for how I feel. They have and they may have very different ... I'm sure they've had time to do it. It's just not the Marine Corp that I was in. So for me it's just an extremely foreign idea. I'm not saying it can't be done. I've worked with plenty of women that seem to be far more locked on as Marines than some of the Infantry men I've worked with. Let them prove themselves. If they can do it, let them do it.

 

[00:31:30]

Speaker 2:

 

It sounds to me like it's not the question of them proving themselves. The question is the male Marines proving themselves.

 

Thomas Brennen: Oh yeah. It works both ways. It's a two way street. I think that those women who are actively working in those Infantry roles right now they are paving the way for future generations. Whether you agree with it or not, it's happening. These three women are going to be in the history books of the Marine Corp or for however long the Marine Corp is left.

 

Speaker 2: Thomas [Brennon 00:32:01] thank you so much for coming in.

 

[00:32:00]

Thomas Brennen:

 

No. Thank you very much for having me.

 

Speaker 2: Thomas Brennon is a veteran Marine Sergeant who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and was our lead reporter on this story. He gave military investigators the names of 55 people who were involved in the Marines United page. The names include dozens of Corporals and Sergeants, at least 3 drill instructors, and two commissioned officers.

 

[00:32:30] Let's bring Erica Budner back into the conversation. The 23 year old former Marine was one of dozens of women whose photos were posted on the Marines United page. She said the photos are a symptom of a bigger problem.

 

Erica Budner: I could tell you that this type of behavior in the military leads to sexual harassment and sexual violence.

 

Speaker 2: Have you talked to other women about it like while this was happening to you?

 

Erica Budner: Absolutely. It's ridiculous. You know you have people who are saying, "Oh why are they coming forward now?" Well they have been coming forward. The issue is either their commands laugh at them and victim blame them or they just don't feel safe coming forward.

 

[00:33:00]

Speaker 2:

 

It sounds to me like it's not a few bad eggs. It sounds to me like it's the culture.

 

Erica Budner: Yeah. Absolutely. It's a culture problem. It's not just a Marine Corp culture problem. It's a society issue as well.

 

Speaker 2: So you take a culture that is pervasive in America, you apply that to the military and then you add this engine of testosterone and machismo and all of that stuff. This is the result of it. If you are not policing that it's going to get out of control.

 

[00:33:30]

Erica Budner:

 

Yes. Absolutely. This has been going on since the Internet was a thing. Since MySpace was around. It's women's photos are being taken from their social media accounts and then further being degraded. That's the issue at hand here. It's the proof of the rape culture and the victimization and objectification of women in service.

 

[00:34:00]

Speaker 2:

 

When we were talking to Thomas Brennon who broke the story, he's a former Marine. He has an issue with women being on the front lines because he does not want to hear a woman screaming for their life in the middle of war time. He says when you're in war time that type of stuff happens and he wouldn't be able to concentrate on his job if he heard a woman screaming it would make him think of his daughter. What's your response to that?

 

Erica Budner: His personal relationship with women has nothing to do with what women want to do in my opinion. I thank him for bringing this story to light. As far as women in Infantry go, if she can do it, I don't see why not. People give the excuse that there'll be plenty of pregnancies and plenty of rape accusations if that happens. Well maybe focus on the mission. I feel like those are shit excuses.

 

[00:35:00]

Speaker 2:

 

Were some of the comments that were posted, were they about your decision to join the Marines as a woman?

 

Erica Budner: I know there was one comment that basically said female Marines aren't real Marines. Then something about we belong in the kitchen.

 

Speaker 2: How does that make you feel when you're out there risking your life just like they are?

 

Erica Budner: I haven't seen combat but you bet your ass, if I was deployed, I would die for a person next to me. Man or Woman. When are we going to be accepted? How many women have to die in combat for it to be enough? How many of us have to prove that we'll die for you in or for our country?

 

[00:35:30]

Speaker 2:

 

I want to play a clip from a recent Senate hearing. Marine Corp Commandant Robert Neller was called to testify about this story. Here's some of what he had to say.

 

Robert Neller: This is a problem with our culture. I'm still in the process ... I don't have a good answer for you. I'm not going to sit here and duck around this thing. I'm not. I'm responsible. I'm the Commandant. I own this and we are going to have to, you know you've heard it before, but we are going to have to change how we see ourselves and how we treat each other. That's a lame answer but man that's the best I can tell you right now. WE've got to change and that's on me.

 

[00:36:30]

Erica Budner:

 

I understand and I can tell that he is very frustrated with what is going on because yes the Marine Corp does have bigger things to worry about but this has gone on so long that it needs to be addressed. It needs to be fixed. I don't blame the Commandant for what's happening but if we want change, it has to start with him.

 

Speaker 2: Do you think that any substantial change will happen?

 

Erica Budner: I really hope so. I really hope I didn't put myself out there for nothing. I've received a lot of backlash over the Internet. I really hope something happens but it's almost as if ... I reported this back in January and nothing became of it. NCIS didn't contact me. Why did it take publishing this article for this to get recognition and for it to get fixed or attempt to get fixed? What would've happened if the war horse never published this article? Would it even be getting fixed right now? It's very frustrating.

 

[00:37:30]

Speaker 2:

 

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. Thank you for your service. I'm really sorry you had to go through this.

 

Erica Budner: It is what it is and I'm just glad it's getting the recognition it deserves.

 

Speaker 2: I know you're tougher than me.

 

Erica Budner: No. Thank you.

 

Speaker 2: That was Erica Budner, a Marine veteran. Her pictures were posted without her permission on the Marines United Facebook page. Military investigators are still looking into the incident. As a result of Thomas Brennon's reporting, the Marine Corp put out a new directive to Marines to quote, "Always use their best judgment and avoid inappropriate behavior and to never engage in commentary or published content that discredits themselves, their unit or the Marines."

 

[00:38:00] When we come back, a pretty dramatic update to a story we brought you last month. At the time, a man named Brian Shepherd was serving a life sentence for an arson fire that killed 6 firefighters. He's now been released from prison.

 

[00:38:30]

Brian Shepherd:

 

It really was a blessing that this took place. I'm walking around out here a free man.

 

Speaker 2: He's still considered a guilty man. That story when we come back on Revealed from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

[00:39:00] Just a quick thing before we get back to the show. If you're like us, you might be a little bit obsessed with podcasts but there's still plenty of people out there who haven't listened to one. I know, crazy right? We along with our friends at PRX and NPR and a bunch of other podcasts across the country, we're teaming up to spread the word about how great podcasts are. Want to help? It's easy.

 

Think about someone you care about. What podcast they would really love. It doesn't have to be Reveal but it could be. Tell them about it and if they need help, show them how they can listen. Tell us what you recommended by using the hashtag Trypod. You can use it on Facebook, Twitter, even on Instagram. That's T-R-Y-pod. You could also use the hashtag Al is the best host ever if you want. I'm just saying you could do that. Thanks for spreading the word and remember that's hashtag Trypod. T-R-Y-pod and Al is the best host ever.

 

  Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04]
  Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 - 00:54:56]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Al - Narrator: T-R-Y pod, and Al is the best host ever, just putting it out there.

 

From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Earlier this month, a white van passed through the gates of a federal prison in Leavenworth, KS. It went about a mile and pulled up in a parking lot of a K-Mart store. It was twilight. A tornado was brewing, and the lot was nearly empty. Out of the van stepped a 46 year old man, Bryan Sheppard, with a fresh crew cut, and a neatly trimmed mustache. He was leaving prison after serving more than 20 years for a crime he says he didn't commit. Within minutes, other people arrived, including Brian's daughter, Ashley.

 

[00:40:30]

Bryan:

 

Very excited, nervous, anxiety is killing me. Been stressing all day, and had no sleep. I didn't know if it was going to come or not.

 

Ashley: I was starting to wonder today with all the waiting, [inaudible 00:41:04]

 

[00:41:00]

Al - Narrator:

 

This happened just a few weeks after we aired a show about Brian's case. It was a story of an arson fire explosion, almost 30 years ago, that killed six firefighters in Kansas City, Missouri. Five people were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Bryan Sheppard was the youngest, 17 years old when the firefighters were killed early one morning in November 1988 at a highway construction site.

 

[00:41:30]

Fire Dept:

 

Fire Department.

 

Caller: Yes, I want to report a fire-

 

Al - Narrator: Security guards had reported two fires burning at the site.

 

Caller: ... Yeah, there's a fire on both sides of the highway. It's at 87th street.

 

Fire Dept: 87th and 71, what apartment?

 

Okay, [inaudible 00:41:48] Thank you.

 

Caller: Uh-huh (affirmative)

 

Al - Narrator: Two fire trucks were dispatched to the scene.

 

Fire Dept 2: There appears to be two arson fires out here, send the police.

 

Dispatcher: Pumper 41, use caution on your call, we have information there may be explosives. It's in a construction area-

 

[00:42:00]

Al - Narrator:

 

Nearly 50,000 pounds of anfo, ammonium nitrate mixed with fuel oil, was stored in two trailers on the site. As the firemen got to work, the flames reached the trailers.

 

Fire Dept 3: [inaudible 00:42:16] reports a major explosion, we heard it here. Firefighters are involved out of that 71 Hwy at 87th. Apparently a large explosion.

 

Pumper 41 and Pumper 30, answer. Pumper 41 or Pumper 30.

 

[00:42:30]

Al - Narrator:

 

Both fire trucks and their crews were obliterated. It was the worst tragedy in the history of the Kansas City Fire Department. Local police and federal agents spent years trying to solve the case. They put up a $50,000 reward, and plastered posters across Kansas City, including in jails and prisons. Nine years after the explosions, prosecutors indicted Bryan Sheppard, two of his uncles, and two friends, not for murder, but for the arson that led to the deaths of the firefighters.

 

[00:43:00]

Prosecutor:

 

If convicted of this felony, each defendant could be subject to a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole, and a $250,000 fine.

 

Al - Narrator: A jury found the five guilty. Now, Bryan has always maintained his innocence, and over the years filed many appeals, all of them denied. Then, in 2012, another window opened up, that would have nothing to do with whether he was guilty or innocent. The Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to give people mandatory life sentences without parole if they were juveniles when the crime was committed. Since Bryan Sheppard was just 17 when the explosions happened, he got a re-sentencing hearing.

 

[00:43:30] On March 3rd, a federal judge threw out his life sentence, changing it to 20 years. Time served. Bryan could go free.

 

Al - Interview: Okay, how you doing, man?

 

Bryan: Nervous.

 

Al - Narrator: Three days after his release, Bryan Sheppard went into a studio in Kansas City to speak with me. It was his first interview as a free man.

 

[00:44:00]

Al - Interview:

 

You've only been out of prison for what? Three days now?

 

Bryan: I was released on Monday.

 

Al - Interview: So, what's it been like? I mean, the world is completely different from when you went into prison.

 

Bryan: Yeah, it's pretty strange. It's pretty overwhelming, too. I've never had a cell phone before, and it gets frustrating just trying to dial.

 

Al - Interview: So, while you were in prison, your daughter has grown up. She's an adult now. What is that like?

 

[00:44:30]

Bryan:

 

Well, my granddaughter now is seven and a half. My daughter was six when I got locked up. She was eight when I got indicted. Phone calls, letters, pictures, it was very difficult.

 

Al - Interview: Do you have any bitterness towards the community?

 

Bryan: Of course I do. Who wouldn't, you know? You'd be bitter, too. They put up reward posters in all the jails in Missouri and Kansas, and on the overpasses and stuff, and a lot of people came forward to make deals, or try to collect on that $50,000 reward. You know, I don't want to go back to that community because I don't want to run into the people that helped place us in prison for a crime we didn't commit.

 

[00:45:00]

Al - Interview:

 

The case of the prosecution brought against you and the others, it was trouble from the beginning. There was no physical evidence linking you to the crime scene. Some of the witnesses who testified you were convicted felons, jailhouse informants. A lot of their testimony just ... it didn't make sense. It put you and the other defendants in different places at the same time. Now, why do you think you were convicted with that type of evidence?

 

[00:45:30]

Bryan:

 

Because this was such an intense case, you know, they wanted closure, they wanted to close this case. The family members were pushing for something to happen, and we were used as a scapegoat.

 

Al - Interview: After all of these years, what would you say to the federal agents and the prosecutors who handled your case?

 

Bryan: I've thought about that before, and I really don't know what I would say to them, personally, because I believe that prosecutors are the devil, man. They just went around the neighborhood finding people that were in trouble with the law, or threatening them, or bribed them with the $50,000 reward money to get testimony. And those people came out of the woodwork. Some of them are trying to contact me right now to probably make amends.

 

[00:46:00]

Al - Interview:

 

Are you interested in that?

 

Bryan: If they're willing to come forward now and tell the truth about why they lied, yes.

 

Al - Interview: People have recanted their testimony, correct?

 

Bryan: Yes, they have. There are a few people willing to come forward. We just have to push forward with it. If I gotta come in here and keep doing this on a regular basis, I'm looking for the truth.

 

[00:46:30]

Al - Interview:

 

Obviously you're happy to be free, but you're still considered guilty of this crime. The judge didn't clear you. He re-sentenced you because of a Supreme Court decision on juvenile sentences. How do you feel about that?

 

Bryan: It really was a blessing that this took place, and I'm walking around out here a free man, but everyday I'm gonna continue to think about my co-defendants that are still suffering in prison, because I was a juvenile and they weren't.

 

[00:47:00]

Al - Interview:

 

Now, maintaining your innocence could have jeopardized your chance to get out of prison early, because the judge may have seen that as a sign that you just weren't remorseful of the crime you were convicted of. I want to play you some tape from our original story. This is a phone call you had from prison with Reveal's Jenna Welch, and you're reading a letter you wrote the judge before your re-sentencing hearing. It's about the plea deal you offered back in 1995.

 

[00:47:30]

Bryan - jail:

 

Many years ago I was given the chance of freedom if I would have ... get on the witness stand and point to my uncles and my best friend, and tell the jury what they ... that they were guilty. If I had lied to myself I would have instead corrupted my soul. I could have been free many, many years ago if I had taken the deal. I hope the families of the honorable men that died that terrible night can understand why I must again assert my innocence.

 

[00:48:00]

Al - Interview:

 

If you had accepted one of the plea deals, then you would have gotten out of jail earlier, and you would have been able to see your daughter grow up. You would have been able to see your granddaughter be born. Does that stick with you? The fact that you made a really hard decision.

 

Bryan: If I would have took the deal and lied for the government, then I would have been sending four other innocent people to prison. Even though I'd have been free, they would have been locked up, as well. Just like right now. I'm free, they're not.

 

[00:48:30]

Al - Interview:

 

I cannot imagine the weight that you must have felt in making that decision.

 

Bryan: It feels like there's a ton of bricks on my shoulders right now.

 

Al - Interview: So, families of the firefighters who were killed came to your re-sentencing hearing. They told the judge you should stay in prison for the rest of your life. After the judge's decision to set you free, this is what one of the daughters of the firefighters, Cassie McKarnin, said to reporters.

 

Cassie: We are very, very disappointed in this judgment today. I think that this individual was 17, almost 18. I was nearly the same age at the time of this crime, and I knew right from wrong. I don't think he'll ever take responsibility for that, because he's going to claim his innocence, and my philosophy on that is this is not a conspiracy. He was convicted. There's evidence. If someone retracts a statement, they're either a liar then, or they're a liar now.

 

[00:49:00]

Al - Interview:

 

Does it bother you at all that so many people think that you're guilty of this.

 

Bryan: Of course it bothers me. It's going to bother me until the truth comes out. That's why I'm here. I want the truth in this thing to come out. If I've got to stand on top of this building and scream it, let's get up there.

 

[00:49:30]

Al - Interview:

 

Have you tried to reach out at all to any of the families of the fallen firefighters?

 

Bryan: Well, back when I got locked up, I was young and dumb, and I didn't know any better. But my Uncle Frank started writing letters to the families, to the witnesses, and our attorneys advised him to stop doing that, because they were getting phone calls from them. Then, I wanted to do the same thing, but my attorneys told me not to do that. I'm not trying to stir any trouble up, I don't want ... you know, more than likely if I had have wrote them, they would have just thrown it in the trash anyway.

 

[00:50:00]

Al - Interview:

 

You understand these people lost somebody that was important to them? As much as this has shifted the trajectory of your life, it's shifted the trajectory of their life as well.

 

Bryan: Right. That's why I got up on the stand and testified. I wanted everybody to hear what I had to say. I think about their families everyday, and I will for the rest of my life.

 

[00:50:30]

Al - Interview:

 

So, I understand that as you were leaving the prison, you were handed your mail, and there was a card from someone who belongs to one of the families of the firefighters.

 

Bryan: I was getting dressed out in some street clothes, they brought my mail to me, and I had like four cards, or a couple cards, and a couple letters. One of them, we looked at the return address, and I was like, "What?" I couldn't believe it. I can't believe I've made it this long without getting emotional.

 

[00:51:00]

Al - Interview:

 

You didn't want to name the person because it's a private letter, but can you read part of it to us?

 

Bryan: I've read this card many times. The first two times I read it I couldn't control myself. I get emotional reading this stuff, and especially when people like this come forward, it's heartbreaking, it really is. I don't think I can do this. Let me try to get it under control, here we go.

 

[00:51:30] The card says, it says, "Bryan, there are so many things I want to tell you that written letters can't convey. I encourage you not to think about the firemen everyday. We all have to let go. That's part of life. We all have to move on. Not all the families feel the same way as you see on the news. There's much more I'd like to say that can't be written. Maybe some day we can talk. I hope" ...

 

[00:52:00]

Al - Interview:

 

You got it.

 

Bryan: ... all right ... "I hope you adjust well when you get out and make the most of every day."

 

Al - Interview: Bryan, thank you so much for coming in and talking to us today.

 

[00:52:30]

Bryan:

 

Thank you.

 

Al - Narrator: In the eyes of the law, Bryan Sheppard is a convicted felon who paid his debt to society. As for the other three surviving defendants, they're still serving life sentences, and still maintain their innocence. We asked the U.S. Attorney's office in Kansas City for a comment, but they declined.

 

[00:53:00] Our interview with Bryan Sheppard was produced by Michael Montgomery and Jenna Welch. Special thanks to the Kansas City Star, and to reporter Mike McGraw of Kansas City Public Television.

 

Before we go, I want to tell you about a podcast that we're listening to, and you should definitely check out. It's called "HerMoney" with Jean Chatzky. Jean does amazing interviews with inspiring women like Arianna Huffington, Joanna Coles, Brene Brown, it's a place to learn about earning more, saving more, investing wisely, and building the financial life you want. You can find "HerMoney" on iTunes, Stitcher, or on JeanChatzky.com. Give it a try.

 

[00:53:30] Our production team this week includes Emily Harris, Amy Walters, Mwende Hahesy, Julia B Chan, Michael Montgomery, Jenna Welch, and David Ritsher.

 

[00:54:30] Our stories were edited by Deb George, Robert Rosenthal, and Andy Donohue.

 

Our sound design team is the wonder twins, my man Jay Brezee, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Claire "C-Note" Mullin.

 

This week we had help from Katherine [Raymondo 00:54:10], and Mary Lee Williams. Our head of studios Christa Scharfenberg, Amy Pyle is our Editor in Chief. Susanne Reber is our Executive Editor, and our Executive Producer is Kevin Sullivan.

 

Our theme music is by [Camarado 00:54:21], Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and The Ethics in Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting, and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

  Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 - 00:54:56]