A Virginia man masquerading around the Flathead Valley for many years as a former U.S. Marine, infiltrating the local Marine community and using that guise to procure a quarter-million-dollar investment from a successful businessman, was ordered by a jury on Tuesday to pay $1.7 million for the fraud.
His victim, Don Kaltschmidt, of the Don K auto dealerships in Whitefish, said he won't likely see a dime of the damages awarded to him in Flathead County District Court on Wednesday. But, as a former Marine, Kaltschmidt said it wasn't about the money.
Laron "D" Shannon had done more than gone to group meetings; search his name in Google and see he's received plenty of recognition for his alleged military service.
"We were finally able to hold him accountable for what he has done, which is basically stolen the valor of every man and woman that's ever served this country," Kaltschmidt told the Missoulian in a phone interview Thursday.
It was in February 2014 that Shannon came to him, having become acquainted through the local veterans community, with an investment opportunity. The swindle: Oil Field Warriors, a business that would employ veterans to clean oil rigs in North Dakota and eastern Montana. Kaltschmidt, who had been charitable with other veterans' organizations, invested $250,000 for a quarter-stake in the business.
But, according to a judge's order filed last August, the company never generated any revenue or obtained any contracts to wash oil rigs. By June, four months after Kaltschmidt's investment, Oil Field Warriors began moving toward dissolution. Less than $30,000 of the investment remained in the accounts. Kaltschmidt sued Shannon for fraud, negligent misrepresentation and breach of fiduciary duty.
The con reportedly didn't end there. Since being sued, Shannon went through three lawyers and a fourth who never made a motion on Shannon's behalf. The Friday before the trial was set to begin last year, Shannon filed for bankruptcy in Virginia, which put a hiatus on the lawsuit back in the Flathead. Meanwhile, in March he was quoted in the Liberty Champion's coverage of the Conservative Political Action Conference at Liberty University, in which he is described as a Marine veteran.
"I still am not quite sure what to do when somebody says, 'Thank you for your service.' Seeing so many of the young kids coming up to me today was really special," he told the student newspaper.
"He's remorseless," said Cory Laird, Missoula attorney who represented Kaltschmidt in the case. "I think he's pathological and suffers from sociopathy."
In reality, Shannon's only military service was as an officer candidate in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC), while he was a student at the Virginia Military Institute. In his order, Flathead District Judge Robert Allison pointed out "NROTC students are not Marines," and Shannon was discharged from his military service before even graduating from VMI.
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"I think it's a statutory problem," said Laird, of Reep, Bell, Laird and Jasper. "I don't think the Stolen Valor Act went far enough."
Signed by President Barack Obama in 2013, the Stolen Valor Act made it a federal crime to falsely claim military medals or accomplishments for one's own benefit.
"When these guys get together they don't talk about medals, they talk about their background, the fraternal brotherhood of the Marine Corps," he said. "The Stolen Valor Act didn't anticipate that people like 'D' Shannon would be out there cloaking themselves in the Marine Corps flag for financial gain."
Ultimately, the bankruptcy judge in Virginia allowed Kaltschmidt's case to go forward. Shannon represented himself at the two-day trial this week. The Flathead County jury deliberated for a total of 30 minutes before its $1.5 million decision against Shannon on Tuesday.
Shannon did not return phone calls to his cellphone number, found in U.S. Bankruptcy court documents, on Thursday.
In fact, Kaltschmidt will likely lose a great deal of money pursuing this case, which was filed in 2014, but he said the impact of Shannon's fraud was more than financial. It certainly seemed, Kaltschmidt said, to damage the trust among the local Marine group members.
"When someone infiltrates their way in, it's very hard to describe what it can do to the morale of a group of men and women," he said. "He befriended me, as he did a lot of people up here. He's just a very good con artist but once he was found out, he ended up to be a coward."
Laird said Shannon has moved back to Virginia since the lawsuit was filed. His bankruptcy proceedings continue there, although he did ask the judge in February to release him from completing the process.
"I ask the Court to consider dismissing this case … because I do not now believe I should be in Chapter 7 Bankruptcy," he wrote to the judge. That judge denied the motion in the interests of those to whom Shannon owes money, a list that includes Kaltschmidt.
"He's never had to pay the price," Kaltschmidt said. "Now he's been outed for the fraud he is."