Allegations, a botched investigation, a new victim: How the Army failed to stop a molester




  • In US
  • 2022-12-01 10:43:30Z
  • By IndyStar | The Indianapolis Star

The federal prosecutor's words struck Brenna Saoirse immediately.

Sitting a few rows in front of Saoirse, at the defendant's table in a federal courtroom in Indianapolis, was Bennie William Schuck. The former U.S. Army special agent had pleaded guilty to molesting a 9-year-old girl and was now waiting to hear his sentence.

"Years ago," Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristina Korobov told the judge, "we had a chance to stop this."

Saoirse looked at Korobov. The prosecutor was looking back at her. Saoirse began to cry.

Finally, more than a decade after she reported being molested by Schuck, Saoirse had a small measure of justice that had eluded her following a botched Army investigation into her allegations. Korobov's statement was the affirmation she had been denied. By then, though, it was too little, too late - for Saoirse and for the little girl Schuck went on to molest.

"I knew what my dad had done to me," said Saoirse, who is Schuck's daughter. "So you can imagine the guilt that I carried because I tried to speak out and no one listened. Had he been thoroughly investigated, this other little girl wouldn't be filled with trauma."

More:Indianapolis man and woman abused child, sent each other images of their acts, DOJ says

Brenna Saoirse poses for a portrait on Friday, May 13, 2022 at Broad Ripple Park in Indianapolis.
Brenna Saoirse poses for a portrait on Friday, May 13, 2022 at Broad Ripple Park in Indianapolis.  

IndyStar typically does not name victims of sexual abuse, but Saoirse chose to be identified in sharing her story.

That day of her father's sentencing, May 4, 2021, had been a long time coming. And during that time, Saoirse's life spiraled downward. The trauma estranged her from her family, some of whom, she said, did not believe her. And, it underscored the Army's failure to thoroughly investigate one of its own.

Thirteen years earlier, Schuck's Army supervisors were notified of his daughter's allegations. Child Protective Services got involved. The Army Criminal Investigation Division opened a misconduct investigation - only to close it without ever interviewing Saoirse.

Schuck kept his job, even going on his second overseas deployment. He retired in 2014 with several medals to his name.

But FBI agents would raid Schuck's home on the southside of Indianapolis five years later. That's when investigators learned he had been molesting a then-9-year-old girl and distributing pictures of her online.

In Korobov's words, it could've been stopped years ago. But it wasn't.

The Army's investigation raises questions about whether it could've prevented Schuck from committing more crimes. It also showed the Army's failure to catch a child molester in its ranks and harkens back to the military's long history of failing to adequately investigate and prosecute sexual assault, said Col. Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the United States Air Force.

Schuck, who has denied his daughter's allegations, declined to be interviewed.

The Army Criminal Investigation Division, where Schuck served for years, said it takes allegations against its special agents very seriously. After Saoirse came forward with her allegations in 2008, Army investigators tried to interview her but were not able to do so "despite several requests" to the family, the Army said in a statement.

Still, this is a failure of the military institution, said Christensen, president of Protect our Defenders, an advocacy organization for victims of sexual assault in the military.

"You don't just close it without talking to the victim or alleged victim. You should never do that. You don't just quit," he said. "If you have an allegation that one of your own is a child molester … you just can't ignore it."

'No one would believe me'

The incident, Saoirse said, happened in the early 2000s, when she was 5 or 6, and the family was living at Fort Lewis Army Base in Washington State.

She was in bed next to her younger sister, Saoirse recalled, when her father walked in and fondled her beneath her clothes. She said her eyes were closed, but she was awake. When she opened her eyes slightly, she saw her father's face. She said her father stopped after her mother, who was in the bedroom opposite hers, called for him.

Saoirse said she doesn't remember much about her childhood, not any happy memories anyway. She remembers always fearing her father, even before the incident: How he often commented on her looks in a way that made her feel uncomfortable. How he kept comparing her to her mother because they look so much alike. How he never felt like a father to her. And how she never felt like a child.

But Saoirse said she still vividly remembers those two minutes her father was in her room. She remembers waking up the next morning and vowing to never tell her mother because she was terrified her parents would get divorced. So for several years, she didn't.

"At the end of the day, how do you say that your dad, who's a military criminal investigator, that he did this to his daughter?" Saoirse said. "I knew no one would believe me. And I was scared because my dad has always taken care of us financially."

Schuck, who's from the Indianapolis area, joined the military in the 1990s, first the Coast Guard and then the Army, moving his wife and four children from state to state for several years. In 2003, he completed training to become a special agent for the Army Criminal Investigation Division. His job was to investigate crimes in the Army, much like an investigator for a city police department. He was deployed to Iraq from 2006 to 2007, according to Department of Defense records.

In 2010, two years after Saoirse came forward with her allegations, Schuck went on his second overseas deployment to Kuwait. He retired as a sergeant first class in 2014 and was awarded several medals for his service and good conduct.

Brenna Saoirse poses for a portrait on Friday, May 13, 2022 at Broad Ripple Park in Indianapolis.
Brenna Saoirse poses for a portrait on Friday, May 13, 2022 at Broad Ripple Park in Indianapolis.  

At home, Saoirse grew up into a lonely and troubled teen. Her parents' marriage was tumultuous. Her father cheated, while her mother struggled with drugs and alcohol, she said. Her parents divorced, remarried and divorced again.

Saoirse said she began cutting herself during her early teenage years, convinced she deserved to be in pain. She started on her upper arm near her shoulder. As she got older, it became more frequent. Then she started cutting her wrist, never deep enough to seriously hurt herself, but painful, nonetheless. It continued well into her adulthood.

"It was 100% for attention," she said. "And it was easier for me to inflict physical pain because I felt like I deserved it since I was feeling so much internal pain."

A family torn apart, a systemic problem

Saoirse said the alleged sexual abuse, her parents' rocky marriage, her mother's personal problems and the lack of action from the Army all contributed to her struggles.

"She finally came out and thought she was really going to get some help, and then to turn around and to almost be denied that … it's damaging. So damaging," said Kaity Fallon, Saoirse's friend and former AA sponsor.

After the Army closed its investigation into Schuck, Saoirse said her family doubted her.

"No one believed me. No one did anything," she said. "My mom just kind of went on like it didn't happen. We didn't speak of it anymore."

Saoirse's mother initially spoke with IndyStar and verified many of the details in her daughter's account. But months later, she said she wanted no part in the story. Saoirse said her relationship with her parents has always been toxic and unstable.

Saoirse's sister also declined to be interviewed. She said her older brother had long been detached from her life, and her younger brother was too young to remember what happened.

Over time, her allegations against her father put a strain on her relationship with her relatives, she said.

"She has a lot of bitterness towards that," said Haley Smith, Saoirse's partner. "Because it just felt like she told people that she trusted, and no one believed her and no one did anything about it."

Self-harm was followed by drugs - marijuana, and then seven years of heroin addiction. After heroin, she experimented with prescription pills and methamphetamine. Problems with intimacy plagued her relationships. Even a hug caused her to tense up, Smith said.

In 2016, Saoirse lived for six months at Dove Recovery House for Women in Indianapolis, which provides transitional housing for women recovering from substance abuse.

Self-destruction gave way to guilt. If she had spoken out sooner, if she had told more people, if she had pushed harder for them to listen, Saoirse said, perhaps this other girl would not have been abused.

"I don't know if I'll ever not feel that way," she said.

Saoirse's bad experience with the botched Army investigation is a symptom of a larger issue.

The military has long struggled with problems of sexual assault within its ranks and has a poor track record of prosecuting such cases, said Christensen, the former U.S. Air Force chief prosecutor.

In 2021, there were 6,356 unrestricted reports of sexual assault in the military - the highest in more than a decade. These are reports in which victims sought an official investigation. Only 372 - or 6% - were tried by court martial. Less than 3% of offenders were convicted of a sex crime.

The military also lacks experienced agents to investigate sex crimes, particularly those committed against children, Christensen said. Criminal investigations are not seen as the glamorous aspects of the service, unlike counterintelligence and protection of high-value assets. Christensen said this meant criminal investigators, often with junior-level experience, roll in and out of positions very quickly, not long enough to become seasoned investigators.

An arrest and a second investigation

Local and federal law enforcement in Indianapolis first learned of Schuck in August 2019, during an investigation into a group of online users who had been sharing sexually explicit images of children.

Investigators found Schuck had been sending images of the then-9-year-old girl on Kik, an instant messaging app. He and a woman he met on Tinder had been sexually abusing the girl. The woman, Amber Talley, is related to the girl.

Schuck admitted exploiting the girl "fewer than 20 times," according to court records.

The girl told investigators the abuse began when she was in third or fourth grade and stopped when she started fifth grade. She told Talley she didn't want it to happen anymore, according to court records.

Schuck and Talley were arrested and charged with sexual exploitation of a child. Schuck faced an additional charge of distribution of child pornography. Each received a 45-year prison sentence.

Bureau of Prison officials denied IndyStar's request to interview Talley, citing "potential safety and security threats." It's unclear what the nature of the potential threats are.

More:Indianapolis man and woman sentenced to 45 years in federal prison in child sex abuse case

During his sentencing hearing, Schuck cited his own trauma - post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, severe depression and anxiety. He, too, was sexually abused as a child, he told the court. He also said he's remorseful for his crimes.

"I sincerely hate what I have done to her," Schuck told the court, referring to the then-9-year-old girl.

There was no mention of his own daughter's allegations against him. But Korobov, the prosecuting attorney, hinted at it multiple times.

"Mr. Schuck was a predator. And we know that it wasn't just Minor Victim 1," she told the court. "He had been accused of child molesting by the time he started in on Minor Victim 1."

To Saoirse, Korobov's words were the first time someone acknowledged what happened to her, in front of her father and her family.

Brenna Saoirse poses for a portrait on Friday, May 13, 2022 at Broad Ripple Park in Indianapolis.
Brenna Saoirse poses for a portrait on Friday, May 13, 2022 at Broad Ripple Park in Indianapolis.  

In August 2021, months after Schuck was sentenced, Saoirse said she was contacted by the Army. The Criminal Investigation Division was re-investigating her old allegations against her father.

This time, the outcome was different. An attorney at Schuck's former Army base in Washington, now called Joint Base Lewis McChord, found there was probable cause - the threshold for filing criminal charges - that Schuck had committed indecent acts with her as a child, according to a report from the Army Criminal Investigation Division.

Other allegations also surfaced.

Investigators found that when they were still married and living in Washington, Schuck raped Saoirse's mother while she was unconscious, the report said. They also found he allegedly solicited lewd pictures from Saoirse's childhood friend and sent her inappropriate photos of himself. That childhood friend did not respond to requests for an interview.

The case is now closed. Schuck, already serving what amounts to a life sentence in civilian court, is not facing charges in military court.

Saoirse has been sober for more than five years, and it's been a year since she last cut herself. She's now living in the Dayton, Ohio, area where she works as a waitress.

Last year, her father sent her a card for her 27th birthday. She said she wrote back to him and asked him to never contact her again. She later cut off all contact with her family in Indianapolis.

After her father went to prison, she changed her name from Brenna Schuck to Brenna Saoirse, an Irish name that means freedom. It was a symbolic gesture that reflected her healing.

"I chose," she said, "freedom."

Contact IndyStar reporter Kristine Phillips at (317) 444-3026 or email her at kphillips@indystar.com. Follow her on Twitter: @bykristinep.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Army sexual abuse: Bennie Schuck was accused of molesting his daughter

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