A Marine Recruiter's 'Grooming' of a Teenage Recruit Led to an Investigation. The Family Says He's Still Terrorizing Them.

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U.S. Marine recruits stand in line to do pullups
U.S. Marine recruits stand in line to do pullups, May 13, 2023. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Ethan LeBlanc)

Editor's Note: This article contains references to sexual assault.

The Marine Corps recruiter showed up at the young recruit's door twice in one hour, according to the police report. On that hot Texas summer day, the woman, just a few months past 18, was not home.

Her parents were. The doorbell rang two times, and they called 911 after the recruiter, who by this time had become a terrifying, controlling presence to the prospective Marine, left something on their porch.

"He's calling me, he's leaving messages, he's going crazy, Mom -- he's going to kill me," Kathlyn would later recall her daughter, the would-be recruit, telling her as she went to check the porch.

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There, Kathlyn found two bottles of whiskey and a letter written on lined, three-punch paper. Thirty-six-year-old Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Champagne, now under investigation by military authorities after self-publishing a memoir about his year-plus relationship with Kathlyn's daughter that began when she was 17, had left them as a thank you for inviting him over for Christmas eight months earlier.

The family took the unannounced visit as threatening, and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS, would later confiscate the bottles, Kathlyn said.

Earlier this month, Military.com reported on the memoir, which appeared to outline behavior Kathlyn has described as grooming, as well as accusations by Champagne's ex-wife alleging sexual assault and other abusive behavior.

"He guilted me a lot to do things that I didn't want to do," the former recruit told Military.com. "I would often tell him that I don't want to do anything gross, and he would just nag at me until I did. … I would [tell him], 'I'm not in the mood, I don't want to do this.' It was often that I would say, 'OK, just get it over with if you have to, I just don't want to do this.'"

The young Marine recruit said, in interviews with Military.com after the early November report, that the abusive behavior by Champagne included sexual assault. She provided accounts of assault, which her mother said she had been told about several months later.

Military.com is withholding the name of Kathlyn's daughter, given her age when the alleged abuse began and a publication policy not to print the names of alleged sexual assault victims.

A military protective order had been put in place against Champagne after initial reports from the family of menacing behavior, the family was told in July by NCIS. In response to Military.com's initial reporting, Capt. Bryanna Kessler, a spokesperson for Champagne's unit, the 8th Marine Corps District, said that the former recruit was "not in any danger of being contacted by [Champagne]."

But according to the family, this proved to be untrue.

They say Champagne messaged the former recruit under a fake name, lashing out and threatening to release videos of them having sex.

"I recorded us having sex multiple times and I'll send the videos to everyone," one of the messages said, according to screen recordings of social media chats reviewed by Military.com in which the recruit's family said Champagne identified himself as Pete Mitchell, the main character of the movie "Top Gun" and an allusion he made in his memoir.

Military.com cannot independently confirm that the alias belongs to Champagne, but screenshots of messages sent to the alleged victim through the Pete Mitchell account not only include threats, but references to specific details about their relationship.

The recruit sent these messages and other correspondence to the NCIS asking for help. It was not until mid-November, after Military.com published its initial story, that the Navy's investigative arm gave the family assurances that it would prioritize the case, according to the family and emails reviewed by Military.com.

"Please know that this case has become a top priority and we are diligently working on getting this wrapped up," an agent assigned to the case told the former recruit nearly two weeks after Military.com first published a story about Champagne and his memoir.

Military.com attempted to contact Champagne at a publicly listed number that the former recruit confirmed as belonging to him. The gunnery sergeant did not answer a phone call but a text was sent from the number in reply, requesting that questions be sent in advance of a conversation.

After the publication suggested a phone call instead to discuss the memoir and the Marine’s relationship with the recruit, the texter replied with what appeared to be screenshots meant to represent a privately administered polygraph test. The test purportedly shows Champagne denying having sexually assaulted his ex-wife. Military.com had not asked about sexual assault, and could not confirm whether the document did indeed represent a polygraph test. Polygraph tests, due to their unreliability, are also typically excluded from legal proceedings, though they are still employed by the military for security clearances.

The texter also sent what appeared to be a picture of kids at a house party, along with the message: "I want to correct the errors in your last article as well as what you probably will publish in the follow up, but unfortunately I will not comment on a pending investigation."

At the time of Military.com's initial report, Kessler said that Champagne remained on active duty while an investigation was underway, though he was no longer performing recruiting functions. Asked for an update this week, Kessler said, "Due to the ongoing investigation regarding this matter, no further information will be released at this time." She referred the publication to NCIS which, in turn, referred the publication back to the Marine Corps.

When asked about Champagne allegedly breaking a military protective order, or MPO, by trying to contact the former recruit and what NCIS was doing about it, NCIS spokesperson Jeff Houston said that "NCIS takes allegations of retaliation connected to an NCIS investigation seriously and encourages anyone with knowledge of an MPO violation to report to NCIS. Although NCIS will investigate such allegations, the command is ultimately responsible for holding individuals accountable for any violations."

In Champagne's memoir, which was self-published in the fall and excerpts of which were provided to Military.com by his ex-wife's family, he documented a year of his and the recruit's relationship, one that -- even in his own words -- entailed his pursuit of a teenager who was not old enough to join the military on her own accord when they first became involved and Champagne was her recruiter.

According to the recruit and her family, the last year-plus was marred by secrets, code names that obfuscated the nature of the relationship from her parents, and an unscrupulous relationship that simmered under their noses until that summer day when the whiskey bottles were planted at their doorstep -- transforming it from taboo and unsettling to threatening and scary. That was the day that the recruit told her parents about the alleged abuse.

The former recruit said that she met Champagne, a meteorological and oceanographic forecaster or "Weather Marine," last fall when she was 17. She had taken an interest in joining the Marine Corps after conducting a pull-up challenge at a local county fair. Kathlyn said that her daughter had been lonely before the Marine Corps took an interest in her.

In the spring, just weeks after the recruit's 18th birthday, the Corps hosted an annual poolee – the service's term for recruits who haven't started training – event. Over two days, poolees got a taste of the Marine Corps and a chance to don the Eagle, Globe and Anchor that symbolize the corps on their workout shirts in the balmy Texas weather.

They were being welcomed into the club, a prestigious and legendary one in the most Marine ways possible -- getting screamed at, rolling around in the dirt and competing physically.

"I really wanted to be a part of something," the former recruit told Military.com. "And I knew that the Marines were the best, the strongest. … It just felt right."

Descriptions in Champagne's memoir show that he was attracted to the recruit when he first met her when she was 17, saying, "I could not take my eyes off [her]." Throughout the memoir, Champagne uses a pseudonym for the recruit taken from a literary character who is exalted for her innocence.

"Before she left that day, I challenged her to write down her Snapchat, even though I already had her cellphone programmed into my cellphone," Champagne wrote. "I had exercised plenty of risky behavior over my career … still, I figured I would talk myself out of messaging her or only operate in a gray area without stepping over the line."

According to his memoir, the alleged victim’s family, and Marine Corps policy, Champagne stepped over the line on many occasions.

In addition to the allegations of abuse, he allegedly directly violated Defense Department policy that prohibits recruiters from having inappropriate relationships with recruits. That policy is meant to avoid an abuse of the inherent power dynamic at play between a young person, eager to join the military, and a uniformed service member who can dictate whether that happens.

"He wanted her, he desired her, he lusted after her, he was obsessed with her but what he did to her was not love," Kathlyn told Military.com.

When they felt that Champagne's behavior became threatening this summer, the recruit and her family made contact with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Marine Corps, but said responses to their pleas for help fell short over the following months.

On Tuesday, the day after Military.com asked the Marine Corps for an update on the case, the NCIS reached out to the former recruit, asking a series of questions to include whether she had ever been given a copy of Champagne's military protective order. She had not. The agent included resources to a crime prevention agency in her area.

"Until the last few days, I really felt like they were just trying to sweep everything under the rug and hoping if they didn't respond to me that I would just lose interest," the former recruit said.

Champagne's former family -- his ex-wife Kristi Champagne and her father, Rob Kersch -- previously told Military.com that they had raised concerns about the Marine noncommissioned officer to local police and military authorities, concerns that included sexual assault, emotional abuse, and failure to provide child support. Only the emotional abuse case "met criteria," according to screenshots of emails from Fort Worth officials and documents reviewed by Military.com.

"At the very least, I hope what happened to me provides validity to her and her situation," Kristi told Military.com of her hopes for the former recruit. "Because I doubt that I will ever see a day -- because of my situation -- where he's ever held accountable legally."

The help from the agent on Tuesday came too late, according to the former recruit's family. Too late to at least give the former recruit a shot at joining the Marines -- her dream -- or a sense of safety and normalcy on the precipice of adulthood in the face of alleged threats from an active-duty Marine.

"I just want to go on with my life and not to think about this anymore," she said. "I'm just ready to get on with my life and be 18 again."

-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at drew.lawrence@military.com. Follow him on X @df_lawrence.

Related: Marine Under Investigation After Publishing Memoir About Sexual Relationship with Young Potential Recruit

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