When Dr. Elizabeth Bishop learned she was a target of a death threat by a veteran whose demands for opiates were turned aside, she locked herself in her office as the Knoxville Veterans Administration clinic was itself placed on lock down.
“I just sat there trying to collect myself as I was shaken,” she wrote in a letter filed in U.S. District Court.
The December 2015 death threat by veteran William T. Champ, 65, was one of a string of similar expressions of upset he directed at the Veterans Administration’s medical staff in New Mexico, Nashville and Knoxville and led to his indictment on federal charges of leveling death threats.
On Wednesday, Champ faced sentencing before Chief U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan. His penalty range was low — six months to a year behind bars. His continued denial of opiate addiction was high — despite his own doctor’s diagnosis and a 25-year history of using prescription painkillers.
He has no criminal record, built a profitable financial planning business and lives with his wife of 42 years on a 20-acre farm near Nashville. Even the government acknowledged prison wasn’t necessarily the right course of action for Champ.
Unwilling to simply allow Champ to go free with no supervision or to impose only a short term of probation, Varlan got creative. He extended Champ’s probation to a maximum four-year stint, placed him under house arrest for six months and agreed at the urging of Assistant U.S. Attorney Bart Slabbekorn to require Champ to do community service work specifically targeting veterans’ groups.
“Make no mistake,” Varlan said. “The threat by the defendant is a serious offense. The court would emphasize the seriousness of the defendant’s behavior.”
Varlan also ordered him to undergo both drug addiction and mental health treatment — even as Champ disavows any addiction to opiates.
Defense attorney Wesley Stone said in a sentencing memorandum that Champ is emphatic the real root of what he called inappropriate reactions to stress is the military itself and its “poisoning” of him and other Marines via contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in the 1970s.
Slabbekorn, himself a veteran, noted Champ’s upset at Bishop, who served as chief of staff at the VA’s Community Based Outreach Clinic in Knoxville, began in April 2015 when he demanded hydrocodone, an opiate, and didn’t get it. Both his personal doctor and the VA have diagnosed him as an opiate addict, he said.
Slabbekorn said the military acknowledged long-term exposure to the drinking water at Camp Lejeune could cause eight specific diseases, none of which Champ has suffered. Champ was only at the camp for a few months during his stint in the military from 1969 to 1971. At the age of 36, he suffered a stroke. He blames the stroke and infertility on the Camp Lejeune drinking water.
“The defendant, a trained infantry mortarman, did not participate in any combat operations during his 22 months on active duty, and he did not elect to serve longer,” Slabbekorn wrote. “The defendant’s belief that the Marines ‘poisoned’ him may be stressful. But there is a contrast to be drawn between this stress and the stress endured by Marines of that era. All veterans have both a story about their service and a story about how their service shaped the rest of their life.”
Slabbekorn also noted Bishop and other medical providers who work for the VA have felt victims of warfare themselves with Champ’s history of outbursts and threats at facilities where he has been a patient.
Bishop, a 15-year veteran of the VA’s health care system, first met Champ in April 2015 when a new VA doctor assigned to see him instead was frightened by Champ’s history of vitriol and threats. The pair clashed over his demand for hydrocodone. Bishop did not hear from him again until December 2015, when he phoned a VA crisis hotline and specifically targeted Bishop with a threat of death.
Bishop said the threat forced her to “alter my daily patterns.” She was escorted to and from her office by security for weeks.
“I was told to keep my blinds in my office shut and keep my office door closed and locked,” she wrote. “I worried for my children and wondered what would happen if the person who had threatened to kill me could find private information about where I live and about my family. This threat permeated my life for weeks.”
Stone said Champ has since “received proper medical care and mental health treatment” and is now stable. Stone did not address the opiate use other than to include Champ’s denial of addiction.
Slabbekorn pushed for community service aimed at veterans’ groups as, he said, a bit of “perspective” for Champ about the price his fellow veterans have paid for their military service and his own obligation as a Marine.
“Marines hold themselves to the highest standards of conduct,” Slabbekorn wrote.
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