On a tour bus trip to Southern California Edison’s Big Creek power plant, event planner Melissa Campbell was passing out snacks to dignitaries when one of them asked her a question that would change both of their lives and make U.S. judicial history.
“Do you know who I am?” asked Xavier Alvarez, an elected member of a local water board, not waiting for an answer.
“I am a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient.”
Nearly five years later, Mr. Alvarez, who never served in the military, stands among dozens who have been convicted under the federal Stolen Valor Act, a misdemeanor crime that carries a sentence of up to one year of imprisonment for lying about receiving military honors. After Mr. Alvarez’s appeal, his widely publicized case recently went before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Less attention has been paid to the fate of the woman who helped expose Mr. Alvarez and who brought him to the attention of the FBI. Ms. Campbell, the event planner serving Mr. Alvarez snacks on June 27, 2007, was a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served her country for 10 years.
But after exposing Mr. Alvarez’s medal claim as a hoax — later reporting to the FBI what she viewed as a crime in progress — Ms. Campbell said she wasn’t thanked by her employer. Instead, she said, she was fired.
“I was told it was unprofessional to confront him,” she told The Washington Times in a recent interview. The company did not respond to inquiries about her departure, citing a policy of not commenting on personnel matters. Mr. Alvarez declined through an attorney to comment.
Ms. Campbell now works as a family readiness officer for the military. She has politely declined the offers from a parade of lawyers inquiring whether she would like to file a lawsuit against her former employer. She told them she was not interested. While she still wants her name cleared, she said, she doesn’t want to spend any more time thinking about Mr. Alvarez.
Indeed, when she was invited by federal prosecutors to attend Mr. Alvarez’s criminal sentencing, Ms. Campbell declined. Nor did she have any desire to attend the Supreme Court hearing last month.
Still, given renewed attention to the case, Ms. Campbell agreed to speak about how Mr. Alvarez’s stories of brave heroism unraveled, setting off an unforeseen chain of events that would lead 3,000 miles away to the nation’s highest court.
Ms. Campbell said she joined the utility company as a security officer and later worked on the corporate events staff. She said she received only good employee reviews and even won one of the company’s highest employee awards.
As a planner in the events department, she helped set up meetings and off-site events, including tours for local politicians and dignitaries at the company’s Big Creek Hydroelectric System plant located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. The company would give two- or three-day tours of the plant to local officials, she said.
There were dinners and cocktails, as well as talks from specialists on issues important to the company, she said. Ms. Campbell said she had been on plenty of trips. Her job was to coordinate tours and oversee transportation and the guests.
Before boarding the bus to Big Creek, Ms. Campbell said she and Mr. Alvarez made small talk about both having been in the Marine Corps. He said he spent about 25 years in reconnaissance, she said, recalling the first hint of something amiss. She said she had never heard of anyone in reconnaissance for such a long time. Still, she said, she quickly put any doubt out of her mind and went about doing her job.
But hours later on the bus to Big Creek, Mr. Alvarez made the stunning statement that he had won the Congressional Medal of Honor, Ms. Campbell said.
“I about dropped the snacks all over the place,” she said. “I’d much rather meet a CMH winner than any rock star. So I said, ‘I can’t even speak right now. I’m in awe of you. Anything you need, let me know.’ “
But a few text messages and a quick check of a website with information on the fewer than 100 living Congressional Medal of Honor winners made clear, just minutes later, that the list did not include anyone by the name Xavier Alvarez.
“This is a big deal,” she recalled, confiding to a co-worker. “This is like against the law.”
A standing ovation
Once at Big Creek, Ms. Campbell said, Mr. Alvarez’s military service drew praise from other attendees.
During a dinner, a member of the public-affairs staff got up and asked how many people had served in the military, Ms. Campbell said. While about half of the people raised their hands, she said, the woman told the attendees about a “very special guest” and described how Mr. Alvarez had received a Silver Star.
“They gave him a standing ovation,” she said.
After dinner, she said, a co-worker began peppering Mr. Alvarez with questions, including which president had awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Mr. Alvarez said it was President Reagan.
“Alvarez advised that he was in Iran and was on a mission to rescue the U.S. ambassador,” FBI agents later wrote in an affidavit describing their interview with Ms. Campbell days later. “During the raid, Alvarez was wounded several times, but returned to the U.S. Embassy to retrieve the U.S. flag that was flying.”
To Ms. Campbell, the story sounded an awful lot like the plot from the movie “Rules of Engagement,” starring Samuel L. Jackson, whose character rescues the flag from the embassy — though the movie-version embassy was in Yemen, not Iran, as told by Mr. Alvarez.
It wasn’t the only hard-to-believe story she recalled hearing. Another time, she said, Mr. Alvarez said he wasn’t getting on any helicopters on the tour because he had been in two other Edison helicopter crashes. Ms. Campbell said she knew that wasn’t true, either.
Finally, upon overhearing Mr. Alvarez boast of his many killings while in the military, including some involving children, Ms. Campbell said, she couldn’t help but interrupt.
“He’s speaking for my Marine Corps,” she recalled thinking.
At first, she said, she asked him from which base he retired. She said Mr. Alvarez said that he had retired from Camp Pendleton as “Delta,” or Special Operations Delta Force. To Ms. Campbell, the answer didn’t make sense.
She asked again in a different way, noting that as sergeant major in the Marine Corps, his retirement would have been a big deal.
That’s when Mr. Alvarez wouldn’t answer any more of her questions, she said.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘Ms. Campbell, I know what you’re doing, and I don’t like it,’” she said.
With a handful of people in the room, she responded before walking out of the room.
“Mr. Alvarez,” she recalled saying, “I know what you’re doing, and I don’t like it.”
Still, she said, she treated Mr. Alvarez professionally on the rest of the trip. But after the trip, she said, she called the FBI. Agents later working on the case separately became aware of another statement by Mr. Alvarez describing his Congressional Medal of Honor at a water board meeting in Pomona, Calif. — a statement that formed the basis of the criminal charge against him.
“I’m a retired Marine of 25 years,” he said when introduced as the newest member of the board about a month later. “I just retired in 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal.”
Mr. Alvarez ultimately was convicted and sentenced to probation and community service. In a sentencing letter, he wrote, “I’m so remorseful and embarrassed of my misconduct.”
Mr. Alvarez’s public defender, Brianna Fuller, wrote in a sentencing memo that Mr. Alvarez’s lie at the water board “was not a lie that caused physical, financial or other tangible harm to any person, but it was surely offensive to military personnel.”
By the time the investigation into Mr. Alvarez was under way, Ms. Campbell had other concerns. Days after the trip to Big Creek, she said, she was suspended by the company and told that it was unprofessional to confront Mr. Alvarez.
One supervisor said, “I don’t understand why you made such a big deal. You’re not even a Marine anymore,” Ms. Campbell recalled.
“Do you understand what they do to earn their awards?” Ms. Campbell replied.
Suspended from her job, Ms. Campbell said she later got a phone call from the company asking her to attend a meeting. When she walked into the office, she said, she saw boxes full of her belongings.
It was official, she said — she’d been fired.