A former police officer and soldier was sentenced for lying about being a Purple Heart recipient in a Cherokee County courtroom — full of family and U.S. Military veterans — Tuesday, nearly five years after a veterans parade accident in Texas where his wife lost her leg and questions about his service began.
Superior Court Judge David Cannon Jr. sentenced Shane Ladner, 45, to 10 years, 60 days of which he must serve in prison and the rest on probation as a first offender under the state’s First Time Offenders Act.
Ladner must also serve a total of 600 hours of community service, pay $1,500 in fines, pay $6,029.98 in restitution to the county and is forbidden from possessing alcohol, firearms or illegal controlled substances or occupying residences or vehicles where those items are present.
Cannon said he would suspend Ladner’s time served until he finished his community service. Ladner has already served five months on an ankle bracelet, he said.
The former soldier and National Guardsman was convicted in May on six felony counts of making false statements for submitting a falsified DD-214 to his former employers and the Cherokee County Tag Office in order to obtain a tax-exempt Purple Heart license plate for his Ford F-150.
The former Holly Springs Police officer was also convicted for lying to tag office employees and investigators who looked into claims that he was dishonest about awards he received in the early ’90s while serving overseas in the U.S. Army, the jury ruled.
Ladner was first arrested in June 2013 following a six-week investigation by the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office. He made headlines after members of his extended family called his military record into question.
Prior to sentencing, Ladner told the court he stood by his innocence despite the facts proven in the case, including testimony from nearly a dozen witnesses poking holes in the stories about his service.
“I told the truth,” he said. “I served my country and my community … I don’t care what the other side says.”
Cannon called the case one of the “most taxing” of his career before his final decision on the matter. He said the state had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Ladner had lied about his service in Central America, but pointed out that the “whole story was never told,” throughout the trial.
“I don’t know if we’re anywhere near the truth in certain parts of the case,” he said.
Looking out at the character witnesses for Ladner, Cannon said it’s unfortunate that many still believe the lie. He said if Ladner’s statements were true, no less than a dozen witnesses were lying, including military personnel who were Ladner’s supervisors, and there would have to be a grand government conspiracy against Ladner.
“I don’t believe that’s the case,” he said.
For years, Ladner told those he knew that he carried out top secret missions as a U.S. soldier stationed in Central America, Cuba and Somalia. He led people to believe he was a decorated war hero who was wounded during a firefight in Central America just out of high school, and that he awoke two days later with a Purple Heart pinned to his pillow.
But former military commanders called by the state to testify against Ladner argued that no such covert missions existed and that they would have been aware if any of the soldiers in their charge had been wounded in battle.
A military doctor who ran the air base’s medical facility disputed Ladner’s claims, testifying that if a soldier had been wounded by shrapnel, it’s something he would have known about.
Outside the courtroom before Ladner’s sentencing, nine veterans sat patiently waiting to enter. Many of them Purple Heart recipients themselves, they said they were the victims of Ladner’s crime.
“He stole valor from us,” National Senior Vice Commander Doug Middleton of the Military Order of the Purple Heart said. The Roswell veteran said he was blown up by a landmine during the Vietnam War.
David Raber and Mike Maloy, both of Marietta, said they were mowed down by machine guns in Vietnam. Don Towers of Canton said he lost his left leg in the same war.
Middleton said the Purple Heart is the oldest declaration in the U.S. Military and the honor was started by George Washington. Stolen valor happens nationally every day, he said, adding that he believes most people do it to pretend to be something they’re not and appear important.
“This is not a victimless crime,” Middleton said. “He stole our honor. He stole our valor.”
Despite the prosecution’s request for at least two years served, Cannon said he had to evaluate if this was a case that justified jail time. He mentioned his own grandfathers both served in World War II and his father served in the National Guard, but there’s been a state effort for years to only send violent offenders to prison.
“I just don’t see it anywhere in these circumstances where it is warranted,” he said.
Ladner’s wife, Meg Ladner, gave a heartfelt testimony before sentencing, stating her husband had stood by her after a train slammed into a parade float they were riding on during a November 2012 event for wounded veterans in Midland, Texas.
Ladner and his wife were among 17 injured when a Union Pacific train plowed into a parade float carrying some 25 wounded veterans and their families. Attorney Brian Cook, who represented the Ladners in their lawsuit against the railroad company and the city, said during the trial that the train was traveling at 68 mph when the crash occurred.
Four veterans were killed and Meg Ladner lost a leg in the incident She credits her husband for pushing her off the flatbed and saving her life.
Meg Ladner said during her testimony Shane Ladner met her every need “better than a nurse” and suggested he try out nursing school. Her husband had even saved a woman from being raped in a hospital room next door while she was receiving one of many medical treatments.
Her family had suffered enough, she said. Many witnesses who spoke in favor of Ladner echoed her thoughts.
“I need him,” she said. “Punishing him is punishing me.”
The entire ordeal began, Meg Ladner said, after her incident and family members had started making accusations against Shane Ladner in order to gain her settlement money. She said family members would order welfare checks on her by the police, one aunt even claiming she suffered “brain damage from the accident.”
“There’s money issues throughout my family,” she said. “That’s how all this got started.”
Before sentencing, Cannon heard arguments early Tuesday between Assistant District Attorney Rachelle Carnesale and Ladner’s defense attorney Bubba Head about a motion for a mistrial.
Head said a juror on Ladner’s trial had come forward after the verdict, claiming she had been bullied into voting guilty and was concerned about discrepancies during jury deliberation.
The juror said during deliberation another juror had pulled out his own DD-214 folded up in his wallet and stated he carried it at all times. She said another juror also mentioned having committed a misdemeanor but a background check conducted for a job claimed the charge was a felony, so he approached the Cherokee Sheriff’s Office to have it fixed.
Head argued that the court had to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that these two instances did not cause harm to Ladner’s due process and the verdict he received.
“That should have never been part of that trial,” he said.
State and defense attorneys were aware of veteran and criminal history status of both jurors before the trial, Carnesale said, and both jurors were bringing their personal knowledge and background to the discussions, which are perfectly acceptable.
The court heard testimony from all 12 of the jurors, including the juror who claimed she was bullied; those who said they remembered the events the single juror questioned said the discrepancies did not affect their verdict.
Two jurors said they received texts from the “bullied” juror days after the trial, where she claimed they had “ruined” Ladner’s life and that he could serve up to 30 years in prison. One of the jurors called the texts “harassing” in nature.
Cannon said he would deny the motion for a retrial on the grounds that the accusing juror was bullied. He said he believed the incidents during deliberation in question where part of the jurors’ experiences.
It would be a different story, he said, if the juror had unfolded his DD-214 and allowed other jurors to examine it, which all of the jurors testified did not happen.
“Although she may have buyer’s remorse, if you will, when she walked out of the building, I believe that was her verdict,” she said.
Cannon denied the motion for a mistrial.