The ugly side effects surfaced soon after Kevin Shipp transferred in 1999 from CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., to Camp Stanley, the sprawling U.S. Army weapons depot just north of San Antonio. His now ex-wife, Lorena Shipp, suddenly began to suffer near-constant migraines. Rapidly increasing bouts of confusion and short-term memory loss were so severe the family feared she was bordering on dementia. “I thought she was dying,” Kevin Shipp said in a recent interview with the Current.
Son Joel Shipp, then 17, and his two younger siblings battled nosebleeds, strange rashes, bleeding gums, and frequent vomiting, as well as emergency-room trips for breathing difficulties. A doctor later noted Joel’s immune system had been ravaged.
The Shipps claim that for two years, between the summers of 1999 and 2001, the government housed them in an Army-owned home infested with a variety of bacteria and mold — including the so-called “black” mold Stachybotrys — leading to a rash of illness that would plague the family for years to come. But what started as a simple personal injury lawsuit against the government spun out of control, according to veteran CIA officer Kevin Shipp, sparking a years-long battle with the federal government that reads like spy novel: mysterious illness, shadowy surveillance, and a government cover-up that destroyed a marriage and career.
After years of wrangling in secret, the Shipps claim the government swayed a federal judge to quash the family’s case against it, saying the need to protect government secrets trumped the family’s right to a day in court.
Kevin Shipp speaks in circles, shackled by a strict confidentiality agreement he signed years ago with his former employer, the CIA. He vaguely references the “agency” he worked for between 1999 and 2001, unable to discuss where he was posted or what he was tasked with.
Shipp joined the agency in 1985, at one time serving on the protective detail for the CIA director, working out of the agency’s headquarters both before and after his family’s time at Camp Stanley.
Bexar County district court records from a separate insurance lawsuit Shipp filed in 2001 confirm he and the family lived at Camp Stanley a decade ago, though Shipp is blocked from saying why, or even if, he was there. He speaks only of the “facility” where the health problems started, and how, in his mind, agency officials abused the so-called state secrets privilege, a tool the government can use to dismiss court cases related to national security and sidestep judicial oversight, to cover up their own carelessness.
“What happened to my family, it was absolutely horrible. … I watched my kids get injured, and instead of facing up to it the government chose to cover it up,” he said.
Details on Shipp’s assignment at Camp Stanley are sketchy — both Joel and Lorena Shipp, who confirmed the family’s stay on base in separate interviews with the Current, say only that he was stationed there to uncover security breaches. Joel recalls a Camp Stanley commander urging the family to live on base due to his father’s “high-ranking position.”
Camp Stanley has for decades operated as a weapons storage depot for the U.S. Army, and Joel and Lorena Shipp both recall seeing large bunkers and Soviet-era weaponry. Both claim they witnessed Army officials burning or burying such items on site. And the family’s home itself, Joel claimed, was built near an ammunitions dump. “I remember my little brother and I got a metal detector for Christmas, and went out back and dug up all kinds of crazy stuff — from U.S. Army buttons all the way to old ammunition shells. … We finally found one that was mustard gas.”
For the past two decades, Camp Stanley has, like many aging military outposts, struggled to scrub away its toxic footprint. Officials in 1991 found that remnants of chemical solvents dumped for years on base had leeched into the underground aquifer, spurring a large-scale monitoring and cleanup program.
“We probably share a lot of the common traits that a lot of military hazardous waste sites have,” said Jim Cannizzo, environmental attorney for Camp Stanley, Fort Sam Houston, and Camp Bullis. “Decades and decades ago, they dumped the kind of stuff we wouldn’t dream of dumping now.”
But by 2001, officials found that some contamination had started to migrate under nearby homes off base, and the Army began distributing drinking water to nearby residents. “That’s when they really stepped in to high gear — we’ve become very heavily regulated now,” said Cannizzo, citing an EPA corrective action order that requires the Army identify and clean contamination on and off base. Cannizzo expects the order to stay in effect until 2020.
The Army, he says, now spends roughly $2 million annually on cleanup on and off site, testing 44 off-base wells monitoring for volatile organic compounds and chemicals like TCE and PCE under the nearby neighborhood. The most recent tests from last year show that only two small plumes reach off-base on the west and southwest corners of the installation, and neither effect residential drinking water, Cannizzo said. The contaminated water is so deep underground, any concern over hazardous off-gassing into nearby homes is unfounded, he claimed. Camp Stanley officials also contest the Shipps’ claims that onsite contamination caused their health problems, or that Joel and his two younger siblings ever discovered remnants of weaponry in or around their backyard. “We heard about that, there are so many things wrong factually. … In all of our sites in Camp Stanley, we’ve never had any chemical weapons found at all, ever,” Cannizzo said.
“They talk about a landfill near their house. Well, their house is on bedrock,” Cannizzo said, adding that a dump never would have been built near the base’s residential area. “We’re aware of those claims, and there’s so much wrong with it we’re not going to comment on it.”
The Shipps, however, are talking. According to them, it was after only three months on the base that the youngest child, Bobby, came running into his parent’s bedroom, blood streaming from his nose. For Joel, the nosebleeds started two days later. Lorena’s soon followed. Mysterious bruises and rashes began to appear all over Lorena’s body, and the debilitating headaches hit next — her memory began to deteriorate soon thereafter, Joel says. There were regular complaints of lightheadedness and a frequent burning sensation in their lungs.
Next to his mother, Joel was hit the hardest. After Joel’s parent’s sent him off to a local immunologist for a battery of tests, the doctor warned the parents their son could be HIV positive, prompting an uncomfortable father-son sex talk, Joel said. Further tests showed it wasn’t HIV, however. Another subsequent report shows Joel suffered from liver damage, while another noted that the family’s youngest, Bobby, showed “signs of possible neurological impairment.”
“Those reports all warned of toxic mold exposure. … We all knew something must be going on inside that house,” Lorena said. A doctor assessing the family’s range of symptoms urged them to pack up and leave immediately, according to a January 2001 report.
Joel and Lorena Shipp both recount the long, drawn-out struggle to get officials to seriously consider contamination, saying that claims they filed on base were routinely ignored. Eventually the family began to clash with base officials. Lorena says the family discovered that a black substance had spread virtually all throughout their house — into crawl spaces, behind bedroom wall panels and ceiling tiles, and into bedroom closets. Base officials not only refused to run an array of requested tests, but an outside company Lorena contacted for an independent assessment never showed. “I called and asked why. They said somebody from the base had called and cancelled it,” she said.
After numerous requests for an environmental assessment of the house, officials from Fort Sam Houston finally stopped by to check it out, Lorena says. “I remember, one of the guys saw what was inside and said, ‘Oh my gosh, every house on this base needs to be tested’,” Lorena said. She was shocked when within 24 hours officials claimed the tests showed nothing out of the ordinary.
Suspecting a cover-up, Kevin Shipp sent a variety of samples from the home to Texas Tech University professor and scientist David Straus, whose subsequent report notes high concentrations of various types of mold growing in and around the house, including Aspergillus flavus, which, according to his report, “produces the mycotoxin aflatoxin which is a known and potent carcinogen.”
Soon life on base grew even stranger, Joel recalls, saying he and his parents grew increasingly paranoid. Wanting an outside medical screening, Joel says he and his father took a last-minute, late-night flight to Arizona to see a specialist for another round of medical tests in early 2001. “The doctor told my father, ‘It seems like your son’s immune system was exposed to a burst of radiation.’ It was that bad,” Joel said.
Soon afterward, the Shipps claim base officials began to closely monitor the family. Mysterious figures began following Joel to and back from high school. Lorena says base officials who were called to testify in their separate Bexar County insurance claim lawsuit later said they were ordered to destroy documents related to contamination and repairs on the Shipps’ house. Court records show a number of base officials testified in the insurance case, but transcripts of the testimony were not readily available. Further fueling suspicions, the Shipps claim some of the guards on base told the family they were ordered to conduct surveillance, at times spying on the family from the nearby woods.
The family was eventually evacuated from the home, and a decontamination team in hazmat suits emptied the house, destroying most of the family’s belongings, Lorena said. “The only thing we were really left with was the clothes on our back,” said Joel.
After leaving the base, the Shipps sued the federal government (though they used pseudonyms due to a gag order the government placed on the entire family). The government was so tight-lipped that a copy of gag order itself was even kept secret from the family for months. When the family’s lawyer finally persuaded a judge to release it, the vast majority was redacted and illegible.
Kevin Shipp said he quit the CIA soon after moving back to Langley in 2002, noting that his relationship with the agency had become increasingly combative. In the end, the agency was looking for ways to squeeze him out, he said. When the family’s belongings were destroyed with the house, the CIA agreed to pay for the family’s lodging expenses elsewhere... and then reneged on the deal and accused the family of stealing from the agency.
A federal judge eventually ordered the family and the CIA into mediation, and by 2003 the two parties struck, and signed, an agreement awarding Joel Shipp $175,000, and Lorena and Kevin Shipp $225,000, in exchange for their silence. The settlement also called for an official letter of apology from the U.S. government “for the events that gave rise to this matter.”
“We all went back to the house, we had dinner, and we thought it was over, you know? Closure,” said Joel.
Two days later, the family’s attorney called saying the government had reneged. “They basically said that they wouldn’t settle at that amount, and if we did not accept $100,000 total for everybody, then they’re going to shut us down for national security reasons and we’ll never speak of this again,” Joel said.
“That was an outrage for me,” said Kevin Shipp, “essentially blackmailing us to take a lower settlement.”
When the family tried to take the case to court, the Justice Department stepped in, according to the family, invoking state secrets. “There’s nothing classified about us being sick, that has nothing to do with national security,” Lorena said. “That is, unless there’s something that made us sick we don’t know about that they refuse to tell us.”
Lorena still lives in northern Virginia, while ex-husband Kevin has since moved to Georgia. Joel lives with his fiancée and newborn daughter in Florida. Lorena, Kevin, and Joel have all been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder since leaving Camp Stanley, and Joel continues to suffer from immune system deficiencies. “There’s been a lot of depression. It ended up causing my father to drink, and medically, physically and mentally, it took our lives,” Joel said. “It took my father’s pension, it took all our belongings, my family eventually had to file for bankruptcy.”
“My oldest son [Joel] is still suffering, his immune system is still shot. … I’m afraid it ruined his life,” Kevin said. Fed up with years of silence, Kevin recently drafted his own memoir, hoping to tell the story with a litany of unclassified documents he collected throughout the ordeal. Those documents include the medical reports detailing his family’s suffering, photographs and reports from the decontamination company, reports on mold inside the home, and emotional 2001 journal entries by his son Joel. When he submitted it to the CIA for the mandatory review, he says, the agency redacted almost all of it.
“It looked like they took a can of black spray paint to it, just blacked the whole thing out. … Things that are certainly not classified, things related to my family’s illness.” Blocked from taking the case to court and silenced, Kevin had hoped the book would bring some kind of closure. The agency’s response made him all the more angry.
“They injured my family, they basically tried to blackmail us,” he said. Most of all, he claims, “They abused the national security privilege to do it.” •