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Who Shot Chris Heben? The Strange Tale of a Former Navy SEAL and the Suburban Shopping Plaza Shooting that Never Happened 

"Dear Facebook peeps...here's a quick CMH FYI: I was shot in the stomach Saturday at 1700hrs in a parking lot in Akron, OH, By 3 'gang bangers' in a tinted widowed car. 9mm or .38. I had to undergo emergency surgery to remove bullet/fragmentation from my stomach and repair some holes in my small intestines. I'm ok! Im alive...I'm just shot! After I was shot, I chased them and got a good vehicle description, but no plate read....I was too far behind once I got into my truck and got after them. Then, I had to stop the chase....because I was bleeding too badly. I had one hand on wheel and with the other hand had to put fingers in the bullet hole. I drove to a Fire station/Police station for their help....Im at the hospital now, recovering and driving the nurses nuts! What else would you expect?!-CMH"

With that now deleted Facebook post (the reasons for which will become apparent shortly) in late March from Akron General Hospital, former Navy SEAL Christopher Heben jumped into headlines across the country and the world. After all, there's no more compelling story than an All-American Hero who, after being attacked in the bustling West Market Plaza in front of a Mustard Seed grocery store, hops in his Ford F-150 and chases the bad guys, ignoring the searing pain of a gunshot wound to the stomach before eventually heading to the Bath Township police station for help.

Nevermind that it was actually during rush hour on Friday and not Saturday, as Heben wrote. That was just one of the countless fungible details in Heben's fluid version of the events, which morphed with each appearance like he was in a game of telephone with himself. Those details didn't matter much early on as Heben basked in the glowing media coverage from his hospital bed.

Which is not what Heben and his camp had in mind. According to his friends and business partners, there was never a plan to release a statement or seek attention. They tell Scene Heben simply wanted to keep quiet and recover, but that all changed when rumors began circulating via text messages within the police community. Heben was scheduled to train a group of Loudonville police officers that Saturday morning and notified those officers of why he wouldn't be making it. The story, in all its unbelievable glory, eventually reached another ex-SEAL who posted well wishes on his own Facebook page for his friend Heben.

"Social media went ballistic hammering his page," said Heben's confidant and business partner Mike Lemire. "I was with him, his phone was blowing up like a Christmas tree. It was ridiculous."

To put Heben's friends and legions of fans at ease, Lemire says, they wanted to simply let people know he was alive and recuperating. Thus the upbeat Facebook post and picture of a smiling Heben in his hospital bed, tubes coming out of his nose. A simple gunshot wouldn't get this former Navy SEAL down. And the interview requests and triumphant news coverage ensued on every local television station, every local paper (except Scene), as well as Fox News and the Daily Mail in London.

Strapping, chiseled and handsome, Heben was no stranger to national cable news. For years after Navy SEALs took out Osama Bin Laden, he'd been the go-to commentator on all things SEAL and national security-related, opining on threats to America's safety and the stealthy military tactics used overseas to battle the bad guys. He was a natural — confident and chatty with an air of authority and an unquestionable resume of patriotism.

It was on display when he appeared on the syndicated Cleveland-based radio show, Rover's Morning Glory, a week after the shooting to, once again, regale his audience with his tale.

"I'm pulling up to the shopping center and I'm getting out of my car. I walk behind my car, progressing towards the store — mind you I just got a new truck so I'm parking as far away as I can.... So I'm two or three spots away from my car and this other car literally almost backs up over me. Like if I was on my cell phone doing anything other than paying attention to my surroundings, I'd have been underneath that car. So the guy continues to back up despite the fact that I just vaulted myself off the rear corner of my car... and I found myself next to his window at which time some pleasantries. It was like 'expletive, expletive, expletive, dude what's up? Expletive, expletive, watch what the expletive you're doing.'"

There are at least two guys in the car and possibly a third in the back seat. Heben then brings in the race angle.

"His retort to me was pretty similar, with a couple of references to my skin color, of course... I'm pretty non-confrontation by nature because I think the more deadly you are, the more relaxed you are in any kind of situation, so I basically non-politely excused myself from the conversation and kept going towards the store. Then I realize I didn't have my wallet, so I go back to the car, but meanwhile he kept kind of backing up in that arc and posted up about 10 feet, 15 feet on the other side of my car."

Rover asks why he'd go back after just having a confrontation.

"I'm capable of handling myself. As a matter of fact, if three guys come up to me at a bar, that first guy in inconsequential to me — I'm already looking through that dude to the other guys behind him... strike fast, strike hard, leave some bodies on the floor and get the hell out of there."

He continues: "So I'm walking back to my car, I get my wallet, and I continue back to the store and he reengages me, pulls up next to me... So he says 'Hey, you need to learn some respect, whitey, blah blah blah, you got a bigass mouth,' and all this stuff. And I said, 'You know, where I come from, respect is earned, it's not issued, and I'd be happy to give you the chance to earn that right now if you're so inclined,' or something like that. He looks to his buddy, looks back at me, and then I felt this massive impact to my left lower abdomen. Like a mule kick, took my breath away, doubled me over."

Rover leads him on: "You feel it before you even hear the gunshot?"

"Oh yeah, you figure, right, it's faster than the speed of sound, right, so it's hitting you before you even, you know. So I'm still upright and I'm pissed off, and about two seconds or less I gather myself and I see them turning the corner in front of the store, exiting the parking lot."

Rover: "So they shoot you. They fire a single shot?"

"To my knowledge. I didn't hear a shot to begin with. I didn't see a gun to begin with. The window never came down more than six inches from the top. So I saw more of the passenger than I actually did of the driver. So my first thought is I have to go after these guys. I'm pissed off, I'm still upright, and this is what I'm taught to do: pursue. So I'm behind these guys. They've got a fast car, I've got a big, lumbering truck, so I was never able to get closer than probably 75 yards, 50 yards max to them. They were just hauling ass. It was at that time I had to take a couple of assessments because I knew my health was going downhill pretty fast. I had a finger in the hole in my stomach, I was sweating..."

Heben almost always carries a gun with him, but explains he was hesitant to let loose if he caught up with them. "So I'm thinking, 'Okay, now you're going to shoot one, two or three black dudes,' and it's going to be like a Trayvon Martin incident times three here? You're not proved positive they shot you — you are bleeding but you never saw a gun and you didn't hear a gun, and under Ohio CCW statutes, if I pursue them, now I'm in violation."

He elaborates. "I look at the driver and to me, in hindsight, he kind of appeared — he was very dark skinned with almost Somali-looking features." He could only see the top half of the driver's face.

And on and on.

A little later, ABC's primetime news show, 20/20, would come to town and interview Heben at the scene of the supposed crime in the Mustard Seed parking lot.

"Former Navy SEAL Chris Heben is recovering from a parking lot fracass," the reporter says in a voice-over introduction.

It cuts to the two of them standing in the lot. "For you, the parking lot was a battlefield," the reporter continues.

"It was a battlefield, yeah," Heben responds, nodding his head affirmatively. Photographs of Heben holding guns while wearing combat gear intersperse with video of Heben driving his truck.

"For Chris, a routine trip to his local health-food store in Akron, Ohio, turned out to be more dangerous than his tours of duty in Afghanistan." Heben then gives a watered-down and less racially motivated version of what he says happened, while doing a sanitized reenactment of getting shot.

"Chris goes into Zero Dark 30 mode," the reporter says, "deciding to chase after the car and whoever shot him. Chris takes his finger and plugs the hole in his abdomen, all along pursuing his assailants. Eventually Chris abandons his chase. He survives, with a healing scar and a bruised ego to show for it."

In later interviews, Heben would casually theorize that the shooters could be part of an Al-Qaeda operation meant to target high-profile Navy SEALs on American soil (though his camp would later say that was taken out of context). And as details changed in the retellings, the original Facebook post would be deleted.

***

Born in 1969, Christopher Heben grew up around Lakewood and enlisted in the Navy in 1996 for two years of training before his assignment to SEAL Team 8. He exited combat in 2006, working for the infamous Blackwater private security contractor during his final years on reserve status, contracted by the Central Intelligence Agency for work in Africa and the Middle East. He did combat medic work while overseas and said he went to school to become a physician's assistant when he returned home.

He'd kept a low profile until 2011, when SEAL Team 6 killed Osama Bin Laden. It was around the same time that he filed for bankruptcy and began branding himself as a talking head expert.

"On May 2nd 2011, Chris emerged as the media's most featured Special Operations subject matter expert," his online bio states, "appearing in hundreds of interviews on over-the-air television, cable news networks, and audio networks such as NPR, providing expertise and relevance on a variety of topics relating to the special operations community.

"Due to his many favorable on-air appearances and growing popularity, Chris was heavily featured in the Discovery Channel's specials, Secrets of SEAL Team Six (June 2011), and Inside Bin Laden's Lair (August 2012), the history Channel's America's Book of Secrets: Black Op's (April 2013), and the United Kingdom's Channel 4 documentary: Wikileaks, Secrets and Lies: The Julian Assange Story."

Heben used his growing public persona to bolster a network of consulting companies he'd founded, including SEAL Team Consulting, through which Heben offers a variety of services: training police departments on SWAT tactics, public speaking engagements, private security, hawking nutritional supplements, publishing training videos, and selling patriotic apparel like the $35 Affliction-style "Rise Up Against ISIS" T-shirt that features an angel holding a machine gun to a guy's head. "Nothing says freedom from evil quite like a well-placed round — from an M4 — to the head of a terrorist at close range," the store's website proclaims. "Even better that the trigger puller is St. Michael, the Patron Saint of ASS-KICKERY."

The self-styled modern military Renaissance man has even more to offer, if you could believe that. He's a singer as well, recording military-themed country songs like one called "Patriot," featuring these lyrics: "I'm a patriot, I bleed red, white and blue/ I'm a patriot, does that word bother you?"

Rounding out the SEAL Team Consulting family are Heben's best friends and closest confidants, some of whom also work for Montrose Auto Group, one of the biggest car dealers in Northeast Ohio. Earlier this year, Heben became a spokesman for the auto group, featured in cheesy commercials celebrating his military experience and closing with the tagline "No customer left behind."

"Thought you might be interested in a short interview with a national hero: The Montrose Auto Group has hired a national hero as their spokesman. Imagine having this man on your side..." read a press release. "This remarkable, local SEAL is now available for interviews, corporate speaking engagements, motivational seminars and product endorsements."

That pitch worked for some media outlets, namely Channel 5, who, for some reason, put out a 75-second spectacle of fluffery headlined "Former Navy SEAL Chris Heben joins Montrose Auto Group to 'ensure no customer left behind.'" Heben managed to get in a plug for SEAL Team Consulting while a reporter explained that Heben "said the choice to work as a spokesman for a car dealer connects with his patriotism."

A week later, Heben was shot and the Montrose Auto Group spokesman landed in the news again.

***

"When I first heard about it," Bath police chief Mike McNeely says in an interview with Scene, "it's like, 'Oh my gosh, we've had a shooting down at the West Market Plaza? The Mustard Seed? On a Friday afternoon?'"

He can't remember a single incident of anyone else getting shot in Bath during his decade at the helm of the department.

Their first shooting case started when Heben showed up at the station. Officers interviewed him about the nuts and bolts of the incident — who? what? when? where? why? — and put out a description of the alleged shooters and car to other law enforcement agencies and the media. Two detectives were then dispatched to the parking lot.

"Well, the first thing is you go look for the crime scene," McNeely says. "He said it happened down at the Mustard Seed, so let's go down to the Mustard Seed. If there's a shooting, there is obviously different pieces of evidence that you would look for. You'd want to go locate witnesses. This happened on a Friday afternoon in Montrose, so there's got to be a lot of witnesses." And perhaps there'd be shell casings on the ground near where it occurred. And video — there'd be tons of surveillance video from any number of the popular businesses near the busy parking lot, and probably from the businesses they passed during the temporary chase and Heben's route to the station.

But detectives hit a roadblock as soon as their investigation began: There was no crime scene. Nobody heard a shot. Nobody reported seeing an altercation, the shooting, or any part of the chase. Nobody called 911. There were no shell casings or blood on the ground. There were a bunch of surveillance cameras in the parking lot and along the chase route, but none of them showed Heben, Heben's truck or the alleged shooter's car.

Mustard Seed employees who were working on the day recall two detectives coming in and asking about the incident in the parking lot. They reported nothing but confusion about what the hell the cops were talking about.

***

Christopher Heben has a laundry list of incidents with law enforcement over the years. Heben's camp claims that because of that, when detectives showed up at the hospital, they already believed Heben had lied.

"The first thing they said to Chris (in the hospital) wasn't, 'How are you? Thank you for your service,'" says Heben's friend and SEAL Team Consulting business partner Mike Lemire, who was with Heben when they arrived. "It was, 'Have you ever been convicted of a crime?' Who says that to any of our nation's veterans?"

His team says the detectives came bearing printouts of Heben's Facebook page, pissed that he was posting updates to his thousands and thousands of fans, a count growing by the hour as news of the shooting spread.

"They had it out for him from the very start, or at least it felt like it," says Vinny Maculaitis, who's both the marketing director of Montrose Auto Group and vice president of SEAL Team Consulting. He and Lemire claim a "very high-profile undisclosed source" relayed to them that Bath investigators had called Heben a "media whore" early in the investigation, a categorization his team vehemently denies. The duo also claims detectives were under the impression Heben had been into drugs and believed it was a possible factor in the shooting.

Despite what Heben's camp viewed as rudeness directed toward a wounded ex-Navy SEAL, the answer to detectives' original question was yes, Heben had been convicted of a crime, time and again.

In 1994, he was arrested by Cleveland police and later pled guilty to two first-degree misdemeanors of attempted deception to obtain dangerous drugs and attempted illegal processing of drug documents of the prescription variety. Less than a year earlier, Heben was arrested in Westlake and charged with two first-degree misdemeanor counts of telecommunications harassment to which he would plead no contest. Back in 1990, he was arrested in Lakewood for theft and sentenced to 30 days in jail. Later that year, he was popped in Lakewood again for aggravated menacing.

After departing from active service in 2006, the law found him again, this time with felonies. In 2006 and 2007, while working as a physician's assistant in Alliance, Heben forged a doctor's signature on prescriptions for anabolic steroids some 16 times, eventually pleading no contest to three felony forgery charges and having his physician's assistant license suspended.

A Lake County judge sentenced him to 90 days in jail and two years probation in that case and stipulated Heben would have to forfeit his passport and seek permission from the court were he to leave Ohio. He would later be detained by Homeland Security agents in Georgia when he left the state without permission.

Heben had been legally prohibited from having guns, what with his status as a convicted felon. But that limitation lasted only three years. In 2011, his lawyer submitted a petition to Medina County courts to restore his firearms rights, citing his extensive combat training and the consulting business that required him to use guns while training local police officers. The judge sided with Heben.

At the time of the shooting, Chris Heben was living with his parents in rural Medina — Granger Township, technically, just three miles from the Bath police department on a straight shot down lightly traveled West Bath Road — in a large house surrounded by trees with a large backyard that essentially serves as a home gun range. Heben frequently posts pictures to Facebook showing off his high-power home arsenal there, posing with semi-automatic rifles, and pics of his mother on the back deck holding a large rifle, looking through the scope and aiming.

It's not just for show, either. Regular shooting action goes on back there, according to several people who live in the neighborhood.

***

"I was asked multiple times every day for weeks if it was safe to go to the West Market Plaza," Chief McNeely says. "Business owners were concerned down there because it was impacting their business — nobody wants a reputation that this is not a safe place. The property owner who owns the plaza was concerned. The citizens of our community asked every day: 'Is it safe? Is it safe for my wife to go down to the West Market Plaza?' Absolutely it's safe because we knew after that weekend that we found no crime scene and we found no witnesses for this incident. It went on for weeks that people would ask. I was up at the Revere schools and would get asked by staff if it was safe to go down there. Absolutely."

For months and months after the March 28 shooting, no new information materialized. No suspects. No arrests. But the police were busy, with detectives essentially dropping lower-profile cases involving financial crimes and identity theft to focus 30 to 40 hours a week on the Heben shooting.

"It's the utmost importance," McNeely says. "When somebody is shot, that is the most serious thing we would investigate. If he's a shooting victim — we can't have people shooting people in our community. We're going to put our full effort into solving that crime. If he's a victim of a shooting, we want to solve that crime, that's why we put that time into it."

Tips came into the department and every single one was followed up, they said, but nothing led to any concrete information about the identities of the three possible shooters, let alone their existence.

Surveillance videos showed nothing out of the ordinary, so police obtained Heben's cell phone location records. Those records, they say, show Heben's car was not near the West Market Plaza at the time of the shooting. Chief McNeely and the Akron prosecutor in charge of the case would not specify to Scene were, exactly, the phone pinged on that day, but they said it was not outside Mustard Seed.

"We want to believe what Mr. Heben was saying was the truth," McNeely says. "So let's go out and find evidence to support what he told us. At the point where we could not find that evidence and found other evidence, that's when we were in the position to charge him."

On Sept. 3, Christopher Heben was arrested and charged with two first-degree misdemeanor charges of falsification and obstructing official business. But it was all the way back in June that Bath police's legal advisor and an Akron prosecutor had authorized the charges against him. The ensuing months would be spent bolstering the case and checking other leads.

"The Bath Police Department was very meticulous about following up on every lead that Mr. Heben provided to them," says case prosecutor Greta Johnson, who was recently elected as an Ohio state representative. "They followed up on everything that they thought was relevant. It's not extraordinary measures: This is what Bath normally does. This is their everyday protocol. Their attention to detail is amazing there."

For all that detail, and the boxload of evidence turned over by detectives, McNeely and Johnson tell Scene they still don't know where or how Heben was shot, or if they ever will.

***

"So, I heard you were writing some stories!" says Chris Heben, seated at a large conference table. "I love stories!"

Earlier attempts to talk to one of Heben's neighbors and his publicist seeking comment on the incident all funneled back to Vinny Maculaitis, Heben's friend and SEAL Team Consulting member. Maculaitis had taken issue with the questions and contacted Scene directly. Scene set up a one-on-one meeting at his office on the second floor of the Montrose Ford dealership, just across the street from the West Market Plaza.

But Scene was met by more than Maculaitis. Mike Lemire was also present, mounting a video camera to a tripod and pressing "record."

"Oh we're going to be recording, I can promise that," he said. "This is for our attorneys so we don't have any bullshit printed."

"We're going to get your beautiful face on camera," added Maculaitis, after which the two began a diatribe against "yellow journalism" before Heben joined the group and introduced himself.

Heben would not talk about the case on the record, Maculaitis explained, because his lawyer (his third since the shooting) wouldn't be pleased. But his team could speak on his behalf, especially about journalists searching for a story.

"I would hope that you would have some common courtesy about how you go about your job, that's not cool," Maculaitis said, speaking specifically about Scene knocking on some of Heben's neighbors' doors to confirm shootings happen back there. "I can promise you that if it was me and you came to my neighborhood — I don't give a shit if we're being taped — I'd kick your fucking ass. You see what I'm saying? I'd hunt you down."

The defiant tone is mirrored by the group, including John Thompson, son of the Montrose Auto Group head's Mike Thompson and an employee of SEAL Team Consulting as well. These guys were together every day before Heben was shot and stood by him afterward.

"I just think it was a very poor investigated — poor way they went about the investigation," said Maculaitis. "I think from the very beginning Chris was treated as a suspect and not a victim. I think that their tactic was very poor on their part. When everything truly gets out there, it'll look very bad for them, and that's very unfortunate because nobody wishes ill-will on the local police department."

Heben's camp's main points of contention about the case during the interview are as follows:

The Undercover TSA Agent, the Black Guy at the Airport, and the North Olmsted Robbery

The Monday after the shooting, while Heben was still in the hospital, he got a call from an undercover TSA agent based out of Cleveland Hopkins airport. Lemire says he was there when that TSA agent relayed a story: While he was looking over people about to board a plane to Las Vegas, he started chatting with a guy who "fit the description" of the man allegedly in the passenger seat of the car — a light-skinned black male with tattoos. The agent discovered the man was on the flight to move to Vegas permanently and quickly phoned Heben to get the information to Bath detectives. Heben's folks remain pissed that the detectives never took the lead seriously. "I was excited, maybe they're going to catch this guy," says Lemire. "It just pisses me off beyond belief that you wouldn't follow up on that until five months later." They also believe Heben's shooting could be related to an armed robbery that happened one week later in a parking lot at Great Northern Mall in North Olmsted. No surveillance photos or video of that incident were released, but police said one suspect was wearing a mask and brandishing a silver handgun.

The Fallibility of Surveillance Cameras and Cell Phone Records

Heben's spokespeople contend that simply because Bath police couldn't find any evidence whatsoever on cameras covering the parking lot and the chase route doesn't mean it didn't happen. "The lack of evidence does not profess guilt," Maculaitis says. "With that said, you have to think about or have some knowledge of how cameras actually work. How they're set up in some of these places may not be indicative of how we, as consumers, perceive those cameras to work. In other words, some are moving in a 360-degree angle, so they're not going to pick up everything." And the cell phone records police and prosecutors say put Heben at a different location at the time of the shooting are not entirely accurate, they say. "Have you done any homework on cell phone triangulation?" asks Maculaitis. "I will tell you this, in conversations with some of my personal friends who have legal experience as well as police enforcement experience, as well as telecommunication experience — boy, in order to use evidence like that, you almost have to be sitting on a phone call the entire time without moving and hope that the weather and satellite is working, so that everything falls perfectly into place so you have that three towers that ping. That doesn't happen very often. That's why, as you've learned, it's not admissible in a lot of cases, you understand?" Lemire adds: "Plus, there's a lot of lag time, everyone knows that, because you could be on your phone in Cleveland earlier that day doing something and that record will show throughout the day. You could be texting, you know what I mean? There are so many variable to that."

The Media Whore Angle

Bath detectives supposedly didn't like how much publicity the shooting was garnering, according to Heben's team. In the wake of that publicity, they framed their investigation around that angle and Heben's public persona. Lemire and Maculaitis don't think their friend exploited the shooting for personal gain — he was already all over the media before the shooting, they say — and note that he turned down a chance to appear on Survivor, the CBS reality show. "What's ironic is not only Survivor, but he turned down three other opportunities from L.A.," Maculaitis says, explaining that A&E also wanted him on a reality show called Corporate Retreat. "A&E had to pull back on the project with him because this came out in the news. A media whore would go to Survivor."

***

Since the arrest, Heben has basically publicly acted like nothing has happened. Sure, his television appearances have dwindled to halt, but he's got 31,000 Facebook fans and a roster of SEAL Team Consulting products to hawk -- "Yes, I do use my own products," he says in a post. "This is my post workout, post breakfast, morning routine every day at the office! SEAL WHEY is amazingly easy to mix and it's easy to slam because it tastes so damn good!" -- and inspirational #CMHQuotes to post -- "Mediocrity is a disease, don't become infected! Do something today to move your life Onward and Upward!"

In October, Heben and Lemire debuted a new YouTube series -- "Real Talk" -- to opine about current events. "We're gonna talk about shit that dudes want to talk about, that Americans want to talk about," Heben says in the first video, which covered ebola and ISIS. The latest installment finds Heben undergoing a mock therapy session on the topic of Tinder.

Heben's jury trial is scheduled for Jan. 14 and it's abundantly clear that neither side is aiming for a plea deal.

Come then, Heben will once again have a chance to explain what happened. Who knows what the story will sound like then.

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