Video: Recruit's death called into question

"Whatever the police knew, they apparently did not tell the city manager"

By Harry Minium and Patrick Wilson
The Virginian-Pilot

NORFOLK, Va. — Councilman Andy Protogyrou has accused city officials of intentionally misleading the City Council and the public about the recent death of a police recruit, saying information that indicated the recruit was punched in the head by an instructor just before blacking out was withheld.

On Thursday night, Protogyrou sent an e-mail to acting City Manager Stanley A. Stein saying, "I believe there has been an attempt to play the council," by the police chief or city manager's office.

The Virginian-Pilot obtained the e-mail under the Freedom of Information Act. Protogyrou said he does not believe Stein misled anyone, and Mayor Paul Fraim called for patience and for cooler tempers, saying investigators eventually will determine why recruit John Kohn died.

Protogyrou wrote the e-mail in reaction to publication of documents obtained in a public records request in which supervisors and police recruits said Kohn became woozy during "ground fighting."

Kohn was injured on Dec. 9 and died at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital on Dec. 18. On Dec. 21, Police Chief Bruce P. Marquis issued a statement mentioning only a collision with another recruit as a potential factor in the fatal head injury.

Regina V.K. Williams, who stepped down as city manager this week, said Marquis never told her about anything other than a collision. She sent a memo to the council on Dec. 28, reiterating the statements from Marquis. She took issue with an implication from Protogyrou that "safety issues" might have been involved in Kohn's death.

"Based on all information available at this time," Williams wrote, "the accidental colliding of two recruits going in and out of a door is not something that could reasonably have been predicted."

Williams said Friday that she "provided the information I had at that time," to the council. She said it came directly from the police.

She said she did not learn that Kohn had been repeatedly punched until seeing a TV report Thursday night. She said neither Marquis nor anyone else from the police "has said anything to me beyond what was in that memorandum."

Marquis insisted Friday that he did not know about the punches to the head when he spoke to Williams in late December. "I was told that Recruit Kohn continued with the exercises, and during the exercises (his unresponsiveness) was noticed by the instructor," he said. "They advised me that he continued an exercise which involved ground fighting - not specifically that the ground fighting included him getting punched in the head."

Marquis said he recently became aware of the punches to Kohn's head but had been advised by the city attorney's office not to discuss the information. "I don't recall when I learned about the punches," he said. "The whole punches to the head part of it, as far as my knowledge base, is a recent phenomenon."

Documents released by the city attorney's office on Thursday show that Marquis' top aides were discussing that training instructor Leldon Sapp struck Kohn - the day after the chief released his statement that made no mention of blows.

Sharon Chamberlin, senior assistant chief of police, e-mailed Capt. Paul Galligan: "One question will be asked - where was Kohn struck by Sapp?"

"In the head," Galligan replied.

When asked whether he believed his command staff should have informed him of that sooner, Marquis said of Chamberlin: "Maybe she should have stressed it more so I could be a little more coherent about that incident and what took place."

Regardless, Protogyrou was upset .

"I am reading The Pilot and I am seething. I am seeing red," Protogyrou wrote. "I want to know where the information for that answer to the council request came from and how it was produced. No holds barred. Who wrote it and tried to sell me that bill of goods? Were they being fooled to produce that memo or covering up?"

If the response is inadequate, he said, he wants the auditor to investigate.

Police suggested that Kohn, 40, might have had a pre-existing medical condition that contributed to his death.

Documents obtained by The Pilot, however, indicate city officials left out much pertinent information. A police recruit said an instructor "got a good couple punches on him and he just went limp. His legs just went limp. His whole body just went limp."

Another training officer said Kohn had complained two days earlier about being hit hard.

Fraim said: "I am confident in the integrity of the Police Department. This was an accident, a terrible accident. I think they were just taking their time to try to understand what happened. These guys are absolutely the most dedicated public servants that we have."

Councilman Barclay C. Winn said he can't believe the police would mislead the council. "It would make no sense to cover this up. This obviously was going to come out. You'd have to be dishonest or stupid to do that, and I don't believe our chief is dishonest or stupid."

Most other council members, including Protogyrou, declined comment . But Councilman Tommy Smigiel said he believes "whatever the police knew, they apparently did not tell the city manager.

"I hope that a full investigation will be done so that we can prevent this from happening in the future." 

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