Tragedy in training: The final hours of a recruit's life

The recruit said he had a headache but wasn't sure if he wanted to tell instructors

By Patrick Wilson
The Virginian-Pilot Edition

NORFOLK, Va. — The week of Dec. 6 was set aside to teach recruits self-defense at the Norfolk police training academy. If they wanted to become officers, they would need to know how to handcuff a suspect, block punches and kicks, and protect themselves - and their gun - in a fight to the death.

In Norfolk, that means learning to take a hit.

Bruises, headaches and sore muscles in such training are not unusual. Neither are trips for some recruits to an urgent care clinic.

Leldon Sapp, a defensive tactics instructor, and others asked the recruits at least three times each day whether they were injured. Over four days, no one spoke up.

But a recruit ended up unconscious and eventually died.

Police records released under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act don't reveal the cause of John Kohn's death, and the medical examiner's investigation is continuing. However, the records, including internal memos and training video, show a detailed series of events that could have caused head trauma.

On Tuesday, Dec. 7, Kohn, a lanky sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve, was doing blocking drills with Officer Stephen Bailey. Instructors throw punches; recruits wearing protective headgear block them. Bailey landed a right to Kohn's head - a punch Bailey later described as soft.

The blow was hard enough, however, to rattle Kohn, who either fell or stumbled into a wall before he shot back up. Recruits watching gave out a collective "Ooh!"

"Are you OK?" Bailey asked Kohn after urging him to take off his headgear so he could peer into his eyes.

"Sir, I'm OK."

Another instructor observing the drill for safety also asked Kohn if he was OK.

It wasn't the only head blow Kohn suffered that day. During knee-strike practices with another recruit, he held a pad that hit him in the face, according to police.

Kohn, 40, complained to a fellow recruit.

"I feel nauseous," he told Montrell Martin, 24. "I have a headache. Can you check my pupils?"

Kohn walked with recruit Alonzo Burroughs, 35, as Burroughs returned a medical bag. Burroughs asked Kohn what had happened .

"Don't worry about it," Kohn said.

When Burroughs pressed for a response, Kohn told him he had a headache but wasn't sure if he wanted to tell instructors.

"I don't want to talk to them," he said. "I'll wait until tomorrow, and if it doesn't get better by tomorrow, I'll talk to them."

That night, he told his wife, Patricia, that he'd gotten his bell rung and saw stars. She didn't like hearing such details.

She later told police she believed the incident happened during her husband's training with another recruit in which they used the pads.

By Dec. 9, the fourth day of defensive tactics training, Kohn's head was killing him . He carried on anyway.

The drill is designed to simulate an officer chasing a suspect, then fighting on the ground in a life- or-death situation in which the suspect tries to take the officer's gun.

In pairs of two, recruits sprinted about 75 yards on a track to simulate the chase. Then they ran into the training center's gym, where they ended up on a mat, lying on their backs. Instructors playing the role of an attacker got on top of the recruits, threw blows and tried to take their guns. Failure meant a recruit had to redo the drill. Everyone wore protective headgear; instructors wore a boxing glove on their strong hand.

When it was Kohn's turn, he sparred with Officer Michael Reardon, who took Kohn's gun from his gun belt. As he was trotting toward the doors to go back outside, Kohn collided face first with recruit Eric Johnson, 26, who was sprinting in.

Kohn appeared OK. Johnson said he was dizzy and asked to take a break.

"I just got the crap knocked out of me," Johnson told another recruit. He left training to visit an urgent care clinic, where he was cleared to return.

On Kohn's second attempt, he sprinted down the track. This time, he squared off against a patrol officer named Laura Tessier.

His second fight lasted just seconds.

Tessier held up her gloved right hand. Kohn was so focused on it he didn't notice her left hand; she unsecured his gun and placed it on his chest.

Kohn cursed.

Back outside on the track, recruit David LeFleur, 31, noticed Kohn was breathing more heavily. He thought he was nervous.

"My brain is just not working," Kohn told him. "I'm kind of freezing and not seeing what I need to do."

Just breathe and grapple, LeFleur told him. Fellow recruits knew Kohn as someone who struggled with some drills but strived to improve.

Kohn sprinted in for his third try as his teacher, Sapp, waited on the mat . About 11 minutes had passed since the collision with Johnson.

Sapp has extensive training in martial arts, including a brown belt in Brazilian jiujitsu, on which Norfolk's defensive training is based.

Sapp got on top of his student and the fight began. Midway, he rose to his feet and threw at least four blows toward Kohn's head with his gloved right hand.

Recruits noticed that Kohn did not successfully block the blows.

On the final punch, Kohn's head hit the mat and he did not move, noticed Johnson, the recruit who had earlier collided with him. Kohn's arms stretched limp to each side as Sapp stood and walked away.

"He's out," an instructor said.

"He just went limp, quit fighting," recruit Aaron Morris, 21, told investigators.

Officers observing the fight checked on Kohn.

"Hey, are you all right?" instructor James White asked.

No answer.

"Hey, take your mouthpiece out."

No response.

White removed Kohn's mouthpiece and sat him up.

Kohn rose and walked toward the doors, as if intoxicated. He did not follow commands or appear to know what he was doing, so he was helped to a wall, where he slumped down.

Recruits surrounded him. Someone removed his sweatshirt. Kohn's breathing was labored, as if he were snoring or having an asthma attack. His eyes were open, yet blank.

Lt. Fred Pratt knew a head injury might be the reason for the breathing and ordered officers to call paramedics.

While one officer, a former EMT, monitored Kohn, recruits ran for ice and paper towels. When they came back, they were barred from the gym.

Paramedics arrived within 10 minutes after the 4:50 p.m. call. They loaded Kohn onto a stretcher and took him to Sentara Leigh Hospital.

He was flown to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. Two detectives arrived at 6:34 p.m. to speak with his wife.

Detectives were ordered to record interviews with the recruits and instructors.

Head surgery was done by 11:42 p.m. Kohn was in critical condition.

Most of these details were known to police by the end of the day Dec. 9.

The next day, the Police Department's public relations wing mentioned only the collision. In an e-mail, a spokeswoman said: "The physical training between the two police recruit's occurred inside the training academy facility. Shortly after the collision between the two male police recruits, one of the recruits exhibited lethargic behavior, and was transported.

"We do not release detailed information regarding medical matters of department personnel.

"There is no further information at this time."

Kohn was taken off life support and died Dec. 18.

Under scrutiny, the city now is creating a panel to include medical experts who will review the training. The state requires officers be trained in protecting their weapon in a ground fight. It does not specify how that training be conducted.

In Texas, the death of state police recruit Jimmy Ray Carty Jr. of head injuries in 2005 prompted the Texas Department of Public Safety to end a violent fighting drill that had been used at its academy for years and sometimes led to concussions.

An official from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, which certifies training academies, will review defensive training in Norfolk.

An agency director said officials have watched the video of the fight between Sapp and Kohn but had no comment on the case .

"I cried my face off when I watched that. I watched my friend die," Kohn's former bandmate Devin DeGroat said.

"I saw him standing, conscious and aware, and then I watched him lay down - and that's the last moment of John."

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