Rotten to the Corps: A Question of Justice at Texas A&M

Thanks to A& M and a district attorney, two cadets escape punishment for beating in a student's face

"When I was there, that was a big deal," John says.

Now John has a comfortable life in Corpus Christi. He keeps a large corner office on the 20th floor of the Wells Fargo building in downtown, where he likes to watch storms develop and roll across the bay.

He built his oil and gas company into a success, buying land and drilling, waging on which wells would pay big.

As John raised his family and built his business, Texas A&M was always at the forefront. He relied on a large network of other A&M grads he met while earning two degrees in the petroleum engineering department. He took his three sons to numerous A&M football games, eventually buying season tickets in the end zone. John named the family dog "Aggie."

Three decades after John Corcoran left A&M, Zach, John's middle son, prepared for college. There was only one choice for Zach.

"Growing up, I remember my dad always had on his A&M ring," Zach says. "I always thought, 'I'm going to have one of those one day.' I thought that was the coolest thing."

But Zach never wanted to follow his father and join the Corps. When John Corcoran went to A&M, the Corps had a membership of about 6,000. When Zach entered the university in 2002, the numbers had dropped to about 2,000, despite a total student enrollment that had swelled to more than 40,000. Today, Corps membership remains around 1,800.

"On campus, people perceive the Corps as an easy way to get in the school," Zach says. "They're not respected, in that sense."

Colonel Rick Mallahan, a retired Air Force officer, has held one of the top positions in the Corps for the last seven years. Mallahan says that recruiting has become a challenge, and the group has made an effort to style itself into a student organization, rather than a military ­operation.

"Most freshmen, we'll take them," Mallahan says. "Our biggest challenge is getting them accepted into the university."

Students with relatives who were in the Corps account for about half of the group's membership. A large number of cadets also come from high school ROTC programs, Future Farmers of America or 4-H programs.

The Corps still has strong military roots. Juniors and seniors are eligible to sign a contract with any branch of the military, and, upon graduation, will enter as officers. About 40 percent of cadets currently in the Corps have signed military contracts.

According to Mallahan, the Corps loses about 100 cadets each year for academic reasons, but he says discipline is rarely a ­problem.

"Our standards mirror the university. Same rules apply, same sanctions apply," Mallahan says. "If you fight, you'll be in trouble."

The biggest trouble for the Corps has been hazing. About ten years ago, the Fish Drill Team, a competitive drill unit within the Corps, was banned from the university after students reported being hazed to the point of assault.

One student was forced to do push-ups while older cadets smashed his hands with a rifle. Other Drill Team members had their faces rubbed with abrasive pads and their lips twisted hard enough to draw blood. One student was given a knife and told to cut himself.

In 2003, 77 cadets who were members of the Parsons Mounted Cavalry were accused of hazing and expelled from A&M. That decision was later overturned when six of the cadets sued the university, arguing that the school's disciplinary hearings violated their legal rights.

The county attorney refused to file any criminal charges against the cadets, and a district judge ordered the university to reverse its punishment, reinstate the students and pay about $350,000 in legal fees.

Hearing similar stories dampened Zach's interest in joining the Corps. He believes the fight with Helle and Ramirez was caused by aggressiveness instilled through Corps hazing rituals.

"They're going to go take it out on someone else, because they can't go take it out on someone inside the Corps," Zach says. "You hurt your own, then you're in trouble."
_____________________

The investigation into the fight began almost immediately. John Corcoran received a call from Carol Binzer, the Dean of Student Life, informing him that the university would look into assault charges against Helle and Ramirez.

That was big news to John. Since the fight occurred at an off-campus apartment, the university didn't have an obligation to do anything. But Binzer decided that the fight warranted an investigation.

John brought his neighbor and attorney, David Bonilla, to College Station to represent Zach. John also contacted Lane Thibodeaux, a criminal attorney in College Station, for advice.

Thibo­deaux told him not to expect anything from the university, especially considering the case involved the Corps.

When Helle and Ramirez received word they would be investigated, they hired attorney Jody Mask.

Mask is a 1996 graduate of Texas A&M and former member of the Corps. He served in the Parsons Mounted Cavalry and worked on the Aggie Bonfire during his junior and senior years.

Mask later attended law school at the University of Houston, and he is still active in the A&M community. He often speaks to groups of cadets' parents, and he once was the keynote speaker at an event at Kyle Field.

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