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

Sunrise was hours away when Zach Corcoran and three friends returned to The Exchange, an apartment complex for students in College Station.

Zach and the others were drunk. The drinking had started at dinner, followed by more drinks and shots in the Northgate district, a strip of bars and restaurants across from Texas A&M University. The only sober person in the group was Leah Cook, who shared an apartment with Katherine Helle.

The drinking continued at The Exchange. Leah and her boyfriend, Reid Ashton, argued in her bedroom. Zach sat in a love seat and slipped on a pair of Leah's sunglasses. Katherine stepped outside to make a phone call.

Zach Corcoran in the hospital hours after his fight with the cadets. Click here for more photos of his injuries.
Photos courtesy of the Corcoran family
Zach Corcoran in the hospital hours after his fight with the cadets. Click here for more photos of his injuries.
A CAT scan revealed a "blowout" on the left side of Zach's face.
Photos courtesy of the Corcoran family
A CAT scan revealed a "blowout" on the left side of Zach's face.
Eddie Helle hit Zach until he screamed.
Eddie Helle hit Zach until he screamed.
Steven Ramirez pinned Zach on the couch during the fight.
Steven Ramirez pinned Zach on the couch during the fight.
Kuboviak's sole reason for dismissing the case against the cadets: "In the interest of justice."
Kuboviak's sole reason for dismissing the case against the cadets: "In the interest of justice."
John Corcoran (left) has spent the last two years pursuing his son's case.
Paul Knight
John Corcoran (left) has spent the last two years pursuing his son's case.

About 3 a.m., Eddie Helle and his friend Steven Ramirez, both members of the Corps of Cadets, arrived at the apartment. Eddie grabbed a bar stool and sat down.

"Why are you wearing girls' sunglasses," he asked Zach. "Are you gay?"

Zach said no.

"Well, remind me not to sit next to you," Eddie said.

"Okay, that's cool."

"Are you sure you're not gay?"

"Hey man, I don't think you really know me," Zach said.

The mood in the apartment had turned tense, and Katherine grabbed her brother and took him outside. Eddie came back and told Steven they should leave.

Zach stood from the love seat. "I think that would be a real good idea," he said.

Eddie rushed Zach and a fight started. Punches were thrown and the two men grappled, slamming against a wall. A clock fell and smashed on the carpet. Katherine grabbed at Eddie and Zach but was thrown to the ground. The men tumbled and landed between the love seat and a coffee table­.

Steven lifted Zach and pinned him prostrate on the couch. Zach struggled to free himself, rubbing the skin from his elbows and forearms. Eddie hit Zach until he screamed. The left side of his face caved in.

"Chill the fuck out!" Zach yelled. "Look at my fucking face!"

Leah and Katherine pleaded for the men to stop. Eddie stepped back, then Steven. Blood covered the love seat. Eddie and Steven walked out the front door and headed back to the Corps dormitory.

Zach was taken to the emergency room at the College Station Medical Center. He had a concussion, a broken nose and "blowout" of the bones that held his left eyeball in place.

John Corcoran, Zach's father, received the call several hours later. He raced to College Station from Corpus Christi to find Zach at a friend's home. Zach was unconscious, and almost unrecognizable to his father.

John Corcoran stayed with Zach in College Station for more than a week while he recovered. Trisha Corcoran, Zach's mother, joined the family as well. One day, they talked while Zach rested in bed. His father asked, "What do you want us to do?"

"If anything, I don't want those guys to ever wear a ring from A&M," Zach said.

John understood. He attended A&M and had been a member of the Corps. He had sent all three of his sons to College Station. He wore his own Aggie ring with pride.

Those feelings have changed.

Two years have passed since the fight and the Corcorans feel they have seen no justice from Texas A&M University or the Brazos County criminal justice system. They have received few answers as to why Helle and Ramirez have walked away from two prosecutions with no punishment.

John Corcoran believes the two cadets have been protected by the university and the "Aggie network" that he says runs the justice system in Bryan and College Station. He now hopes to find any answers as to why the truth has been hidden from his family.

Zach has little faith any answers will come. He says it hurts to see the way his father has nearly fallen apart since the fight. Zach never believed in "the system" or in justice. He knows the way power and influence works, he says, and in College Station, the Corps rules.

"They protect their own," Zach says. "That's okay, but not against civilians. The enemy, sure, but not against a damn college student."
_____________________

Early in his career, as a young oil and gas driller, John Corcoran was riding through New Mexico in a rental car with several potential business partners on a scouting trip for well sites. One of the men in the backseat, who was from New Mexico, knew that John Corcoran and the driver were recent grads from Texas A&M. He decided to break the ice with an Aggie joke.

The driver responded, "You know what's bruised and bloody and dumped on the side of the road? The next son of a bitch in this car who tells an Aggie joke."

No one laughed, and John understood. He had spent six years at Texas A&M and four years in the Corps. He rose to the rank of commanding officer of a battalion. He was named to the Ross Volunteers, a unit that acts as honor guard for the governor of Texas. He also served on the Ross Volunteers Firing Squad, a high honor in the Corps of Cadets.

"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.

Mask refused to allow his clients to discuss the case with the Houston Press.

"Not that my clients have anything to hide," Mask says. "They suffered too. My boys have suffered like you would not believe."

According to Mask, both Helle and Ramirez lost weight and allowed their grades to drop after the fight. They endured constant anxiety, Mask says, from the fear of criminal prosecution and punishment from the university.

The hearings started several months after the fight. The university was represented by several faculty and staff, including ­Mallahan.

During the hearings, Helle and Zach each argued that the other threw the first punch. Both testified that they tried to defuse the situation and stop the fight before it ­happened.

Mallahan asked Zach, "Were you starting to get aggressive to Eddie? Did you feel like you were being aggressive?"

"I'm a really laid-back person," Zach responded. "I was being very calm and I was not being aggressive."

"Especially after you drank a lot?"

"No, I'm not a mean drunk at all," Zach said. "I don't get in fights. You ask anybody about me, I'm one of somebody's most laid-back friends."

"Do you feel that Eddie was trying to engage in a fight," asked Laura Boren, a university representative.

"Exactly," Zach said. "No doubt."

Mallahan said to Helle, "It appears like you kind of did the right thing at first, but when you had the intention to leave, why did you come back?"

"Sir, I came back to get my buddy," Helle said. "That's when he made the comment, 'Yeah, y'all better leave.' I think my pride got the best of me."

Zach told the panel about the pain the fight had caused his family, and the permanent damage he sustained to his eyesight.

"And while these kids were out playing their football," Zach said, "I was stuck isolated in my bed in excruciating pain."

Helle attempted to sway the panel as well.

"I've learned that the smallest little comment may, something so small may turn into such a big deal," Helle said. "I just know that I'll never get in a situation like this again because I've just gone through so much."

The university eventually found Helle and Ramirez guilty of physical abuse, along with several other violations of school code. The Corcorans stayed on campus until the punishment for the cadets was decided.

When the hearing concluded, Boren told the Corcorans that Helle and Ramirez had been suspended from the university for one semester and kicked out of the Corps. Furthermore, Helle and Ramirez were to make an effort to pay Zach's medical bills — which had grown to nearly $60,000 — before they could return to the university. And when they were allowed back on campus, the cadets were ordered to stay 50 feet away from Zach.

John Corcoran was thrilled, and for a short time, he was confident that the university he loved had done the right thing.
_____________________

Months later, the sanctions against Helle and Ramirez disappeared.

Zach had missed the majority of the fall semester after the fight. He moved back to Corpus Christi to recover and had two surgeries to repair the bones in his face. He lost 30 percent of the movement of his eyes — permanent damage — and constantly had to wear an eye patch until another surgery could fix his double vision.

One day on campus, after Zach had returned to A&M, he saw Ramirez walking through the student recreation center. Shocked, Zach approached the cadet and asked him why he was there.

"He told me that all the sanctions against him and Helle had gone away," Zach says.

Zach called his father to tell him the news. John Corcoran had his attorney begin writing letters to the university to find out how and why the punishment had been reversed.

University officials, who had spoken to John Corcoran about the case, including Binzer and Boren, explained that they could no longer discuss anything concerning Helle or Ramirez. The main contact at A&M became Jerry Brown, a university ­attorney.

Brown only confirmed that the sanctions had been dismissed. He offered no explanation, and said that he could not discuss the case due to guidelines established by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law designed to protect students' privacy.

"I'm not ashamed of the way the university handled the situation, that's not why I'm advising them not to talk," Brown says. "It's just not in their best interest."

Bonilla constantly argued that FERPA shouldn't apply because the Corcorans wanted a reason the sanctions had been dropped, not any specific information about Helle or Ramirez.

In a letter to Bonilla, Brown wrote, "While FERPA permits the university to disclose to an alleged victim of any crime of violence, such disclosure is not mandatory. Based on my recommendation, the university declines to disclose the results in this case."

John was shocked, and Bonilla had no legal explanation to offer. Bonilla says the university operated with total disregard for its own written rules.

"Someone intervened and it just went away," Bonilla says. "And to who had enough power to do that, I don't know. It was incredible that they just said, 'We're going to erase this case.'"

The Corcorans then argued to Brown that they were concerned for Zach's safety if Helle and Ramirez were allowed to remain on ­campus.

In an e-mail to Brown, Bonilla wrote, "Zach almost lost eye sight in his left eye as a result of the original incident. He is now recovering and my clients want to eliminate any chances of future problems...Please advise."

Brown responded, "If Zach truly believes Helle and Ramirez present a threat to his personal safety, he should seek a restraining order or withdrawl [sic] from school and transfer to another ­institution."

Today, Brown and Mask contend that the Corcorans have been hypocritical in their fierce "pursuit of justice," because Grant Corcoran, John Corcoran's youngest son, was involved in a fight the same morning as Zach.

After seeing Zach in the emergency room, Grant, who was attending nearby Blinn Junior College, went to the Corps dormitory with a couple friends. When they arrived, eight Corps members, including Helle, were waiting.

Helle and Grant fought briefly, and the cadet suffered a black eye. Texas A&M later placed the students with Grant on probation. Those sanctions never went away, though Helle was never punished for his role in that fight either.

Then, while Zach was in Corpus Christi recovering, he received notice that he was being charged by the university for his role in the fight with Helle and Ramirez. His hearing was scheduled for the start of the spring semester.

But several weeks later, Zach received a letter informing him that his charges had been dropped and the hearing canceled.

"I have no doubt that they used that as a makeup, that they'd make everything equal," John Corcoran says. "Well, it's not."

The Corcorans have never been given any explanation as to why the sanctions against Helle and Ramirez were reversed. Brown says that he may tell the family one day, when "the time is right." Brown would only say that the decision could have implications in other student disciplinary cases, and revealing any information about Zach's case could open the university to future ­litigation.

"[The Corcorans] want to say that the university is hiding something or there's been some cover-up by my office, but that's not fair," Brown says. "I really consider it offensive. I have been offended by the way the Corcorans have approached this ­situation."

Mask says he does not know the reasoning behind the university's decision either. He did say, however, that the disciplinary panel was not fit to issue sanctions that could have lasting consequences on students' lives, an argument similar to what was used in the Parsons Mounted Cavalry hazing case.

"They're not trained in legal processes, they are administrators," Mask says. "And the university investigator, I've never seen a more unprofessional guy in my life."

Mask tried to reach a settlement with the Corcorans before the university hearings began. He wanted to arrange a meeting between the three families to discuss a possible resolution, and offered to pay Zach's medical bills.

The Corcorans told Mask no, adding that they were only interested in justice and would allow "the system" to make that decision.

"There were a lot of people in College Station upset at the Corcorans, at the voracity with which they attacked this case," Mask says.
_____________________

After the university dropped its sanctions against Helle and Ramirez, the Corcorans moved their attention to Bryan, where the criminal case against the cadets was being prepared.

John Corcoran began contacting Brazos County District Attorney Bill Turner, who would handle the case. Because of the severity of Zach's injuries, John Corcoran expected Helle and Ramirez to be indicted on felony assault charges.

The Helle family hired defense attorney Travis Bryan III, great-great grandson of William J. Bryan, the town's original settler. The county courthouse is located on William J. Bryan Parkway.

Bryan had previously served as district attorney in Brazos County — where he hired Turner as an assistant — and served a term on the Bryan City Council. He is currently running for a district judge position in Brazos County.

The case was sent to a grand jury, and the day of the hearing, John paid to fly Leah Cook and Reid Ashton to Bryan to testify. John also prepared packets of Zach's medical records for grand jury members.

The grand jury shocked both sides when it indicted Helle and Ramirez on misdemeanor "A" assault charges, which, at most, are punishable by a fine of $2,000 and a year in jail. The Corcorans wanted a felony, and Bryan and Mask thought the case would be ­dismissed.

Turner sent the case to the office of the county attorney, a position held for nearly 25 years by Jim Kuboviak.

"I asked Kuboviak many times if he would take this to trial if that's what my clients wanted," Bonilla says. "And he said, 'Oh, yeah, we'll fight. We're ready to go.'"

Kuboviak's first move was to assign Thibodeaux as a special prosecutor, which, according to Thibodeaux, is rare for a misdemeanor trial. But Thibodeaux had knowledge of Zach's case, and had worked on a similar assault trial several years prior.

That case, which was billed by the grand jury as a felony, also involved a fight between college students in which the victim suffered injuries similar to Zach's.

Bryan and Mask immediately filed a motion to have Thibodeaux dismissed as special prosecutor since Thibodeaux had previously been contacted by the Corcorans. Lisa Helle, Eddie's mother, also testified that Thibodeaux had threatened her during the grand jury hearing with civil litigation from the Corcorans.

Thibodeaux denies this allegation, and John Corcoran says he has never threatened anyone with a civil suit.

The judge ruled that Thibodeaux could proceed as special prosecutor, and Thibodeaux began preparing for trial. He planned to call Zach's emergency-room doctor, Scott Kimball, who had told the Corcorans that Zach's injuries came from more than "just a fight." He planned to call Leah Cook, who had testified before the university panel that Ramirez had held Zach while Helle hit him. Thibodeaux even planned to bring in the couch where Zach had been pinned.

"I was prepared to go to trial," Thibodeaux says. "I feel I could have presented the case beyond a reasonable doubt."

But a week before the trial, Kuboviak set up a conference call with the Corcorans and Bonilla. Kuboviak had arranged a deal with Helle and Ramirez, and explained that the defendants would pay approximately $50,000 to cover Zach's medical bills.

The Corcorans said no. They wanted a jury to hear the case.

"There was no guarantee that we would win...depending on who the jury believed," Bonilla says. "But at least we'd have a trial."

According to Mask, Helle and Ramirez never officially agreed to the deal, but he says that the Corcorans acted ­unreasonably.

"Their response is always, 'We want justice,'" Mask says, "but they won't be satisfied with anything short of seeing my boys go to prison. Even if they got that, I don't think it would be enough."

The day after the Corcorans refused to accept the deal, Kuboviak arranged another conference call.

"We thought we were going to discuss strategy," John says. "We were a week away from going to trial."

Instead, Kuboviak dropped a bombshell. He said he was completely dismissing the case and offered little explanation why. The only record of Kuboviak's dismissal is his signature on a "Motion to Dismiss" filing. The form lists several options for cause, including "insufficient evidence" or "restitution made" or "complaining witness does not want to prosecute."

But when Kuboviak dismissed the case against Helle and Ramirez, he handwrote on the form, "In the interest of justice."

Kuboviak would not comment on the case, because he says it could still be pending in the district attorney's office. He added that he would not do an interview until March, when the primary elections for the county attorney position in Brazos County are finished.

In a letter to Kuboviak written shortly after the decision to dismiss, John Corcoran wrote, "I found it astonishing that you, who had previously supported the prosecution, did such a sudden and unexpected turnaround...The inference, however, is strong that you succumbed, at the very least, to extraordinary political or personal ­pressure."
_____________________

Soon after, John Corcoran took off his A&M ring and vowed never to wear it again. He encourages Zach to wear his ring — for business reasons — but Zach rarely puts it on.

"You can take any advertisement ever from Texas A&M University, and the first thing that you're going to see is the damn dog and then you see some Corps person," John says. "And they stand for that, God and country and we're so holy. It's not right."

He started pursuing the case on his own. His oil and gas business all but shut down for about six months. Zach woke up several times in the middle of the night to find his father in his home office, working at the computer.

John ardently searched for any information about the people involved. He started filling thick black binders with documents pertaining to Zach's case.

John paid a private investigator $5,000 to find any evidence on who could have influenced the university or the county attorney. John Corcoran estimates he has spent about $100,000 on Zach's case.

The elder Corcoran began receiving phone calls from friends and business associates who expressed concern, including a professor at A&M.

"He told me, 'You have got to let go of this. You're not going to beat Texas A&M University,'" John Corcoran says.

But he did not let go. He started writing letters to the university and prosecutors.

He wrote to Lieutenant General John Van Alstyne, the head of the Corps. "I was a Member of the Corps of Cadets Class of 1968," John wrote. "The actions of the Cadets involved...is not a reflection of the philosophy and Code of the Corps of Cadets."

He wrote to Robert Gates, who, at the time, was the president of Texas A&M. "I have lost all faith in the University that I cherish," John wrote.

John even sent pictures of Zach's injuries to each member of the university's Board of Regents. His whole purpose, he contends, is to receive an answer as to what happened.

"The whole time I've said, 'Is there something I'm missing here?' Clue me in so I can get on with my life," he says. "But they won't tell us anything. What are they scared of?"

John has little hope that he will ever know. The only option remaining, he says, is for the district attorney to reopen the case since it has never been prosecuted. Jarvis Parsons, an assistant district attorney in Brazos County, said that the case appeared to be closed, but added that it could be reviewed.

"We're going to be sitting down and taking a look at the case real soon," Parsons says.

John had planned to purchase billboard space in Bryan and College Station to run a political ad against Kuboviak. The main billboard company in Bryan and College Station, Lamar Advertising Company, declined John Corcoran's request, saying the subject matter was too controversial.

Kuboviak has since announced that he will not run for reelection for the county attorney position, surprising the legal community in Bryan. Kuboviak gave no specific reason, but issued a press release that explained he felt he had accomplished his goals.

"I regret ever having confidence in the system. That drives a knife right through our hearts," John says. "I'm probably more jaded than anyone. I still have a tough time coping."

Helle and Ramirez are currently attending Texas A&M University and remain members of the Corps of Cadets. Both are scheduled to graduate in May.

"I really hope the Corcoran family would get counseling," Mask says. "Everyone needs to just walk away."

Zach, who eventually graduated from A&M with a business degree, had hoped to move to Houston or Dallas after graduation to find a job in the financial industry. But since he had to wear a patch over his eye during his final semester, Zach says he didn't have the confidence to go to interviews when job recruiters visited campus.

So, Zach moved back to Corpus Christi, where his father found him a job with a friend's small finance company. He had another surgery to correct his double vision, but still does not have full movement of his eyes. Doctors have told him to expect more surgeries in the future.

Now Zach has found a job as a financial adviser at a larger company in Corpus Christi. He works downtown, across the street from his father. Zach often walks over to meet his father, and the two have lunch or dinner at the Town Club, blocks away from their offices.

Zach says he feels paranoid when he's in a public place, wondering who is behind him. He sometimes has nightmares about the fight and wakes up sweating. Once, he says, he woke up crying.

"That's the worst part," Zach says. "It's there. It's not going away."

paul.knight@houstonpress.com

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