Longform

The Few, The Proud, the Battered

At 3 a.m. on a humid night in early October, Gabriel Cortez's screams awoke his fellow cadets in the Bravo Company barracks at the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen. Boys rushed into Cortez's darkened room to find the 18-year-old high school senior soaked in blood and lying in his lower bunk bed, his throat slit almost ear to ear. His 13-year-old roommate, who caught a glimpse of the attackers as they fled, lay motionless in his top bunk, afraid to move.

The cadet company commander raced downstairs to summon drill instructor Mike Pruitt -- the only adult in charge of the 72 boys in the barracks. Pruitt dialed 911, and the police and an ambulance arrived within minutes. Cortez was taken to a local hospital, where it took 28 stitches to close the deep gash on the cadet's neck. A week passed before he felt well enough to return to classes at the school, which has a reputation for being among the most rigorous military academies in the country.

Within days, police arrested 17-year-old roommates Jeremy Jensen and Christopher Boze, after several cadets identified at least one of them as the person they saw fleeing the room the night of the attack. Jensen and Boze were corps leaders at the academy with almost spotless records, a fact that made the slashing that much more inconceivable. Although the two teenagers were indicted on December 19 on charges of attempted murder, no motive has emerged for the attack, and prosecutors have refused to discuss their case.

Except for the thick, leathery scar that encircles his neck, Cortez, a round-faced boy of medium build, with large dark eyes and cocoa-colored skin, has healed -- at least outwardly. But the damage the attack has inflicted on the school's once-stellar reputation may be harder to repair.

The Marine Military Academy's top brass and staunch supporters -- its board boasts high-profile and high-powered businessmen, including Hugh McColl Jr., chairman of NationsBank Corp., and Barry Zale, a scion of the Zale jewelry-store family -- tried to assure parents and the public that the slashing was an isolated and anomalous incident. But in the months since the attack, an unsettling picture of the academy has begun to emerge.

The school was founded and is run by former Marines, and in its promotional literature and recruiting seminars it is described as a college-preparatory school that teaches boys with "good character" to be leaders through a military regimen of strict rules and discipline. Hazing and instruction through intimidation are forbidden, as are drugs, alcohol and tobacco, according to the school handbook.

But in reality, say former cadets and their parents, drugs, alcohol and computer-generated pornography are rampant. The school, they say, more closely resembles a chapter out of Lord of the Flies than a high school version of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.

They say it is a place where older cadets -- ages range from 12 to 20 -- frequently misuse their authority to savagely berate and beat younger cadets -- sometimes with the permission of staff -- and where younger cadets live in fear of retaliation if they report the misdeeds of their higher-ranking brethren. Inside the wrought-iron gates of the academy, say former drill sergeants, deans and trustees, is a dangerous mix of too many cadets with serious emotional and behavioral problems and too little adult supervision and counseling. Drill instructors, who are on duty seven days a week, 24 hours a day, are expected to keep as many as 80 boys in line.

Disgruntled parents claim the staff hides or minimizes the boys' accusations, telling them their sons are exaggerating in order to be taken home or that they deserved whatever beatings they got. Staff members have dismissed physical and sexual assaults as innocent roughhousing. "Boys will be boys, after all," parents repeatedly are told.

The Cortez slashing brought into sharp relief what many former cadets had been trying to tell people for years -- that a climate of violence and depravity pervades the academy. For the last two years, Dallas attorney Arch McColl has been investigating cadets' allegations of mental, physical and sexual abuse at the school. In November, McColl filed a class-action lawsuit against the MMA on behalf of 11 anonymous cadets who claim they were subjected to varying degrees of hazing and abuse. The suit, which was filed in Brownsville, also accuses the school of fraud and deception and seeks a full refund of the cadets' tuition, as well as actual and punitive damages.

Academy officials refused to be interviewed for this story. But in a news release issued shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the MMA said, "Once specific allegations are made known to us through the appropriate legal process, we will be able to address each of them. Until more information is forthcoming, the academy will not respond, but stand [sic] ready to defend its excellent reputation of providing an environment conducive to learning and of building boys into men."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ann Zimmerman