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- October 17, 1988
- Vol. 30
- No. 16
A Rookie Cop Lies Close to Death After Being Pushed to the Limits of Endurance
None of this discouraged Tim Shepard. After waiting two years for an opening on the Pittsfield force, he was eager and thoroughly prepared. He had been working as a milk delivery man, swinging 45-lb. crates off a truck, and he had been jogging every day. He was, said his father-in-law, Bruce Mendel, proudly, "a perfect specimen, in great shape."
Not great enough. It took just nine punishing hours at Agawam to wreck Tim Shepard's life and health and to destroy forever his dream of becoming a policeman. After a day of punishing exercise in 81°F heat, he collapsed during a late-afternoon run and was taken to a nearby hospital, comatose and close to death. Six days later, he was flown to Presbyterian University Hospital in Pittsburgh, where he underwent a 10½-hour liver-transplant operation. Two weeks after his first and last day of police training, he was in grave condition, fighting for his life. Doctors said the failure of his body's systems was brought on by excessive exertion, combined with extreme dehydration.
It soon became clear that Tim Shepard's tragic fate was not an isolated incident but the ominous first sign of a medical emergency at Agawam. Within three days, 16 more recruits had been hospitalized with symptoms of kidney damage; nearly half of them had to be hooked up to kidney dialysis machines. After examining the rest of the recruits, doctors concluded that every one of the 52 men and women in Shepard's class had suffered some kidney injury.
After some of the cadets contacted their hometown police chiefs and local politicians to report the nightmare details of their initiation at Agawam, the reaction was shock, and then outrage. The recruits told of unrelenting verbal abuse, racial and sexual epithets, systematic humiliation and daylong workouts to the point of exhaustion. Then, incredibly, they reported that instructors had prevented them from drinking the water they desperately needed. "We were treated little better than animals," said 26-year-old Michael Purcell, a Northampton, Mass., rookie who served three years in the Army but found the Agawam training so punishing that he dropped out after his first day. "There was nothing but fear all day. We were afraid to ask any questions, afraid to ask for water. We were just trying to survive the day."
"Tim Shepard took that crap all day because he wanted to be a cop," says Agawam police chief Stanley Chmielewski. "This thing should go to a grand jury."
The course opened Sept. 19. Arriving at 7:30 a.m. with three other Pittsfield cadets, Shepard joined his training group for a briefing by chief instructor Blake Gilmore and state trooper John Richardson. The two men left the recruits alone to study a list of rules. Then 10 minutes later, according to several cadets, Gilmore and Richardson and four other troopers charged back into the room, shouting commands, slammed their swagger sticks against the desks so hard that some of the sticks shattered, and hurled furniture across the room. Commands were bellowed at the cadets almost nonstop, push-ups were ordered for the slightest infringement, and the instructors kept up a stream of shouted invective. The five female cadets were called "baby makers" and "pregnant sows," the men were referred to as "faggots."
As the day wore on, there was constant exercise and, according to former cadet Purcell—and to others who have requested anonymity—frequent harassment. That morning, for instance, cadets were ordered to move lockers and tables from one floor of the building to another. In another frustrating, seemingly pointless episode, they spent two hours rummaging through their duffel bags to produce pieces of equipment. They were then run in a tight formation over and through the jumbled piles of discarded gear. A number of the cadets vomited from the effort. If anyone didn't follow orders quickly enough, says Purcell, "all of us had to do push-ups. It seemed like we did hundreds of pushups, and when we couldn't do them anymore, we were ordered to run or to lie on our back with our legs and arms held straight up in the air."
Though the day was hot and humid, the cadets received only two water breaks that morning, during which they were allowed only three ounces apiece—far less than their parched bodies were consuming. If they asked to drink more, the men were taunted by the training officers. "Everybody was really thirsty," says Purcell. "People were gasping for water. You could see the dehydration in their faces." Lunch break, at noon, lasted barely 30 minutes and offered no relief: Cadets, some of whom had had their bag lunches stomped on by troopers, were ordered to form a tight circle—"nuts to butts," the officers called it—then told to sit down in that formation and eat. The trainers repeatedly brought them all to their feet to tighten the circle.
"We ended up sitting on each other's laps, legs and feet, and that's the way we ate lunch," said Purcell. "It was hot as heck."
At 1:45, the cadets were ordered to a quarter-mile track, where they ran at least two miles at a fast pace. Only two cadets finished the run. Those unable to continue had to do push-ups. Some, said Purcell, threw up. Many seemed on the verge of collapse.
At around 4 p.m., cadets were ordered to run the track again—double-time. Tim Shepard seemed to do well at first, but on about the sixth lap, as he came to a turn, he kept on going straight and fell on his face.
"He looked so pale and dry," said Purcell. "But we didn't dare stop. By the time one of the officers got to him, he was going into convulsions and seizures. I could hear him having the convulsions. It wasn't easy to listen to."
Shepard's eyes were open but unfocused, his pupils dilated. Troopers quickly brought oxygen and summoned an ambulance. But when they asked him questions, all he could say was "Yes, sir" and "No, sir."
Without much delay, Shepard was rushed 10 miles to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass. His symptoms, according to kidney specialist Dr. Michael Germain, seemed consistent with "classic heat stroke...though he had neurological and kidney damage as well."
As other cadets were admitted to the hospital over the next 24 hours, Germain began to wonder what was going on. After he alerted the Massachusetts Public Health Department to the mounting problems at Agawam, an investigation was mounted. Two days after Tim Shepard's collapse, the State Department of Public Safety ordered the cadets still at the academy to report to the hospital for examination. The results were shocking. Every cadet in the class, without exception, showed symptoms of rhabdomyolysis—the destruction of muscle tissue—that ultimately led to 16 of them being hospitalized. "When you undergo the exertion these people did, water is vital," said Dr. Henry Rose, a kidney specialist who treated two of the cadets. "Any good football coach knows you give lots of fluids. I think the training was unwise and unsafe."
The cadets were initially ordered not to talk about what had happened. Even after the gag order was rescinded, most remained silent, fearing retaliation. However, the doctors involved in the case knew the facts and were convinced that the cause of the cadets' problems was dehydration inflicted as discipline. But the State Department of Public Safety at first blamed a contaminated water supply and temporarily moved the training course to a National Guard armory.
Suspicious community leaders considered the bad-water theory a fantasy. "Our three cadets came back ill," said North Adams, Mass., Mayor John Barrett III. "One was close to renal failure. The public-safety officials were saying they thought it was contaminated water, but in fact it was lack of water. I felt they were trying to cover things up." Skeptical that investigations by the state police would not get to the bottom of the Agawam disaster, Barrett appealed to Massachusetts Attorney General James Shannon, who promptly ordered a full inquiry.
There is no lack of witnesses. Former cadets, local police chiefs and doctors have come forward to charge misconduct and abuse during earlier courses at Agawam and have described mindlessly abusive training regimens involving hours of forced exercise and water starvation.
The inquiry spread as new complaints were lodged against some of the eight other police-training facilities run by the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Training Council. Brian Butters, who attended the Plymouth center in 1985, says that he too was hospitalized with kidney failure after a day of exercise without water. He reports that he was in a daze for 48 hours and says doctors told him he was lucky to be alive. Dr. Constance Lentz, who treated severely fatigued Agawam recruits in 1984, says she was sickened by their stories. "One fellow said he had to vomit," she says, "and the training officer told him to take off his boot, throw up in that, and then put it back on."
State medical authorities have reopened an investigation into the July 1985 death of James Whitehouse, a 22-year-old state police recruit from Braintree, Mass., who died on his second day at a similarly operated training center in Framingham, Mass. Dr. Luke Tedeschi, a state medical examiner, says he now fears that he was deliberately misled by state police when he tried to determine the cause of White-house's death. Tedeschi made a finding of cardiac arrest after being told that the cadet had collapsed after running a quarter-mile. "That's not that much exertion," says Tedeschi. "From what I'm hearing about the program now, he could well have died of heat exhaustion."
Questions are also being raised anew about the deaths of two cadets who committed suicide while taking the course—one in 1986, the other a year later. Friends and family suggest that the hardships of the training caused them to take their lives.
North Adams Mayor Barrett has declared that he will send no more recruits to Agawam until the system is reformed. "This type of training isn't going to make a better police officer," he says. "They're just making them feel like animals."
Despite mounting criticism, Earl Harrington, the civilian director of the Agawam facility, continues to defend his program. He says he "saw nothing on the first day of training this year that was out of the ordinary." Asked about instructors Gilmore and Richardson, who have retained an attorney and last week were granted reassignment, he begins to weep. "I feel for this guy," he says of Gilmore. "I'd be proud to have him for my son...or [have him] train my son."
Tim Shepard was a local boy—and a favorite. One of five children of Thomas Shepard, a General Electric worker, and his wife, Ellen, who works for New England Telephone, he was quiet but popular. In 1981 he was voted Youth of the Year by the 5,000-member Pittsfield Boys' Club. When, some years later, he announced his intention to become a police officer, James Mooney, executive director of the club, was surprised. "He was just so nice, I couldn't see him arresting people," he says.
But Shepard was serious about wanting to be a cop. He passed the civil service test and in June began his training with the Pittsfield police. Tim had double cause for jubilation that month because he was both joining the force and marrying into it. On June 18, he and red-headed Holly Mendel, 25, were married. Her father, Bruce Mendel, a retired Pittsfield officer, put up a billboard: "On June 18, '88, the Rookie will be handing the Redhead a Life Sentence." Shortly after the wedding, Holly became pregnant.
While the rest of his family kept a vigil at Tim Shepard's hospital bedside in Pittsburgh, his friend and brother-in-law, Mark Mendel, was at home, showing family pictures and trying to hold back the tears. He said he had seen Tim the night before he went off to Agawam. Mark had gone over to watch a Red Sox game on TV and to help Tim polish his boots. "He knew it was gonna be rough," says Mark, "but he wanted to look the best."
—By Joyce Wadler, with S. Avery Brown in Agawam
July 27, 2015
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