State Politics

Former cadet’s lawsuit offers grim look at NC Highway Patrol academy

Jennifer Martin, a police officer in Franklin County for the past seven years, had dreams of becoming a North Carolina state trooper.

In December 2006, she applied for a job with the State Highway Patrol, thinking it was a good fit for her interest in investigating and reconstructing collisions and car accidents on state roads.

The Highway Patrol accepted her as a cadet in May 2007, but she had to resign from basic training school a week later because of an ankle injury. She persisted, though, and got a second chance to train for a trooper position.

But midway through the boot camp in 2008, in which 43 men and five women were enrolled, Martin suffered a pelvic fracture from the training and further injuries to her arm and hip.

Her account of what happened as she tried to continue with training before being knocked out of the program two weeks before graduation offers a glimpse at an atmosphere that Martin’s attorneys claim shows intentional hazing of female cadets and training measures that need an overhaul.

Several weeks ago, a Wake County jury awarded Martin $432,500 in damages, citing misconduct by two trainers.

The verdict came after a protracted legal battle took the case to the N.C. Court of Appeals twice before a six-week trial could be held in Wake County Superior Court.

Martin said in a recent telephone interview that she persisted with her case for reasons beyond self-interest.

“This isn’t about me; it isn’t about a jury award,” Martin said. “It’s about change and accountability.”

Because the jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of awarding punitive damages against one of the instructors, Martin’s legal battle will likely continue, her attorneys said, with another trial on that one issue.

“Due to ongoing litigation in this matter, any statement and/or comment by the State Highway Patrol on the Jennifer Martin case would be premature,” Lt. Jeff Gordon, public information officer for the Highway Patrol, said in a request for comment about any changes in training because of the lawsuit.

Martin sued fitness trainers Susan Raye Moreau and Gregory Noal Gentiu, individually.

Initially, the trainers contended they could not be held personally liable, that they should get immunity as public officials. But the appellate courts disagreed and sent the case to trial.

Martin, now 40, alleges that when she was one of five female cadets enrolled in the troopers training academy, instructors such as Moreau and Gentieu had “tough-guy/anti-female attitudes” and created “a paramilitary boot camp” atmosphere that discouraged reporting injuries.

Martin began her training in the 29-week program on April 16, 2008.

During the early weeks, she suffered multiple minor injuries that required periods of modified training, according to her complaints filed in court. Nonetheless she was able to receive her Basic Law Enforcement Training Certificate in September of 2008.

No medical treatment

On Oct. 8, Martin was assigned to remedial training in Active Confrontational Tactics and Survival, a course she was required to pass to graduate from the Basic Training School.

On Oct. 15, according to the court documents, Martin fell on her left side and injured her left arm and hip during a training session. Martin did not receive medical treatment afterward. She iced her arm and hip, and took ibuprofen.

The next morning, Martin went to the gym with a fellow female cadet for further training with Moreau, who had been informed of the injuries. Moreau ordered Martin to run on the treadmill for 30 minutes at a speed of 6 mph, but Martin had trouble maintaining that speed because of pain in her left hip.

Martin slowed to a walk, holding the rails of the exercise machine and wincing in pain. But Moreau ordered Martin to speed up again and when she broke into sobs, experiencing intense pain in her leg, Moreau did not back down.

“It’s going to be really sad when we have to tell your family you’ve been killed because you couldn’t finish your job,” Moreau reportedly said before speeding up the machine again.

Martin hit the emergency stop button, and Moreau said: “It was … always something with you, Martin. First it was your right leg, then it was your arm, now it’s your leg.”

In that state, Moreau ordered Martin to do crunches and leg lifts. Though Martin completed the crunches, she writhed in pain trying to lift her legs. She crawled to the stationary bike area and used the equipment to pull herself into a standing position, then hopped, crawled and slid out of the gym to another uncomfortable encounter with her trainer.

The female cadet who had gone to the gym with Martin sought the help of Gentieu, according to the court documents. He, too, unleashed a series of derogatory comments laced with profanity. “Martin, I’m so tired of you. You have been nothing but a drama queen. ... I’m going to make sure your (expletive) goes home, “ Gentieu told her, according to the filing.

Gentieu eventually ordered cadets to put Martin in a wheelchair, and as they did, she felt the femoral bone separate from her hip, the lawsuit states. The instructors wheeled Martin to the dormitory, threw Tylenol at her and left her sitting in a dark room as they ate breakfast, the suit contended.

It was only after that, according to the lawsuit, that the instructors told a cadet to take Martin to the medical office, where a nurse yelled, “I’m so (expletive) tired of you,” according to the complaint.

A doctor who looked at Martin told her to get X-rays immediately at Duke Sports Medicine Clinic in Durham.

She underwent surgery to repair a broken bone in her hip later that day at Duke Hospital. Her left leg is now 1 inch shorter, the lawsuit states, and permanently disabled.

Call for investigation

Despite the treatment at the training school, Martin maintains that not all state troopers share the attitude she experienced.

“There are a lot of good troopers out there,” Martin said in a recent telephone interview. “It’s not the entire agency. There is an element in the training academy that has an angry mindset.”

Her attorneys, Leonard Jernigan and Robert Zaytoun, both of Raleigh, are much stronger in their criticism.

Zaytoun calls it “hazing,” and Jernigan sent a three-page letter earlier this month to William Hollingsed, chairman of the N.C. Criminal Justice Education and Standards Commission outlining his concerns, and asking for a thorough investigation into the two trainers at the heart of the lawsuit.

Additionally, Jernigan raised concerns about a threatening letter that a potential witness in the case had received.

Another cadet who went through the training was knocked unconscious on two occasions in 2008 during a so-called Red Man boxing exercise. Martin also suffered 60 full-force blows to the head during the exercise, which was not stopped even though she was clearly not engaging.

The cadet who was knocked out, according to Jernigan’s letter, lives in New Jersey now. Prior to trial, he received an anonymous letter “From Your Former Troopers,” mailed from Albany, N.Y. “So tell us how many people have you ruthlessly Ratted Out,” the letter stated. “We do have friends in the Garden State.”

Jernigan suggested that lawyers from the state Attorney General’s Office, who represented Moreau and Gentiu, have the potential for a conflict of interest because the Standards Division, also part of the Attorney General’s Office, is tasked with enforcing training rules and standards.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1