When Sam Philbrook, 21, a criminal justice major from Rochester. Mass., was a senior in high school, he was interested in attending Division I colleges to play baseball. With encouragement from his parents, he decided to also take on the challenge to become a member of the Corps of Cadets at Norwich University.
He came to Norwich in the fall of 2009 and had high aspirations of playing varsity baseball and becoming an officer in the Army. Those plans derailed on a November evening.
“It was November 9th, the date of rook recognition, when I was handcuffed and taken into custody by the police,” recalls Philbrook. “Sitting in a jail cell, handcuffed to a wall, I thought to myself ‘wow, my parents are going to kill me!’”
Charged with assault and misconduct against a fellow rook, Philbrook would spend the next half of a year enduring false accusations and national media coverage of the case. Today, as a senior leader in the Corps of Cadets, he stands tall on the regimental staff, is a baseball team captain, and will be commissioning in the Army on May 12th.
There is little doubt his Norwich experience was challenging and unusual.
He initially was thinking of going to a larger university to work on a baseball career. “It was mid-way through my senior year of high school and I was leaning heavily towards attending Georgia Tech for baseball when my parents sat me down for the talk,” Philbrook said. “They asked me if I really thought I had a chance at playing professional baseball or if going into the Army was a more viable career option.”
After Philbrook was accepted to Norwich, he showed up in late August like all of the other students. Everything was going smoothly until his rook platoon began having trouble with another rook in his platoon
“This kid was enlisted in the Air Force and thought he was better than everyone else in the platoon,” Philbrook said. “He would spend his time belittling everyone else until we all started getting fed up with it.”
Philbrook explained that several of his rook buddies had decided they wanted to take serious action. That meant putting on a “Rookie Birthday,” which typically involves playfully tying up a platoon member and covering them in shaving cream. This time, however, with more hostility towards the individual, things would get out of hand.
“While the news portrayed me as the ring leader, I really had nothing to do with the planning of the whole thing besides letting them use my room to do it,” Philbrook said. “So on October 4th at around 1040 we began doing what everyone including the individual in the chair thought was fun and harmless.”
Philbrook stood on a table filming the scene. He jumped off the table to mop up the floor and ring water out the window, and when he did that, a cadre member spotted them from outside the window.
“As the cadre stormed into the room, what they saw was 13 kids standing around one who was covered in shaving cream and toothpaste,” Philbrook said, “and at that point, they sent everyone back to their rooms. They began interrogating us one by one and when it was my turn, they used a lot of scare tactics and I was very intimidated.”
The victim had embellished the story to make it seem as though he was assaulted, while also mentioning a recent family emergency, Philbrook said. As he was interrogated that night, it was made clear to him the consequences of his actions.
“They quickly began making things up, telling me that I had hit the kid and that he had been sexually assaulted,” Philbrook said. “I assured them that all I had done was videotape the whole thing. I even remember the victim later that night coming into my room and telling myself and my roommate that he knew we had done nothing besides be in the room at the time.”
It wasn’t long until word of the incident was leaked to local media and the victim’s parents began confronting the school and local authorities about the incident. At this point, the investigation was launched and Philbrook and all of his rook buddies had to write statements about the incident.
“While the footage of the incident was greatly appreciated by the authorities because it cleared things up, for some reason I was still targeted as being responsible for the whole thing by the investigating officer,” Philbrook said. “The film was eight minutes and the whole time the victim was laughing like everyone else, and at one point I jumped off of the desk and that is when they accused me of hitting the victim.”
“Sam is a great person and he just got caught up in the wrong thing at the wrong time” said John Edwards, 21, a communications major from Simsbury, Conn.
During this interview, the police officer told Philbrook that he could potentially be charged with assault and battery, misconduct, and lascivious behavior, which could equal jail time. Philbrook was shocked by this even being a possibility.
“It was November 9th and we were getting ready for our pre-recognition activities when the campus chief came up and asked me to stay in my room,” recalled Philbrook. “I thought I was going to get cleared of all the charges and get my camera back.”
Philbrook said he was then put into handcuffs and escorted into a Dodge Durango police car. He asked the officer if he was getting his camera back, to which the officer laughed and told him that he was being charged with misconduct and simple assault and then read him his rights.
“Sitting in the police station handcuffed to a pole, I thought to myself ‘crap, I haven’t told my parents yet,” Philbrook said. “A year ago I was in high school celebrating my senior year and now I am handcuffed in a police station.”
After telling his parents everything, Philbrook remembers the next day seeing his mug shot on Fox News, CNN, AOL, WCAX, NECN, and numerous other news sites. “My uncle was off the coast of Louisiana with the Coast Guard and called my dad at 4 a.m. and said he just saw his nephew’s mug shot on the news,” Philbrook said.
“There were camera crews outside my barracks filming my windows and large groups of students who really had no idea what was going on,” Philbrook said. “Immediately, the rumors began to spread, but it was very evident that there was no proof linking me with assault and no one could answer the question did he do it and if so, how?”
“I remember it was insanely sensationalized and all of these rumors surrounding it that weren’t true,” Edwards said. “When you talked to the people involved, the story they told was totally different.”
Following this, Philbrook got a lawyer who began working on the case and assured him that there was no proof that he had done anything. “It was about a week later that the Norwich Guidon came out with an article with yours truly on the front page, a big ole mug shot of me alongside the other ringleader,” Philbrook said.
Philbrook disputed the story and the reporter, Josh Flanders,saying the effort was a “disgrace” and calling it “an inaccurate, yet interesting story.” Said Philbrook, “I still have the article today and when my cadre staff first read it they were enraged with the writer, who in fear, had to hide himself to avoid any negative consequences.”
When the semester ended, Philbrook went home to deal with the negative attention the local media had painted of the situation. He was ready to leave Norwich, but decided to stay due to expensive transferring fees and thus returned to Norwich for a second semester, this time with his baseball glove and cleats.
“When I returned to school, I remember a commandant shaking my hand telling me how surprised he was to see me come back to Norwich and saying ‘adversity is not shown through words, but by character’,” Philbrook said. “The case continued, but really went nowhere besides the state’s attorney continually accusing me of something I didn’t do.”
Later in the semester, Philbrook decided to try out for the baseball team and one night after tryouts the team headed to Barre for a fundraiser. He rode in a car with the team captain and another player who he would soon discover to be Flanders, the one who wrote the article about him.
“As we were driving along, I remember him saying that I looked familiar and asked if I was in the Guidon, to which I responded yes,” Philbrook said. “He told me that he had written the article about me and I just remember sitting there silently for the rest of the car ride.”
As Flanders was his teammate, Philbrook would have to learn to forgive him and be mature about the whole situation. “That year the baseball team made it to the playoffs and I used baseball as an escape from everything that had been going on,” Philbrook said.
On May 10 of 2010, Philbrook had his court hearing. “There was so much Norwich support for me that the victim was too uncomfortable so he did not physically attend the hearing and sat in a back room because he was intimidated.”
Philbrook was found innocent, and he was cleared of charges. “It was the ending the media did not want,” Philbrook claimed.
“After everything was said and done, I returned for my sophomore year and tried to contract with the Army, and needless to say, with everything that had happened this was a very difficult process, Philbrook said. “I was originally told that I could not contract because of what had happened, but after appealing the case I was finally told that if I could maintain a good GPA and stayed out of trouble, I would be recommended for a contract.”
The summer leading into his junior year, Philbrook attended and graduated from Army Air Assault school and returned to Norwich his junior year as cadre for a rook platoon. Due to the complications regarding his case, he did not contract until the middle of his junior year.
“I was voted baseball captain at the end of my sophomore year and as a senior in the Corps of Cadets I am serving as the Regimental Community Athletic Liaison,” Philbrook said. “I have helped to bridge the gap between athletics and the corps.”
While serving in the National Guard, Philbrook plans on purchasing one of New England’s largest wedding and special event rental companies, Chase Canopy Company. “As of now I have completed an extensive business plan and I will be hired as an events coordinator and will soon be a managing partner with my brother.”
“From this experience I have learned resiliency and how to overcome adversity,” Philbrook said.
“I think he brightens peoples’ days. He always has something funny to say and always makes people laugh,” said Meredith Lewandowski, 22, a communications major Milton, Vt. “He went through a lot of crap, but was able to pull through and I think it’s inspiring.”
Many students today who know Philbrook think that what he dealt with was very rough and that he fought hard to earn the position he has, Lewandowski said.
“I think Sam is a prime example of rolling with the punches and making the best out of any situation,” said Brandon Owens, 22, a communications major from Silver Spring, Md. “He has been very successful in the Corps of Cadets and will be the same in the Army.”