Virginia state trooper Lt. H. Jay Cullen, who died Saturday in a helicopter crash while providing law-enforcement support during the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, was a graduate of a University of Virginia leadership program for state and local police and sheriff’s offices.
On Tuesday, some who shared time with Cullen at the National Criminal Justice Command College recalled his gentle personality, professionalism and sense of humor.
“He was a wonderful guy who always had a smile,” said Cynthia G. Orshek, director of executive education at the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, which is in charge of the leadership program. “He had a quiet sense of humor and was everyone’s friend.”
Cullen, 48, was killed when the Bell 407 helicopter he was piloting went down in a wooded area near Old Farm Road in Albemarle County. Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates was also killed in the crash. At the the scene of the demonstrations in downtown Charlottesville, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed when a car driven by a white supremacist protestor plowed into a crowd on the Downtown Mall.
Cullen was a 2014 graduate of the National Criminal Justice Command College, a 10-week program held in Richmond on leadership and relationship-building for state and local police and sheriff’s departments. It is run in conjunction with the Virginia State Police and the people selected to participate are recommended by their departments.
First Sgt. Marc Wiley of the Virginia State Police governor’s division worked with Cullen. The two of them graduated the police academy together in 1994 and attended the National Criminal Justice Command College together.
“It became a running joke in the class,” Wiley said. “Jay and I would always sit together. Since the class is about building relationships, the teacher would separate us but we’d always seem to end up back together.”
Wiley said Cullen was very intelligent and while he did not say a lot, people carefully listened when he did speak.
“He didn’t say much in class, but when he did you could tell from his response that he had given the material a lot of deep thought,” Wiley said. “When we were in the air, he would focus on flying and I would have to initiate the conversation, but once you got talking to him, you knew he was a super nice guy.”
Wiley said they had lost touch after the police academy, but then reconnected when Cullen joined the governor’s detail in 2001. A pilot for current Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Cullen was in charge of the State Police Aviation Unit, which encompassed three bases around the state. Cullen was certified as both a helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft pilot.
Wiley said he was with the governor’s detail when he heard that Trooper One had gone down.
“He was a dedicated servant of the Commonwealth,” Wiley said of Cullen. “He was the aviation unit commander, with 24 years of experience, but he was still out there flying with his men.”
Wiley said Cullen was a leader who would not ask others to do what he would not do himself.
Steven E. Laymon, interim dean of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, did not know Cullen personally but said he represented just the kind of person who thrives in the program.
“He was a dedicated public servant, returning to school in 2014, 20 years into his career,” Laymon said. “He was like many of our students in the Criminal Justice Command College — an accomplished law-enforcement officer, turning to us to enhance his training, to better serve the people of the commonwealth.”
Cullen was an avid bicyclist and he was frequently talking about riding mountain-bike trails with his sons Ryan and Max. Wiley said Cullen and his wife, Karen, were often invited to official functions, because the governor treated the troopers on the detail as family.
“They’re your family,” McAuliffe told the Richmond Times-Dispatch after the crash. “They live with you every day. They protect you every day. You really form a bond.”
Orshek choked up when remembering Cullen.
“He was a great guy and he had a presence,” she said. “He was very well respected.”