A Fraternity Hazing Gone Wrong In February, 21-year-old Matthew Carrington collapsed in a frat house basement at Chico State University, dying several hours later. Five of his fellow students pleaded guilty in his death; one will serve a year in jail. Carrington's parents are among those who want penalties for hazing toughened.

A Fraternity Hazing Gone Wrong

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

It's a parent's nightmare and a nagging fear for the people who run colleges and universities. A young fraternity pledge dies when hazing gets out of control. It's happened at least once each year for more than three decades.

SIEGEL: Nine months ago it happened at Chico State University in California, and in that instance prosecutors did something unusual. They filed felony charges against the frat brothers involved. But as NPR's Elaine Korry reports, that is not much comfort to the family of the young man who died.

ELAINE KORRY reporting:

In his 22 years, Gabriel Maestretti has often been a role model: an altar boy, high school homecoming king and a volunteer coach. But in the past year he's also been called a tormentor and a mean drunk. And earlier this month he became something worse, a felon.

Unidentified Man: And, Mr. Maestretti, as to count one, involuntary manslaughter, the felony, how do you plead?


Unidentified Man: As to count two, hazing, a misdemeanor, how do you plead?


KORRY: The Butte County courtroom of Judge Stephen Benson was awash in red, the color worn by family and friends of Matthew Carrington to honor him. Gabriel Maestretti, deeply religious as a boy, had never been in trouble before, yet according to the DA, he was the most culpable in Carrington's death. He stood before the judge, baby-faced, with the physique of a linebacker, choking back tears.

Mr. MAESTRETTI: I did what I did out of a misguided sense of building brotherhood, and instead I lost a brother. I will live with the consequences of hazing for the rest of my life. My actions killed a good person, and I'll be a felon for the rest of my life, and I'm going to have to live with that disability--that I'm alive and Matt's not.

KORRY: Moments later Maestretti and three of his fraternity brothers--John Fickes, 20; Carlos Abrille, 22; Jerry Lim, 25--were handcuffed and led off to jail.

(Soundbite of muffled background conversations)

KORRY: Matthew Carrington would have turned 22 this month. He grew up with his younger brother in a small ranch-style house in Pleasant Hill, east of San Francisco. Debbie Smith has a giant portrait of her son on the fireplace mantel. Dozens of snapshots fill the coffee table and bookshelf.

Ms. DEBBIE SMITH (Matthew Carrington's Mother): We did everything together as a family, so we have tons of pictures, and I have to have them out. I have this need to just be surrounded by them. You know, I can't put them away.

KORRY: Like a lot of moms, Debbie Smith says her son was destined for great things. But Carrington's plans weren't grandiose at all; he just wanted to graduate and get a good job, marry and have kids. Now his mother mourns the wedding she'll never attend, the grandbaby she'll never hold. Early on the morning of February 2nd in Chico, her son's life was cut short.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

KORRY: Chico Police Detective Greg Keeney, the lead investigator on the case, has agreed to meet me at the Chi Tau fraternity. Boarded up on the edge of campus, the white building doesn't look like a crime scene, but Keeney says the basement is another story.

Detective GREG KEENEY (Chico Police Department): It's kind of like a medieval castle dungeon. It's dark, and it was cold; it was very, very cold. It was February. It was very dirty.

KORRY: He says what he found written on the walls was just as chilling.

Detective KEENEY: There was a lot of graffiti. The thing that was written the most was `In the basement, no one can hear you scream.'

KORRY: Tuesday night, Chi Tau's hell week, everybody's drinking. Junior frat brothers are in charge, told to be tough on the pledges. Carrington is here mostly to support his friend Mike Quintana, who is pledging Chi Tau. Both of them are sober. 11 PM, the two pledges are ordered downstairs, told to do calisthenics in sewage that had leaked on the floor. For hours, according to District Attorney Mike Ramsey, they're interrogated and taunted.

Mr. MIKE RAMSEY (District Attorney): A lot of yelling, a lot of what was referred to as mind games: `Go ahead, give up. We won't think anything the less of you.' You know, sure. And as we have kind of reconstructed Mr. Carrington's personality, he was not a person to ever, ever give up. Once he started something, he was going to finish it.

KORRY: More forced push-ups and trivia quizzes. Through it all, the two pledges are ordered to drink from a five-gallon jug of water, which is refilled over and over. Fans blast icy air on their wet bodies. They urinate and vomit on themselves. Then, according to DA Ramsey, something goes terribly wrong.

Mr. RAMSEY: Matt collapsed and started to seizure, but they said, `Oh, he should be OK.' Some of the fraternity members said, `Oh, we've seen this before. Don't worry about it.' And an ambulance was specifically not called at that point.

KORRY: By the time the ambulance is called, it's too late. Carrington is taken is Enloe Medical Center, where his heart gives out. At about 5 AM, he dies of what is called water intoxication, which caused swelling of his brain and lungs. Not a single fraternity brother is there, a fact that still haunts his mother.

Ms. SMITH: All I could think of is Matt's alone because nobody's with him. For some reason, nobody is with him. They don't know anything about what happened to him. Why is that?

KORRY: It was hours before Debbie Smith learned how her oldest son died. The hospital had called, saying only that Matt was in critical condition. Frantic, the family set out on the three-hour drive.

Ms. SMITH: The social worker had been calling me, and I'm like, `Why is a social worker calling me from a hospital?' You know?

KORRY: Halfway through the drive, Debbie instinctively knew, but she demanded to hear the truth.

Ms. SMITH: And she said, `Debbie, we don't really like to say this stuff over the phone,' and I started screaming and I said, `I need to know what happened to my son.' And she said, `I'm sorry, Debbie, he didn't make it.'

KORRY: The family pulled off the freeway, overcome with grief.

Hazing is illegal in California. It's illegal in most states, but usually it's a misdemeanor offense that brings a slap on the wrist. Most colleges have banned hazing, and they are cracking down by suspending renegade Greek chapters. But sometimes the strategy backfires. Hank Nuwer, who teaches at Indiana University, has written several books on hazing. He says once these chapters are decertified, they're accountable to no one.

Mr. HANK NUWER (Indiana University): It's kind of like having unregulated gangs on campus, and yet it's a hidden problem that doesn't get discussed on the news a lot.

KORRY: It was a problem at Chico State. Chi Tau was among a handful of suspended fraternities that had been in trouble before. For now, the school has shut down all Greek recruitment. A task force is overhauling all the rules for student conduct. And university President Paul Zingg has threatened the ultimate punishment: an outright ban on fraternities and sororities.

Mr. PAUL ZINGG (President, Chico State University): I mean, they talk about integrity and scholarship and holy friendship forever. And I basically said, `If that's really what you believe in, you've got a respected place on this campus. But if you're nothing but drinking clubs, you know, masquerading as fraternities, you don't.'

KORRY: Fraternity members pass the now-defunct Chi Tau house every day on their way to classes. It's a vivid reminder of Carrington's death.

Mr. ADAM CHERRY (Sigma Pi): We're still dealing with it. You know, it's still--everybody's still kind of haunted by it.

KORRY: Junior Adam Cherry is a member of Sigma Pi, a fraternity which he says doesn't haze. He thinks it's only right that the former Chi Tau members are in jail, and he resents being lumped together with them.

Mr. CHERRY: This fraternity, Chi Tau, was not recognized by the school or not recognized by anybody. So basically they were just a bunch of guys with letters on their house.

KORRY: There's a growing movement to toughen the penalties for hazing. Two states, New York and Florida, have done it already, and Carrington's parents say now it should be California's turn. They want hazing out of the Education Code and charged under the Penal Code, like other violent crimes. But even that's not enough, says Debbie Smith. Something else has to change: the mind set that considers hazing just a part of college life.

Ms. SMITH: I understand that they didn't intend to kill Matt. My hope is that they learned something and we all learned something and that they can teach others from their experience so that we don't have to have this keep happening to our children.

KORRY: It's too late for the former Chi Tau members. Carlos Abrille will serve 90 days in jail; John Fickes and Jerry Lim were sentenced to six months. Gabriel Maestretti received the longest sentence, one year in jail. He, too, wants to get the message out.

Mr. MAESTRETTI: I accept my punishment with the hope that it will serve as a warning to others not to follow the path I did. Hazing isn't funny; it's not cute; it's stupid and dangerous. It's not about brotherhood; it's about power and control.

KORRY: For other students, the message still hasn't sunk in. Despite the trauma of Carrington's death, two more Greek organizations at Chico State have already been suspended for misconduct this semester. Elaine Korry, NPR News.

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