Armando Villa and a group of fraternity pledge brothers started their hike, climbing a trail at the edge of the Angeles National Forest barefoot.
They left their cell phones behind, carrying only some water for their trek.
But Tuesday, as the sun beat down on the chaparral-covered slopes, their water supply quickly dwindled. By 5:30 p.m. when a park ranger found the 19-year-old Cal State Northridge student passed out along the trail, he was dehydrated and his feet were covered in blisters, according to Villa’s relatives. Doctors pronounced him dead a short time later at a hospital.
Authorities are now trying to piece together what happened in the hills above Big Tujunga Canyon Road.
“We’re trying to determine is this part of an initiation or one of those rituals you do to get into a fraternity,” said Lt. John Corina of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. “It kind of looks that way, we’re trying to confirm that.”
He stressed there were many questions detectives were still trying to answer, including how many people were on the hike and how long it was supposed to last. He said at least nine people took the hike and that investigators heard it was supposed to last anywhere from one to three days. The fraternity said eight people were on the hike.
Detectives are struggling to get some participants to open up about what happened.
“I think people are afraid of getting in trouble so getting the information has been slow,” Corina said. “Trying to wade through these rumors and prove the rumors has been slow. It was kind of they were afraid they were going to get into some trouble.”
Efrain Lopez, Villa’s cousin, said family members talked to three other Pi Kappa Phi pledges on the hike at the hospital. The pledges told them that they weren’t allowed to take their shoes or cell phones and said that they were only given a little bit of water. When Villa’s family picked up his car in the forest Wednesday, they found his phone inside.
Villa went through spring recruitment and family members said the hike was one of several pledge activities he had attended.
Villa had skinned both of his elbows during an earlier beach event, and later told his family that he was thinking about dropping out of pledge altogether, said Mark Castañeda, another of Villa’s cousins.
He told his parents that he initially didn’t want to do the mountain hike, but said that his friends in the fraternity eventually convinced him to come along.
“He said he’d keep his word and finish,” Castañeda said. “ He didn’t want to let anyone down … He’s very trusting. He’d believe them.”
CSUN has suspended all of the fraternity’s activities during its administrative investigation of the incident. Pi Kappa Phi, whose website says it has 160 initiated chapters nationwide, said it’s investigating whether the organization’s hazing and risk-management policies were violated.
“Based on the types of things being alleged by the family … we want to make sure we’re investigating everything related to it,” said Justin Angotti, the national fraternity’s assistant executive director of education and accountability. “Hazing has no place in Pi Kappa Phi.”
Villa isn’t the first person affiliated with Pi Kappa Phi to die at a fraternity-related event in California.
In 2000, Adrian Heideman, an 18-year-old student from Palo Alto, died during a party held by the fraternity’s Cal State Chico chapter. The national fraternity closed the chapter after the alcohol-related death and now uses his story as risk-management educational material.
News of Villa’s death shocked members of CSUN’s Greek system and Villa’s former classmates, who used Facebook to post new details about the death and memories of Mando – as many people called him.
One former classmate wrote that he would remember Villa for his positive outlook.
“At the beginning of class everyday he’d always be the one to give out high-fives and gestures of encouragement to others to make our small little communications class feel united as one big family … Rest In Peace Brother.”
Nicole Hancock, who went to high school with Villa in Granada Hills, said in an interview he was jokester who could lighten bad situations. The boy with the trademark smile and sharp cheekbones encouraged her to keep trying hard on the swim team.
“He was what pushed me. ‘You’re strong enough,’” Hancock remembered him telling her. “He was hard-headed and level-headed. He knew what was true. He’d say ‘You know this is what you want, this is what you need to do.’”
When she realized that her friend may have died during a hazing incident, Hancock said that changed the way she was mourning.
“It turned from all this sadness to complete anger,” she said. “I know it’s really hard to get into a frat or whatever. They think it’s kind of a joke. It’s not. Not when it’s concerning somebody’s life.”
As for Villa’s relatives, Castañeda said everyone is devastated.
On Monday, not long before he packed up and got ready to head out to the forest, his cousin Raquel Marquez called him. Her car key had broken off into her trunk lock. It didn’t matter that Villa had no locksmith training. He brought a big bag of tools to his cousin’s house, crouched behind the trunk and figured it out.
“He could see things for the first time and say ‘OK, I can fix this,’” Castañeda said. “He was very self-reliant.”
Times Staff Writers Ruben Vives and Kate Mather contributed to this report.