Fraternity Melee Leaves Student Dead

Special to The Times

One student was killed -- on his 23rd birthday -- and several others were injured in a violent early morning brawl Wednesday between two feuding San Jose State University fraternities that police say played out like a scene from "West Side Story."

Authorities said members of two Asian American fraternities, Pi Alpha Phi and Lambda Phi Epsilon, gathered just after midnight at Flickenger Park in suburban northeast San Jose, facing off in a prearranged gang-style fight that investigators estimate involved between one dozen and 60 people.

Officers said fraternity members brought sticks and knives to the battle and enlisted fraternity members from UC Santa Cruz.

Investigators say members of the two fraternities had reportedly argued at a billiard hall Monday in nearby Santa Clara and that one fraternity's members later threw eggs at the house rented by their rivals.

Finally, groups from each side agreed to meet Tuesday night at Williams Street Park near downtown San Jose, authorities said. After seeing police cars nearby, police said, they agreed to congregate several hours later to resolve their differences.

Investigators did not know what started the pool hall fight.

San Jose police spent the day sorting out what they said were often conflicting eyewitness accounts. Many of the 60 witnesses remained at police headquarters 15 hours after officers broke up the brawl about 1 a.m.

No arrests had been made by late Wednesday.

The San Jose coroner's office identified the dead student as Alam Kim of Los Altos, near San Jose, who died from multiple chest wounds.

According to a friend, Sean Larsen, Kim was a member of the Lambdas, as the fraternity is known on campus.

Three other students were stabbed, and one was struck in the head. Several others suffered black eyes and bruises, and many were taken to local hospitals either by ambulance or friends, police said.

"This is sad, really sad," said Catherine Unger, a San Jose police spokeswoman. "When you think of fraternities, you think of keg parties, not knife fights."

Larsen, a 22-year-old San Jose State student who is not a fraternity member, said he worked with Kim selling video equipment at a local Good Guys electronics store. "Alam was a real nice guy, the least troublemaking person I know. He was a good guy with a good heart."

Larsen said the rivalry between the two fraternities had been known across campus but was not thought to be serious. He called Kim's death heartbreaking.

"He was totally devoted to his fraternity and his friends," Larsen said.

On-campus organizations said they would conduct a candlelight vigil in Kim's honor.

San Jose State University President Robert L. Caret met privately with student reporters Wednesday afternoon to say the school would soon follow up on the results of the police investigation.

In a public statement issued later, Caret said "As an institution of higher learning, we abhor violence and place a high priority on teaching tolerance and resolving differences in an equitable manner.... Today's events remind us of the continuing need in our society for such lessons."

Police spokeswoman Unger said there has been a long-running feud between the two fraternities that she believes could possibly have spread to other campuses across the state and nation: "At every [school] dance, there seems to have been a problem between them. This disagreement has simmered longer than this week."

University police said the fight scenario was unique.

"As far as fights among fraternities, they do happen on campus and at dances," said Capt. Bruce Lowe. "But when weapons become involved, that's more unusual. Obviously, this situation looks like the individuals had some agreement to meet at a place off campus to settle matters. And that is certainly not the norm around here."

At the university Wednesday, students reporting to classes for the first day since the long holiday break were met by representatives of campus fraternities and sororities hawking their clubs to prospective members during rush week.

Inside a busy student union, 21-year-old student Kelly Atwood said students had been advised by university officials not to talk to reporters, but most students said they had not heard about the brawl.

"I had to tell my friends about this -- I'm the only one who knew," said the Visalia resident, who worked at an information booth. "I've been getting phone calls from a lot of parents who want to know if everything is safe on campus. I know the frats don't get along all the time, but there's never been anything like this, ever."

Justine DaCosta, managing editor of the student newspaper the Spartan Daily, expressed disgust over the incident. "It's really stupid. He was 23 years old," she said of Kim, adding, "What are you going to college for?"

On Wednesday, San Jose police used orange tape to cordon off the three-story Victorian house rented by Pi Alpha Phi members three blocks from the campus. Inside the gray home, a second-floor light shone and 2-foot-tall Greek letters spelling the fraternity's name rested inside against a window.

Outside, officers were searching at least nine cars that apparently belonged to fraternity members.

Police said residents near Flickenger Park called after midnight to report hearing screams that someone had been stabbed.

Officers arrived to find dozens of people fleeing from the darkened park.

Steven Bucky, a La Mesa psychologist who works with athletes at San Diego State University, said the incident shows how violence has become widespread on American college campuses.

"People understand when they hear about rival street gangs resorting to this kind of behavior, but this was a more educated group of youths," he said.

Bucky said that many violent incidents stem from drinking and drug use. But others run deeper. "These young people have conflicting identities. They identify with their university, their fraternity and they have loyalties to their ethnicities. The result can come out in a very violent way."

Unger said San Jose police were also stunned by what they considered senseless violence. "These kids weren't gang members, they were students," she said. "But a life has been lost and others ruined. Potentially, people are going to go to prison for murder and manslaughter. And for what?"

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