Piecing Together a Battle of Frats

Times Staff Writers

When rookie patrolman Kevin Peters arrived at suburban Flickinger Park early Wednesday to investigate a brawl between two feuding college fraternities, he encountered a scene of bloody mayhem with scores of panicked students fleeing in the midnight darkness, according to San Jose police.

Just 45 minutes before his shift's end, Peters stepped from his cruiser at 12:15 a.m. to find so many young people rushing past him that he could not stop them all. Two minutes later, Officers Ken Siegal and Chris Bielecki arrived. All around them, students carried wounded friends to cars that squealed off into the night. Others lay wounded on the blood-stained grass.

Together, the officers detained two dozen people. Later, they teamed up with paramedics to trace blood trails more than a block long -- a grim legacy to an off-campus clash that left several seriously injured and 23-year-old Alam Kim dead from a stab wound to the heart.

San Jose police Friday continued to piece together the events leading up to the battle that reportedly involved about 100 people -- including 60 members of San Jose State's Pi Alpha Phi and Lambda Phi Epsilon fraternities. Both chapters have been suspended by university officials in the wake of the death.

Officials at UC Davis also confirmed Friday that the same tensions seem to have appeared on their campus. Records show that the UC Davis chapters had been at odds over the last year and that the Lambdas were disciplined after an alleged break-in at the Alpha house.

So far, San Jose detectives have interviewed 75 witnesses, some of whom have given conflicting accounts of how two fraternities with a history of bad blood agreed to face off to presumably settle their differences.

Authorities said they were not ready to file charges and have recalled witnesses after checking scores for bloody clothing or knuckle scrapes that could indicate their role in any fight.

"It was a big brawl. Everybody was punching and kicking and ducking; that much we know," said department spokesman Sgt. Steve Dixon. "But some people we've talked to have been evasive and others downright misleading."

Authorities identified one of the injured students as Lambda Phi Epsilon member George Trasmonte, who police said remained in serious condition at San Jose Medical Center late Friday with a stab wound to the upper back. Also hurt were fellow Lambdas Edward Kyoyang, who received a stab wound to the leg; Kevin Jo, who suffered serious cuts to the face; and Mathew Pai, who was knocked unconscious. All but Trasmonte have been released from the hospital.

A former business partner of the slain man said Friday that Kim had gone to the park Wednesday to act as a mediator. Roger Lwin, Kim's partner at Underworld Productions, which sponsored fraternity and sorority events at San Jose State, said Kim had worked on several Alpha parties and knew students from both fraternities.

He was there to "talk people out of doing something violent," according to Lwin, who said he was not at the park that night but had talked to several Lambda members who were. "Somebody started throwing eggs and things got out of hand," he said. "Whoever stabbed Alam was not a fraternity member. Nobody would have done that. They all knew him too well."

San Jose police acknowledged that people other than San Jose students were involved in the fight, but were skeptical about Kim's role as peacemaker.

Said Dixon: "Mediation is best handled during the day, not at some park at midnight with 40 members of two opposing groups standing on either side of you."

A top police official said he believed that most of the fraternity members who congregated at the park expected little more than a fistfight.

"This was like a duel," said Rob Davis, a deputy chief in the department's Bureau of Investigations. "They contacted each other and said, 'Let's get together to settle this.' These were two fraternities, not gangs. In their minds, they thought this was a face-off between gentlemen."

But the dispute turned deadly when several brandished knives and sticks. Police could not say if all the weapons were wielded by members of one fraternity.

Among those detained by San Jose police Wednesday were six Pi Alpha Phi members from UC Santa Cruz, who were reportedly summoned by the San Jose State chapter to take part in the fracas.

On Friday, Santa Cruz officials suspended the fraternity from campus and began an investigation into the actions of the six students, who could face suspension or expulsion if they are found to have violated campus rules.

"They were on the scene, and they were questioned," said Liz Irwin, a UC Santa Cruz spokeswoman. She added that the university's Lambda Phi Epsilon chapter was not disciplined because no members had taken part in the brawl.

San Jose State students say the two fraternities, both predominantly Asian American and known on campus as the "Lambdas" and the "Pineapples," were rivals but not enemies.

Freshman Tammy Sun said both groups would stake out space each day outside the student union. They made a point not to talk or even look at one another. One bone of contention: which was the older Asian American fraternity nationwide.

"It upsets everyone that this is being portrayed as a giant rivalry," said Sun. "I thought it was just pride."

Officials from UC campuses in Irvine and Santa Cruz do not recall friction between the two fraternities. The two chapters at UC Santa Cruz issued a joint news release deploring the violence.

Joel Ou, president of the Lambda chapter at UC Berkeley, said of the two fraternities: "There's no rivalry. We compete, but we have respect for each other."

But records at UC Davis show a frayed relationship between the two groups.

In March 2002, Pi Alpha Phi reported that members of Lambda Phi Epsilon broke into the Alpha house and "vandalized personal property as well as sacred emblems," according to Colette Nuno, director of student judicial affairs.

The university disciplined the Lambdas, but officials said that "tension between the two groups continued." Last spring, the school brought leaders from both fraternities together for a meeting, and no other incidents were reported.

In the days since his death, friends of Kim have posted a memorial Web site as family and friends of the easy-going arts major have tried to cope with the loss.

Relatives held a candlelight vigil Friday night and planned a memorial service for today.

As Kim's father washed a car Friday outside the family home in Los Altos, a suburb of San Jose, he politely declined to speak to a reporter about the killing and bowed as a sign of respect.

Alam Kim worked at a Good Guys electronics store in Santa Clara until last year and still stopped in to say hello to old colleagues. "He was friends with everybody at the store," said salesman Kraig Martin. "Customers loved him."

Eventually, Kim changed his nametag to his e-mail address so customers could reach him if they had questions about purchases.

Susan Otto, a San Jose State faculty advisor to Kim and other Lambdas, said members of the group did not fit the typical "frat boy image," adding that they had recently conducted a community blood drive.

"These guys I'd have baby-sit for me," she said. "They're just nice guys. Whatever happened was just a tragedy."

Otto said she had known Kim for three years. "He was just a really sweet person," she said. "He's the last person you'd think would be involved with this kind of thing."

Teacher Joseph Mucelli, who once taught Kim at elite Lowell High School in San Francisco, said he last saw him at a friend's wedding on New Year's Eve. On that night, Kim told his former teacher that he soon planned to go into business with his father at the family auto supply store.

Mucelli said Kim, a 1998 graduate, joined the Junior ROTC program at school for camaraderie.

"He was quick to avoid confrontations by using humor," Mucelli said. This kind of violence "is just not within the guy. But it was within him to join a group, and I could see him thinking, 'If they're going out, I'm going with them.' "

Police said they did not know if Kim was among a group of Lambdas who encountered Pi Alpha Phi members outside a Santa Clara pool hall earlier this week. The two groups fought and police were called, authorities say.

Then, chapter leaders agreed to meet Tuesday night for the face-off.

By Friday, scores of friends and others had posted entries on Kim's memorial Web site. Some talked about his warm smile, his passion for video games or the leadership role he took at fraternity parties.

But one entrant sounded a note of caution: "What happened to him should not have happened," she wrote.

"May justice be served ... but most of all, a lesson learned."

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Times correspondent Chris O'Connell contributed to this report.

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