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Hazing Death Highlights Chico’s Greek Life

Times Staff Writer

When the green campus of Cal State Chico goes blue in the moonlight and local farm boys sneak out to drink cheap beer, the curious, racy side of this university is readily apparent.

The heavy doors to the old houses on fraternity row, built in a sort of California Gothic style, are open or unlocked, and some lead to rooms and basements where nearly medieval hazing rituals have given the school its titillating reputation as dark, risky -- even dangerous.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 31, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 31, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 134 words Type of Material: Correction
Cal State Chico -- An article in Tuesday’s California section about hazing at Cal State Chico mistakenly said that a pledge to a fraternity at nearby Butte Community College died of alcohol poisoning. He did not die but was hospitalized. The article also said Chico has a population of 35,000; according to the city, the population is 71,317. In addition, University President Paul Zingg was quoted saying the school would shut down its Greek system if problems with hazing did not abate. Zingg made his comments to a group of 850 students and others, and his remarks were quoted in the local media. He did not speak with The Times. Also, although the article characterized the school as being well-known for its basketball program, its winning baseball program may be best known outside campus.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 19, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 384 words Type of Material: Correction
On March 31, The Times published a correction of four errors in a March 29 article about controversies arising from fraternity hazing at Cal State Chico. At the same time, editors began a full review of the story, which was published on the front page of the California section. Based on that inquiry, which included a visit to Chico by a Times editor, the paper has concluded that the article fell far short of Times standards. Beyond the specific errors, the newspaper’s inquiry found that the methods used in reporting the story were substandard. The quotations from anonymous sources and from two named sources, a Mike Rodriguez and a Paul Greene, could not be verified...CX: Additional inaccuracies found during the investigation include the following:* In describing a hazing death this year, the article said that the victim died after drinking five gallons of water from a “rubber bladder bag.” The Butte County district attorney reported that the amount of water exceeded five gallons and that it came from a plastic jug, not a bladder bag...CX: * The story also reported that the victim was alone at the time of his death. The D.A. reported that this was not the case...CX: * The article attributed to “medical examiners” the idea that the victim may have experienced a moment of euphoria shortly before his death. That belief has been expressed by the victim’s father, who told the Chico Enterprise Record that he based it on his own research. Butte County’s district attorney said it does not appear in any medical reports related to the current case...CX: * The article said that the parents of Adrian Heideman, a hazing victim who died in 2000, showed their son’s day planner to hazing expert Hank Nuwer. Nuwer informed The Times’ readers’ representative that he was not shown Heideman’s day planner by his parents; he heard it described by Heideman’

At one fraternity known as “heavy” -- that’s “wild” in Greek circles -- a young man in a sweatshirt and baseball cap stands on the porch and calls to a young woman in a tight sweater.

“Ladies night!” he beckons. “Of course, it always is.”

This party atmosphere has colored life here for years. But now, more than a month after at least eight Chi Tau fraternity brothers allegedly forced a 21-year-old pledge to drink 5 gallons of water, causing him to die of water intoxication, some here say it’s time to bolster the university’s reputation before it slides further.

University President Paul Zingg called the death of Matthew Carrington “the last straw. The university has no intention of waiting around for another death.”

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University officials are now investigating the Greek system, and Zingg said that if it appears beyond repair, he will shut it down.

Cal State Chico, with 14,000 students, is 90 minutes north of Sacramento and, to those beyond their college years, may be best known for its basketball team. But the school’s racy reputation goes back decades, and in 1987, Playboy ranked Chico the No. 1 college in the country for partying. It was cause for celebration among many of the 875 members of the Greek system, cause for damage control on the part of administrators.

Chico State suffered its first hazing death about two decades ago, administrators say, but few records remain from that time.

The second came in the fall of 2000, when Adrian Heideman, a pledge at Pi Kappa Phi, died of alcohol poisoning.

In 2002, a fraternity member at nearby Butte Community College died after drinking so much that his blood-alcohol level rose to 0.496% -- more than six times the amount at which a person is considered legally drunk. The university does not consider the death its responsibility, but many students and scholars who study hazing tie the incident to Chico because the young man’s fraternity was affiliated with a house recognized at the university.

Just 11 days before Heideman’s death, Cal State Chico was the site of a speech by Franklin College professor Hank Nuwer, considered one of the nation’s leading scholars on the history and ancient ritual of hazing.

Heideman’s parents later showed Nuwer their son’s day planner. He apparently had attended Nuwer’s warning speech.

“I didn’t deliver another speech for six months,” Nuwer said. “Since then, though, my talks have gotten much tougher -- I mean much tougher.”

Ritualistic hazing dates to centuries before the ancient Greeks, though the politicians, warriors and philosophers of Athens might have taken hazing to its orgiastic apogee, Nuwer said.

The first recorded hazing-related death at an American university occurred at Cornell in 1873.

Since then, hazing deaths, often in accidents connected to alcohol, have been recorded across the country.

The wild highs of modern American hazing came with periods of prosperity in the 1970s and ‘80s and again with the dot-com boom of the mid-1990s.

“The day I moved into the dorms, 22 fliers were slipped under my door telling me where to find the hottest coeds looking to take me home,” a student named Brandon told Playboy in 2002, when Chico slipped to second in the magazine’s rankings, behind Arizona State University.

Some current and former students embrace Chico’s reputation. On a recent Thursday night, two young women walked to a nearby bar and spoke of the town’s wild image, one they helped to promote.

They declined to give their names, but one said she was 24, a Chico graduate, and for a short time, a Playboy bunny.

“I posed for Playboy. It was great.... I received quite a few letters from the U.S., and others from Germany, France, Australia, England, Rome, Argentina. Most people thought it was great,” the 5-foot-2 brunet said with a smile. “I’d love to pose again.”

Elsewhere downtown, the music came in waves, traveling through the concrete and brick of the Mr. Lucky nightclub -- only the bass drum’s “doom-doom-doom-doom” had the energy to depart the club.

Mr. Lucky is a dance club seemingly built for students: dark, loud and affordable. Like the fraternity houses, it’s also a place for secrets and inebriation.

“Listen, I think this is a great town; it’s my hometown, and I think the university is terrific,” said a woman who, like many students on every side of the debate, declined to be identified. “I’m in a sorority. Mine’s pretty mellow. Some are pretty hard-core. Some of the fraternities are really, really just gross.

“What happened was terrible, really a tragedy,” she went on, whispering despite the blaring music and sipping on a $3 vodka special. “But it is not a fair picture of what goes on here -- not at all.”

Four Chi Tau members have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in Carrington’s death, and four others with lesser offenses.

The Butte County district attorney is now investigating hazing incidents at the school reported years ago. Zingg, administrators and faculty leaders would like to gain more power to shut down problem fraternity houses in the future, officials said.

Police, the medical examiner and Carrington’s family have released details of his slow death that suggest he was cold, alone and shivering under a thin blanket.

After a long night of drinking from a 5-gallon rubber bladder bag filled with water following three days of “Hell Week” -- during which he was made to urinate on himself, perform push-ups, jog and carry out sundry other orders -- Carrington lost consciousness and, about 5 a.m. Feb. 2, died.

“Environmental hypothermia” brought on by the forced drinking of water, being hosed down and having house fans turned on him by fraternity members in the 40-degree basement contributed to Carrington’s death, the medical examiner said.

His brain was swollen with water and other fluids, as was his heart. His blood had become almost uselessly thin; his liver and kidneys were failing.

After about 70 hours of torture, Carrington may, according to medical examiners, have experienced a single moment of euphoria as his torment ended.

Almost everyone in town was appalled, disgusted.

“I went to the funeral -- just stood outside,” said Paul Greene, a salesman who was born and raised in this town of 35,000. “You hear about such things, but seldom the details. Somebody died. Somebody ought to go to jail for that.”

Disgust with the Greek system and Chico’s party reputation has been building for a while.

Playboy even mocked such feelings in its “Top 25 Party Schools” issue in 2002, noting that some students had asked the magazine not to perpetuate the party image.

“It’s all because of your article 15 years ago!” the magazine quoted students.

At least one student left town to escape that reputation. Outside a quiet coffee shop in downtown Chico, Mike Rodriguez, who studied computer science at the school for two years before moving to Sacramento and graduating from college there, sipped black coffee alone and explained why he left not only the school, but also his hometown, for two years.

“I was a serious student, and I learned this is no longer a serious place,” said Rodriguez, 24. “I was studying in the library the night [a pledge] died of alcohol poisoning. I had to move the 80 or so miles to Sacramento because I insisted on graduating with dignity. Only then did I move back home.”

Still, the lure of the party circuit lingers. Late one Thursday, with fliers for weekend parties already taped to nearby taverns, a thin blond woman walked a bit unsteadily out of the Crazy Horse Saloon.

She was 19, she said, a sophomore getting A’s in psychology. She loves her sorority and her new boyfriend, who is in one of the fraternities.

“Listen, I really don’t care what people think about this school, this town. I think it’s all pretty boring, myself,” she said.

“But half of the reason people go to college is to learn about drinking, about getting hangovers and having fun, about growing up, having sex -- sometimes promiscuous sex -- learning what comes next, which is life.”


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