A father’s search for justice after his son’s alcohol death at a UCI fraternity party
Dale Domingo counts every day his son Noah is not alive.
The 18-year-old was a freshman at UC Irvine and a new fraternity member when he died after drinking excessively at an off-campus party.
“It’s been 1,024 days since my son was taken from us,” Domingo said Tuesday. “That’s something I’m actively counting, every day. Something like losing your son doesn’t go away. You learn to manage. Tomorrow will be 1,025, and it will continue.”
Noah Domingo died Jan. 12, 2019, of alcohol poisoning, according to the Orange County coroner’s office. He had joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity a few months earlier and was at a party on Jan. 11 with other frat members at a “Big Brother Night.”
He passed out after a night of drinking, and his body was found in bed the next morning. Toxicology reports revealed that Domingo’s blood-alcohol level was about 0.33% — four times the legal limit, although he was underage and therefore drinking illegally.
The Orange County district attorney’s office charged five members of the SAE fraternity in connection with Domingo’s death. Jonathan Anephi Vu, Mohamed Ibragim Kharaev, Caleb Gavin Valleroy and Jonathan Gabriel Villicana were charged with one misdemeanor count each of violating Irvine city code by allowing a party or gathering where underage drinking was permitted. They, along with Zavier Larenz Brown, leased the off-campus house in Irvine where the party was held.
All but Brown have pleaded no contest, but the 23-year-old — who also was charged with a misdemeanor, had asked for a lesser penalty and to be allowed to enter a diversion program to avoid facing criminal charges.
Orange County Superior Court Judge John Adams denied that motion this week.
“This was egregious behavior, and it was entirely preventable,” Adams said from the bench, according to the Orange County Register.
Like his four former fraternity brothers, Brown is charged with allowing underage drinking at a party or gathering. He was also charged with providing alcohol to a minor causing great bodily injury.
Brown was acting as Domingo’s “big brother” at the 2019 party, court records show. That night, Domingo was encouraged to drink an entire bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey to celebrate his membership into the fraternity, prosecutors said.
In his ruling, Adams said that Brown had a responsibility to protect Domingo. He may have felt pressured into drinking so he wouldn’t “disappoint his big brother,” the judge said at Monday’s court hearing.
Adams ruled against Brown’s request to enter an alcohol and drug diversion program.
“I don’t find diversion to be suitable,” he said.
In a seven-minute 911 recording made after Domingo’s body was found the morning of Jan. 12, a man’s voice can be heard saying their friend “just drank too much” the night before. The callers describe Domingo’s skin as blue. And when the operator instructed the men how to perform CPR, they said his body was cold.
Orange County sheriff’s authorities say Domingo went to sleep at 11 p.m. Jan. 11 and died at 3:30 the next morning. The coroner’s investigation determined he died about six hours before his body was discovered and when the men called 911 at 9:30 a.m.
Following Domingo’s death, the SAE fraternity’s national chapter closed the UCI chapter indefinitely.
The university says all new members at sororities and fraternities must complete alcohol and other drug information programs. Since Domingo’s death, UCI has also created an anti-hazing program, according to Ekpeju Ed E-Nunu, the director of sorority and fraternity life. Each chapter is also required to have one representative who collaborates with the campus office to educate members on “issues connected to rape, sexual assault, dating and domestic violence, family violence and stalking on our campus,” E-Nunu said.
A UC Irvine freshman died over the weekend, resulting in the suspension and investigation of his fraternity, university officials said.
Brown’s attorney, Orange County Deputy Public Defender Amber Poston, argued in court that Brown did not have a previous record and was remorseful about the death.
“I can’t stop crying,” Brown wrote to Domingo’s family, according to records obtained by the Register. “I am destroyed.”
Poston declined to comment on the ruling.
Brown will now have to face the misdemeanor charge in court or reach a plea agreement with the district attorney’s office.
For Dale Domingo, Monday’s court hearing was the first time he had heard Brown’s side of the story and his contrition. But none of that changes the fact that a minor was given enough alcohol for him to drink himself to death, Domingo said.
Domingo recalls how his son’s friends called him “fun size” because he was short. He played basketball and football at Crescenta Valley High School and majored in biology at UC Irvine. He wanted to pursue a career as a sports trainer, his father said.
“Noah was a good kid. He would go over to his friend’s house and out of all the boys, one of the mothers said that Noah was the only one to ask, ‘How are you?’ ” Domingo said. “He was just that kind of guy.”
Domingo wants to see harsher penalties for people who provide alcohol to minors. Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer’s office says it lobbied the California Legislature to make such charges a felony, but no lawmakers have taken up that effort.
“Unfortunately, there just continues to be so many deaths from alcohol poisoning, and where so many young lives — my son — have so much to offer the world,” he said. “But we’ll never know.”
Domingo still laments all that was lost. He recently celebrated his 50th birthday, and his older son, Nicholas, got married. Noah would have been the best man at the wedding.
“It’s bittersweet because every time you celebrate a holiday or you have a celebration, you know that something is missing.” But, he continued, “as time goes on, you learn to celebrate a little better.”
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