A decade later

It’s been a mind-boggling 10 years since Matthew Carrington died

Over the past dozen years, there have been a handful of stories I’ve written that have really gotten to me. You know, straight to the heart. These almost always involve the death of a young person, a daughter or a son. Parents aren’t supposed to outlive their children, and when they do, well, the void is pretty indescribable. Yet, that’s the challenge for a reporter; describing the loss and pain and, in many cases, anger.

That’s what I was tasked with doing 10 years ago, when I met the parents of Matthew Carrington, a Chico State fraternity pledge who died during an initiation rite gone wrong. Matt was 21 years old when he and a friend decided to join Chi Tau, a now-defunct frat that at the time was unrecognized by Chico State due to various violations of the code for student organizations. The rogue group’s secretive hazing period required pledges to partake in a bizarre water-drinking ritual that proved fatal for Matt. He passed away a decade ago this coming Monday, Feb. 2, from something called water intoxication.

At the time, I had no idea that water consumption could be lethal. In fact, few people knew about this rare medical condition—also called hyponatremia. It happens occasionally to athletes who overconsume in short stretches of time. That’s part of the reason the national media picked up the story. Reporters from around the country parachuted into Chico. Their coverage was spotty, because they lacked the accountability that local reporters have to the community, which was reeling from Matt’s death. But the hometown media got things right.

I met Michael Carrington, Matt’s father, at a vigil outside the Chi Tau house a few days after his son’s passing. He snapped at me when I first approached him and I can’t blame him. But, to his credit, he overcame that knee-jerk reaction and let me—and thus the community—into his life, to share, in a small way, in his grief. I’ll never forget sitting with him in a downtown coffee shop and having to momentarily stop the interview to compose myself.

Matt’s mother, Debbie Smith, also opened up to me. Anti-hazing advocacy became her passion in the wake of her eldest son’s death. To that end, she lobbied California lawmakers to create a state statute—Matt’s Law—making dangerous hazing activities criminal offenses. She also has spoken with countless producers for TV programs and, more recently, a documentary, and now she’s even created a nonprofit organization. She’ll be in Chico to honor the memory of her son on Monday (see Howard Hardee’s report on page 9).

To this day, other than covering city politics, the Carrington saga—from the day he died, through the sentencing of his would-be fraternity brothers in criminal court, to the passage of Matt’s Law—is the single subject I’ve spent the most time reporting on. Even though a decade has passed, it strikes a chord to this very day. I never knew Matthew Carrington, but I’ll never forget him. And neither will Chico.