Another death in the family
Charges pending as investigation continues in frat pledge’s death
Local authorities are still trying to piece together the events of the early-morning hours of Feb. 2 that led to the death of 21-year-old Chico State University student Matthew Carrington, while university officials are looking to prevent yet another senseless loss of one of the its students.
Carrington, a junior business major from Pleasant Hill, was pronounced dead at Enloe Medical Center after reportedly participating in a fraternity hazing ritual involving the consumption of large quantities of water while exercising in cold conditions.
He was the second fraternity pledge to die in recent years. In October, 2000, 18-year-old Adrian Heideman, a pledge at Pi Kappa Phi, passed out and suffocated from his own vomit after consuming large amounts of blackberry brandy at a house party.
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said he met with Chico police last week and asked investigators to conduct follow-up interviews and locate new witnesses before charges are filed in Carrington’s death.
Ramsey said the case is being looked at as a fraternity hazing ritual, which violates California’s anti-hazing law. He said the District Attorney’s Office will seek potential involuntary manslaughter charges against “two to half a dozen people.”
Ramsey said that at least six members of Chi Tau were watching television and playing cards in the basement at various times while Carrington and his pledge brother went through the “initiation rite.” Ramsey said he was told by a member that the fraternity had been using the water initiation “for years, if not decades.”
After Carrington’s death last week, the fraternity has since removed the Chi Tau letters from the front of the house.
Chi Tau was stripped of its name Delta Sigma Phi and expelled from Chico State and the Interfraternity Council in 2002 for providing alcohol to minors.
Hank Nuwer, the author of four books on hazing and an expert on the subject, said unsanctioned fraternities like Chi Tau turn to rituals such as chugging water, and even milk, in place of alcohol.
“They don’t have the parties and the perks of status,” Nuwer said. “Consequently, over and again you see lower-status chapters doing such things.”
Nuwer, who is also a professor of journalism at Franklin College in Indiana, said many universities were in a state of denial during the 1970s and 1980s when it came to hazing deaths. He said it wasn’t until the early 1990s, when lawsuits were more prevalent, that universities became more involved.
A similar case happened in 2003 at Plattsburgh State University of New York, when 18-year-old Walter Dean Jennings died from water intoxication after participating in a hazing ritual involving heavy water consumption. The freshman was pledging at the Psi Epsilon Chi fraternity in New York, which, like Chi Tau, was unrecognized by the university.
“It’s been a consistent public-policy problem for 35 years,” Nuwer said. “And it’s been ignored by universities for years.”
Nuwer said university presidents need to take an active stance on hazing and pledge-related deaths rather than putting the problem in the hands of lower-level administrators. “It really needs to be a college president’s problem,” he said.
Chico State President Paul Zingg said he couldn’t agree more with Nuwer’s assertion.
Zingg, who sent out an e-mail to students and faculty in the days following Carrington’s death, said the university can and will take on its own investigation and action.
“Expulsion can be the first action, depending on the gravity of behavior and the outcome of the investigation,” Zingg said this week.
Zingg said he is waiting for police to complete the investigation and the criminal charges to be defined. “We’re looking at every penalty that is available to us.”
Matthew Carrington’s death has captured the attention of the national media and has left a deep wound in the local community.
A candlelight vigil was held in Carrington’s honor in front of the Chi Tau house on Fourth Street, and the U.S. flag hung at half-mast at Chico State University last week, as students, friends and family members continued to deal with another tragedy in the fraternity system.
News agencies from across the country have been contacting local authorities and camping out in front of the Chi Tau fraternity house.
Michael Carrington, Matthew’s father, was met by television news crews from Sacramento and the Bay Area as he emerged from the Chi Tau fraternity house the day after his son’s death.
Carrington said he received the tragic news while at work and drove straight to Chico.
“I kept getting call, after call, after call, and I just started crying,” Carrington said.
Carrington’s voice wavered between sadness and frustration as he spoke of his son, who turned 21 in November.
He said Matthew was a genuinely sweet kid who loved humor and owned dozens of CDs from comedians like Adam Sandler and Sam Kinison.
“He’s just a regular guy, you know what I mean? To know him was to love him.”
Carrington said he wasn’t particularly happy with the idea of his son joining a fraternity but said he knew Matthew was responsible enough to make his own decision.
Carrington said he still can’t understand why fraternities find it necessary to perform such initiation rituals. He said it’s time people are held accountable for their actions. “It’s gotta stop from this point and change to criminal activity,” he said.
Carrington met with members of Chi Tau the day after his son’s death and said he still had concerns as to why his son wasn’t given medical attention immediately after having a seizure. “That’s the criminal act to me.”
As police interview more witnesses, District Attorney Mike Ramsey said the details of what happened that night are becoming clearer.
Ramsey said the two pledges were asked various questions about fraternity lore designed to be almost impossible to answer while drinking large amounts of water out of five-gallon bottles.
When the pledges answered incorrectly, they were told to do push-ups on the basement floor. Carrington had a seizure and collapsed while doing push-ups.
An initial 911 call was made from upstairs after the seizure, but it was cancelled after fraternity members heard what they thought was snoring coming from Carrington, Ramsey said.
He said members of the fraternity reported that, after Carrington’s seizure, they checked to make sure his tongue hadn’t fallen in the back of his throat and that it sounded to them as if Carrington had begun to snore.
“That gave them some degree of comfort that he was safe,” Ramsey said.
But what Chi Tau members perceived as snoring was actually labored breathing, and Ramsey said it’s likely that Carrington was dying at that point.
After the 911 call was cancelled, fraternity members cleaned, dressed and wrapped Carrington in a sleeping bag, Ramsey said.
Ramsey said it wasn’t long after the seizure that Carrington stopped breathing. However, he said the exact timeline is still unclear because members were intoxicated, panicked or, in the case of Carrington’s pledge brother, disoriented from the initiation.
Environmental hypothermia was also named as a contributing factor in Carrington’s death.
Chico Police Chief Bruce Hagerty said fans that drew cold air from outside were aimed at the pledges. He said the temperature outside was around 40 degrees when he arrived on the scene at 6:30 a.m.
“The ambient temperature of the basement was same as the outside,” Hagerty said.
Mike Quintana went through the initiation with Carrington and performed CPR after he noticed his pledge brother wasn’t breathing. A second 911 call was made just after 5 a.m. from upstairs, and Carrington was taken to Enloe Medical Center, where he died soon after arrival.
According to the Butte County Coroner’s Office, Carrington died from cardiac dysrhythmia due to water intoxication. Water intoxication, or hyponatremia, dilutes the level of sodium in the blood and can cause fatigue and muscle twitching, which can lead to seizures, comas and even death.
Quintana said he wasn’t aware of the dangers of the initiation and all he knew was that it was part of the fraternity’s history.
“The whole house loved Matt. If they thought this could happen they never would have done it."