Case closed, but life goes on

This time last year, Debbie Smith was in Las Vegas with her son Matt celebrating his 21st birthday. One year later, nearly three weeks after Matt would have turned 22, Smith made her final trip to the Butte County Courthouse as the two remaining pledges entered pleas for their participation in the hazing death of her son.

Smith appeared calm as she exited the courtroom last week after 21-year-old Trent Stiefvater pleaded guilty and 23-year-old Richard Hirth pleaded no contest to misdemeanor hazing. Stiefvater was sentenced to 30 days in jail and began serving his term earlier this week, while Hirth’s 45-day sentence will start Dec. 7. In addition to county jail time, both received two years probation and were ordered to pay $500 fines.

The two men join five others—22-year-old Gabriel Maestretti, 20-year-old John Paul Fickes, 22-year-old Carlos James DeVilla Abrille, 25-year-old Jerry Ming Lim and 19-year-old Michael Fernandes—who are currently serving sentences ranging from 30 days to one year.

After the sentencing, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said he is hopeful that the result of the case, which has left seven young men behind bars in county jail, will send a message that hazing will not be tolerated.

When asked to address critics who say the sentences aren’t hefty enough, Ramsey responded:

“Talk to the men down there in Butte County Jail and they’ll tell you all the wreckage that has occurred to their lives as a result.”

Requests submitted two weeks ago by the CN&R to interview the former members of Chi Tau have been denied by the young men at this time.

Ramsey said national media attention coupled with the strong stance of Chico State (the four men who attended the university were expelled) have also been factors in making a change in the Greek culture.

As for Debbie Smith, her work is far from done.

Smith has already spoken at universities about the dangers of hazing and is currently working on a documentary that she hopes will offer a different perspective on hazing.

She contends that even the men who are serving time are victims, explaining that Greek organizations pass down “traditions” that can result in serious injury and sometimes death.

In fact, Smith talked with the young men in jail before last week’s final sentencing and has taken a noticeably softer stance against them, explaining that she didn’t hate them and wanted to work with them on an anti-hazing documentary.

Smith and Matthew’s father Michael Carrington are also lobbying to pass “Matt’s Law,” which would make hazing illegal under California’s penal code instead of the Education Code and eliminate loose interpretations of the law to include all groups and individuals, not just school organizations. The law would also call for harsher punishment when serious injury or death occurs regardless if the victim is said to be a “willing participant.”

“I feel like I have a lot of work to do,” Smith said last week.

It’s been a difficult time for the family, who just celebrated what would have been Matthew’s 22nd birthday a few weeks ago. Now, with the holidays approaching, Smith said the family is preparing for their first Christmas without Matt.

“I’m not looking forward to Christmas,” Smith said. “but we’ll get through it.”