Parents of Matthew Carrington try to pick up the pieces and understand the meaning of their son’s death in a hazing incident
The afternoon of Thursday, Feb. 3, the day after Matthew Carrington died in the basement of the Chi Tau fraternity house, was sunny and almost warm.
Outside the house, located on the corner of Fourth and Chestnut streets, just three blocks south of the Chico State University campus, a number of Bay Area and Sacramento television crews were camped outside the short wrought-iron fence surrounding the house. They were waiting for Matthew’s father to come out.
The windows of the house were covered, but it wasn’t hard to imagine the mood inside—somber, sad, frightened. By then the news media had made it known not only in Chico, but also throughout California and across the nation, that the 21-year old Carrington, a pledge at the fraternity, had died early in the morning of Feb. 2, during a grisly hazing ritual in the dank, frigid basement of the house.
Finally Michael Carrington emerged through the front door and walked down the porch stairs toward the sidewalk. Like wolves smelling meat, the television reporters surged forward, shoving cameras and microphones in his face, pelting him with questions. Carrington stood there—despondent, angry and confused—answering questions about his dead son.
His description of Matthew was simple. “He’s just a regular guy, you know what I mean?” His voice trembled. “To know him was to love him.”
Watching and listening to Michael Carrington brought home just how much pain a young man’s death causes. Reporters also had several opportunities in succeeding days to interview Matthew’s mother, Debbie Smith, and they saw how deeply she shared her ex-husband’s sense of loss, often breaking down in tears.
The pain, anger and frustration radiated out from there. Within days it became clear that criminal charges against some members of Chi Tau would be filed, and sure enough, on March 3, a month after Carrington’s death, the district attorney filed charges against eight men, four of them with involuntary manslaughter, a felony.
Meanwhile, it’s fair to say, the campus community was in a state of shock. Compounding the horror of Matthew Carrington’s death was the fact that something similar had happened just five years before, in 2000, when 18-year-old Adrian Heideman, a pledge at Pi Kappa Phi, passed out and suffocated on his own vomit after consuming large amounts of blackberry brandy at a fraternity party.
“My first reaction was that they haven’t learned anything from Adrian’s death,” said Edith Heideman, Adrian’s mother, in a telephone interview from the family home in Palo Alto.
Heideman, who has worked to raise awareness about fraternity hazing and binge drinking, said there’s always an initial rush of concern after a student dies, but that it doesn’t take long before the attention fades.
“I do feel very discouraged,” she said. “But if we [parents] didn’t do anything, we ourselves would die.”
For university President Paul Zingg, who’s in his first year here and already forced to deal with the worst kind of crisis a president can face, the challenge is clear—the dying has to end. The question, of course, is whether he and the rest of the campus community will meet that challenge.
Matthew Carrington and his four best friends jokingly dubbed themselves the “Century 5” while working at a Pleasant Hill movie theater with the same name.
“We watched out for each other and made sure we were doing all right,” said Mark Yu, who knew Matthew since kindergarten. Yu said the group of friends did everything—when they weren’t in school, they were working or playing sports together.
Matthew, a tall, lanky youth, was a natural athlete who friends say could block anyone’s shot on the basketball court. He was the guy who would never hurt anybody but still kept people on their toes with his quick wit.
He prized his collection of T-shirts with racy phrases. After Matthew’s memorial service, his father handed the shirts out to Matthew’s friends, but he kept one for himself that read: “Everything I learned in life, I learned from porn.”
Michael Carrington speaks of his son’s mischievous side, like when he installed a subwoofer into the couch or the time Matthew wanted to cook a salmon in the dishwasher after reading about it on the Internet.
“I always left a few plates in the dishwasher so he wouldn’t try it,” Carrington said.
In fall 2004, Matthew, who excelled in math, transferred from Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill to Chico State University, where he majored in management information systems.
Carrington said his son would do anything for his friends. In fact, the only reason Matthew pledged at Chi Tau was because he was asked to do so by his friend Mike Quintana.
The two men began pledging Chi Tau that first semester. Some of the pledge initiations involved harmless stunts like trading a shirt with a homeless person and dressing like a prostitute on camera.
Toward the end, however, Matthew said he was tired of pledging. His grades were suffering. But he didn’t have much further to go. He told Mark Yu he had to spend the rest of the week in the basement.
In the days and weeks following Matthew’s death, the nature of that basement and the story of what happened down there on the morning of Feb. 2 slowly emerged.
The 10-by-20-foot basement is a musty, cold, dirty room littered with cigarette butts. Two old couches sit off to the side on the soaked floor. Large cubby holes are cut into a wall littered with random scribbling, including a line that reads, “In the basement, no one can hear you scream.”
“Inspiration week,” or what’s known to pledges as “hell week,” began on Sunday, Jan. 30 down in that basement. It was still the middle of winter. Quintana would later tell police it was so cold that he could see his breath.
The sewer line of the old house had broken that day, flooding the basement, but the evening’s events went forward. Carrington and Quintana were told to do push-ups and sit-ups in two to three inches of sewage-contaminated water and then were forced to sleep in the cubby holes that were cut into the basement wall. The event lasted until 6 a.m.; the pledges went to classes that same morning.
The following night at around 11 p.m. the “pledge Olympics” got underway. This time the pledges had to run up and down the stairs and play Wiffleball inside the house. Because of the cold conditions, the fraternity brothers allowed them to sleep inside that night.
“Movie night” began Tuesday, Feb. 1, and lasted to the early hours of Wednesday morning. Down in the basement, Jerry Lim, the fraternity’s pledge general, and other members played poker and watched Mr. 3,000, a movie that lasted 104 minutes.
Carrington and Quintana, wearing only T-shirts, jeans and socks, were instructed to stand on one foot on a wooden bench, while Chi Tau members asked them difficult questions about the fraternity’s history. If the pledges answered incorrectly, they were told to either drink as much water as they could from a five-gallon Alhambra bottle or do push-ups on the basement floor. Carrington and Quintana were also told to “take one for the homies” and pour water over themselves while being blasted by fans. They also had to ask permission to urinate on themselves and at one point were told to take their shirts off. The temperature of the basement was in the 30s.
Between 1:30 and 2 a.m., three fraternity members, Gabriel Maestretti, John Paul Fickes and Carlos James DeVilla Abrille, arrived at the house after a night of drinking. Maestretti passed out on a couch in the basement.
At approximately 2:30 a.m., the movie ended, and Lim told the pledges they were done. One witness would later tell police that the pledges looked to be in “bad shape.”
Maestretti woke up and told the pledges they weren’t finished and that he would take over the initiation event. Fickes and Abrille joined in.
On two occasions, a member came down from upstairs and told his fraternity brothers to stop but was ignored. It was at that point that Carrington, already very weak, dropped the five-gallon bottle and spilled water on one of the fraternity members. As punishment, he was told to do more push-ups. He struggled. Fickes grabbed him by the belt loop to help him along.
Carrington collapsed another time at approximately 3:40 a.m. and went into a seizure that lasted 30 seconds to one minute. A fraternity member was reportedly going to call 9-1-1 from upstairs but was told not to after members heard what they thought was snoring coming from Carrington. What they didn’t realize was that he was gasping for air.
Fraternity members changed Carrington out of his wet clothing, wrapped him in a sleeping bag and laid him on the couch.
At approximately 5 a.m., Quintana heard a gurgling sound coming from Carrington and noticed that he had stopped breathing. He performed CPR while paramedics were called. Carrington was taken to Enloe Medical Center, where he died soon after arrival.
Matthew Carrington died from cardiac dysrhythmia and cerebral edema, or brain-swelling, due to water intoxication. Hypothermia was also a contributing factor in his death.
He probably didn’t realize what was happening to him in the half-hour leading up to his seizure. The hypothermia likely gave him a sense of calm. And the swelling of his brain stem from water intoxication caused him to become disoriented.
Carrington wasn’t the type of person who quit, friends would say. And his parents are convinced that he wouldn’t have gone along if he didn’t trust his “brothers.”
Pledging a fraternity or sorority can provide instant identity and friendship to a college student who’s away from home for the first time.
“People get satisfaction from being part of a secret society,” says Hank Nuwer, a national expert on hazing who’s written several books on the subject. And part of becoming a member of such a group is going through an initiation rite. Sometimes these are relatively innocuous, but at other times they become dangerous, even deadly.
Since 1970, Nuwer said, there’s been at least one pledging-related death on a college campus each year.
Although hazing is not exclusive to the Greek system, Nuwer said the majority of the more than 90 recorded hazing or pledging-related deaths have been in fraternities. It’s common for fraternity members to abuse power because new pledges look up to them. It’s “tradition,” they say, when asked why they haze.
“There are a million rationalizations,” Nuwer said. “But the bottom line is that every convict is going to have an excuse. I don’t want to hear them, and I’m sure the Carrington family doesn’t want to hear them either.”
Unlike most fraternities at Chico State, Chi Tau was unrecognized by the university. That’s because in 2002, when it was Delta Sigma Phi, it was stripped of recognition and ousted from the Inter-fraternity Council for supplying alcohol to minors.
Losing national recognition can promote harsher methods of hazing by fraternities, said Nuwer.
“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.”
He said these unsanctioned organizations can turn to hazing rituals that force pledges to drink massive quantities of other liquids like milk and water in place of alcohol.
Such was the case in 2003 at Plattsburgh State University, in New York, when 18-year-old Walter Dean Jennings died from water intoxication while pledging at the Psi Epsilon Chi fraternity, which, like Chi Tau, lost its national affiliation. Eleven members of the fraternity were expelled and charged with misdemeanors. One of the members, William C. Katz, received a one-year sentence for his more-active participation.
There have been conflicting accounts as to how long Chi Tau, and before it Delta Sigma Phi, has carried on these “water torture” rituals. It’s been happening for at least 20 years, said 39-year-old Sean Gowan, who pledged Delta Sigma Phi in the spring of 1984.
Gowan said during “hell week” the windows of the fraternity house were covered with black plastic. He remembers spending a week in the same dingy basement.
He said pledges were forced to eat raw onions until they vomited, followed by drinking large quantities of water. They were also doused with water while doing heavy calisthenics.
Like many members of his pledge class, Gowan was new to Chico and looking to meet people. Pledges were told by fraternity members that these trials are what formed the brotherhood.
“There’s this idea that through shared adversity, it brings a pledge class together,” Gowan said.
He said the rules were simple. If pledges quit during the initiations, they’d be expelled from the fraternity and ostracized from the group. “That’s high pressure when the people you spent so much time with don’t like you anymore.”
James McKone, a 25-year-old Chico State graduate who pledged Sigma Nu in the spring of 2002, has a somewhat different take on hazing. He said Sigma Nu, as he experienced it, was a “non-hazing fraternity” because pledges were told they could leave at any time.
“Pledge Health and Evaluation Period,” or “hell week,” consisted of sleep deprivation and nonstop quizzing about fraternal history and its members, McKone said. Pledges were told to sleep in the basement but were never forced to do so, he added.
“The purpose is to break you down mentally,” McKone said.
The pledges were always told it was “nothing personal,” that everyone had gone through the same ordeal. Some pledges did quit, he said.
McKone said when you are the one delegating the rituals, you realize the purpose is to promote brotherhood. “I wouldn’t do it [pledge] again,” he said. “But I’m glad I did.”
Sean Gowan remained in Delta Sigma Phi for a year after pledging. He said he didn’t get into hazing as much as some of the other members, but he did participate in paddling pledges who didn’t fulfill their assignments, like washing dishes or answering the telephone.
He said binge drinking took place throughout his time in the fraternity and that the dangers of drinking and hazing were well recognized.
The very year Gowan pledged, in fact, 23-year-old Jeffrey Franklin Long, a pledge at Chico State’s Tau Gamma Theta fraternity, died after being struck by another pledge’s speeding vehicle during a drag race. The 10 pledges involved had been encouraged to drink two gallons of wine.
Some students and faculty obviously are still unclear as to what defines hazing or unaware that it is illegal in 44 states, including California.
According to the California Education Code, hazing is anything that may cause or is likely to cause bodily danger, physical harm or personal degradation or disgrace resulting in physical or mental harm. Essentially, hazing can be considered something as simple as telling someone to wash the dishes.
At a press conference on March 3, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey announced that charges had been filed against eight members of Chi Tau.
Gabriel John Maestretti, 22, John Paul Fickes, 19, Carlos James DeVilla Abrille, 22, and Jerry Ming Lim, 25, were charged with involuntary manslaughter and misdemeanor hazing. If convicted, they could face up to four years in state prison.
Another four members were charged with violating California’s hazing law. Richard Joseph Hirth, 22, Rex Edward Garnett, 20, Michael Fernandes, 19, and Trent Stiefvater, 20, could face up to one year in county jail and up to a $5,000 in fines.
All of the members charged have since turned themselves in and posted bail. Maestretti is scheduled to be arraigned March 18. The other members are scheduled for an April 1 arraignment.
Since Chi Tau is not recognized nationally or by the university, its members don’t have to be Chico State students. Of those facing the felony charges, only Fickes is a Chico State student. Fernandes, Hirth and Stiefvater also attend the university. Of the remaining four men who have been charged in the case, one is a Butte College student and three don’t go to school.
Still, that doesn’t take the university off the hook. As Nuwer pointed out, university presidents need to become leaders in taking action, and Paul Zingg is in a perfect position to make a change.
“He can try to address other presidents,” Nuwer said. “Someone needs to take the bull by the horns.”
Zingg has already tried to do that. Himself a fraternity member in college (Sigma Phi Epsilon), he addressed Chico’s Greek community on Feb. 20, giving it a stern dressing down. The university wasn’t going to wait for another tragedy incident or abusive act to occur before declaring its position on pledging or hazing rituals, he said.
For that reason, the university, under the direction of Vice President of Student Affairs Jim Moon, is currently putting the entire Greek system under review, including examining its membership behavior, rush practices and even its very existence. The review has been ordered done by the end of the spring semester.
“I would like to see Chico and Chico State emerge as a community and a university that solved these problems,” Zingg said in a recent interview.
He said he has faith in the Greek community to address its own issues. Besides, he added, they really don’t have a choice. “They won’t be here if they fail this test,” Zingg said. “They will at least look different than they do now.”
Inter-fraternity Council President Nick Hollingsworth said he believes Zingg will act if the Greek system doesn’t take responsibility. The IFC is working with groups like Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) to explore other activities fraternities can do to foster bonding besides hazing.
“I think Chico Greeks will look better in the future,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
Zingg said the four members of Chi Tau who are students at Chico State could be expelled, but that the university will wait on results of its own investigation before acting. Meanwhile, the four university students are attending classes.
Matthew’s death has put his family through unthinkable misery.
Perhaps the most poignant moment occurred when Matthew’s mom, Debbie Smith, described seeing her son in the mortuary the day before he was cremated. “He was so precious and so soft,” she said, weeping. “I just wanted to hold him and take him home with me.”
Michael Carrington said he hasn’t been able to drink water since his son died. “Every time I take a sip of water, I think of my son on the basement floor,” he explained.
The morning Matthew died, Michael said, he awoke at 3:40, something rare for him, not knowing that while he lay in bed his son was dying in the frigid, dank basement of the Chi Tau fraternity house. Carrington said he continued to wake up at that hour until the day of his son’s memorial service one week later.
Speaking at the March 3 press conference where the district attorney announced the charges being filed, Carrington said he had no sympathy for those charged, but that he felt empathy for their parents.
“I don’t want anybody to go through this again,” Carrington said. “I’d like for this to stop right here.”
Now Matthew’s parents look to the future, to attending arraignments and getting the word out.
Carrington is currently working with an attorney to set up the Matthew Carrington Foundation, in an effort to spread the word about the dangers of hazing.
He said the so-called traditions of fraternities need to be disposed of as long as people are dying as a result.
“I don’t care about getting rid of the Greeks,” Carrington said. “I care about getting rid of that mindset.”
Debbie Smith said she hopes no other family has to go through the same ordeal.
“He trusted them and they betrayed that trust,” she said. “They have to suffer the consequences for their actions.”
Smith said she copes with the loss of her son by spending time with family and members of the Century 5.
“I love those boys," she said. "They each have a piece of Matt in them, and it makes me feel so good to be with them."