Guilty pleas don’t ease pain
Michael Carrington, dressed in black from head to toe, stood outside of the Butte County courthouse last week searching for words to describe what he was feeling at that moment. It was just minutes after four former members of Chi Tau were handcuffed and taken to jail for their participation in the hazing death of his son Matthew.
“It’s very surreal,” Carrington said. “I felt completely powerless in there. Any piece of outside information doesn’t change a thing. I mean, my son is just gone and there’s nothing that will ever bring him back.”
It was a long and emotionally draining day for the 20-or-so friends and family members who made the three-hour drive from the Bay Area as the four young men charged with involuntary manslaughter entered their guilty pleas.
Media from all over the country, including Dateline NBC and Inside Edition, also flooded into the courtroom for the sentencing.
And while the long days in court may be over, Matthew Carrington’s senseless death has left five young men in jail (Michael Fernandes, 19, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor hazing last month and is currently serving a 30-day sentence) and a family that is forever changed.
“I want to touch, to hold and to talk to my son, but I cannot. Your arrogance destroyed a beautiful human being,” Carrington said in court as he broke down in tears.
In what was one of the more heart-wrenching statements, Matthew Carrington’s mother Debbie Smith recalled the day she saw her son in the hospital after he had succumbed to water intoxication and hypothermia.
“He had tubes coming out of him and blood and something else all over. He was a mess and they wouldn’t let me hold him. He had to lay there all alone. He had been alone way too long.”
Friends and family wept uncontrollably. And the four young men who are being held responsible sat silent and stone-faced as they listened to the grieving mother in the courtroom.
By entering guilty pleas, the four defendants avoided a jury trial that, if convicted, could have lead to a maximum of four years in state prison. The men will instead serve sentences ranging from 90 days to one year in county jail, which Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey assured “is no picnic.”
Carlos James DeVilla Abrille, 22, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor hazing and will serve 90 days in jail followed by three years of probation. Jerry Ming Lim, 25, and John Paul Fickes, 20, both pleaded guilty to being accessories to involuntary manslaughter and will both serve six months in jail and received five years of probation. The fourth defendant, 22-year-old Gabriel John Maestretti, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and will serve one year in jail and remain on probation for five years for his more active role in the hazing ritual.
All four defendants also read prepared statements and were visibly shaken.
“I will live with the consequences of this hazing for the rest of my life,” Maestretti said. “My actions killed a good person. I will be a felon for the rest of my life and will have to live with that disability. But I am alive and Matt is not.”
Fickes turned and faced the family and fought back tears as he spoke.
“My participation in the fraternity hazing rituals caused the death of one of the nicest people I have ever met,” Fickes said. “I greatly regret my role in causing Matt’s death and the loss of your son.”
It was nearly eight months ago, on the night of Feb. 1, that 21-year-old Matthew Carrington and his friend and pledge brother, 20-year-old Michael Quintana, were in the third day of “Hell Week” while rushing the Chi Tau fraternity. The fraternity lost its charter with the university and the Interfraternity Council in 2002 for serving alcohol to minors.
The bizarre water-hazing ritual, as reported by the CN&R in March 2005, dates back at least 20 years at Chi Tau, which was formerly Delta Sigma Phi.
Carrington and Quintana, clad only in jeans and socks, were forced by members to chug water from a five-gallon Alhambra bottle while being blasted by fans in the frigid basement of the Chi Tau fraternity house. When they weren’t consuming water, the two pledges were told to pour it over themselves and do push-ups on the cold and filthy cement floor.
The torture went on for hours while members of the fraternity watched the video Mr. 3000. When the movie ended, Carrington and Quintana were told they were done. But Gabriel Maestretti, whom Quintana testified as being visibly intoxicated and angry, got things started again. Carrington eventually collapsed, and after being transported by ambulance to Enloe Medical Center, was pronounced dead a few hours later.
Over the last several months Michael Carrington has commented on the dramatic turn his life has taken since his son’s death—one minute, a happy father with a son studying business at Chico State—the next, he finds himself making trips to court, facing the young men responsible for his son’s death.
And it goes from there. Carrington is adamant about making sure the issue doesn’t disappear from the public eye. He continues to get the word out about student-on-student violence through his nonprofit, The Matt Carrington Project. Debbie Smith has started a Web site with information and articles about Matthew and the dangers of hazing.
Both parents, who divorced when Matthew was a young boy, are also talking to legislators about passing “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 and include all groups and individuals, not just school organizations.
Meanwhile, Trent Stiefvater, 20, and 22-year-old Richard Joseph Hirth will appear in court on Nov. 23 on charges of misdemeanor hazing. And their “brothers,” already serving time, will also be required to participate in an anti-hazing outreach program as part of their probation.
Carrington said after the proceedings that they would be powerful spokespersons for anti-hazing and that he hopes they make good on their statements in court.
“I believe that they believe what they read,” Carrington said. “Only time will tell if it bears any fruit.”