Life will never be the same for men responsible for Matthew Carrington’s death
Wearing white Butte County Jail prison garb and blue deck shoes, Jerry Lim sat down, appearing slightly nervous as he faced members of the local press.
Lim was the first to enter the small conference room inside the Butte County District Attorney’s office and looked almost child-like as an officer removed shackles from the 25-year-old’s wrists and ankles.
It was the first stop for Lim who, along with 22-year-old Gabriel Maestretti and 20-year-old John Paul Fickes, bounced between local media, Dateline NBC and Playboy magazine for nearly seven hours to reflect on life behind bars and talk about the events of Feb. 2 that led to the death of 21-year-old Matthew Carrington.
The story occupied the news for the better part of 2005, and all three men have had to keep silent while news organizations across the country and even overseas printed article after article on the bizarre water-hazing death of Carrington.
All three men had previously gone through the same initiation rite as Carrington, but say they didn’t know drinking too much water could kill a person.
“It was a series of blunders that killed Matt,” said Fickes, who is serving six months in jail.
The night of Feb. 2 is still hazy for Gabriel Maestretti, who is serving a one-year jail term. He said he had been drinking, but doesn’t remember being angry, as Carrington’s pledge brother Michael Quintana described him in court.
Maestretti, Fickes and Quintana were the last ones in the basement with Carrington when he went into a seizure before being taken to Enloe Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
“We all thought in the back of our minds that something was wrong,” Fickes said. “But no one wanted to believe that something was wrong.”
The three men, as well as four others—22-year-old Carlos James Devilla Abrille, 21-year-old Trent Stiefvater, 23-year-old Richard Hirth and 19-year-old Michael Fernandes—are serving sentences ranging from 30 days to one year in Butte County Jail.
Some say the sentences weren’t harsh enough. And, like the fraternity system in general, it’s been even more difficult for the young men in the court of public opinion.
“I hope people understand that we’re not bad people,” Lim said. “I hope the rage will subside.”
Carrington’s mother Debbie Smith experienced the strange dichotomy when she met with them in jail last month: On one hand, they’re the ones responsible for her son’s death. On the other, they didn’t intend for it to happen.
“The difference lies in intent,” Lim said. “It was an accident and, of course, we have to be punished.”
Smith has said that, while the young men have to pay for their actions, she also blames longstanding fraternity traditions.
The young men have all found solace in the fact that Smith feels no hatred toward them.
“That was a huge load off my shoulders, and [Fickes and Maestretti],” Lim said pointedly. “It doesn’t feel good to have anyone hate you.”
Now, as part of their probation, the former fraternity members are working with Smith on a documentary that will examine the dangers of hazing.
“It’s like you’re living for two people,” said Maestretti, explaining that he would participate in the outreach even if it wasn’t required.
All three men, who were part of the same pledge class in the spring of 2004, were forthcoming about what went on behind closed doors at Chi Tau.
Fickes and Lim—both serving six-month terms—have similar stories. Both moved to Chico not knowing anyone, and pledged Chi Tau to meet friends. From there they witnessed and experienced fraternity life first-hand.
For Fickes, getting plugged into a new social group in a short period of time did a lot for his confidence and self-esteem and pranks like scavenger hunts and being told to clean the house seemed harmless.
“You get eased into the whole hazing policy,” Fickes explained.
The soft-spoken 20-year-old said things got harder during “Hell Week,” which included a series of rituals that revolved around ice and water.
At one point Fickes said members, wearing only a jock strap and a blindfold, were forced to sit in a kiddie pool filled with ice water while holding a block of ice. Fans were then turned on them. Fickes’ pledge brother Michael Fernandes, who is also serving time for Carrington’s death, checked into the Student Health Service center as a result.
The traditions are so deeply rooted that Fickes said one pledge’s father, a member of the fraternity’s 1976 pledge class, hazed his own son.
Lim said that before Carrington’s death hazing was more accepted in Chico. He said another fraternity had a guy tied up in the middle of the street and when the police showed up, they just told them to knock it off.
Lim said it was easy for him, and others, to get caught up in the fraternity culture.
“Common sense doesn’t kick in,” Lim said. “You look back, and it’s stupid. It’s hard to explain.”
Now the men spend their days in a 48-man “dorm,” with three shower heads and four toilets, reflecting on what got them there.
Maestretti said he doesn’t think about life after jail, but knows things will never be the same for him.
“It definitely changed the way we were,” Maestretti said. “In an instant, you’re 10 years older.”