Death at Manzanita Lake

The early morning death of a fraternity pledge stuns the UNR community

Manzanita Lake looks eerily peaceful on the morning after Albert Santos’ drowning.

Manzanita Lake looks eerily peaceful on the morning after Albert Santos’ drowning.

Photo by D. Brian Burghart

The leaves are starting to turn autumn colors on the island on Manzanita Lake at the University of Nevada, Reno. On this Thursday morning after a death, the sky is overcast. People who sit at the metal tables alongside the north shore near the Jot Travis Student Union speak in hushed tones, although others walk by, chatting on cell phones, unaware that anything unusual happened here the night before.

In some ways, Manzanita Lake looks the same as it always has. The swans and clouds unconcernedly float on the oil-skimmed water. It’s a different scene than a few hours earlier, when police divers searched for Albert Jerome Refuerzo Santos’ body. The 18-year-old drowned in the early hours of the morning, while participating in an apparent fraternity prank.By all accounts, Santos was a good kid, excited to be on scholarship at the university. He’d planned to be a medical doctor someday.For students who sit at the nearby blue tables, the lake will never look the same.

Reports of the drowning made the morning news, so some of these students have come to school prepared for the worst, fearful that they may have known the victim’s friends, or even the victim.

“It scared me, unnerved me, put me on edge,” says Alecia Lint, 19. “For something like that to happen in some place that seems so peaceful.”

Rachel Koelker, an 18-year-old psychology major, says the lake would never again be the place where she used to pause to chat with friends or to eat lunch.

“Every time I pass by, I’ll be all, ‘Something terrible happened here.'”

The young women expound a theory that many find difficult to believe, that there was no alcohol involved in the accident. Koelker says that alcohol and fraternity rush have been largely separated here at the university. If it turns out that alcohol was a factor in the young man’s death, there will likely be severe repercussions for the fraternity Pi Kappa Alpha. For one, she says, the national fraternity, of which PKA is the local chapter, may no longer want to be associated with the local contingent. The fraternity joined the University of Nevada’s Greek community on Nov. 5, 1986, and does not have a fraternity house here.

Josh Wenner, Interfraternity Council president, doesn’t want to speculate about whether alcohol was involved in the death. He says the fraternities are offering members support for dealing with grief and confusion.

“Right now we’re offering support in the form of open counseling for students,” Wenner says.

Although neither Lint nor Koelker belongs to a sorority, both women believe that there will be consequences for the system of fraternities and sororities here at the university.

“I think they’ll have to be a lot more careful,” says Lint. “Fraternities may have to change their traditions, change some of the things that they do.”

“The school is probably going to crack down,” Koelker agrees.

Details begin to surface later in the day Thursday with the release of the Washoe County Coroner’s Record of Death Narrative.The Record of Death, the only official document so far released on the investigation, is terse, just eight short paragraphs to describe the young man’s last moments.

The document states that at 1:20 a.m. approximately 20 members of the fraternity met at the small lake. Santos and several members of the fraternity were participating in an “initiation/induction ritual.”

County Coroner Vernon D. McCarty’s report stops short of calling it fraternity hazing, but one easily could interpret it that way.

Hazing is defined by the Fraternity Insurance Purchasing Group as: “Any action taken or situation created, intentionally, whether on or off fraternity premises, to produce mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment, or ridicule.”

Hazing is illegal in Nevada, which may explain the coroner’s reticence.

This ritual, as reported by fraternity members, required stripping clothing down to underwear and entering the lake. Once in the water, some participants attempted to swim to the fountains on the lake.

A few minutes later, all but one of the initiates had come out of the water. When the men had realized one of their members was missing, they searched the area. About 40 minutes from the time the pledges had entered the water, fraternity member Eric Perlin called 9-1-1.

The RN&R reaches Perlin on Thursday. He declines to say what happened that night. “No comment, bro,” he says. Calls to other members of the fraternity yield no further information.

The Washoe County Sheriff’s Department’s Search and Rescue Team arrived at Manzanita Lake at 2:14 a.m. Santos’ body was found at 3:55, floating supine about seven feet below the surface, about 30 feet from the southeast shore of the lake. He was dressed in white undershorts.

One person says he believes he saw the group heading north across the lawn to the lake before the drowning.

Bobby Lukas was walking his dog after work at Pneumatic Diner at about 1 a.m. He says he saw a “large group of kids” standing in front of a bar on Ninth Street. He could not say if they’d been in the bar, but they were talking loudly.

“I saw them standing in front of the Beer Barrel,” Lukas says. “They started jogging and running up there [toward Manzanita Lake]. One was doing cartwheels.”

Lukas, who is not a student, says that he heard one mention “East Manzanita Lake.” He speculates that they men were talking about the lake’s east shore. It seemed obvious to Lukas that they were heading to the lake.

“I live real close, and I heard sirens about an hour or so later,” he says. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time. It wasn’t until I heard the news … “

Lukas says he has not spoken to police about what he saw.

Once police have concluded their investigation, the university will review whether any violations of the student conduct code contributed to the death. The university has suspended recognition of Pi Kappa Alpha until completion of the review.

The coroner’s document says that Santos has no significant medical history and that it was reported that he did not use illicit drugs or ethanol (alcohol). The result of the alcohol toxicology reports will not be available from the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office for several days.

Rose Rivera, whom Santos lived with and called his grandmother, says some of his friends came by very early that Thursday when Santos came up missing. She says she believes that members of the group had been drinking.

“They were part of the group that made it,” she says. “Albert did not make it. I really smelled some alcohol. I believe that before it happened they were made to drink. That’s my opinion. I’m not positive, but I really smelled alcohol.”

She speculates that Santos’ lack of experience with alcohol may have contributed to his death.

“What else can we predict?" she asks. "He does not drink. He does not know how to swim. I told the police, ‘Please, please, have the truth. I just want the truth. Do not twist the truth, because the truth is always right. It’ll come out anyway. God is truth, and I believe that something good will come out of this."