Cache County prosecutors on Friday filed felony hazing charges against two Utah State University Greek-letter societies and misdemeanor charges against 12 of their members, including top officers, in connection with the alcohol-poisoning death of an 18-year-old pledge.
In a playful initiation ritual that occurred with past pledges, Michael Starks, a freshman from Salt Lake City, was "captured" by sorority women who painted him and fed him vodka in the company of Sigma Nu fraternity and Chi Omega sorority members, according to charges filed in Logan's First District Court.
The fun turned deadly for Starks, whom paramedics found unresponsive at the Sigma Nu house at 4 a.m. on Nov. 21. Medical examiners later determined his blood alcohol level reached .373, more than four times the legal limit for driving,
While charging documents indicate Starks was not forced to drink as a prerequisite for joining the fraternity, Utah's hazing statute allows for conviction even if the victim consented to the abuse, as long he or she is younger than 21. The case highlights the dangers of hard liquor in the hands of an inexperienced drinker, prosecutor Tony Baird said.
"If you beat someone with [a] paddle, make them a slave for a week, that's hazing. There is no coercion in this case at all," Baird said. "This is where you have a fraternity that coordinates a capture activity. It's a have-fun kind of thing. The guys really look forward to it. They want to be the one chosen."
Utah's hazing statute criminalizes behavior that "endangers the mental or physical health or safety of another... for the purpose of initiation, admission into, affiliation with, holding office in, or as a condition of continued membership in any organization." Hazing is considered a misdemeanor absent aggravating circumstances and the law specifically references liquor consumption. Although hazing becomes a third-degree felony when it results in serious bodily harm, only the organizations' USU chapters are targeted for felony prosecution.
The students face a year in jail if convicted, while punishment for the chapters is unclear.
The Starks family was "elated" that prosecutors filed felony charges.
"It reflects the seriousness of the situation," Starks' father, George, said Friday. "The fraternity has to be held accountable. It's a system, a machine that envelopes the kids. Any one of those kids could have said, 'Wait a minute, this isn't a good thing.'"
Hijinks gone awry
The week before Starks died, Sigma Nu members selected him and another student, 22-year-old Mackenzie Perry, as their top choices among the 16 young men who pledged last fall. At the time, Starks was staying at the fraternity, although he had a dorm room. At about 10 p.m. on Nov. 20, Sigma Nu member Christopher Ammon brought Starks and Perry to the Chi Omega sorority next door under the pretext of helping move furniture. The women took custody of the young men and sorority sister Whitney Miller, who had a liter bottle of vodka, drove Starks to the Logan home of fraternity brother Grant Barney at 181 W. 200 North.
Miller, who faces the most serious charges, told police fraternity members asked her to run the "capture."
"The only direction given by the fraternity was 'to not let Mack [Perry] drink too much' because he is small in stature," the charges state. "Otherwise, she was not prohibited to use alcohol in the activity."
The women asked the pledges to strip to their boxers, then painted the naked men Aggie blue and white. The men were given two bottles, Miller's liter bottle of vodka and a smaller one, which the women held to the pledges' mouths because their hands were covered in paint, charges allege.
"Eventually, however, Michael took the taller bottle -- the vodka -- and began to drink it himself," charging documents state. Perry told Starks to quit drinking, but he was so drunk he could not follow through, Perry told investigators. No charges were filed in connection with Perry's hazing because he is of legal drinking age.
After an hour, the other Sigma Nu pledges appeared and "rescued" Perry and Starks from Barney's house and took them back to Sigma Nu, at 765 N. 800 East. Fraternity members put the two drunk pledges in the shower, then to bed. Starks needed help washing, but he was talking and lucid before falling asleep, the charges say.
At some point that night, member Colton Hansen grew concerned about Starks and called poison control, which advised the fraternity brothers to give Starks water, lay him on his side and monitor him. They followed the instructions and two pledges watched over him. At 3:45 a.m., chapter president Cody Littlewood came into the room and discovered Starks wasn't breathing. Fraternity brother Kelly McGill started CPR, while Littlewood called 911. Paramedics failed to resuscitate Starks, who was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
Police found a fake ID in Starks' room, indicating his age at over 21. His friends told police that Starks had used it to purchase alcohol in the past and they had seen him drunk the weekend before his death. Starks family members, however, say Michael, the youngest in a close-knit Catholic family of six children, had no prior history of heavy drinking.
Participating in this fraternity initiation rite was required for the Chi Omega sorority pledges, according to Starks' older brother George Jr., whose family was briefed by prosecutors on Wednesday. "One of the girls was uncomfortable with what was going on and left, and another one was pressured to stay," George Starks Jr. claimed Friday.
USU officials have already suspended the Sigma Nu and Chi Omega chapters as campus organizations, and the chapters' national offices have likewise suspended them, pending the outcome of the investigation.
Both organizations publicly maintain zero-tolerance toward hazing and alcohol abuse, and Sigma Nu has co-sponsored research into the cultural phenomenon of hazing and ways to eliminate it. The 250-chapter fraternity was founded in 1868 at Virginia Military Institute in opposition to the physical harassment that young officers endured at the hands of their older colleagues, according to Sigma Nu Executive Director Brad Beacham. Contacted late Friday, both he and Chi Omega's national executive director Anne Emmerth reserved comment on the Starks case until they read the charges.
"We certainly respect law enforcement's choice to pursue the criminal charges they feel are warranted and appropriate," Beacham said. "We will take into account any and all new information as it becomes available."
University officials were not available for comment Friday.
Michael Starks, an 18-year-old Utah State University freshman, died early Nov. 21 at the Sigma Nu fraternity house after a night of hard drinking as part of an initiation ritual that involved women from the neighboring Chi Omega sorority, according to charges filed Friday in Logan.
Felony hazing charges » Chi Omega and Sigma Nu chapters
Misdemeanor hazing charges » Sigma Nu chapter president Cody Littlewood, 20; vice president Timothy Weber, 25; Christopher Ammon, 19; Grant Barney, 22 (also charged with obstructing justice). Also Chi Omega members Sadie Green, 19; Cecily Kiss, 18; Brittany Bell, 20; Alexandra White, 19; Brittany Packham, 19; Mallory Mitchell, 19; McKell Miner, 18; and Whitney Miller, 19. Miller and Packham are also charged with supplying alcohol to minor.