Hazing News

Cal Poly SAE Investigation in death of Carson Starkey: The Tribune News

Dead Cal Poly fraternity pledge may have been hazed, police say
Police are focusing on a fraternity’s possible role in the death of 18-year-old pledge Carson Starkey; search warrants are served at members’ homes
By Nick Wilson and Sally Connell

San Luis Obispo police have confirmed they are investigating the death of 18-year-old Cal Poly student Carson Starkey as an alcohol-related hazing incident, focusing on the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

Police were called to a San Luis Obispo home at 6:24 a.m. Dec. 2 after fraternity members found Starkey, a pledge, unconscious.

Starkey was taken by ambulance to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead, police said.

The location of the house where Starkey died is being withheld by San Luis Obispo police. Starkey, who is from Austin, Texas, lived in the Cal Poly dorms.

A related search warrant in the case was served Dec. 5 on a San Luis Obispo residence near Cal Poly where fraternity members also live, but police Capt. Dan Blanke said that warrant was not issued at the house where Starkey died. The Dec. 5 search warrant sought information about two male students and was filed by San Luis Obispo police Officer Chad Pfarr, a copy of the warrant shows.

It sought all alcoholic beverages, receipts for alcohol, computers, keyboards, cell phones and other electrical data and storage equipment.

The warrant also sought all Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity doctrines, pledge books, and “related material including new member and initiation processes and/or social activities and video or photographic evidence of such events.”

Pfarr also filed a search warrant Dec. 4 for an undisclosed location in San Luis Obispo, according to Superior Court records, but it remains sealed. Blanke said that “a few search warrants” had been served in connection with the case but declined to say how many.

Police have been tight-lipped about the investigation, and Blanke said part of the reason is that they were trying to interview all of the fraternity members, pledges and others who might have been aware of the incidents leading up to Starkey’s death.

Today is the last day of finals at Cal Poly before the winter break, and Blanke said Thursday that many students have already left the area.

“Fraternity members have circled the wagons,” Blanke said.

Fraternity members contacted by The Tribune have declined to be interviewed.

Possible hazing

Hazing is a general term for any ritualized initiation, but it is specifically identified in the California Penal Code as involving initiation into any student organization.

Hazing can run the gamut from performing uncomfortable or demeaning acts such as eating raw garlic in large quantities to dressing in strange costumes.

But the most notorious and criminal episodes involve fraternities where pledges were required to drink large amounts of alcohol, sometimes with fatal consequences, or to engage in other dangerous behavior.

Examples of other crimes that are being investigated can include supplying alcohol to minors, Blanke said.

Hazing is a violation of Penal Code 245.6, and it can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony if the hazing results in bodily injury or death.

Cal Poly immediately suspended Sigma Alpha Epsilon from all activities until the investigation into Starkey’s death is complete. The local chapter has also been suspended by the national fraternity organization.

Stephen Lamb, associate director of Student Life & Leadership on campus, said the university will take action if any charges are proved true.

“In cases of hazing, the university is looking at it very seriously,” Lamb said. “Suspension, expulsion, all are on the table.”

Lamb said there is a roster of 54 members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, with 17 being pledges or associated members, as Starkey was.

Blanke said Starkey returned from a trip home to Texas on the night of Nov. 30, the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. The night before he died, Starkey attended a party at the house where he was later found unconscious.

The Tribune has formally requested various information related to the investigation, but the city has justified withholding the place of death by saying to release it would impede the investigation. The Tribune has also requested a tape recording of the 911 call for emergency assistance and complaints of violations at the home where Starkey died.

One of the leaders of Cal Poly’s fraternity council, who spoke on condition that his name not be used, said Starkey’s death gives a bad name to much of the good that comes from the Greek system.

He decried hazing, saying the tragedy is a reminder to students to avoid any actions that could lead to death, such as heavy drinking.

“No fraternity should even flirt with the idea of hazing,” he said.

By Hank Nuwer

Journalist Hank Nuwer is the Alaska author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives; Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. In April of 2024, the Alaska Press Club awarded him first place in the Best Columnist division and Best Humorist, second place.

He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His current book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press. He is married to Malgorzata Wroblewska Nuwer of Warsaw, Poland and Fairbanks, Alaska. Nuwer is a former columnist for the Greenville (Ohio)Early Bird and former managing editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska.
Nuwer was named the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists columnist of the year in 2021 for his “After Darke” column in the Early Bird. He also won third place for the column in 2022 from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He and his wife Gosia, recently of Union City, Ind., have owned 20 acres in Alaska for many years. “The move is a sort-of coming home for us,” said Nuwer. As a journalist, he’s written about the Alaskan Iditarod sled-dog race and other Alaska topics. Read his musings in his blog at Real Alaska Daily-- and in his weekly column "Far from Randolph" in the Winchester Star-Gazette of Randolph County, Indiana.

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