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What goes on in secret fraternal rituals? We’ll soon find out when three Betas stand trial

By Melissa Daugherty
melissad@newsreview.com
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INNOCENT ON THE OUTSIDE
But who knows what’s happening behind closed doors? Beta Theta Pi (house pictured above) and Chi Tau (house below) are now both defunct Chico State fraternities.
CN&R FILE PHOTO

If Chico has learned anything in the years since Matthew Carrington took his last breath in a cold, wet basement of a trashed fraternity house, it’s probably that hazing is never going away.

Initiation rituals of local fraternal organizations live on despite Chico State’s massive education campaign in response to the vibrant young man’s tragic end, and even a new law named in his honor.

Busted last spring for hazing, Chico’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity has been stripped of its national charter and university affiliation, and its stately but rundown East Third Street residence, about seven blocks from the house where Carrington died, stands vacant, recently sold to the highest bidder.

News of Chico’s latest hazing investigation has been a blow to Carrington’s mother, Debbie Smith, a Bay Area resident who worked tirelessly after her son’s death in February 2005 to produce Matt’s Law, a California statute making dangerous hazing activities criminal offenses. For others, including Dr. Susan Lipkins, a New York-based psychologist and hazing expert who keeps a close watch on newspaper headlines, reading about the recent Chico case and others she logs on her Web site, Insidehazing.com, is a source of frustration.

“You always feel like banging your head on the wall and saying, ‘When will they get it?’ “ said Lipkins, who is well versed in Chico’s hazing history.

A pledge at the time of his death, the healthy, 21-year-old Carrington succumbed to the effects of an initiation ritual requiring him to drink copious amounts of water and exercise to the point of exhaustion in hypothermic conditions. As Lipkins noted, the bizarre hazing rite and its outcome led to exposure from national media outlets, and to Chico State President Paul Zingg’s threat to dispense with the entire Greek system.
CN&R FILE PHOTO

Still, on Monday (Dec. 17), a Butte County Superior Court judge ruled that three members of Beta Theta Pi stand trial for their participation in initiation activities allegedly involving dangerous hazing.

Approved by the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year, Matt’s Law will cut its teeth on the case.

Of course, defense attorneys for the three defendants, Chico State students Christopher D. Bizot and Michael F. Murphy and Butte College student Matthew W. Krupp, say the initiation activities of ice baths and strenuous calisthenics were harmless high jinks, and thus a poor test case under Matt’s Law.

The law defines hazing as “any method of initiation … which is likely to cause serious bodily injury.” However, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey confirmed that one of the members originally charged in the death of Carrington had himself sought treatment at the university’s Student Health Center in 2004 after taking part in a similar hazing ritual involving being submerged waist down in a kiddie pool filled with ice water.

During the pretrial conference Monday, defense counselors William Mayo, Michael Erpino and Dane Cameron attempted to have the misdemeanor charges dismissed based on affidavits signed by 13 pledges attesting they were unharmed by the acts and had accepted a civil compromise of $1 each from the defendants. Moreover, the university already has punished both Chico State students, who agreed to forfeit their tuition and grades for a semester.

“I think that what these guys have been through is very sufficient to deter this type of behavior in the future,” said Erpino, later noting that his client, Murphy, had earned all A’s for the semester he forfeited.

Deputy District Attorney Michael Sanderson countered that victims in this type of crime are under a tremendous amount of peer pressure. Lipkins, author of a hazing-prevention book, backed his argument, telling the CN&R she’s again and again seen cases in which the victims, fearing retribution, including ostracization, keep silent.

Typically, shielded within protective walls of their homes, only members and pledges of the organizations know exactly what happens during ceremonies that have been carried on year after year, by class after class, for decades in many cases.

As of now, few details about the initiation ceremony have been released. Defense attorneys plan to challenge Superior Court Judge Tamara Mosbarger’s ruling to put their clients’ antics on public display. In addition to setting a trial date for April 14, the judge ordered the defendants be present during future proceedings.

Fraternity hazing case to go to trial
By TERRY VAU DELL/MediaNews Group
Article Launched: 12/17/2007 07:33:21 PM PST

A judge Monday ordered three former Chico fraternity officers to stand trial in April on misdemeanor hazing charges, rejecting a civil settlement offer from the purported victims in the case.

Denying they were ever in any danger, all 13 pledges to the now-defunct Beta Theta Pi fraternity had agreed to accept $1 apiece from each of the three fraternity officials to “civilly compromise” the case.

But Butte County Superior Court Judge Tamara Mosbarger sided with the prosecutor in ruling Monday that such a civil settlement was an improper attempt to circumvent “Matt’s Law,” a criminal anti-hazing statute passed by the California Legislature last summer in memory of Matthew Carrington, a 21-year-old Chico state University student who died of excessive water consumption during a fraternity initiation rite in 2005.

The deterrent effect of the new law would be “lost … if the defendants could avoid all prosecution and punishment by paying $1 to the persons they allegedly hazed,” the judge said.

Given the fact it is the first case to be prosecuted in California under Matt’s Law, attorneys for the three defendants say they intend to challenge the judge’s rulings to a higher court.

The three ex-Beta Theta Pi officials — its president, Christopher David Bizot, 23, vice president Michael Francis Murphy, 22, and fraternity ritualist, Matthew William Krupp, 22 — are accused of subjecting one or more of the 13 pledges to excessive calisthenics and immersion in
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“unhealthful ice baths” during rush activities at the East Third Street fraternity house last April.

If convicted by a jury, they could face up to one year in jail and $5,000 in fines.

Their lawyers argued in court the activities in question were “not likely to cause any injury, let alone serious bodily injury,” as required to prove criminal hazing.

In urging the court to accept the civil compromise, Bizot’s lawyer, William Mayo, asserted the three fraternity officers had already been punished enough by virtue of having their fraternity disbanded and, in the case of Bizot and Murphy, being suspended for one semester by the university.

Murphy’s attorney, Michael Erpino, said the latter sanction was particularly hard on his client, an “A” student, who received grades of “W” after he and Bizot agreed to the university suspension.

The defense attorneys pointed out to the judge criminal hazing was not among the listed crimes that are precluded by law from being settled civilly.

But deputy district attorney Michael Sanderson countered the courts have denied similar civil compromises in other misdemeanor crimes not on the list.

The prosecutor suggested the fraternity pledges may have been subjected to “significant peer pressure,” and asked the judge to consider their offer to settle the case “with caution.”

In her ruling, the judge said she viewed Matt’s Law as a “national response to the tragic circumstances” surrounding Carrington’s hazing death.

Allowing the former fraternity officers to avoid prosecution by paying only $1 would undermine “the purpose of the law … to prohibit all dangerous hazing practices in order to protect the lives of our young people,” Mosbarger added.

The judge has also refused to require the prosecutor to identify specific victims by name in the criminal complaint, apparently accepting Sanderson’s argument that the state is the real victim in the hazing case.

Mosbarger set an April 14 jury trial for the three ex-fraternity officers, and ordered they be present during all future court hearings.

A hearing is scheduled Jan. 8 on pretrial motions, including a demand the prosecution furnish the defense with the names of all witnesses it intends to call to testify at the trial.

The defense contends the fact all 13 pledges have signed declarations stating they were in no danger during the initiation complicates the case for the prosecution and make it very difficult to prove the hazing charges to a jury.

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. 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 new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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