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ITHACA, N.Y. — Prosecutors say it was a mock kidnapping, part of a fraternity tradition, that led to the death of 19-year old George Desdunes.

On Thursday, four defendants stood before a judge, all former pledges of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at Cornell University. EJ Williams, Max Haskin and Ben Mann, all 19, are charged with first degree hazing and unlawfully dealing with a child. Williams is also charged with criminal nuisance. A fourth defendant who is under the age of 19 was also charged, but his name has not been released.

Prosecutors say the four took a complicit Desdunes and another frat brother to a campus apartment around 1 a.m. February 25th after Desdunes called a designated driver for a ride home from a bar. Investigators say the pledges bound Desdunes’ hands and feet with zip ties and duct tape and quizzed him on the history of the fraternity. When Desdunes answered incorrectly, prosecutors say the pledges gave him water, flavored syrups, sugar or vodka and made him do exercises, such as sit-ups.

Desdunes passed out on the way home around 5 a.m. and the pledges left him on a couch in the library of the frat house. That is where a custodian found him later that morning.

Desdunes was taken to Cayuga Medical Center and pronounced dead. His blood alcohol content was .35 percent.

“The grand jury has reviewed this case very carefully, has lodged misdemeanor offenses against these young men, but certainly has made very clear that they are not responsible for the death of Mr. Desdunes,” say Ray Schlather, Haskin’s attorney.

A representative from Cornell University said none of the students are currently enrolled. The Sigma Alpha Epsilon house has been suspended and vacated.

The three named defendants pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

“He certainly intends to fight this and clear his name and it is expected that when the dust finally settles, that’s exactly what will happen,” Schlather said of his client.

All of these charges are misdemeanors and carry a maximum punishment of one year incarceration. It’s not yet known whether the case will go to trial.

Attorneys for Mann and Williams declined to comment. Representatives of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity did not appear in court, and prosecutors say a corporate summons will be issued.

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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