“At a fraternity house on the campus of Rider University in Mercer County is the scene of a police investigation as a freshman lies in critical condition at a nearby hospital from alcohol poisoning.
Rider University officials say they have been trying to do their part to promote awareness in the dangers of binge drinking.
In a statement on its web page, the national office of the Phi Kappa Tau Fraternity said it is cooperating fully with authorities, and that their thoughts and prayers are with the two students and their families.”
More from a local paper:
Hazing probed in binge
Posted by The Times of Trenton March 30, 2007 6:30AM
Rider University student remains in a coma after a night of heavy drinking
LAWRENCE — An 18-year-old Rider University freshman remained comatose at a Trenton hospital yesterday after a night of binge drinking that police are investigating as a possible hazing incident.
Gary DeVercelly of Long Beach, Calif., was rushed to Capital Health System at Fuld hospital around 2 a.m. yesterday after reportedly drinking more than half of a bottle of vodka while partying with other students at the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity. He was in critical condition last night.
Friends standing vigil outside the intensive care unit, where DeVercelly was reportedly in a coma, said they were told he had no brain activity.
A second freshman, William A. Williams, 19, who police said was at the same party, was also taken to the emergency room and treated for alcohol poisoning. Williams was released yesterday, police said.
Reached yesterday afternoon, DeVercelly’s father, Gary Sr., was on his way to the hospital from his home in California. The elder DeVercelly said the family had little information on his son and would issue a statement today.
“Right now, I don’t have the foggiest idea,” he said. “That’s what we want to find out.”
Both Rider students were pledges in the fraternity that several students said was known for its raucous parties.
“Phi (Kappa) Tau is known as being really rough,” said Ashley Pasukinski, a senior who lives at a dorm next door to the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house. “We all know that they drink a lot. Phi Tau is known for `hump night.’ They are the kings of it.”
Hump night parties honor the passing of mid-week, she said.
The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office homicide team and Lawrence police opened a criminal investigation into the two alcohol poisonings.
Investigators were seen questioning fraternity members and other students yesterday. Hazing can be a felony in New Jersey if it results in serious injury.
At 5 p.m., investigators descended on the Phi Kappa Tau house carrying evidence-collection gear. Officials said they had obtained a search warrant for the building.
In a statement released to all of the student body– about 5,800 students — University President Mordechai Rozanski confirmed that the incident involved fraternity drinking and offered counseling to the university community.
“Rider University is cooperating fully with Lawrence Township authorities in their investigation of the circumstances leading up to this incident,” the statement said.
Dean of Students Anthony Campbell said yesterday the fraternity did not have a permit for a party and this was not the final week of pledging activities.
Many fraternies throughout the nation put pledges through “hell week” during the final weeks of initiation, which test pledges’ dedication to the fraternity.
Campbell said freshman generally look to “rush” fraternities during the spring semester and a campus calendar indicates that initiation was scheduled for early next month.
While the college has a zero-tolerance policy on hazing and is strict with its alcohol policy, Campbell said Rider is “not immune to the things that happen to 18- to-22-year-olds.”
Alcohol is permitted in the dorms and fraternities, Campbell said, but only for students over 21 and not if there are younger students present. Freshmen do not live in the fraternity houses, Campbell said.
Students on the suburban campus said Phi Kappa Tau was holding its “big and little night” that brings older members together with the fraternity’s new members for a night of partying. The nights involve bonding between fraternity brothers.
Reached by phone past Phi Kappa Tau President Michael Cerulo said he had little information on DeVercelly or the incident.
“Our prayers go out to him and his family,” he said.
A man who identified himself as a Phi Kappa Tau sophomore said he was in the room when DeVercelly passed out and admitted the teen had a “serious case of alcohol poisoning.” When asked if the incident was hazing-related, the sophomore said, “that’s just how it goes, sometimes there’s hazing and sometimes there isn’t.”
While university officials would not comment about the circumstances behind the incident, a spokesman for the national chapter of the fraternity said there was no indication that the night involved hazing.
“Based on the information we have received, the national fraternity is not considering this a hazing incident,” said spokeswoman Erin Zinsmeister.
According to the fraternity’s bylaws, hazing is prohibited by any member. Hazing can include use of alcohol; paddling in any form; creation of excessive fatigue; physical and psychological shocks; quests, treasure hunts, scavenger hunts and road trips.
State law also prohibits hazing and defines it as anything that places a person in danger of bodily harm or injury.
Zinsmeister said the Rider chapter of the fraternity was in good standing and last year won an award for overall excellence.
But at least some students on campus had a different view of Phi Kappa Tau.
“They’re definitely one of the best frats for partying, maybe not every weekend, but they’ll have at least one big rager every two weeks,” said sophomore Sidney Innocent. “We can’t have kegs, so they’ll have, like, 40 boxes of 30 packs (of beer). Live music, pretty girls, a great scene.”
By yesterday afternoon, an eerie calm had settled over the campus as students were notified by university officials about the incident.
One professor told reporters that on most sunny spring days the area around the fraternity houses is generally teeming with students throwing Frisbees and sunbathing. Yesterday, despite the 60-degree weather, the area was quiet and nearly empty as students absorbed the news.
But despite the grim mood, many upperclassmen were forced to adopt an upbeat attitude and don business attire as yesterday was career day on the Lawrence campus.
News vans were camped out in front of the Phi Kappa Tau house, which was blocked off by yellow crime scene tape. Students said university officials had asked them not to discuss the incident with reporters and had requested that they not wear fraternity letters out of respect for DeVercelly.
On a bridge near the fraternities and sororities, a group of students, some sporting Phi Kappa Tau letters, angrily walked away from reporters. Finally, one said, “He’s a nice guy, I hope he gets better.”
Last night more than 300 of DeVercelly’s classmates gathered at the university’s Gill Memorial Chapel for a prayer vigil. Many of the students who streamed into the standing-room-only service had tears in their eyes. Some wore yellow and red ribbons in honor of DeVercelly and his fraternity.
The Rev. Bruno Ugliano, the university’s Catholic chaplain, asked the gathered students to “unite as brothers and sisters in hearts and minds to raise our prayers to God for our brother who is in the hospital.
“If we unite in silence and in prayer maybe it will move (his healing) along faster,” he said. “To just use idle words tonight is not going to heal and is not going to help.”
(Copyright 2007 by Action News and