In a move designed to put college communities on notice, a Mercer County grand jury yesterday indicted two Rider University administrators along with three stu dents on hazing charges in the drinking death of a Rider freshman earlier this year.
“To the colleges in this state, and colleges nationally, it sends a clear message: There is a culpabil ity factor in allowing drinking on campus,” Mercer County Prosecutor Joseph Bocchini said at a news conference in Trenton.
Bocchini said the indictment marked the first time anywhere a university official has been charged in a hazing. The accused are Rider’s dean of students and its direc tor of Greek (fraternity) life.
The indictment came four months after 18-year-old Gary De Vercelly, of Long Beach, Calif., died after collapsing at the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house on Rider’s Lawrenceville campus. Another pledge, William Williams, also suf fered alcohol poisoning but sur vived.
The grand jury charged that the five “did knowingly or recklessly organize, promote, facilitate or engage in conduct” that harmed the two young men.
They were identified as: Ada Badgley, 31, of Lawrenceville, di rector of Greek life; Anthony Campbell, 51, of Lawrence, dean of students; Adriano DiDonato, 22, of Princeton, residence director of Phi Kappa Tau; Dominic Olsen, 21, of Kenilworth, pledge master of the spring 2007 Phi Kappa Tau pledge class; and Michael Torney, 21, of Randolph, president of the fraternity.
The charge, a fourth-degree crime, carries a maximum penalty of 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Bocchini said he ex pected the defendants to appear on the charges in the next week or two, and said they could apply for pretrial intervention if they are first offenders.
The indictment, one paragraph long, supplies no details about the night in question, March 29. Boc chini declined to describe why the Rider officials were culpable. However, he said, neither was inside the frat house when the students became ill.
Investigators determined De Vercelly and Williams were among 14 pledges participating in something called “big/little night,” a traditional event of the pledging season.
While “big/little night” is a national Phi Kappa Tau traditional event, the Rider chapter added its own rite, “Family Drink,” the prosecutor said. The custom involved passing down the “Family Drink” from big brother to little brother. In the process, some pledges consumed an entire bottle of hard liquor in less than an hour, Bocchini said. All but one of the 28 students present were under the legal drinking age of 21.
Rider President Mordechai [Rozanski] was not available for comment yesterday. But in a statement posted on the college’s Web site, he announced the indictment and said he had dissolved Rider’s Phi Kappa Tau chapter.
[Rozanski] did not address the fact that two university officials had been accused in the death. But, he wrote, “We take this matter very seriously and will carefully evaluate these charges and determine appropriate steps to be taken.”
Earle Rommel, a university spokesman, said Badgley and Campbell remain at Rider. Asked if they will retain their positions, he said: "We will be evaluating our op tions with our attorneys."
The indictment is sure to raise eyebrows nationwide.
"This case will be watched by every administrator at every college in the country," said Hank Nuwer, an assistant professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has written four books about hazing.
Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education, an umbrella association for the nation's colleges and universities, said hazing is illegal in 44 states, including New Jersey. But, she said, she knew of no state where university officials had been criminally prosecuted under the statutes.
DeVercelly pledged the fraternity in February. After he died, friends told the Times of Trenton that he had talked about having to drink an entire bottle of vodka at an upcoming pledge event. By the time he reached a hospital, he was in a coma and never regained consciousness. An autopsy found he had a blood alcohol level of 0.426, more than five times the legal driving limit.
Besides "big/little" night, Phi Kappa Tau pledges participated in scavenger hunts in New York or Philadelphia during the wee hours, investigators said. There was also one night where pledges did pushups and situps in the mud, in the woods.
Bocchini said the pledge period lasted six weeks, each of which had a theme: Unit Week, Code of Si lence Week, Respect Week, Knowledge Week, Trust Week and Hell Week. DeVercelly died in the fourth week.
After police were called to the fraternity house on March 29, they charged 15 people with providing alcohol to underage drinkers; 23 others were issued summonses for underage drinking. Three students were also charged with drug-related offenses.
Three months later, Rider announced a crackdown on alcohol.
During the tragedy Anthony Campbell, the indicted dean, was Rider's main spokesman. He told The Star-Ledger at the time that he rushed to the Phi Kappa Tau house when someone called police, but saw nothing to explain what had been going on.
Yesterday, Bocchini said "photographic" evidence had been presented to the grand jury. He declined to be more specific.
Neither Campbell nor any of the other defendants could not be reached yesterday.
The prosecutor, who said he drank as a fraternity member in college, said he did not think the indictment would change stu dents' behavior. "However, as a re sult of this indictment, colleges, and college kids, are on notice that they will be subject to indictment."
Rider University is a private, co- educational college off Route 206, just north of Trenton, with about 3,700 full-time undergraduates. It has 14 traditional Greek organizations on campus. About 17 percent of students belong to them, according to school officials.
Staff writers Ana M. Alaya, Brian Murray and Lawrence Ragonese contributed to this report.