Rider fatal hazing defendant takes a plea deal
Ex-frat president agrees to assist family of dead pledge
Friday, October 17, 2008
BY LINDA STEIN
While the final defendant who faced criminal charges in the Rider University hazing case pleaded guilty yesterday to a lesser charge, a civil wrongful death case against the university remains pending and that former student is likely to play a key role.
Michael Torney, 22, former president of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity, allegedly sought the university’s help to prevent hazing only to have officials change their minds on a planned program a week before a freshman died of alcohol poisoning after a fraternity event.
The parents of Gary DeVercelly Jr., 18, are suing Rider, several administrators, the fraternity and some of its members, alleging negligence in his March 2007 death.
Torney, of Randolph, pleaded guilty yesterday to one count of hazing, a disorderly person or misdemeanor charge. In exchange for his guilty plea a more serious aggravated hazing charge will be dismissed when he is sentenced in December.
In a brief hearing before Superior Court Judge Mitchel Ostrer, Torney answered yes to questions posed by one of his lawyers, admitting he failed to exercise the necessary oversight of the frat party. Under the terms of his plea agreement, Torney will be sentenced to three years probation, must attend alcohol counseling and will be required to perform 100 hours of community service.
During the fraternity’s “Big Little Night” party, DeVercelly drank nearly two-thirds of a bottle of vodka.
The criminal case caused consternation in academia across the country when a Mercer County jury indicted two Rider administrators on hazing charges, along with the students. The charges against the administrators were later dropped and the two other fraternity brothers, Dominic Olsen, 22, the pledge master, and Adriano DiDonato, 23, were allowed to enter the Pretrial Intervention Program, a program for first-time, nonviolent offenders. Torney, who had a prior conviction on a marijuana charge, was turned down for PTI by court officials, Assistant Prosecutor Skylar Weissman said yesterday.
“They all had some type of contribution (to the death),” Weissman said. “The bottom line was, we wanted to make sure they were all equally punished. The penalties are all the same for the three of them.”
Meanwhile, Torney, who also was a defendant in the lawsuit, has settled with the DeVercelly family and agreed to help them in their case against Rider. Sources close to the case said Torney had approached Rider officials prior to DeVercelly’s death because he was concerned about hazing practices at the fraternity. Those officials agreed to put a plan in place to help him stop the practice, then changed their minds about a week before the fatal party.
In an amended lawsuit filed in June, Gary and Julie DeVercelly, of Long Beach, Calif., allege Rider and administrators Ada Badgely and Cassie Iacovelli “were informed that dangerous hazing existed in the PKT fraternity” and “help was sought to end this dangerous practice.” Badgely had been charged with hazing by the grand jury, but the charge against her was later dismissed. Iacovelli was not criminally charged.
to assist family of dead pledge
“After promising to render assistance (they) refused to intervene just before the pledge process resulting in Gary’s death commenced,” the lawsuit said.
Daniel Higgins, a spokesman for Rider said, “We’re pleased to learn the Prosecutor’s Office and Mr. Torney reached an agreement on the matter.” However, Higgins said he could not respond to allegations made in the civil lawsuit.
Douglas Fierberg, attorney for the DeVercelly family, said, Torney has “agreed to provide significant support to the family.”
Fierberg said an investigation showed Torney was not the person most responsible for DeVercelly’s death.
The family accepted the ruling.
“We’re fine with the judge’s decision,” said Julie DeVercelly. “Mike has taken responsibility and wants to bring awareness to the dangers of hazing that go on at universities across the nation. We had learned in the past 18 months that the national fraternity and Rider University hold the greatest responsibility for our son’s tragic death.
“It’s been very difficult for our family,” she said. “It goes on. We have not educated our kids or their parents. It needs to be done. It’s very sad and very scary. You don’t send your kids away to die.”
Meanwhile, Torney settled the suit with the DeVercellys for $150,000 in April through his parents’ insurer. Another student defendant in the lawsuit, Vincent Cagulero, of Jackson, settled the case for $375,000, also through an insurer, said Fierberg. Cagulero had been DeVercelly’s fraternity “big brother, the lawsuit said.
“The family understands that prosecutors have difficult decisions to make and the family was not involved in the negotiations,” Fierberg said.
Torney was upstairs studying and not in the basement of the frat house where the fatal party took place, said his lawyer Edward Bilinkas. He did not provide the alcohol or drink with the brothers, Bilinkas said.
“Before and after this incident Michael Torney took a stand against hazing,” said Bilinkas. “He clearly admits his responsibility.”
Torney would like to perform his required community service by speaking to college groups about the dangers of hazing, Bilinkas said.
“He’s taken on a position of a crusader,” said Bilinkas.
When Torney learned that DeVercelly was in trouble, he “did everything in his power to try to save the kid,” Bilinkas said.
Bilinkas, who gave the prosecutors evidence he said persuaded them to downgrade the charge, praised Weissman for reconsidering his position.
“The state is satisfied,” Bilinkas added. “We’re satisfied. This has been a very traumatic situation for my client and his family.”
After five years, Torney, who would like to go to law school, can have the conviction expunged, Bilinkas said. He is currently a senior at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
Linda Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (609) 989-6437.