Hazing News

Serious charges at Utah State

USU fraternity, sorority charged with hazing
Alcohol poisoning » 12 students implicated in teen’s death.

By Brian Maffly

The Salt Lake Tribune
Cache County prosecutors on Friday filed felony hazing charges against two Utah State University Greek-letter societies and misdemeanor charges against 12 of their members, including top officers, in connection with the alcohol-poisoning death of an 18-year-old pledge.

In a playful initiation ritual that occurred with past pledges, Michael Starks, a freshman from Salt Lake City, was “captured” by sorority women who painted him and fed him vodka in the company of Sigma Nu fraternity and Chi Omega sorority members, according to charges filed in Logan’s First District Court.

The fun turned deadly for Starks, whom paramedics found unresponsive at the Sigma Nu house at 4 a.m. on Nov. 21. Medical examiners later determined his blood alcohol level reached .373, more than four times the legal limit for driving,

While charging documents indicate Starks was not forced to drink as a prerequisite for joining the fraternity, Utah’s hazing statute allows for conviction even if the victim consented to the abuse, as long he or she is younger than 21. The case highlights the dangers of hard liquor in the hands of an inexperienced drinker, prosecutor Tony Baird said.

“If you beat someone with [a] paddle, make them a slave for a week, that’s hazing. There is no coercion in this case at all,” Baird said. “This is where you have a fraternity that coordinates a capture activity. It’s a have-fun kind of thing. The guys really look forward to it. They want

to be the one chosen.”

Utah’s hazing statute criminalizes behavior that “endangers the mental or physical health or safety of another… for the purpose of initiation, admission into, affiliation with, holding office in, or as a condition of continued membership in any organization.” Hazing is considered a misdemeanor absent aggravating circumstances and the law specifically references liquor consumption. Although hazing becomes a third-degree felony when it results in serious bodily harm, only the organizations’ USU chapters are targeted for felony prosecution.

The students face a year in jail if convicted, while punishment for the chapters is unclear.

The Starks family was “elated” that prosecutors filed felony charges.

“It reflects the seriousness of the situation,” Starks’ father, George, said Friday. “The fraternity has to be held accountable. It’s a system, a machine that envelopes the kids. Any one of those kids could have said, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t a good thing.'”

Hijinks gone awry

The week before Starks died, Sigma Nu members selected him and another student, 22-year-old Mackenzie Perry, as their top choices among the 16 young men who pledged last fall. At the time, Starks was staying at the fraternity, although he had a dorm room. At about 10 p.m. on Nov. 20, Sigma Nu member Christopher Ammon brought Starks and Perry to the Chi Omega sorority next door under the pretext of helping move furniture. The women took custody of the young men and sorority sister Whitney Miller, who had a liter bottle of vodka, drove Starks to the Logan home of fraternity brother Grant Barney at 181 W. 200 North.

Miller, who faces the most serious charges, told police fraternity members asked her to run the “capture.”

“The only direction given by the fraternity was ‘to not let Mack [Perry] drink too much’ because he is small in stature,” the charges state. “Otherwise, she was not prohibited to use alcohol in the activity.”

The women asked the pledges to strip to their boxers, then painted the naked men Aggie blue and white. The men were given two bottles, Miller’s liter bottle of vodka and a smaller one, which the women held to the pledges’ mouths because their hands were covered in paint, charges allege.

“Eventually, however, Michael took the taller bottle — the vodka — and began to drink it himself,” charging documents state. Perry told Starks to quit drinking, but he was so drunk he could not follow through, Perry told investigators. No charges were filed in connection with Perry’s hazing because he is of legal drinking age.

After an hour, the other Sigma Nu pledges appeared and “rescued” Perry and Starks from Barney’s house and took them back to Sigma Nu, at 765 N. 800 East. Fraternity members put the two drunk pledges in the shower, then to bed. Starks needed help washing, but he was talking and lucid before falling asleep, the charges say.

At some point that night, member Colton Hansen grew concerned about Starks and called poison control, which advised the fraternity brothers to give Starks water, lay him on his side and monitor him. They followed the instructions and two pledges watched over him. At 3:45 a.m., chapter president Cody Littlewood came into the room and discovered Starks wasn’t breathing. Fraternity brother Kelly McGill started CPR, while Littlewood called 911. Paramedics failed to resuscitate Starks, who was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

Police found a fake ID in Starks’ room, indicating his age at over 21. His friends told police that Starks had used it to purchase alcohol in the past and they had seen him drunk the weekend before his death. Starks family members, however, say Michael, the youngest in a close-knit Catholic family of six children, had no prior history of heavy drinking.

Participating in this fraternity initiation rite was required for the Chi Omega sorority pledges, according to Starks’ older brother George Jr., whose family was briefed by prosecutors on Wednesday. “One of the girls was uncomfortable with what was going on and left, and another one was pressured to stay,” George Starks Jr. claimed Friday.

USU officials have already suspended the Sigma Nu and Chi Omega chapters as campus organizations, and the chapters’ national offices have likewise suspended them, pending the outcome of the investigation.

Both organizations publicly maintain zero-tolerance toward hazing and alcohol abuse, and Sigma Nu has co-sponsored research into the cultural phenomenon of hazing and ways to eliminate it. The 250-chapter fraternity was founded in 1868 at Virginia Military Institute in opposition to the physical harassment that young officers endured at the hands of their older colleagues, according to Sigma Nu Executive Director Brad Beacham. Contacted late Friday, both he and Chi Omega’s national executive director Anne Emmerth reserved comment on the Starks case until they read the charges.

“We certainly respect law enforcement’s choice to pursue the criminal charges they feel are warranted and appropriate,” Beacham said. “We will take into account any and all new information as it becomes available.”

University officials were not available for comment Friday.

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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