HAZING CASE PLEA
Thursday, August 09, 2007
BY LINDA STEIN
See full text of Ms. Stein’s article in Trenton Times.
Note: Defendant’s salary is specified in the Rider Housing Manual that Mr. DiDonato was asked by Rider to follow
Adriano DiDonato, an education major at Rider University, had no idea he could be held criminally liable for the actions of others when he agreed to be the house manager of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity for less than minimum wage, his attor ney said yesterday.
Now, the 22-year-old Princeton Township resident faces a charge of aggravated hazing in the death of freshman Gary DeVercelly Jr., who died of alcohol poisoning on March 30 after a fraternity pledge event.
“It’s a little unfair considering what the facts are in this case,” said Paul Norris, who is representing DiDonato.
“If I was a resident adviser in a hall or even a house manager like Adriano, I would resign today,” Norris said. “You can’t monitor everyone’s activity…. If he’d have known he’d have this sort of responsibility he would not have ac cepted it.”
Tall, clean cut, dressed in a suit but wearing a worried look, DiDo nato pleaded innocent in his first appearance in the case yesterday at the Mercer County Courthouse in Trenton as a throng of reporters watched.
Last week, a Mercer County grand jury indicted DiDonato along with Anthony Campbell, 51, dean of students, and Ada Badgley, 30, director of Greek life, as well as pledge master Dominic Olsen, 21, and fraternity president Michael J. Torney, 21.
All face the same charge, aggra vated hazing, a fourth-degree felony. Campbell is expected to be ar raigned today, Torney tomorrow and the others will appear before Superior Court Judge Andrew J. Smithson next week, officials said.
The remarks by DiDonato’s attorney give a taste of the legal battle shaping up over DeVercelly’s death.
Mercer County Prosecutor Jo seph L. Bocchini said the indictments send a message about drinking on college campuses. Observers say the indictment of school administrators not directly involved in a hazing case is unprecedented.
Attorney Rocco Cipparone Jr., who is representing Campbell, said yesterday he expects his client to be fully exonerated. He said the dean has “staunchly maintained his innocence.”
“He was caught completely unaware and was frankly shocked by his inclusion in the indictment,” Cipparone said.
Law enforcement sources say DiDonato was in the fraternity house during the party where De Vercelly allegedly drank three- quarters of a bottle of vodka dur ing a pledging ritual.
The 18-year-old Long Beach, Calif., native had a blood alcohol level of 0.426, more than five times the legal limit to drive.
The Phi Kappa Tau fraternity, which the university disbanded immediately after the indictments, had its house on the school’s Lawrence campus.
Norris said in an interview last week that DiDonato was not present at the party. Yesterday, he declined to say where DiDonato was while the drinking party was taking place.
House managers, who are university employees, are supposed to work with students to encourage them to act responsibly and abide by the school’s rules as well as act as a mediator in conflicts between students, according to Rider’s job description for the post.
DeVercelly’s parents said in a statement last week that they found it “outrageous” that a university employee was present during the hazing incident.
Douglas Fierberg, a lawyer for the victim’s family, contended that housing managers are not properly trained or vetted by the university. Fierberg said that Di Donato did have a responsibility to stop the drinking from taking place and did not take action.
Norris, however, contended the grand jury’s action was excessive.
DiDonato “is such a nice young man who really was trying to be helpful, to serve the fraternity and help out the university,” Norris said. “And now the grand jury expects him to somehow monitor activity behind a closed door.”
Assistant Prosecutor Skylar Weissman said he has not made a plea offer, but Norris said his client would be willing to consider whatever is presented.
While the charge could entail a sentence of 18 months in jail, with no criminal record DiDonato would likely be eligible for the pretrial intervention program for first-time nonviolent offenders. If DiDonato successfully completed the program he could have the charge expunged from his record.
Norris said DiDonato has “been through a lot of stress.”
“He’s a fantastic young man,” Norris said. “He’s a terrific kid. I’d be proud to call him my son if I was old enough.”
DiDonato plans to continue as a student at Rider and has not been notified otherwise by the university, Norris said.
An education major entering his senior year, he had hoped to complete the required student teaching this year. With a pending criminal charge, that may not be possible, Norris said.
An additional 15 students were charged with providing alcohol to an underage person and 23 were cited for underage drinking in the incident. Three others face drug charges after investigators found marijuana and drug paraphernalia during a search of the fraternity house.
Acting on Weissman’s recommendation, Smithson allowed Di Donato to remain free on his own recognizance.