'An oath of silence': The secret world of fraternity pledging and how it contributes to hazing deaths

A look at three recent incidents of deadly fraternity hazing.

ByABC News
October 27, 2017, 4:36 AM

— -- An intoxicated teen is found unconscious and face down at the bottom of a set of stairs. But no one calls 911 until the next morning, when his breathing is labored and his skin has turned gray. He dies a day later.

Another teen, blindfolded and wearing a 30-pound backpack, loses consciousness in a field. More than an hour goes by before he is taken to a hospital. Multiple traumatic injuries and the delay in treatment are blamed for his death.

A third teen, allegedly forced to drink until he passes out, is left on a couch overnight and later declared dead with an alcohol level of .495, more than six times the legal limit.

These three deaths -- all young college students pledging different fraternities in separate states -- shine a light on the secretive and at times brutal realities of hazing in the pledging process. And for the families left behind, there are often more questions than answers. How could this have happened? Why did no one get help right away? And when did hazing get so out of control?

The culture of hazing

For fraternities, hazing is an inherent part of the culture, John Hechinger, author of "True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities," told ABC News.

"Fraternities have been complaining about hazing as long as I could look back -- generations, decades even centuries."

But hazing pre-dates U.S. fraternities, Hechinger said. "British schools had a tradition of freshmen being viewed as sort of second-class citizens," suffering abuse at the hands of older students, and "this was brought over to American colleges," he said.

Hank Nuwer, an author and professor who has spent decades researching hazing, said fraternity hazing deaths date back to before the 1900s.

At Cornell University in 1873, "A young man was led out on a walkabout and when he was waiting for the rest of the initiation to occur, they were resting against a tree in the dark ... and three of them fell," he said. "Two brothers and the pledge. All were badly injured and the pledge died that night."

A drawing of Ithaca and the Cornell University in New York circa 1870.
Universal History Archive via Getty Images

The accident probably wouldn't have happened if they had torches, Nuwer said, but a long walk in the dark was part of the hazing.

Since 1961, there has at least one hazing death at a school-related event in the U.S. a year, according to Nuwer -- and some years, there’s been more. The vast majority of deaths are fraternity-related, he said, but the deaths have also involved bands, athletic teams and sororities.

The whole pledge term can be a cover for hazing.

Many students gravitate toward Greek life despite the culture of hazing because it gives them the basic camaraderie and social life they crave, Nuwer said.

"You hear a lot about the values and the philanthropy" of fraternities and sororities, he said, but according to his research, "Human beings can't get enough of approval and acceptance, and a fraternity and sorority gives that approval and acceptance. It's that basic."

While the pledging period is ostensibly supposed to be a time for new members to learn the history and rituals of the fraternity or sorority as he or she bonds with other members, it often serves as a "cover for hazing," Hechinger said.

The exterior of the Penn State University Beta Theta Pi fraternity house is seen on May 5, 2017, in State College.

During this period, pledges are often treated as "second-class” citizens who undergo a "long tradition of building of abuse." The abuse may start small, with responsibilities like buying lunches, cleaning or running errands, but it can then escalate to forced drinking or even physical beatings, according to Hechinger. And the pledges who go through this are often "desperate to belong" and become more and more invested the further along they get in the pledging process, Hechinger said.

Part of what has allowed hazing to endure is that many are reluctant to speak out about their experiences.

They feel they "took an oath of silence, a bond," Nuwer said. "If it's been criminal hazing, just like criminals, they're not going to brag. If it's noncriminal, but stupid or sexual of some sort, they are embarrassed and keep it in the family."

And so the cycle continues.

"You do bad things to others after bad things have been done to you," Nuwer said. "After you've rolled in vomit or drank until you throw up on yourself ... you do it to somebody else. Or it makes the effort you put in seem ridiculous and not worth it."

All former fraternity members approached by ABC News for this story declined to go on the record about any potential hazing they endured.

Baruch College student dies after tackle

In 2013, Chun "Michael" Deng, a 19-year-old freshman at Baruch College who was pledging the Pi Delta Psi fraternity, died after an alleged hazing ritual at a home the fraternity rented in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains.

Baruch College student Chun "Michael" Deng died during a fraternity initiation ritual.

Police said Deng was injured while participating in the alleged ritual known as the "glass ceiling," in which pledges, blindfolded and wearing a 30-pound backpack, must "get through a line of brothers while fraternity members shove and take the pledges down and resist the pledge from getting through the line."

Deng was tackled and knocked out, police said. While he was unconscious, fraternity members called the national fraternity president, who allegedly told them to hide all fraternity items, according to authorities. The students waited more than an hour before driving Deng to a hospital 45 minutes away, police said.

The 19-year-old died from multiple traumatic injuries and "the delay in treatment of one to two hours significantly contributed" to his death, according to the forensic pathologist.

Chun "Michael" Deng, right, is the Baruch College student who died during a 2013 hazing incident. Pennsylvania authorities recently brought charges against dozens of members of Pi Delta Psi Fraternity.

In May 2017, four former fraternity members -- who had been charged with third-degree murder in Deng’s death -- pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and hindering apprehension. Sentencing is set for December and they face 22 to 36 months in prison, The Associated Press reported.

Dozens of others faced less serious charges and the fraternity itself was charged with murder, the AP said. Baruch permanently barred Pi Delta Psi and has halted all Greek pledging until 2018 in the wake of the incident, The New York Times reported. Court proceedings remain ongoing.

Baruch College Campus in New York City is seen in this image from Google.

At Penn State, frat members allegedly tried to cover up a pledge's death

On a cold night in early February, the latest batch of young men selected to join Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity gathered at the house for their first night as pledges.

Among them was Tim Piazza, a 19-year-old sophomore from New Jersey. Smart, athletic, humble, though a little shy, he joined his older brother at Penn State, where he was looking toward a bright future as an engineer, his parents say. He spent his free time at Penn State football games or enjoying weekend visits with his girlfriend. He “wasn’t a big risk taker,” his father, Jim Piazza, told ABC News. “A rule follower.”

Tim Piazza, a 19-year-old Penn State sophomore and pledge at Beta Theta Pi, died on Feb. 4, 2017 after he fell down the stairs during a pledge ceremony at the house on the night of Feb. 2.

The evening of Feb. 2, after taking part in an alcohol-fueled hazing ritual known as the “Gauntlet,” a heavily intoxicated Tim Piazza was heard falling down the stairs, and later found lying face down at the bottom.

What happened next is described in horrific detail in a grand jury report citing evidence including surveillance video, witness testimony and phone records.

Members of the fraternity carried Tim Piazza up the steps and put him on the couch. They dumped water on his face and slapped him in an apparent attempt to wake him, to no avail. When one pledge tried to intervene, insisting they get Tim Piazza some help, he was shoved into a wall and told the brothers had it under control.

As the night went on, Tim Piazza tried over and over to stand on his own, falling each time and eventually going still. By the morning of Feb. 3, he was breathing heavily, with blood on his face. When a fraternity member finally called 911 for help, Tim Piazza’s skin had turned gray.

He died a day later of traumatic brain injuries.

PHOTO: Tim Piazza, a 19-year-old Penn State sophomore and pledge at Beta Theta Pi, died on Feb. 4, 2017 after he fell down the stairs during a pledge ceremony at the house on the night of Feb. 2.
Tim Piazza, a 19-year-old Penn State sophomore and pledge at Beta Theta Pi, died on Feb. 4, 2017, after he fell down the stairs during a pledge ceremony at the house on the night of Feb. 2.

Eighteen former Beta Theta Pi members at Penn State initially faced charges in connection to his death, with prosecutors alleging many were involved in attempting to cover up the incident and "coordinate a story."

One former fraternity member allegedly texted his girlfriend "drink hazing can send me to jail," and "I don't want to go to jail for this." "I think we are f-----," he added.

"Make sure the pledges clean the basement and get rid of any evidence of alcohol,” one of the fraternity members allegedly texted another after Tim Piazza's injury.

Another text read, "Make sure the pledges keep quiet about last night and this situation."

However, in September, charges were dismissed completely against four of the former fraternity members who were facing single counts of either tampering with evidence or recklessly endangering another person. The most serious charges -- involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault -- were also dropped for eight former fraternity members. Cases against 14 students will head to trial, but for less serious alleged offenses. The fraternity itself, which was barred from Penn State, is also facing charges. The Centre County District Attorney's Office told ABC News on Thursday no pleas have been entered and all the cases are set for Nov. 13 for pre-trial conferences.

In the wake of Tim Piazza's death, Penn State announced a string of new reforms, including limiting alcohol to beer and wine and banning kegs; no daylong events; no more than 10 social events with alcohol per semester; and sanctions for Greek organizations that don't prevent underage consumption and excessive drinking.

But the Piazzas don’t think the university’s changes are enough.

"They talked a lot about putting measures into place -- a lot of them haven't even been implemented yet. Even with the measures they said they were going to take, I don't think it’s enough,” Jim Piazza said.

“I just think Penn State would love for the noise to die down,” he added.

Beta Theta Pi fraternity house at Penn State.

Shortly after this school year began, an 18-year-old Penn State student who allegedly became intoxicated at the fraternity Delta Tau Delta was found unconscious off campus by police. Delta Tau Delta functions were "suspended on an interim basis" pending an investigation, Penn State said.

Penn State's Delta Tau Delta fraternity house in State College, Pa.
Google Maps

"The potential involvement of Delta Tau Delta is very disturbing news, given all of the recent efforts and education that have gone into emphasizing student safety,” Damon Sims, Penn State's vice president for Student Affairs, said in a statement.

"None of us can be tolerant of organizations or individuals who value access to alcohol above student welfare," Sims said. "We'll see where our investigation of this incident leads."

10 face charges in connection with pledge's death at Louisiana State University

Eighteen-year-old Maxwell Gruver, a freshman pledge at LSU's Phi Delta Theta fraternity, died on Sept. 14. What allegedly took place is detailed in court documents.

Maxwell Gruver is seen in this undated photo shared by his mother, Rae Ann Feldner Gruver, on Facebook on Sept. 14, 2017.
Rae Ann Feldner Gruver via Facebook

On Sept. 13, pledges were called to the frat house for an alleged hazing ritual referred to as "Bible study," during which the pledges answered questions and if they were incorrect, they had to drink, according to court documents.

"Pledges were told to make a single file line and go upstairs," the documents state, describing events as they allegedly progressed. As they went upstairs, one fraternity member threw mustard and hot sauce on them. Upstairs, the pledges were told to line up and put their nose and toes against a wall. "The lights were off with a strobe light flashing and loud music playing," the documents say.

Pledges were allegedly forced to drink and do "wall sits" while members walked across their knees, according to the documents.

Louisiana State University Police are investigating a possible hazing incident at an on campus fraternity house, Phi Delta Theta, after a student was brought to the hospital overnight and later died, Sept. 14, 2017.
Hilary Scheinuk/The Advocate via AP

Multiple people told authorities that the pledges were told to recite the Greek alphabet, and every time Gruver made a mistake, one fraternity member forced him to drink, according to the documents. A pledge reported that Gruver was forced to drink much more than the others. It appeared a fraternity member doing the hazing didn’t like Gruver, another pledge added, and wanted to cut him from the pledging process, the documents state.

According to court documents, at some point, Gruver, who appeared intoxicated, was put on a couch and left there for the night. The next morning, several people checked his pulse and found it was weak, the documents state. They couldn’t tell if he was breathing.

Gruver was taken to the hospital, where he was declared dead. He died from acute alcohol intoxication with aspiration, according to the coroner’s report. The manner of death was ruled an accident. Toxicology testing found that Gruver’s alcohol level was .495 at the time of this death, more than six times the legal limit, the coroner’s office said.

Days after Gruver's death, Phi Delta Theta General Headquarters said it was immediately shuttering the LSU chapter "based on the preliminary findings of an investigation that uncovered enough information to conclude that some chapter members were in violation of established risk management policies, including our Alcohol-Free Housing policy."

Arrest warrants were issued for 10 people in connection with Gruver's death earlier this month -- 10 were charged with hazing and one of the 10 individuals was also charged with negligent homicide, LSU said. The East Baton Rouge District Attorney told ABC News no pleas have been entered and no court dates are set.

The Memorial Tower in Louisiana State University's campus in Baton Rouge, La., is seen in this undated photo.
Collegiate Images/Getty Images

"Actions such as those described in the charges filed today are completely inconsistent with the values of Phi Delta Theta and in full violation of our established and communicated risk management policies," Phi Delta Theta said in a statement Oct. 11, adding that it has "formally removed the membership of those charged in this incident."

"We continue to keep the entire Gruver family in our thoughts and prayers. No parent or family should have to go through the pain and suffering that they are currently experiencing," the fraternity added. "We are committed to continuing to work with LSU, the Baton Rouge police department and the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s office to fully understand the events that led up to Max's passing so we can help prevent another tragedy such as this from ever happening again."

After Gruver’s death, all Greek activities were halted and a Greek life task force was created to investigate the culture of LSU organizations.

Greek organizations were later permitted to have on-campus events with alcohol, "assuming students continued to behave in a responsible manner and followed our policies and procedures," LSU President F. King Alexander said in a letter. However, Alexander then reconsidered, ruling that on-campus Greek events would be permitted, but without alcohol, writing in an Oct. 19 letter, “there are those among us who have not yet absorbed the severity and seriousness of the current situation.”

"This course of action will stand at least until the Task Force renders its recommendations in January 2018,” Alexander wrote. “At that point, we will evaluate these recommendations and determine how to best integrate them into our existing policies and procedures."

Stopping the cycle

Nuwer offers two solutions to prevent hazing and the deaths associated with it.

1. Giving more power to the national fraternities and the schools.

"They have to look at the age-old idea that fraternity undergrads can self-govern themselves," he said. "1961 to 2017 is a heck of a long time, and you can say then that the self-governing was a failed experiment."

The Piazzas agree.

"There needs to be better oversight by the national fraternity,” Jim Piazza said. “I think a lot of these national fraternities ... they turn a blind eye to what’s going on in these fraternities, and they really need to be more accountable to what's happening at the local chapter, and the universities clearly need to be held more accountable."

PHOTO: Timothy Piazza,  with his parents Evelyn Piazza and James Piazza in Flemington, N.J., Oct 31, 2014.
Timothy Piazza, with his parents Evelyn Piazza and James Piazza in Flemington, N.J., Oct 31, 2014.

Evelyn Piazza, Tim Piazza’s mother, added that she thinks an adult should always be present for fraternity functions. "They're not doing a good job of policing themselves. So I think they need supervision, they need somebody that lives in the house that is going to be responsible for behavior."

After Gruver's death, LSU said it would form a Greek life task force to take "an exhaustive look at past and current practices of Greek Life, as well as other LSU student organizations, to address concerns about student safety."

One of the many reforms put in place at Penn State this year was the university taking control of the fraternity and sorority misconduct and adjudication process.

Old Main at Pennsylvania State University, May 4, 2013.
Moment Editorial/Getty Images, FILE

2. Dry houses.

"Get rid of the alcohol and you're going to get rid of the majority of deaths, which is the most immediate need," Nuwer said.

Hechinger noted that after Phi Delta Theta had a string of alcohol-related deaths, they banned alcohol from the houses in 2000. Gruver's death was the first since the ban.

"The LSU case is particularly sad," Hechinger said, "because here was the fraternity that actually took this step and obviously they weren't following the rules so it shows how vigilant both fraternity and college have to be in enforcing these rules."

Families left behind

Tim Piazza would be a junior this year -- likely "hunkering down, trying to figure out his internship for the coming summer,” his father said.

“He was pretty focused on finding an internship and ultimately a job in the mechanical engineering field he wanted to focus on -- his interest was working with prosthetic devices,” Jim Piazza said.

"I also think he'd be focused on having fun at school,” he added, “and I'm sure he'd be rallying around the football team with his friends right now."

Trying to make a difference for others, I think, is somewhat therapeutic.

For Tim Piazza’s mother, the immense pain is always close to the surface.

"You're driving and you get a flash or an image in your head ... or you'll be talking to somebody and all of a sudden it occurs to you -- he's not here. He should be here," Evelyn Piazza said. "It's just always lurking. It's in my dreams now. In all my dreams, I know that he's not here. "

While it’s too late for their son, the Piazzas have vowed to fight for future students.

"We're both of the mindset -- Tim would not want us to fade away and just continually grieve," Jim Piazza said. "Trying to make a difference for others, I think, is somewhat therapeutic.

PHOTO: District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller (L) announces the findings of an investigation into the death of Penn State University fraternity pledge Tim Piazza during a news conference, May 5, 2017, in Bellefonte, Pa.
District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller (L) announces the findings of an investigation into the death of Penn State University fraternity pledge Tim Piazza, seen in photo at right, as his parents, Jim and Evelyn Piazza, stand nearby during a news conference, May 5, 2017, in Bellefonte, Pa.
Abby Drey /Centre Daily Times via AP

"We believe that there needs to be stiffer criminal penalties against hazing,” he added. “We're working with one of the senators in Pennsylvania to put in a law that would say if somebody is seriously hurt or dies as a result of hazing -- it’s a felony.

“Nobody is trying to kill Greek life,” he said, “We’re just trying to make it safer."

On Facebook, Maxwell Gruver's mother, Rae Ann Gruver, urged parents to warn their kids.

"This guy only made it 18 years, 7 months and 18 days. All because he started pledging a fraternity who alcohol hazed him to death," she wrote beneath a photo of her son posted Oct. 8.

"Please warn your kids! Please teach them from this and Please stop the hazing! And please tell your sons to NOT haze the new pledges!!!! Please! Stop the cycle!" she added.

"I miss my baby."