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They turned back 

There’s a lot more to the story about the night Cal Poly freshman Carson Starkey died after a day of hazing with the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity than has been told publicly.

Hardly anybody’s talking on the record because the San Luis Obispo police have made it clear they’re looking into possible criminal charges against fraternity members and leaders. Most of the fraternity members and pledges have contacted attorneys to represent them. They’re “lawyering up.”

Still, here’s what we know:

According to sources close to the situation, the 18-year-old’s death followed a multi-day rush for the fraternity, where pledges were led through an all-night scavenger hunt, for example, and asked to do all sorts of silly, harmless stuff. Eventually they were told to show up at a house the next evening, where they were given brown bags containing various types of alcohol ranging from wine to tequila to vodka to nearly pure grain alcohol. They were then put in a garage, gathered into a circle with a barf bucket in the middle, and told the alcohol was supposed to be gone by the time the leaders returned. Gone. The pledges apparently complied.

Carson passed out around midnight. He was eventually taken to another room, away from the other pledges.

Then, at some point, two or three fraternity members grew concerned enough about his health that they loaded an unconscious Carson into a car and started to drive him to the hospital. The group never completed the trip. For some reason—Carson may have revived partly, he may have said he’d be okay, whatever—the crew turned the car around and took him back to the house. They figured they could get away with having him just sleep it off.

Somebody checked back in on him at about 6 a.m., but by then it was too late. Carson couldn’t be revived. Someone called 911 at 6:24 a.m. He was taken to Sierra Vista hospital, where he died.

What would have happened if the fraternity members had completed that trip that night? What if he’d gotten immediate medical care? This is the part of the sentence where I’m supposed to say ‘We’ll never know.’ Except we do. We know he would at least have had a chance. We know he would have gotten some care and perhaps could have been revived.

They had the sense to head to the hospital, but not the sense to get there. 

It was the wrong choice, a dumb choice, and the episode may well have been criminal. Under California law, any act of hazing is a misdemeanor, and any hazing that results in a death is a possible felony. This was clearly hazing, in the most classic sense. It clearly resulted in a death. You can take things from there.

SLO officers executed a search warrant on Friday, Dec. 5 at a house where members live—they don’t have their own formal house on campus—and officers went through confiscating laptops, cell phones, even wallets, trying to figure out what they’d texted to each other, what they’d e-mailed. I wonder if there were pictures.

All that stuff may be crucial to their investigation because, so far, many of the students involved aren’t talking.

Many parents are mad. They’re upset the police barged into the house, and took laptops in the days leading up to finals week. They’re mad that their kids are being treated like criminals. 

   That’s understandable. Parents defend their children from threats. In this case, however, perspective is in order. The inconveniences facing SAE members and pledges don’t really compare to the interest in punishing those who provided an 18-year-old excessive alcohol, pressured him to drink it up, and then made a horrible, tragic, misjudgment by turning around on the way to the hospital.

They do have lessons to learn. Let this be one of them. 

Cal Poly leaders must just feel tired, desperate to see this quarter end after the Crops House incident, where agriculture students adorned their house with a noose and Confederate flag, and now this. 

The college has banned the fraternity, and SAE’s national office has placed the chapter on “cease and desist,” whatever that means, while it “launches an investigation.”

The school’s investigating too. Everybody’s investigating. But only one of these bodies can press charges and send folks to jail. 

Here’s a small coda to the story. 

Two weeks ago there was an eerily identical case in Utah. The 18-year-old’s name was Michael Starks. The fraternity he was pledging was Sigma Nu. Different names. The result was the same. He was in an initiation ceremony that involved proving his manhood through drinking. He died. 

And now police are looking for who to charge.

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