A year after UT pledge's death, 3 are indicted: Former officers of the fraternity face multiple misdemeanors in '05 binge fatality
By Lisa Falkenberg and Janet Elliott,
AUSTIN -- Hell Weekend at the University of Texas chapter of Lambda Phi Epsilon apparently was everything its name implied.
Seven pledges arrived at a darkened fraternity house one night last December with an odd assortment of provisions they were asked to bring, including lipstick, popcorn and condoms, according to a police affidavit released Wednesday. A guard stood at the entrance to keep the curious at bay.
The pledges were already near exhaustion, having been forced for two months to do such things as exercise until they fainted, run errands at all hours and shoplift items such as remote controls and outdoor furniture.
Seven young men were led to a room, their home for the next two days, furnished with only a small table and three trashcans. Under the instruction of the "hellmaster," they were forced to perform calisthenics until collapsing and chug as many as 10 "double big gulp" cups of water per hour while vomiting repeatedly. Each was allowed to urinate only three times during the weekend and defecate once. Those who couldn't wait for the toilet went in the trashcans.They downed peppers, hot sauce and raw eggs. They wallowed in their underwear in baby oil. Active members banged on pots and pans, demanding more.And it was far from over. A week later, after an initiation party, one of those pledges was dead.
A Travis County grand jury on Wednesday returned 21 hazing and alcohol-related misdemeanor indictments against three former officers of the unofficial fraternity after a 12-month investigation into the drinking death of freshman Phanta "Jack" Phoummarath, of Houston.
He was found dead last December at the fraternity's off-campus house after a night of partying. He died of alcohol poisoning, with a blood-alcohol level more than five times the legal limit.The Travis County Attorney's Office also filed on Wednesday misdemeanor charges against the Lambda Phi Epsilon-Zeta Chapter for five counts of hazing Phoummarath and the other pledges.
County Attorney David Escamilla said the probe is one of the first and most comprehensive into "the whole ritual and initiation process" that he has seen in 21 years.
The indictments charge the fraternity's former president, Benny Chan, of Houston, with seven counts of furnishing alcohol to a minor, a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine, and 22 counts of hazing, a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Andrew Nguyen, of Austin, the former pledge captain, was charged with seven counts of furnishing alcohol to a minor and 28 counts of hazing.
The former hellmaster, Kamal Pulukuri, also of Austin, faces 14 counts of hazing.The three escaped, at least for now, felony charges.
Although Phoummarath allegedly was required to consume alcohol earlier in the evening as part of his initiation ceremony, the grand jury didn't find evidence that the 18-year-old was forced to keep drinking later that night after his induction.
The pledge's familyAt a tearful news conference in Houston, Phoummarath's 26-year-old sister Marion, who spoke for the family, said they were glad the investigation shed some light on what happened the night of her brother's death and enlightened other families about the dangers of hazing.
She said her brother's involvement in that type of behavior was shocking to the family: "We were not aware that he was consuming any alcohol -- much less that much alcohol -- because, when he was at home, we just didn't drink."
Phoummarath's brother, Ted, added, "He had a whole life ahead of him. He was just shortchanged. The fact of the matter, I guess, if alcohol wasn't involved, he'd still be here.
"Randy Sorrels, one of the family's lawyers, thanked the grand jury, because "the last thing this family wanted was for this very tragic death to be pushed under the rug and never to be brought out again."
Sorrels, who has filed a civil lawsuit for the family against the fraternity and some of its members, said it is "the family's hope that leadership of fraternities and sororities throughout this country step up and take note that they, too, will be prosecuted for hazing, for alcohol abuse, for excessive physical, emotional trauma that is incited in these fraternity pledge classes."
Lawyers for two of the defendants said their clients were relieved that the grand jurors apparently felt Phoummarath's death was an accident.
"I think all these young people are devastated. A young man who is their friend ended up dying," said Bill White, an Austin attorney who represents Nguyen, an economics major.
"This could be something that opens up a discussion for everyone in the university to modify this problem," he said.
Chan, the former fraternity president, graduated last December and is working in Houston, said his attorney, Josh Saegert, of Austin.
"We recognize that those indictments against Benny are serious and need to be addressed," he said.
Efforts to reach Pulukuri, the hellmaster, were unsuccessful. Travis County officials said they were unsure if he has an attorney. UT officials said Pulukuri is no longer enrolled.
Escamilla, the county attorney, said the investigation took time because of the fraternity's secretive culture. He said the investigation would continue, with future charges possible if more evidence emerges.
According to court documents, pledges knew they'd be expected to drink excessively at the initiation ceremony. One voiced concern about alcohol poisoning, but two active members assured him there would be designees to "take care" of the pledges by helping them vomit and providing water.
On Dec. 9, the eve of Phoummarath's death, pledges in formal attire were inducted in a candlelight ceremony that involved each taking a shot of liquor, followed by paddlings. Then the pledges finished the bottle of liquor.
Now full members, Phoummarath and the others allegedly joined in drinking as many as eight bottles of liquor, including vodka, rum and whiskey.
Shortly after midnight, Phoummarath's fraternity big brother escorted him to pass out on a mattress in a living room, where the freshman vomited on a blanket. Later that afternoon, he was pronounced dead.
The repercussionsTravis County officials said they hoped the indictments would set an example that hazing and underage drinking will not be tolerated.
"We're not going to put up with this," said Assistant District Attorney Claire Dawson-Brown. "This is a crime, and people can get hurt, and they really need to pay attention to the law. There are ways that they can build brotherhood and they can have a fraternity without doing this. ... Their secrets are going to get out.
"The grand jurors took the unusual step of signing a letter recommending the courts use criminal charges to set a precedent for future hazing cases by imposing serious penalties, including maximum fines."By dealing with these crimes with the highest punishment allowable by law, perhaps these traditions can be changed enough to make young people aware of the dangers," the jurors wrote. "
Although binge drinking was not an official part of the initiation process, it is still an integral part of fraternal life and the cause of many unsound decisions made by the fraternity as a whole."
The university banned the Asian-American-interest fraternity for six years after its investigation found evidence of hazing at the party. The fraternity was not sanctioned by UT's official Greek system.
Staff writer David Ellison contributed to this report from Houston.Copyright (c) 2006, Houston Chronicle.