Alcohol poisoning kills Rider freshman
Friends say student knew night of drinking was ahead
BY DARRYL R. ISHERWOOD LAWRENCE --
Gary DeVercelly knew when he walked into the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house Wednesday night that he was going to drink heavily.
A hometown friend told The Times that the Rider University freshman confided to his girlfriend that he would be drinking Absolut Citron -- an entire bottle. The lemon-flavored vodka is his fraternity "family's" drink of choice, he told her, and he and his "big brother" would be drinking together.
DeVercelly, 18, died yesterday of alcohol poisoning after his body shut down as a result of drinking nearly three-quarters of the bottle of premium vodka, officials said.
Friends said the Long Beach, Calif., native was upbeat about the party that was part of his fraternity pledging ritual. They were later stunned to learn it was alcohol that took his life. DeVercelly liked a good party, his friends said, but was hardly a hard-core drinker.
"Before he went to the pledge house he called me and his girlfriend and he said '(the fraternity brothers) are making us drink our family alcohol'" family friend Brittney Coates, 17, said yesterday from her home in California. "He told his girlfriend it was some kind of initiation night," she said.
Coates said DeVercelly sent repeated text messages to his girlfriend and as the night wore on, the messages became increasingly garbled.
"He couldn't even text 'I love you,'" she said. "He said something like 'I'm really drunk right now,' but it was really messy."
She and DeVercelly's girlfriend warned the freshman to be careful, even going as far as to tell him "you're going to get alcohol poisoning," Coates said.
"He told us he would space the vodka out through the night, but he did it in a couple of minutes," she said.
Law enforcement officials confirmed that DeVercelly was drinking Absolut Citron as part of a pledge meeting and that the vodka was considered the "family" drink.
Lawrence Township police detectives and homicide investigators from the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office are investigating DeVercelly's death as a possible hazing incident. Investigators seized numerous bottles of alcohol and several computers from the Phi Kappa Tau house Thursday night.
Students told The Times that the fraternity was in the middle of a "big and little night," which brings pledges together with their fraternity "big brother" for a night of bonding.
A spokeswoman for the fraternity's national chapter in Oxford, Ohio, said Thursday there was no evidence that the incident was related to hazing. But a phone message and an e-mail sent yesterday asking about the "big and little night" and about the "family drink," were not returned.
DeVercelly was rushed to Capital Health System at Fuld early Thursday morning after he vomited several times and passed out, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office said. Emergency personnel reported the freshman's heart had stopped and he was not breathing when they arrived.
His family flew from California to be with him in his last hours and he remained on life support throughout the night Thursday. He was removed from the ventilator yesterday morning and died about 10:50 a.m.
Last night, DeVercelly's family released a statement about their son.
"Our family finds great comfort in knowing that Gary is in heaven but we are struggling with the loss in our lives," the statement said. "It seems a shame that something this tragic had to happen before we realized the superior character of our friends, family, neighbors, and even acquaintances. We are surrounded by love and draw strength from the support given to us. We thank God for honoring us with Gary's presence in our lives and we hope that with His help, we will learn to find a way to live with Gary's absence."
Rider President Mordechai Rozanski announced DeVercelly's death yesterday afternoon, saying the college's flags would be flown at half-staff.
"Gary's passing affects all of us deeply. We are a caring and supportive community and now is the time for us to grieve," Rozanski said. "Our counseling and campus ministry staff will be available to students, faculty, and staff in Lawrenceville and Princeton."
University officials said Phi Kappa Tau is on administrative closure. Fraternity brothers may live in the house, but may not hold parties or other outside activities there, officials said. Once the investigation is complete, officials will determine the fate of the fraternity, Dean of Students Anthony Campbell said yesterday.
Crime scene tape was removed from the house early yesterday and students were allowed back in.
DeVercelly's hometown friends said they were in shock over his death and were particularly surprised because of who he was.
"He is the last person I would have thought this would happen to," said Andrew Coates, Brittney's older brother, who described himself as DeVercelly's best friend. "He was the designated driver most of the time. He was a good kid that everyone could count on."
Coates, 19, described DeVercelly as a driven young man who was out to make something of himself. This summer, DeVercelly had scored an internship with the minor league Long Beach Armada, a job Coates said he was excited to begin.
"My parents used to tell me that of all my friends he would be the most successful," Coates said. "He had everything going for him."
Seeing DeVercelly portrayed as a boozing teen hits hard, Coates said, because his real friends know the truth.
"He was like every other teenager in college," he said. "He would have a beer, but he was not a kid who was out all the time trying to get messed up."
Coates said his first instinct was to blame someone: Himself for not being there; the fraternity for making him drink; Gary for not taking better care of himself.
"I started blaming everyone, but in the end it was Gary's decision," he said.
Still, Coates said he finds the fact that DeVercelly drank that much alcohol in a short period of time "ridiculous." If his best friend had one flaw, Coates said, it was his desire to impress the people he cared about. It was that flaw that may have killed him.
"There was absolutely pressure on him." Coates said.
Brittney Coates also painted a picture of a driven teen who wanted nothing more than to someday become manager of a baseball team. He came across the country to Rider for a new experience, she said, but still called Long Beach home.
"He always told us that all of his friends were home," she said. "But he said he loved college because it was going to get him somewhere."
Brittney Coates said DeVercelly doted on his little brother and sister, even spending his first day home on spring break teaching his brother how to hit a baseball.
"He was always serious about his little brother, and he was so protective of his sister," she said.
Brittney Coates said she knows that Gary made his own decisions, but like her brother she is finding it hard not to place blame.
There is one thing she does know, however. If she or any of DeVercelly's other hometown friends had been with him Wednesday night, he would still be alive.
"Honestly, if any of his true friends had been there with him this wouldn't have happened," she said. "He just needed a good friend to be there and there wasn't."