Saturday, May 23, 2009

Four Cal Poly SAE members arrested in hazing death

Four Cal Poly students arrested in 2008 hazing death of fraternity pledge

By Nick Wilson

Four Cal Poly students were arrested Thursday in connection with the death of 18-year-old freshman Carson Starkey from alcohol poisoning after he attended a fraternity party in December, San Luis Obispo police officials said.

Haithem Muthana Ibrahim, 20, of Lafayette, Calif., and Zacary Westen Ellis, 22, of San Luis Obispo, were arrested on suspicion of felony hazing causing death or great bodily injury and furnishing alcohol to a minor, causing death or great bodily injury, a misdemeanor.

Russell Martin Taylor, 22, of Fresno, and Adam Edward Marszal, 21, of Carmichael, were arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor hazing causing death or great bodily injury and furnishing alcohol to a minor, causing death or great bodily injury, a misdemeanor.

San Luis Obispo Police Chief? Deborah Linden called the fraternity’s alleged hazing ritual “as disturbing as it was deadly.”

“Young men were required to drink extreme amounts of alcohol in a very short period of time,” Linden said. “… Steps were taken to protect the furniture and floor from vomit that the organizers knew would result.”

The four were released on bail later Thursday.

Starkey, from Austin, Texas, was pledging to the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon when he attended the gathering Dec. 1 at 551 Highland Drive in San Luis Obispo.

Linden said Starkey was among 17 pledges who participated in the traditional “Big Bro Week” event called “Brown Bag Night,” in which older members gave the pledges brown bags containing large quantities of alcohol to drink. The SAE members put down tarps to protect the furniture and floor in the garage of the home, Linden said.

Police allege that SAE brothers Ibrahim, Taylor and Marszal each selected the alcohol from two stores in San Luis Obispo for the pledges.

Ibrahim was Starkey’s big brother in the fraternity and chose the alcohol for him; Taylor bought the liquor because Ibrahim wasn’t 21 years old, police allege. The pledges were told to sit in a circle around a bucket positioned to collect vomit if they threw up.

They were given a bottle of 151-proof Everclear, with 75 percent alcohol content, along with the drinks in the brown bags, police said. Police said Ellis, the SAE pledge educator, instructed the pledges to consume the contents of their bags. Linden said Starkey drank from the brown bag, as well as the Everclear bottle. He became unresponsive later that night. Several SAE members put Starkey in a car to get him to a hospital, removing his pledge pin and pledge book “to prevent Carson from being associated with the fraternity,” Linden said.

But when they started driving, Starkey began to vomit and they returned to the house, the police chief said. SAE members put him to bed and checked on him until about 2 a.m., when they went to sleep, Linden said. A few hours later, Starkey was found unresponsive and a fraternity member called 911 and began cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Starkey was pronounced dead at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center. Multiple tests measured his blood-alcohol content between 0.39 and 0.45 percent - more than three times the legal driving limit. No drugs were found in his body.

Linden said the investigation took nearly six months to complete because of the large number of people involved. The department also said residents of the Highland home where SAE was headquartered weren’t truthful with investigators.

Investigators conducted interviews with 65 people, served eight search warrants at homes of SAE members and seized evidence that included 55 computer drives, 27 cell phones and 24 cameras. The department collaborated with the District Attorney’s Office in determining the charges, and authorities wanted to be thorough and fair, Linden said.

Cal Poly President Warren Baker issued a statement today saying that the campus has “zero tolerance for hazing.” “Today’s arrests are a sad reminder of the tragedy that took the life of a promising young Cal Poly student and has caused so much pain to the family of Carson Starkey,” Baker said. “Our sympathy again goes out to Carson’s family.”

Cal Poly officials said nine students have either permanently withdrawn from the university or have been suspended for at least one year as a result of the investigation. Other students are being investigated as well by the university, which has revoked the fraternity’s charter indefinitely.

Several students on campus Thursday said they thought some members of SAE needed to be held accountable for the death. And they said it’s a lesson for those who drink at parties.

“I think people really need to look out for each other,” said freshman Andrew Max, a fraternity member. “I don’t think it’s realistic for people not to drink while they’re in college. But they should avoid the situation that happened (with Starkey).”

Starkey’s family issued a written statement thanking police and prosecutors.

“We will honor Carson and other families by doing everything we can to end dangerous misconduct by fraternities and their members,” the statement read.

© 2009 San Luis Obispo Tribune.

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