With the blessing of prosecutors, hazing charges have been dismissed against four remaining defendants in the alcohol-poisoning death of a Utah State University fraternity pledge, putting to rest a criminal case that shook the Logan campus and brought attention to student alcohol abuse.
In the eight months since an overdose of vodka killed Michael Starks, five former Greek-society member have been sent to jail and a fraternity chapter and a sorority chapter shut down by their national offices. Prosecutors filed hazing charges against 12 Greek members and their chapters, but no one was convicted of hazing, disappointing some in the Starks' tight-knit Salt Lake City family.
"It was hazing pure and simple," said George Starks, Jr., the oldest of the six Starks children. "This was done as a pledge ritual. Michael died because they put a bottle in front of him and there was an expectation that he had to drink it if he wanted to get into that fraternity."
On Monday, 1st District Judge Thomas Willmore dismissed the charge against the last defendant, Sigma Nu chapter president Cody Littlewood, who had moved to dismiss on grounds that his participation did not amount to hazing under Utah law.
Tony Baird, Cache County's chief criminal prosecutor, had argued against the defense motion in oral and written presentations to the court, but withdrew his opposition last week.
"We conceded that we couldn't meet our burden," Baird said. The case was muddied by evidence that Starks had been smoking marijuana, using a fake ID to buy booze, and had been allowed to drink by his family, the prosecutor said.
The Starks family disputes that Michael was a substance abuser when he packed up for college three months before he died, calling such allegations "character assassination." His siblings also say any such evidence is irrelevant to Utah's hazing statute, which makes it a crime to induce someone to engage in reckless or humiliating behavior as a condition for membership in an organization.
Littlewood's lawyer, Clayton Simms, said his client had been falsely accused, but tipped his hat to Baird for re-evaluating the case midstream.
"You have to admire the prosecutor's courage to do the right thing," Simms said. "At the end of the day this was still a tragedy, but through the process we discovered Cody Littlewood did not contribute to Michael Starks' death. He looks forward to finishing his degree [in journalism] at Utah State and being a productive member of society."
Starks was pledging at Littlewood's fraternity last fall when the members selected him and another pledge for a mock kidnapping at the hands of Chi Omega sorority sisters. Littlewood presided over the meeting, but did not participate in the capture and later claimed he forbade the use of alcohol.
Eight Chi Omega women, all of them under 21, took the pledges to an off-campus house where they stripped and painted them, and some held a bottle of liquor to the pledges' lips in a replay of past captures, charging documents say. Starks drank most of a fifth and was extremely drunk by the time fellow pledges returned him to the frat house. Littlewood was concerned enough about Starks' condition to have a member call poison control.
The operator told the caller to make sure Starks could be roused. Littlewood had Starks lie down on a bedroom floor to sleep between two other pledges. Through the night, Littlewood checked on Starks, who was audibly snoring. At about 4 a.m., he discovered Starks wasn't breathing. The frat members called 911 and initiated CPR.
Over the course of the prosecution, five students were convicted of purchasing and providing the liquor and hiding evidence, while the hazing charges evaporated. Judge Willmore ordered jail sentences ranging from eight to 30 days. As for probation, the students will perform a total of 1,000 hours of community service, much of it in the form of public presentations about alcohol abuse.
On July 20, Baird asked the court to dismiss hazing charges against three sorority sisters -- Alexandra White, McKell Miner and Mallory Mitchell -- still in the case.
"They showed up, but they didn't have anything to do with the alcohol," said Baird, who described the case as among the most difficult of his career. "Nothing rivaled it in terms of gut-wrenching emotion."
"There was a huge split among the attorneys in the office, some of them saying no way on the hazing. I went for middle ground. I thought we should use the hazing statute as a vehicle to educate the public about the perils of binge drinking," he continued. "In hindsight, the state should have focused on the main players, those that really contributed, not those that passively showed up. In the end, what was accomplished was the best we could expect. You're never going to make all interested parties happy."
bmaffly@sltrib.com