San Luis Obispo Chief of Police Deb Linden briefed the public about the arrests in connection with a hazing-related death earlier this school year. Photo by Matt Fountain.
San Luis Obispo Police Department Chief of Police Deborah Linden briefed the public about the arrests in connection with a hazing-related death earlier this school year. Four members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity were charged with felony and/or misdemeanor violations. Photo by Matt Fountain.

Four Cal Poly students were arrested Thursday in connection with last year’s alcohol-related death of architecture freshman Carson Starkey after a nearly six-month investigation by the San Luis Obispo Police Department.

Investigators say the death was the result of a night of excessive drinking as part of a hazing ritual for pledges in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity.

Agriculture business sophomore Haithem Ibrahim, 20, of Lafayette and agriculture senior Zacary Ellis, 22, of San Luis Obispo were each charged with one felony violation of hazing causing death or great bodily injury and one misdemeanor violation of permitting a minor to consume alcohol. Computer engineering senior Russell Taylor, 22, of Fresno and agriculture business senior Adam Marszal, 21, were each charged with two misdemeanor counts of the same violations.

The four surrendered themselves Thursday morning after warrants were obtained for their arrests and were booked at the San Luis Obispo County Jail. Bail was set at $50,000 for the felony charges and $10,000 for the misdemeanors. Each posted bail by Thursday afternoon.

If convicted, the suspects could face up to three years in state prison for the felonies and up to a year in county jail for the misdemeanor charges.

At a press conference at the San Luis Obispo police station Thursday afternoon, San Luis Obispo Police Department Chief of Police Deborah Linden said the investigation “exposed a ritual that was as disturbing as it was deadly.”

“Despite being illegal and against formal greek organization policies, dangerous hazing rituals remain part of the culture of certain groups; a culture that claims to promote leadership and value friendship, but which fails to protect young and impressionable recruits who simply want to belong,” Linden said.

“Carson’s death was the result of a crime and it was entirely preventable,” she said. “Tragically, his death was not the first resulting from a fraternity hazing ritual, and unless the greeks change their culture in a fundamental and meaningful way, it will not be the last.”

When asked by reporters why the investigation took nearly six months, Linden cited the “sheer volume of the people involved,” and the lack of “clear and open” cooperation by SAE members throughout the investigation.

Starkey, 18, passed away the morning of Dec. 2, 2008, at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center. An autopsy revealed the cause of death was respiratory arrest due to acute ethanol toxicity, or alcohol poisoning. His blood alcohol content was estimated between .39 and .447 percent — a level equivalent to the effects of surgical anesthesia. It was determined that no marijuana or other drugs were in Starkey’s system.

Starkey came to Cal Poly as a freshman from Austin, Texas, in September 2008 and began the pledge process to SAE in October. The death occurred during the fraternity’s “Big Bro Week,” where pledges, or “Little Brothers,” are paired with active members, or “Big Brothers.” Ibrahim was designated as Starkey’s Big Brother.

The investigation revealed that the night of Dec. 1 was “Brown Bag Night,” an annual pledge event where Big Brothers provided each pledge with a brown bag containing large quantities of alcohol. Ibrahim, Taylor and Marszal allegedly selected and purchased the alcohol from two stores in San Luis Obispo.

Ellis was SAE’s designated Pledge Educator, a membership position that helps leads pledging recruits through their pledging process. On the night before Starkey’s death, Ellis reportedly instructed the group of 17 pledges — all of whom were under 21 — to consume the full contents of their bag within an hour and a half. In addition to the contents of the bags, pledges were also given a bottle of 151 proof Everclear, which has roughly twice the alcohol content of normal liquor.

arrests-carson-starkey-cal-polyThe investigation found that at some point in the night, Starkey became unresponsive, at which point several SAE members placed him in a vehicle in an apparent attempt to take him to the hospital, removing his pledge pin to prevent him from being associated with the fraternity. The SAE members reportedly returned Starkey to the house, however, once he began vomiting inside the vehicle.

The SAE members allegedly carried Starkey to bed and checked on him until approximately 2 a.m. After he was found unresponsive a few hours later, an SAE member called 911 and began performing CPR. He was taken via ambulance to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.

One of the suspected SAE members, Russell Taylor, currently serves on the Associated Students, Inc. Board of Directors for the College of Engineering. When discussing one of ASI’s board members being arrested on suspicion of hazing, current ASI president Angela Kramer said, “It’s especially difficult because we don’t want to see him in this situation, but the fraternity (made) a bad decision that led to the death of a student. Our country has due process for a reason.”

“It’s really difficult when any member of our campus community is involved in a situation like this,” she added. “It was a devastating tragedy to lose Carson Starkey, but (I think it was) no one’s direct fault; there’s no sign of malicious intent.”

In a statement issued by the Starkey family on Thursday, the family thanked the San Luis Obispo Police Department and lashed out at the “long-standing, dangerous pledging rituals” of the fraternity system.

“Only someone else who has lost a child can begin to comprehend our family’s pain and sorrow. Our grief is deepened by the fact that Carson’s death was not due to a natural cause like a disease or illness,” the statement read.

“Carson was an excellent student who aspired to be an architect but also, unfortunately, aspired to become a fraternity member and he participated in a dangerous fraternity ritual during which he was compelled to drink a fatal amount of alcohol. His death was not caused by ‘voluntarily’ drinking too much, and anyone who might suggest otherwise is misinformed.”

The family added, “We will honor Carson and other families by doing everything we can to end dangerous misconduct by fraternities and their members. So, today, we express our gratitude to the police and prosecutors for understanding our loss and assisting us in this first of many steps towards achieving change and justice.”

Cal Poly president Warren Baker also released a statement Thursday, restating the university’s zero tolerance policy towards hazing.
“The university has investigated more than a dozen students who may have been involved in this tragic event,” Baker said.

“As a result of those investigations and as an outcome of the campus disciplinary process, nine students have either permanently withdrawn from Cal Poly or been suspended for at least one academic year. Our investigations into other students who may have been involved are continuing.”

“We have initiated several new programs designed to eliminate hazing and promote responsible social behaviors. Among those programs are required training sessions for student leaders of greek pledge activities,” Baker added. “We also are hiring two staff people who will devote 100 percent of their time to working with and educating all fraternity and sorority members on these issues.”

The charter of the San Luis Obispo chapter of SAE remains suspended indefinitely.

— Marlize van Romburgh and Giana Magnoli contributed to this report.

Previous coverage related to Carson Starkey’s death: