UPDATE: Four SAE members charged in hazing death

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:

  • Steven Wolf

    Those who say that Carson choose to consume beyond his limit dangerously belittle the severity of hazing. In a “brown bag” event, the pledge’s ability to monitor their alcohol intake is taken away from them because they do not know what they are consuming. By the time they feel the effect, it is already too late to realize they needed to have stopped. Carson put his trust in his fraternity brothers to be, and their criminal irresponsibility killed him. Hazing of this type intentionally strips people of their power to make their own choices. Suggesting that Carson was somehow responsible for his own death or that he should have made better choices is to me just as harmful as saying that rape victims are somehow responsible and should have made better choices to not have someone rape them. Instead of saying that Carson was the victim of hazing, if these convictions are accurate, it should be said that two men hazed Carson to death.

    • Selina

      Eloquently put, Steven.

  • Idiots

    Wonderful job clowns. Way to flush your futures down the toilet. Showing the mental aptitude of a plunger must really make your parents proud. How revolting. Hopefully prison is in the future for these wonderful members of society. I hope you all enjoy working minimum wage jobs. Because, convicted felons don’t have many job options. Disgusting.

  • D

    It is unfortunate such a tragedy has struck our campus. But really who can say that this could not have happened elsewhere on our campus. Many people are quick to point the finger to Greek organizations and members. But what about other organizations that also hazing and alcohol abuse, in a National Study on Hazing (hazingstudy.org) it was found that 74% of Varsity Athletic teams take part in some form of hazing, 73% Greek, and 64% of sport clubs. What has been done to educate them. Being Greek myself, I know that the school has taken steps to help prevent this tragedy from occuring again. When will people realize that hazing and binge-drinking is not a GREEK issue but a CAL POLY issue and help to stop the tide of students going to Sierra Vista Hospital on any given weekend. Think about when you pass out or “black out” from drinking. Essentially, that is your body telling you to stop drinking. This is anyone’s danger of drinking. Luck in the game of Russian Roulette ran out for the members of SAE and it is sad to see. The justice system is harsh. These young men already feel the pain and guilt of what happened. Their lives already ruined. And from December on would never be the same. Please take a lesson from Carson’s death, one in which does not point to the Greeks but to binge drinking instead. “Less is more and look out for your friends, if your Greek or not, it can happen to you.”

  • Chelsea

    way to have a little fucking sympathy for boys you don\’t even know asshole

  • John Swanson

    I think sympathy would be warranted if they hazing didn’t involve the death of a student.

    • Sammy

      Totally right. It is great that these monsters lives are ruined forever. They don’t deserve to see the light of day. They need to be locked up in a supermax prison like San Quentin or Pelican Bay. How disgusting can behavior get? Are these adults or toddlers? They deserve the harshest penalty they can possible recieve. What about the parents of the guy who died? They will never get to see their son and he will never even get to live his life which was of infinitely more importance and value than the scum who are charged with his death. Revolting.

      • Will

        They need to go to prison, but not a supermax one.

  • John Swanson

    *the, not *they

  • Joe Donegan

    I found this movie about a similar situation at yale, It is very insightful and a start toward education.
    http://www.hulu.com/watch/62974/haze
    My prays are with all the families involved.

  • Mr. Me

    Anyone weak enough to need to join a Fraternity should die.

    • JD

      any one ignorant enough to post something like you did should die. don’t judge people for who they wish to associate with. i don’t tell people who choose to join other organizations or majors (i.e. engineers who work for defense contractors designing missiles).

      be respectful dude.

  • AM

    Who is going to pay for these 2 people that they are hiring? That better not be coming out of what I pay. It seems that greek organizations are a large liability and expense for the campus, why bother having them at all especially at a time when money is so tight?

    • PM

      Why bother having any student organizations on our campus then? Did you know we pay a lot of money for ASI…and they really only manage our Rec Center, Sports Complex, and fun events. We could be using that money to have more classes and teachers. Why pay to have professors that aren’t even for your major?

      You’re an ignorant idiot. It’s a valued asset for people to be paid to advise and help change 12% of this campus who are Greek. We are one of the largest represented groups on this campus besides Engineers. So…think before you leap.

      • AM

        Of course I know that we pay for ASI, I would argue that the UU (which I do believe exists because of ASI) is used by all students. The rec center can be used by all students for free, ASI benefits students in more ways then they realize.

        As for clubs, I would argue that most clubs serve the purpose to further the educational experience and learn by doing philosophy at cal poly, and those that don’t offer membership that allows basically anyone to join for at most a nominal fee. If I wanted to join a greek org, I would need to be accepted into that group, right? This is very different then a club. Also, when is the last time you heard of someone being killed at a club event? As far as I can see, Greek organizations do little if anything to enhance the educational experience here at Cal Poly.

        As for the why pay for Professors outside of my major, that’s just silly. We all take classes outside of our major, be it GE classes or a minor, professors are the key to educating students.

        Let me summarize. Greek organizations do basically nothing to further the Educational Experience here at Cal Poly. Professors do, many clubs do, and in some ways ASI does to. College is ultimately about learning, Greek organizations are about partying, interacting socially, and having fun, why should that take money away from learning?

        If hiring people to advise and help change the greek organizations is so valuable, the greek organizations should pay for it. Completely.

        One last thing, 12% isn’t really that large of a percentage of students. That means that greek orgs only contain more people then 2 of the colleges on this campus (not just engineering).

  • Nicole Boardman

    After reading several comments on this article, I was stunned and upset by several people who believed that the young men accused of involvement in the hazing that led to Carson Starkey’s death should not be punished for the crimes they allegedly committed. One suggested that they be forced to pay a fine as a punishment. If convicted, the accused could serve time in prison up to one year, which is not a very long time when juxtaposed with the fact that (if the allegations are proven true) their actions directly resulted in someone’s DEATH. Starkey didn’t get a hangover, he didn’t blackout and not remember what he did, he didn’t make a fool of himself doing the stupid things drunk people do. Carson Starkey lost his life. A fine is nowhere near a fair punishment for killing someone; fines are for parking tickets, not for performing actions that result in a young man’s death.

    Many support the idea that Carson Starkey chose to drink, placing all blame for his death on his own decision to participate in the event. It is most likely true that no one shoved the liquor down his throat, but it certainly was not his “choice” to down an immense amount of alcohol. Hazing is characterized by peer pressure, and even if a pledge agrees to participate in hazing events, it is not true consent if he was subject to peer pressure. Would Starkey have chosen to drink so much on his own free time? Of course not. This was not his decision. He wanted to be a part of the fraternity and was subsequently pressured into drinking himself to death. The people whose actions led to his death should be punished for the crimes they committed, because they are ultimately responsible for the outcome of the “brown bag” event.

    One year in prison is the maximum sentence these young men will serve if convicted. They will lose their freedom for a while, but soon enough they will be free to live out their lives as they wish. Carson Starkey had his life taken away, and he will never get that back. It is true that there was no malicious intent involved in what happened, but that does not negate the fact that laws were broken and a life was lost. It is disheartening that some of our fellow students may be haunted by criminal records for the remainder of their lives, but perhaps we can all use this as a reminder to consider the repercussions of our actions.

  • Ricardo

    First, my condolences to the family.
    I’m a Cal Poly alumni not associated with a fraternity.

    Although my opinion is that greek organizations add little to the university experience, I understand that for some it provides a base of support. With that said, I’d like to point to a statement I found in the SAE fraternity website:

    Statement on Former Cal Tau Members
    EVANSTON, IL – The Sigma Alpha Epsilon headquarters has learned of the arrest of four former members of the organization as it relates to the death of Carson Starkey. In media reports, they are identified as members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, but that information is inaccurate. Following the alleged incident that took place on the Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo campus, the headquarters revoked the membership, or expelled, all chapter members. Therefore, the men charged in the death have no affiliation with the organization. Furthermore, the headquarters suspended the chapter’s charter after revoking membership from all of its members late last year.

    Additionally, university officials are attributed with revoking the chapter’s charter. While a college or university has the right to withdraw its recognition of a fraternity, it does not hold the charter and, therefore, cannot revoke it. The Supreme Council of Sigma Alpha Epsilon grants charters and suspends charters for its chapters.

    I find it cowardly to attempt to wash your hands by a simple rule; I would urge SAE to recongnize the fault of the SAE Cal Poly chapter and support in any way possible to change the rituals that caused this tragedy rather than keeping silent and helping to maintain “traditions” that ultimately only harm you. Do what a “True Gentleman” would do and take responsibility.

    • mom

      First I want to send my condolences to Starky’s Family! When I learned of his death at Christmas and I prayed for the family during the holidays. Who would have thought that a son or daughter would not be home for Christmas? Not I. I thought he an architect like my daughter should be smarter than that, to allow this to happen to him. First now I realize how he made his mistake. He trusted some one else not to give him more than what was safe. He laid his life in these four peoples hands when he took that brown bag and drank all its content. I could have forgiven them their mistake if they had brought him to the hospital and gotten him some help. This would have shown to me that they cared that they had made a grave mistake. They were all bright students with good intelligences. They must now pay for the decisions they made that night and learn to live with it. When you break the law and give minors alcohol you are responsible. Let it be a reminder to all over 21 that serves alcohol to minors.
      I have read all the responses on this site. To me it is not important who did what and how hard they get punished, but more about what we can learn from this horrible mistake. Above I see the SAE washing their hands by saying that these members are no longer associates of theirs, so that`means that their organization i not involved. If these member were members in SAE when the incident took place they were indeed part of SAE at the time and therefore the organizations responsibility. I would have loved to see Evanston,IL respond with some form of change or educational message rather than running from the responsibilities. I 100% would like to see the Greek society stand up and say CHANGE IS GOOD and YES WE CAN. Make themselves proud again. Prove to the universities that they are an asset not a burden to its educational system. Last but not least I want to remind everyone at Cal Poly to look out for one and another. If you see someone in need of help. Make that call. You could save someones life. I pray my student will always come home. Bless all.

  • A Mom

    This tragic situation highlights the weaknesses of Cal Poly in general. As a school you are only as strong as your weakest link and there are two student resources on campus that continue to fail the students in this area of social education and because of that, tragically, loss has occured. The housing and counseling programs at Cal Poly are the weakest I have seen. Everyone knows that the dorms are full of drugs and alchol and everything related to them. Even when RA’s find it, the students are slapped on the hand and returned to the same situation to continue doing what they do. The housing dept is “proud’ of their alchol, drug and sexual education program (the leaving of printed material on the beds when you move in)and therefore has done little to improve upon an atmosphere that is not so safe to live in. The counseling program has a check the box mentality and more proud of their published personnel then the quality of care they give the students. These resources have let all you students at Cal Poly down and when one of your own dies – it is clear they have failed. It is time for the Cal Poly community to take a strong look at the leadership within these resources and get some people in there that can make a difference with these kids. The drug and alchol programs begin in the dorm and that is where they lack the most! The idea of working with the Greek community now, June 2009, speaks volumes to the lack of knowledge of what is really going on as it should not take you to the year 2009 to implement such an education program! New leaders need to be put in place. This is a tragic accident! As the weakest resources on the Cal Poly campus I find you responsible because of your lack of education and leadership. My hope is that new leadership can come in and begin to partner with the kids in the dorms, the Greek community, the sports community, etc and mentally “enroll” and “engage” these kids into better programs that will “enable” them to make better choices. You clearly have not achieved that and this is what is needed.

  • Another Mom

    As stated above, education needs to be provided to ALL students, including athletes, clubs, greeks,etc. Education needs to be reinforced throughout the year, and should not be limited to fall quarter. Cal Poly’s education attempts have demonstrably been failures.

    Further, education needs be expanded to teach students how to recognize when a student is at risk foralchohol blood poisening, and then how to properly respond. The myths that vomiting following alchohol abuse or “sleeping off” the effects of too much alchohol is safe, must be busted. Carson Starkey might be with us today if his “brothers” had continued to the hospital, but once he vomited they mistakenly believed he would be alright; apparently they were unaware that the alchohol was not only in his stomach, but also in his blood stream.

    Finally, I suggest that changes be made that would encourage students to take friends to the hospital for help without risk of consequence to their clubs or organizations. Similar to unwed mothers who are encouraged to bring their unwanted newborns to firestations and hospitals without risk of penalty, rather than placing them in dumpsters,shouldn’t we also seek ways to save the lives of our college students?!

    It is time to think outside the box and realize that “Just Say No” is not a realistic approach to drug and alchohol use on college campuses.

  • Yvette

    I take great pride into all the accomplishments that students and alumni accomplish and it is really sad to see that our school is not exempt of the tragic events associated with the Greek life. What is really even sadder is the fact that the SAE organization washed their hands the moment something went bad. I think in order for the Greeks to change you have to charge and go after the association that is involved and not just those that acted as agents of the association. My prayers go out to all the families because all of them are victims of the tragedies of Greek life, but the Starkey family is the one that has suffered the most. The kids involved should be charged and punished, but you have to remember that they are acting on traditions set forth by the organization and its members and when you are in college you don\’t really stop to think about the consequences of what you are doing. This is why you should charge the organization with the death because this type of behavior is known and condoned by the organization and if you want to change the behavior you have to change the organization. Like the SAE rep said, the school can choose to not recognize the fraternity, but it is up to them who gets the charter. Since it is in fact up to them to grant and take away charters, they should also hold and bear the responsibility of their member’s actions. I hope that in memory of Carson Starkey and his family, Cal Poly never recognizes and allows SAE on campus or allows the use of clothing or paraphernalia related to the fraternity on campus. I am not against the Greek life, or other clubs and organizations that are on campus, but I do hope that they all learn from this tragedy and that those students that engage in excessive drinking and partying remember this tragedy. As someone else said binge drinking and hazing is not just found in Greek members, it can be found at any party, house, game, or outing that involves carelessness of the group or individual(s) and when tragedy hits all members and parties should be held accountable just like when there are successes.

  • SLO Alumni 1974

    I am a former alum, MA Ed.\’74. I transferred specifically to Cal Poly from a private school in Oregon in 1972 due to the fact that there were no sororities at Cal Poly in 1972. The Greek life seemed non-existant when I transferred. Only a handful of frats. My private school was 85% Greek so I transferred to Cal Poly after my sophomore year. We did not have the options that exist in colleges now…the clubs, affinity groups, etc. I agree with the person that said hazing is not just in frats. Our Cal Poly football team at the time I attended had hazing. Even though I did not fit in a sorority it does not negate the fact that there are good things happening in the Greek system. I have lifelong friends from my Oregon DG chapter. Our philanthropy was the blind and we were actively involved as students at the Oregon School for the Blind. Alumni groups are prevelent and they continue to work with the blind. Every Greek group has a philanthropy and this is one thing that I know the sororities take seriously. I have lived on both sides of the Greek system. I made my decision that it was not right for me, but it is wonderful for other people. Hazing does not occur in the sororities and this is a difficult situation with the fraternities. College presidents are trying to deal with it. But hazing has been around for 150 years since the frats started. It\’s been at Oxford and Cambridge even longer. There is strong hazing at private boys boarding schools. It has been a huge challenge for university presidents for quite a while. At the time that I went to college binge drinking didn\’t exist and I did not know of anyone that died through the hazing process, not that I condone it at all. And by the way there is hazing at West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy. Many situations are hard to resolve in the world today. It is tragic for everyone involved….all the parents that did not expect this to happen to their sons at college. They are heartbroken for the tradegy of what has happened to their young sons as are the parents that will never see their son again. It is tragic all around.

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