Tom Sauer, now a business junior, was a fellow Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) pledge of Carson Starkey. He attended the pledge event called “Brown Bag Night” on Dec. 1, 2008, the night before Starkey died from respiratory arrest due to acute ethanol toxicity or alcohol poisoning. Starkey’s blood alcohol concentration was between 0.39 and 0.45.
“I definitely got close to him in those couple weeks,” Sauer said. “I think it was a little different for me because I was a second year; I thought of it as more of a party. I didn’t feel pressured to drink.”
Now, a year after the death of 18-year-old Starkey, there is a civil lawsuit, criminal charges and numerous changes to Cal Poly greek life.
Starkey’s parents, Scott and Julia Starkey, filed a civil lawsuit against the national fraternity, the local chapter and nine individual former SAE members on Sept. 22 this year to coincide with the start of the academic year. Four of the nine individuals named in the suit include Haithem Ibrahim, Zacary Ellis, Adam Marszel and Russell Taylor. The night of the SAE pledge event, they were taking Starkey to the hospital but turned around after he vomited in the car. The other five people named in the lawsuit were officers of the local SAE chapter at the time of Starkey’s death.
All of the parties of the civil suit will appear in court on Jan. 26 and the judge will then set a schedule for the trial.
Ibrahim and Ellis are also being charged with felony hazing causing death and misdemeanor furnishing alcohol to a minor causing death. Marszel and Taylor pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges for hazing causing death and furnishing alcohol to a minor causing death. When asked for comment, Ibrahim and Ellis said they were not to talk to the Mustang Daily by their legal counsel.
“It became clear that they (the students) supplied minors with alcohol,” said Stephan Lamb, assistant director of Student Life and Leadership.
Ivo Labar, one of the attorneys representing Starkey’s parents, was involved in the writing of Matt’s Law, a California anti-hazing law. It rules that those charged with hazing can be charged with misdemeanor and felony charges rather than lesser penalties, under which Ibrahim and Ellis are being charged.
The law came as a result of the death of Matt Carrington at Chico State University in February 2005 in series of events similar to what reportedly occurred in Starkey’s case. Carrington was forced to drink water from a five-gallon jug while doing calisthenics with fans blowing on him. The water intoxication was done as part of a hazing ritual for the unrecognized fraternity Chi Tau. Fraternity members did not call for emergency help for over an hour.
Since Starkey’s death, the Cal Poly greek community has undergone several changes. Although alcohol was never officially allowed in pledge events, Cal Poly officials are monitoring these events more closely.
Incoming pledges attended two sessions as part of their initiation into greek life. A panel made up of Cal Poly alcohol counselors, police officers and representatives from Sierra Vista Medical Center discussed hazing nationwide and how to handle it.
“We are trying to coordinate our efforts to educate the community,” said Mary Peracca, alcohol and drug specialist and panel member.
All pledges and new member educators were required to attend.
“They went over what could happen to you (consequences) and like when is a good time to take someone to the hospital,” said John Corgel, Delta Chi Associate member counselor in charge of new member education and journalism senior.
Pledge education and “Big Bro Week” have also changed as a result of last year’s incident.
After the indefinite suspension of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity by Cal Poly, Sauer decided to pledge again for Delta Chi in Spring 2009. During his recent “Big Bro Week” the activities included hiking to the Poly P, fishing and a scavenger hunt. When describing his pledging experience, he reiterated that there was no alcohol involved.
“I definitely feel like people are a lot more cautious,” Sauer said. “There is zero tolerance.”
Delta Chi wasn’t the only fraternity to see such changes. All fraternities and sororities officially chartered through Cal Poly’s Interfraternity Council (IFC) and Panhellenic Association have adopted similar measures, according to Lamb.
Incoming IFC president Andy Farrell said he hopes to improve the “toxic relationship” between the community and college students, specifically greek members. The changes he has seen since last December include the community changing its outlook, greater awareness of brothers, more unity and camaraderie and eradication of alcohol and hazing in all new member processes.
The changes coming from the highest levels of greek life seem to have infiltrated the individual level as well. Starkey’s death serves as a reminder of the finality of certain events.
“You are going to have to live with the consequences,” Sauer said.
The Starkey family has also begun several projects in and around Austin, Texas, where they live. The Carson Starkey Alcohol Awareness and Education Act was unanimously passed April 30 and took effect Sept. 1. It requires Texas school districts to implement an “evidence-based alcohol awareness program” into middle school, junior high and high school curriculum. The bill was supported by the Starkey family as part of their effort to educate people about hazing and the symptoms of alcohol poisoning.
Starkey’s family also started a non-profit organization called With Carson. Their Web site, withcarson.com, features news, projects and events they are organizing, a blog, apparel, photos, information for donations and links to the Facebook pages. One Facebook page, called “I LOVE CARSON STARKEY,” is a forum designed to “spread love and awareness.” It was created by a peer and friend at Cal Poly, Tatum Barnes. The other page is called “1 Mil Aware,” and was created to “bring awareness to the all too common fatal effect of alcohol poisoning.”
In an e-mail, Barnes said that she hoped people would learn from Carson’s life.
“I hope that no one would think of themselves as invincible, and that people would live their lives with purpose, joy and selflessness, the way Carson did,” she said.
Today there will be a commemorative display to honor Starkey from 9 a.m. until midnight on the second floor of the University Union. It was organized by greek student leaders, who will hand out green armbands for people to wear as a reminder of Starkey’s life and death. The display will also feature pictures and an excerpts from the eulogy delivered at Starkey’s memorial service by his brother, Hayden Starkey.
“Never let Carson die. He is in all of us somewhere. Some part of him is in us and to just carry on with that part and never let it die,” Hayden Starkey said at Carson’s memorial service. “Take whatever part of Carson you have and just use it for some good.”