Deadliest Frat’s Icy ‘Torture’ of Pledges Evokes Tarantino FilmsJohn Hechinger and David Glovin
On a chilly March night, Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers ordered Justin Stuart to recite the fraternity’s creed.
“The true gentleman,” said the 19-year-old freshman, shivering in the backyard, “is the man whose conduct proceeds from good will and an acute sense of propriety, and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies.”
It wasn’t easy to get the words out. Stuart was naked, except for his underwear, and standing in a trash can filled waist-deep with ice. Fraternity members sprayed him with a hose and poured buckets of water over his head. Convinced that SAE would bring him social success in college and then a Wall Street job, the lanky recruit from suburban Maryland endured the abuse.
During an eight-week initiation in 2012, SAE brothers at Salisbury University in Maryland beat Stuart with a paddle, forced pledges to drink until they almost passed out and dressed them in women’s clothing and diapers, Stuart said. Fraternity members confined recruits for as long as nine hours in a dark basement without food, water or a bathroom, while blasting the same German rock song at ear-splitting volume, according to Stuart, another former pledge, and the findings of the university’s disciplinary board.
“It honestly reminded me of Guantanamo Bay,” Stuart said during five hours of interviews with Bloomberg News. “It was almost like torture.”
Defying the fraternity code of secrecy, Stuart offered a rare first-person account of hazing at Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the largest and best-known fraternities in the U.S. -- and the deadliest. His ordeal prompted Salisbury to suspend the chapter through the spring of 2014. Stuart’s story and Salisbury’s investigation and findings have never been made public.
The university’s disciplinary board determined that the facts supported Stuart’s “alarming” account and that the chapter violated Salisbury policies on alcohol, hazing, and threats or acts of violence, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg News under an open-records request.
“The actions of the members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity put the members of the pledge class in harm’s way both physically and emotionally,” the board found.
The Salisbury episode also shows how difficult it is for colleges to prevent hazing, and the extent to which alumni protect their fraternities. Investment executive J. Michael Scarborough, a founder of Salisbury’s SAE chapter, was so upset over its suspension that he withdrew a $2 million donation to the university.
Risking alumni wrath, universities have disciplined more than 100 Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapters since 2007, some repeatedly, according to a list published on the organization’s website as a result of a legal settlement. Colleges suspended or closed at least 15 SAE chapters in the past three years. SAE has had nine deaths related to drinking, drugs and hazing since 2006, more than any other Greek organization, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. In 2011, a sophomore pre-medical student at Cornell University died from alcohol poisoning after being blindfolded and kidnapped by SAE members in an induction ritual.
Reflecting SAE’s casualty rate, student members pay among the highest rates for liability insurance of any fraternity. Yet SAE has twice voted down a proposal to restrict their access to alcohol -- a measure another national fraternity credits with preventing injuries and deaths. SAE chapters need to protect students by increasing adult supervision, said Richard Shanahan, who serves as a volunteer liaison between its houses and alumni in Washington and Virginia.
‘Lived in Fear’
“I’ve lived in fear for a long time of something happening,” said Shanahan, a Washington lobbyist.
In a statement, SAE’s national fraternity organization said it has “zero tolerance for hazing,” and members who violate its rules “are in no way representative of the fraternity.” The infractions listed on its website represent a “low percentage” of its more than 240 chapters and 14,000 college members, SAE said.
Frank Ginocchio, SAE’s general counsel, said the students’ deaths nationwide result from “a perfect storm,” rather than shortcomings in oversight.
“We try, and we keep on trying,” Ginocchio said. “I don’t think our procedures, our rules and risk management are much different from any other fraternity. We’ve all had some bad cases and sad occurrences.”
There have been more than 60 fraternity-related deaths since 2005, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Earlier this month, a freshman pledging Pi Delta Psi at New York City’s Baruch College died after being repeatedly tackled in an initiation in the Pocono Mountains.
Fraternities have blocked efforts by legislators and academic leaders to curb hazing, drinking and other misbehavior. Their political action committee, known as FratPAC, helped convince Frederica Wilson, a U.S. Representative from Florida, not to introduce an anti-hazing bill in Congress.
Their trade group, the Indianapolis-based North-American Interfraternity Conference, has opposed proposals at dozens of colleges to postpone rushing of freshmen, who account for about 40 percent of fraternity-related deaths.
Fraternity alumni, including major donors to universities, often oppose restrictions on Greek life. After the president and trustees of Trinity College in Hartford proposed making fraternities co-educational, Greek alumni withheld donations to the school. In May, Trinity president James Jones moved up his departure date by a year.
Sigma Alpha Epsilon has an influential alumni network and a colorful history. Founded in 1856 at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, SAE has its roots in the antebellum South. When the Civil War began, almost all its members fought for the Confederacy.
Its gothic-style headquarters in Evanston, Illinois features priceless Tiffany stained glass and a painting of U.S. President William McKinley -- an illustrious SAE alumnus, along with organized crime fighter Eliot Ness and novelist William Faulkner.
LinkedIn, a networking website for professionals, lists almost 3,000 SAE alumni in finance, more than any other industry. When Jeff Librot, a former head of the University of Delaware’s SAE chapter, applied for a Bank of Montreal equities internship, a banker there sent him an e-mail with SAE’s secret motto, “Phi Alpha.” Librot was selected.
Among SAE’s Wall Street luminaries are T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman-turned-investor, and hedge fund managers David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital and Paul Tudor Jones of Tudor Investment Corp. Einhorn and Jones declined to comment.
Pickens said members didn’t haze recruits when he belonged to the fraternity at Oklahoma State University in the late 1940s and early 1950s. His brothers -- many returning World War II veterans -- rarely drank, he said.
He joined SAE because it was “the best,” said Pickens, 85. “They were the leaders on campus.”
These days, SAE leads in other ways. Unlike other fraternities, it must report its infractions online, as a result of a legal settlement with the family of Carson Starkey. The 18-year-old freshman at California Polytechnic State University died in 2008 after downing beer, rum and 151-proof liquor at an initiation ritual. The Starkey family sued SAE and members for negligence and settled for at least $2.45 million, court records show.
Excessive drinking “and other dangerous traditions, continue, year after year” due to “SAE’s flawed oversight and management of chapter and member activities,” the lawsuit said.
Members of fraternities typically pay for liability insurance to cover accidents and other mishaps. Because of SAE’s history, its members pay a base fee of $340, which can increase or decrease depending on each chapter’s record. That’s among the highest rates of any fraternity, according to Douglas Fierberg, the Washington attorney who sued SAE in the Starkey case, and current and former Greek officials.
By contrast, members of Oxford, Ohio-based Phi Delta Theta pay a base fee of $85 apiece, said Bob Biggs, its executive vice president. The reason: in 2000, alarmed about drinking, the fraternity banned alcohol in its chapter houses.
Since then, the fraternity has had no deaths related to alcohol or hazing and fewer accidents and insurance claims, even as membership surged to 11,500 from 8,000, Biggs said.
“We’ve been able to articulate a message to students,” Biggs said. “If you want a drinking club experience, go somewhere else.”
SAE’s leaders took notice. Both in 2011 and this year, they considered banning alcohol from chapter houses, inviting a representative of Phi Delta Theta to make the case at one of its biennial conventions.
“If you look at some of those tragic incidents, it certainly might help” to ban alcohol at houses, said Ginocchio, the SAE general counsel who made the proposal. Though a majority supported the plan, it failed to receive the necessary two-thirds vote of students and alumni as opponents argued that it would drive drinking underground.
In its statement, the SAE national said it mandates alcohol-free housing for chapters that violate “stringent regulations” on drinking. SAE lists on its website 29 chapters that ban alcohol in chapter houses, some because of past violations and others because their campuses are dry. The fraternity said it provides anti-hazing training to members, sponsors a hotline and tests them on its rules.
A public institution on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Salisbury has 8,600 students. About 8 percent belong to fraternities or sororities. In 2005, the university cited the SAE chapter for hanging “an obscene banner” outside a house where several sorority sisters lived, according to university records.
In November 2010, two women complained that date rape drugs were slipped into their drinks at an SAE party, according to a campus police report. The university ultimately found insufficient evidence for those allegations but cited the chapter for alcohol violations.
Justin Stuart didn’t know about SAE’s disciplinary record when he arrived at Salisbury in 2011, he said.
He grew up in Potomac, Maryland, and attended Montgomery County’s highly rated public schools. His father, Henry “Hal” Stuart, is a real estate developer. In high school, Stuart worked as a lifeguard at a community pool and built houses for Habitat for Humanity. The 6 foot two-inch-tall teenager played on the varsity lacrosse and golf teams.
“He was the ultimate team player,” said Colin Thomson, head lacrosse coach at Thomas S. Wootton High School in nearby Rockville. “Justin has a good head on his shoulders.”
Stuart envisioned a career in finance, and SAE’s prestige as a Wall Street pipeline attracted him. He rushed SAE in February 2012 and was summoned to a coveted interview at the Scarborough Student Leadership Center, the Greek life hub named after the SAE chapter founder. During a videotaped appearance, Stuart stood before fraternity brothers, who asked about his major, his grade-point-average and why he wanted to join.
“They made it seem like it was super exclusive and that only the brightest are invited,” Stuart said.
After getting his pledge invitation, Stuart visited the student affairs office to sign a university document. It noted that hazing violated school policy and is, under Maryland law, a misdemeanor, punishable by as much as six months in prison and a $500 fine. “Consent of a student is not a defense,” it said.
Stuart took comfort in this policy, until his pledging began. About 4 p.m. on a Thursday in February, Stuart and about nine other pledges began their eight-week initiation. SAE doesn’t have an official chapter house, so brothers drove the recruits from the Scarborough Center to a brown, wood-shingled home on West Locust Street, about a mile from the university.
William Espinoza -- a senior, who, like Stuart, was a former high school lacrosse player from Montgomery County -- acted as “pledge educator.” He held out a baseball cap, asking pledges to deposit their mobile phones and wallets, Stuart said.
Espinoza led pledges to the basement, its windows covered with blankets and old clothes, according to Stuart. In an endless loop, punctuated by a few seconds of silence, a speaker blasted Du Hast, a German metal song by the group Rammstein, said Stuart and Max Kellner, another former recruit, a marketing major from the Baltimore suburbs. The song’s title is a pun on German words that can mean both “have” and “hate.”
“Get Ready,” Stuart recalled Espinoza saying. “This will be your favorite song by the end of the night.”
At 9 p.m., brothers ran down the stairs to the basement and told pledges to put their backs against the wall, with their heads down, Stuart said. The older members screamed insults, according to Stuart.
“You’re a worthless piece of ****.” “I’ll make you suck a ****.” “You’re a good-for-nothing [homophobic slur],” Stuart quoted members saying in a written account that he said he also gave university officials.
Fraternity members shattered liquor bottles against the wall, Stuart told campus police, according to a police report. Members ripped shirts off pledges and told them they couldn’t eat, including a student on medication who required food at regular intervals, Stuart told police.
At one point, an upperclassman spat in the face of a pledge named Ryan Afifi, Stuart and Kellner said.
Kellner, then a junior, recalled being confined in the basement with Stuart and other pledges for eight or nine hours.
“They justified it -- that we all went through this when we pledged,” said Kellner, 23, now a senior at Towson University in Maryland. “It was rough. It was very, very anxious in the basement. You felt like you couldn’t leave.”
In the early morning, members led the pledges upstairs, one by one, blindfolded, to the house’s second floor, Kellner said. There, pledges kneeled before a table where Espinoza and Sam Kaubin, the chapter president, sat with six candles and a fraternity flag, according to Stuart. The recruits learned the secret SAE handshake, with interlocking pinkies.
Then they were handed a sheaf of documents, including a non-disclosure agreement, Stuart and Kellner said.
“Shut up and sign,” Stuart heard someone say, he told police.
Brothers removed Stuart’s blindfold and gave him his pledge name, “Drop,” which they chose because they considered him likely to quit. Others were dubbed Pootie, Slappy, Meat, Semen and Landfill, according to text messages among pledges that Stuart saved and later sent to Salisbury University.
Afterward, pledges were each ordered to chug a pitcher of beer, Stuart and Kellner said. Stuart was then taken to another house, where, urged on by SAE members, he downed seven or eight drinks and a liquor mix called “jungle juice,” he said.
“I had never been that drunk before,” said Stuart, who hadn’t eaten for 10 hours.
Every Tuesday evening, SAE held pledge classes in a science hall. Brothers covered a window with white paper, Stuart and Kellner said. As they tried to learn SAE history, members yelled insults at pledges, including gay slurs, Stuart told police.
Kellner soon withdrew from pledging because he was a commuter student and didn’t have time, he said.
Stuart considered leaving too but decided against it. Members assured him that they had all gone through the same crucible and the worst was over. He was about to enjoy the benefits of SAE membership, such as entrée to parties where freshmen could meet sorority women and access to Wall Street and Fortune 500 companies.
He worried that, if he left, he would end up shunned and alone. “You feel like you have so much to lose -- it’s worth staying,” he said. “I thought it would pay off in the end.”
On weekends, the pledges were on call to “sober drive” drunken brothers until as late as 4 a.m., Stuart said. After parties, the fraternity required pledges to clean members’ houses, according to Stuart and text messages. On the fifth or sixth week, Stuart and other pledges were ordered to stand in the trashcans filled with ice, he said.
As spring break approached, pledges texted each other, dreading what would come next. “They want to get us drunk to f**k us up,” Kevin Walbrecher, one of the pledges, texted on March 14. Walbrecher declined to comment.
The next day, the recruits again found themselves confined in a basement, this time for a ritual known as “family night,” in which they were divided into groups with names such as Thunderbird and Red Lady.
Again, the German song blared in their ears, Stuart said. He was then led upstairs, blindfolded, and tossed into a car without a seatbelt, he said. Tires screeching, the driver sped around curves and made quick stops, he said.
“I thought I was going to die tonight,” he later told police.
Back at the house, Stuart recalled being asked to bend over. He heard clapping, thumping, and chanting; a member took a running start and hit him in the buttocks three times with a paddle as hard as he could, Stuart said.
“It sounded like a punch, like skin was cracking,” he said.
Stuart held back a scream, while his back seized up for 20 seconds, leaving him briefly unable to walk, he said. The paddling left bruises that made it hurt to sit down the next day, he said.
Members told pledges to dress in women’s clothing and makeup or diapers, Stuart said: He wore a skirt, leotard top and platinum blonde wig. Then, they were given four or five shots of a “secret drink,” made up of various liquors, and driven to an off-campus party, he said.
“If you don’t drink this, you’re out,” members told pledges at the party, handing them more liquor, according to Stuart. He figured he had 10 drinks, fewer than some others.
“Guys should have gone to the hospital,” Stuart said. “One guy was dry heaving for hours. One guy was vomiting blood. It was the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done.”
After the party, pledges commiserated in text messages.
“They fed me a pint of Jack and Jose,” Chris Durgin wrote. “Not to mention sake (saki) is the grossest drink I’ve ever drank but I’m going to try to get used to it.”
Durgin said he “got carried out and woke up with a burn on my forehead.” Durgin did not respond to requests for comment.
Walbrecher, the pledge who had earlier warned about drinking, was especially graphic: “I woke up in throw up and with a black eye and my knuckles were all bruised and I was limping.”
Espinoza, the pledge educator, berated the younger students: “You raged at my house and some of you thought it was cool to punch holes in my wall and you will be patching those f***ers up.”
Espinoza, who graduated in 2012, referred questions to the fraternity’s chapter adviser, saying that “when I was there, none of this came up.”
Other members wouldn’t address the hazing allegations.
“Are you asking me that’s what happened?” Daryl Spencer, an SAE brother and former wide receiver on the Salisbury football team, said in an interview. “Maybe you should join a fraternity and find out. My memory is foggy.”
Dwight “Duke” Marshall, the volunteer alumni adviser for SAE’s Salisbury chapter, said members told him there was no hazing, and he believes them.
“It did not happen,” said Marshall, 47, who was chapter president as a Salisbury student and now runs an insurance agency. “The quality of guys that are in there -- they are outstanding young men.”
After family night, Stuart decided to quit SAE and alert authorities. His desire to protect pledges from harm outweighed his fear of retaliation from fraternity members, he said.
On Friday, March 16, he sent an anonymous e-mail about hazing to the campus police’s “silent witness” website. The school tried unsuccessfully to find out who sent the report, documents show.
By then, Stuart’s grades had fallen from As to Cs, because of late nights at the fraternity. He said he often couldn’t sleep as he worried about his safety.
Other pledges were also anxious. Later that month, fellow SAE recruit Matthew Voigt texted that a buddy told him: “We will be in the basement tonight. Just prepare mentally.”
“Damn ... Let’s go guys at least they can’t kill us,” replied pledge Ryan Afifi.
“Or rape us,” said Clifford Lample, another aspiring member.
Voigt, Afifi and Lample didn’t return messages, declined to comment or referred questions to Marshall.
For Stuart, leaving the brotherhood wasn’t easy. When he missed events, members called, texted and visited his room, according to a campus police report. His father, a 6 foot-1-inch, 260-pound former high school football player, drove to the school and told his son that “if they didn’t leave me alone, things were going to get real,” Stuart told police.
Stuart looked up news accounts about Cornell and other schools where students died because of hazing. In May, he sent another report to the “silent witness” website.
“I was hazed by the SAE (Sigma Alpha Epsilon) fraternity this past semester,” he wrote. “It was completely disgusting and you schools should step up your regulation of this.”
Though his e-mail was anonymous, the campus police tracked him down. At home for summer vacation, Stuart told his story by phone.
“I perceived him to be credible and truthful,” Salisbury University Police Lt. Brian Waller wrote in his report. In June, Waller referred the matter to the city police department, which has jurisdiction off-campus.
In an e-mail, urging the city police to take action, he wrote, “There have been a number of allegations involving this fraternity over the past few years, from hazing to date-rape drugging to harassing a neighbor because of his sexual orientation.
‘‘I fear that sooner or later there is going to be a major incident, and our past efforts will be under the magnifying glass.’’
The police investigation was brief. Two pledges denied that hazing took place, according to a city police report. Stuart’s mother, fearing retaliation by fraternity members, told police she wanted her son to drop the case. Stuart said he decided it would be futile to move forward.
When Stuart returned for his sophomore year, the university pressed forward with its own investigation. Stuart met with the Salisbury University disciplinary board, which includes faculty and student representatives.
Kellner, the recruit who corroborated Stuart’s account of abuse in the basement, said he appeared before the board too. In all, Salisbury held 13 hours of hearings over three days, said Dane Foust, the school’s vice president of student affairs.
Stuart had been promised confidentiality, but his name had leaked out, his father said. On Sept. 28, Hal Stuart wrote to Salisbury University President Janet Dudley-Eshbach, lamenting the toll the investigation was taking on his son.
‘‘He essentially has been blackballed from any social life, eats his meals alone and is miserable,” Hal Stuart said. “I commend his courage for even coming back this semester.”
The board determined in October that the evidence supported Stuart’s allegations. Among “relevant facts” it established were that pledges were “made to get into a bin of ice and required to recite organizational information,” and they were “kept in a basement on several occasions,” blindfolded, yelled at and “made to drink.”
One board member told fraternity leaders at the hearing that their protests of innocence rang hollow.
“What you said sounds like Disney Channel, when what I’m thinking [is] more like Quentin Tarantino,” the member said, according to Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s later appeal.
“Not all of your members are True Gentlemen,” another board member said, echoing the fraternity’s creed.
The SAE chapter appealed the findings, complaining that members weren’t allowed to have lawyers at the hearing. Citing the Tarantino and “True Gentlemen” comments, it contended that board members were biased.
“The fraternity was given a fair and impartial hearing,” Susan Griisser, the university’s general counsel, said in an interview.
In November 2012, the university denied the appeal and suspended SAE through the spring of 2014, removing its recognition as a student organization and barring it from campus. It will then be on probation for another year. A handful of students were also disciplined, Griisser said.
“Our findings and subsequent sanctioning reflect the seriousness we view hazing and the danger it presents to our students,” the board said in its decision.
Susan Lipkins, a psychologist in Port Washington, New York, and author of a book on hazing, said the Salisbury episode reflects a behavior pattern. Older students often subject younger ones to the same hazing they experienced, and then ratchet it up a notch to leave their own mark.
The university’s punishment of SAE was “not enough,” though typical of college sanctions in hazing cases, she said.
“It’s a slap on the wrist and won’t teach much” to fraternity members, she said. The school “should have held everybody in the entire fraternity responsible.”
National SAE officials investigated and found no wrongdoing, said Marshall, the chapter adviser. The parent organization declined to discuss the case.
Marshall minimized the chapter’s infractions. He said Salisbury sanctioned it merely for requiring new members to learn the fraternity’s creed and for asking pledges to wear pins, khaki pants and white shirts. SAE was also held responsible for one episode of underage drinking that wasn’t at a fraternity event, he said.
“I could not belong to an organization that promoted hazing or bullying or whatever you want to call it,” Marshall said.
Marshall’s characterization of the university’s findings was “not accurate,” said Foust, the Salisbury vice president.
The chapter’s suspension infuriated one powerful Salisbury donor: Scarborough, the founder of the SAE chapter. A 1976 graduate, he recently sold Scarborough Capital Management, an Annapolis, Maryland-based investment firm. He gave $830,000 for Salisbury’s fraternity and sorority center, which opened in 2001 and bears his name.
In 2004, Scarborough agreed to return $2.1 million to customers and pay a $50,000 fine to settle U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission civil allegations that he overcharged for mutual funds. He said in an interview that he did nothing wrong and settled because he couldn’t afford to fight the charges.
From 2005 to 2007, Scarborough served as SAE’s top national official, or Eminent Supreme Archon. He sat on the board of the university’s foundation from 1998 to 2011.
A staunch advocate for his fraternity, Scarborough said the university had trampled members’ rights. He said he didn’t know what happened at the initiation, and hazing should be punished.
Still, he canceled a $2 million pledge for a stadium, he said.
“If they decide that’s the hill they want to die on, then let them,” Scarborough said. Other SAE alumni also stopped giving, he said.
Stuart and his father were angry, too. They demanded the school disclose its findings.
This past January, Jen Palancia Shipp, then Salisbury’s general counsel, said she wanted to hear Stuart’s concerns. He declined, saying he was preparing to transfer to the University of Maryland at College Park and wanted to put the investigation behind him.
“I just want to not deal with this anymore,” Stuart told Shipp. “It’s done, ended, the fraternity members can continue to lock people in a basement. It doesn’t matter to me. I am just going to move on and work on my degree at UMD.”
Shipp said she understood.
“I certainly do not want any other student to endure the same thing as you,” she replied.
Two months later, Marshall, the SAE chapter adviser, was arrested for drunk driving, court records show. He had been out with friends and had several drinks, he said. Marshall pleaded guilty to driving while impaired and received probation. Under Maryland law, his plea wasn’t counted as a conviction.
Days after his arrest, Marshall told the chapter’s brothers about it and stressed the “importance of not drinking and driving,” he said.
The SAE chapter is trying to rebound. On a recent weekday at his insurance office in Pocomoke City, 25 miles from Salisbury, Marshall displayed a box of pledge manuals, which he said national headquarters shipped to him to distribute.
“We’re still recognized by our national office as having a chapter in good standing,” he said.
The university’s sanctions, which bar the chapter from campus, have had “a crippling effect” on the fraternity, Marshall said. In December, SAE lost 10 of its 32 members at Salisbury’s midyear graduation. Still, brothers are holding meetings at off-campus apartments and trying to recruit, he said. Recruiting of any kind would violate the chapter’s suspension, according to Griisser, the general counsel.
SAE members don’t get enough credit for their community service, Marshall said. The fraternity’s volunteer and charitable work has included raking neighbors’ leaves, roadway cleanup and raising money to fight cancer.
“You mess up one time and everybody remembers that one time,” Marshall said.
Stuart, now 21 and a junior, keeps to himself at the University of Maryland. He is living at home and commuting to campus, and doesn’t go out much on weekends. Still hoping for a financial career, he’s joined an investment club.
As he drives by Greek houses on his way to school, he ponders what colleges should do about fraternities. They must step up oversight, restrict alcohol, and hold fraternities and members accountable for misbehavior, he said.
Even now, he has trouble trusting other students, and has flashbacks to his experience as an SAE pledge.
“I have dreams of the basement sometimes,” he said. “I hear the yelling. It sounds like they’re about to attack me. Then I wake up from my nightmare.”