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In the Basement, No One Can Hear You Scream

Most parents warn their college-age kids about sex, drugs, and drinking. But for one Pleasant Hill mom, it was a conversation about hazing that might have made all the difference.


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Illustration by Jon KrauseAs Debbie Smith walked down the narrow steps to the basement, the cold hit her.

Dilapidated walls were completely torn out in some sections, and holes led to the outside. The ceiling drooped. Trash and beer cans were strewn about. And despite attempts to clean up the raw sewage that leaked onto the floor, Debbie could still smell the stench.

She steeled herself as she peered around the room. She was looking for clues, trying to figure out what had happened to her son here in the basement of this fraternity house.

Near the California State University, Chico campus, the fraternity was a place where people came to party. Home to several young men, the chapter had been expelled from Chico State’s Greek system in 2001 and closed by its national organization in 2002 due to conduct issues and alcohol violations.

After going rogue, members of the chapter, formerly known as Delta Sigma Phi, adopted the name “Chi Tau.” Being unaffiliated with the Greek system meant it didn’t have to abide by anyone’s rules regarding alcohol use, academic standing, or philanthropy. In fact, some Chi Tau members weren’t even enrolled in school.

Debbie’s son, Matthew Carrington, hadn’t planned to rush a fraternity when he moved to Chico. At 20, he had already graduated from Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill and was attending Chico State to pursue a four-year degree in finance. He didn’t use drugs or drink excessively and was the kind of guy who took his friends’ keys at parties.

But the somewhat shy Matt had made a friend, Mike Quintana, who had his heart set on the Animal House college experience. At Mike’s request, Matt joined him to check out the fraternities before rush week. As the two visited the fraternities in downtown Chico in the fall of 2004, it was at Chi Tau where they felt most at home. While Mike could talk to anyone, Matt’s quieter kindness drew people in—and bonds started to form. The guys at Chi Tau took a liking to Matt, and convinced him that he was entering a professional and social network for life. Matt and Mike were offered official bids to join, and Matt dove into the literature he was assigned to study.

That Matt would rush a fraternity to help out a friend came as no surprise to Debbie, who knew better than anyone just how generous a spirit her son had. As a child, Matt had written a letter to Santa Claus saying he wanted to give Santa a surprise, rather than the other way around. And as a teen working at the old CinéArts dome movie theater in Pleasant Hill, Matt was the guy who helped older ladies to their seats.

But now, standing in the basement, Debbie was trying to understand what had gone so wrong. As she scanned the sloppy graffiti that covered the walls, one phrase made chills shoot down her spine: “In the basement, no one can hear you scream.”

 

Worsening Abuse

Hazing, the imposition of tasks that can be humiliating and/or dangerous for the purpose of initiation, may seem harmless at first. Pledges are often told to clean up after parties or open beers and carry books to class. They’re also often required to study up on the fraternity’s history and are quizzed and punished when they answer incorrectly.

But the abuse does get progressively worse, says Hank Nuwer, one of the nation’s leading authorities on hazing. Sometimes, pledges are not allowed to go to the bathroom, change their clothes, or sleep. Lineups—standing individuals side by side as they are sprayed with bad food, water, or alcohol—are also common.

Nuwer, who follows hazing cases around the country, understands the phenomenon well. He says trouble brews when an individual or group that has power—such as a fraternity—wants more power. Because hazing now happens behind closed doors, though, it is hard for college officials and police to root it out. Add to that the secrecy mandated by fraternities and the fact that the perpetrators once endured the hazing themselves—making it a mandatory rite of passage—and dangerous traditions develop.

“These are secret societies, and once it gets into the chapter, it’s hard to get that practice out,” says Nuwer. “It’s not just Chico—it’s Dartmouth, it’s Cornell. There’s a culture of hazing that’s considered benign or manageable, and it bites you later. And Chico [State] has been bitten as much as any school in the country.”

 

Courtesy of Debbie Smith

Super Pledge

Matt never used the word “hazing” during phone calls with his mom, but looking back, Debbie remembers subtle signs that something was up with Matt as he rushed Chi Tau. He had told her about a trip he and the guys took to Southern California, in which he was told to dress up like a prostitute and strut down the street; he also had to trade shirts with a homeless man. Another time, Matt told Debbie he was required to carry a brick everywhere he went.

But he laughed off the events when describing them to his mom, easing her worry. And he completed every task to the fullest extent, quickly earning him the distinction of Super Pledge. That November—two months into the hazing—the members took him out to the Chico bars to celebrate his 21st birthday, a night when he got a taste of what it was like to be treated as a Chi Tau equal.

As the months progressed into winter, though, Matt’s tone started to change. He seemed tired of the frat-boy antics, telling his mom “it was almost over” and that he “just wanted it to be done.” He also mentioned he felt like he had to cut back the hours at his part-time job. But he didn’t want to drop out of pledging. That was pretty typical of Matt, his mother says: Once he signed on to something, he never liked to quit.

“I said, ‘Well, what are they doing?’ And he said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ It made me pause, but it never made me think there was anything that could happen where [the fraternity members] would put his life in danger,” Debbie says. “I didn’t know the intensity. I didn’t know there was a basement.”

 

Hell Week

Most young people in Chico hear rumors about what happens during the pledge process, but only those who live it know each chapter’s traditions. So when Matt and Mike finally reached Hell Week at the end of January 2005, they didn’t know what to expect. By that time, they were the only Chi Tau pledges left: Two others had dropped out, and a third was dismissed for fighting.

Matt and Mike were told they would spend the week sleeping in the basement, often inside openings in the wall that let in cold outside air. The first night of Hell Week was “active night,” and the pledges were forced to perform calisthenics in raw sewage until 6 a.m. Night two brought the “pledge Olympics,” and Matt and Mike played games including beer can baseball until 2 a.m. It was particularly frigid down in the basement the second night, so the “pledge general”—who had endured the hazing a semester before—let Matt and Mike sleep upstairs.

That exception to the rule seemed to upset the senior members of the fraternity, who turned things up a notch on night three. For “movie night,” Matt and Mike were told to strip to their boxers and balance on one foot on a bench while passing a five-gallon jug of water back and forth. They were punished when they spilled while drinking and were blasted with icy air from fans when they answered trivia questions or facts about the fraternity incorrectly.  

In the early hours of the next morning, the guys in charge were winding things down when a senior member of the frat, who had been bar hopping earlier, insisted they continue under his reign. A few hours later, Matt collapsed during a round of push-ups and appeared to have a seizure. He convulsed as his head hit the mucky ground several times. At that point, he and Mike had consumed close to 25 gallons of water.

One guy said he’d call 911, but the call was never made. Instead, the brothers changed Matt out of his wet clothes, wrapped him in a blanket, and placed him on a couch. He appeared to start snoring, so everyone went to bed.

But an hour later, someone noticed Matt wasn’t breathing, and started to administer CPR. Blood came out of Matt’s mouth. What the boys had thought was the sound of Matt snoring was actually the sound of his lungs filling with water, and by the time first responders arrived, Matt’s heart had stopped.

When the fire chief showed up at the Chi Tau house, he noticed that Matt’s condition surprisingly didn’t appear to be related to drugs or alcohol. He tipped off the police chief, who separated the fraternity members for questioning.

Meanwhile, that morning Debbie was at home in Pleasant Hill getting ready to leave for work when the phone rang. It was her husband and Matt’s stepfather, Greg, who had been notified that Matt was in the hospital. Debbie called the hospital in Chico and spoke with a doctor, who told her to get there—fast. Debbie, Greg, and Matt’s brother, Travis, a freshman at College Park High, barreled up the highway. While en route, the phone slipped from Debbie’s hands as she learned Matt had died.

A few hours later, Debbie stood in the hospital morgue next to Matt’s body, stroking his hair against hospital orders. If not for Travis, who was waiting in another room, Debbie says she would never have been able to leave Matt’s side.

 

Debbie Smith listens in court as fraternity members are sentenced. Jason Halley/Chico Enterprise-Record

Arrests Made

The details of what happened in the basement of the fraternity house were slow to emerge, and Chico police started making arrests one month later. Debbie talked to the lead investigator every day, often making the three-hour drive from the East Bay to Chico to meet with police and university officials and to find her own answers where she could, including in the basement. She never missed a court hearing, each time wearing a name tag with Matt’s name and photo. She sobbed inside the courtroom as she listened to the gruesome details of her son’s death, then wiped away her tears before facing reporters from local and national media.

In the fall of 2005, seven fraternity members were sentenced for their role in Matt’s death, many of whom apologized to Matt’s family in court. Only one—the man who insisted the hazing continue—was convicted of felony involuntary manslaughter. Despite the conviction, however, he received a sentence of only one year in jail, what amounted to the stiffest sentence in the case. “I would ask for Matt’s family’s forgiveness,” he told the court as he pleaded no contest, “but I cannot because I don’t deserve it. I can only say I am truly sorry.”

Some saw the sentences as a slap on the wrist, and called on the university to cut ties with all fraternities and sororities. However, Debbie knew her son’s killers had also suffered the loss of their friend and tried to let go of her anger.

“I couldn’t hate them—I had to let that go and forgive,” she says. “And with Matt being the kindest person I know, I knew he would have forgiven them. Living with what they did was their punishment.”

Matt’s unselfish nature wasn’t forgotten by the men who witnessed his death, either. “Matt wasn’t supposed to die that night. He had a bigger heart than all of us put together,” Mike said in a documentary interview. “It should have been one of those fraternity brothers. It should have been me.”

In an effort to make California’s laws about hazing clearer, Debbie teamed up with then Senator Tom Torlakson, a Democrat from Antioch, to stiffen weak hazing legislation that made it difficult on a procedural level to hold Matt’s killers accountable in court. Senate Bill 1454, better known as “Matt’s Law,” amended the California education and penal codes to allow for felony prosecution when hazing results in serious injury or death. It also permits prosecutors to charge individuals specifically with hazing, even if they’re not students.

Debbie also sought other ways to prevent a similar fate for men like her son. She rolled up her sleeves outside the legal realm and spent countless hours with reporters in an effort to publicize Matt’s story. She has never declined a request to be interviewed, and signs her name with an additional “MM” for “Matt’s Mom.” Images of Matt and her have been splashed across newspapers and websites around the world. Debbie also told Matt’s story to NPR and Dateline NBC, and she appeared live on the Ricki Lake and Steve Wilkos shows.

In Chico, University President Paul Zingg took a hard line after receiving the call about Matt. He banned university-recognized fraternities and sororities from taking on any new pledges for the fall 2005 semester and called a meeting with all 1,200 members of the Greek community to tell them to shape up or get out.

Zingg also teamed up with the Chico and university police departments, as well as the city’s mayor, to create a memorandum of understanding that addressed recognized fraternity chapters and unrecognized ones that weren’t subject to the university’s rules, and outlined how the authorities could work together when dealing with problem chapters. The groundbreaking memorandum has since become a national model for college towns and has been adopted on other campuses.

“There are still incidents today, but they are more along the lines of stupid pranks,” Zingg said recently about Chico. “We still don’t condone those, but they are low key compared to creating a situation where someone could die.”

 

Debbie Smith (center) stands outside the chi tau house with family friends.Ty Barbour/Chico Enterprise-Record

Little Change

And yet despite a growing awareness of horror stories like Matt’s and the passing of legislation similar to Matt’s Law around the United States, pledges continue to die. Since Matt’s death in 2005, more than 20 young men across the country have lost their lives as a result of hazing rituals.  Fraternity members seldom face trials due to plea bargains and a lack of evidence, and when they do, the sentences handed down are typically light because it is so hard to pinpoint exactly who is responsible for the fatal blow.

These cases remind Debbie that work needs to be done to deter the behavior at a different level, which includes educating teens about hazing before they head off to college. That’s why she launched the AHA! Movement on the 10-year anniversary of Matt’s death earlier this year.

The nonprofit gives Debbie the opportunity to visit classrooms to share Matt’s story. Last spring, she visited high schools in Concord and Pleasant Hill to teach young people how to identify and prevent hazing. In September, she’ll talk at UC Berkeley and California State University, San Marcos. She tells the students everything—who Matt was, how he ended up at Chi Tau, and what she felt as she saw his body for the last time.

“I tell them, this is what can happen to you,” she says. “Don’t think that just because it’s not bad in the beginning that it’s not going to get worse. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, and if they’re truly your brothers or sisters, they’re not going to put you in those situations. If you can’t say no, there’s a better [chapter] out there for you.”

Debbie also has a message for parents that she wishes she had known before she sent Matt, her oldest child, off to college.

“We’re a part of our children’s education, and when we’re aware, they’re aware,” she says. “I wish I had known what hazing was, and I wish I could have taught Matt. I wish I could have talked to him about it before he ended up in the basement.”


Susan Wood Photography

About the Aha! Movement

Debbie Smith launched the AHA! Movement, a nonprofit organization committed to antihazing awareness, earlier this year. She speaks to students in California high schools, community colleges, and universities, with plans to expand nationwide. For more information, visit ahamovement.org and wemissyoumatt.com.


 

Some Fraternity Hazing Deaths in the Past Decade

Aug. 30, 2005 Kenny Luong
Lambda Phi Epsilon, Cal Poly Pomona
—Died after being tackled during a ritual football game.

Dec. 10, 2005 Phanta “Jack” Phoummarath
Lambda Phi Epsilon, University of Texas at Austin
—Died from alcohol poisoning.

Nov. 17, 2006 Tyler Cross
Sigma Alpha Epsilon, University of Texas at Austin
—Fell from a balcony while intoxicated.

March 30, 2007 Gary DeVercelly, Jr.
Phi Kappa Tau, Rider University
—Died from alcohol poisoning.

Oct. 5, 2008 Johnny D. Smith
Delta Tau Delta, Wabash College
—Died from alcohol poisoning.

Nov. 8, 2008 Brett Griffin
Sigma Alpha Mu, University of Delaware
—Died from alcohol poisoning.

Nov. 18, 2008 Harrison Kowiak
Theta Chi, Lenoir-Rhyne University
—Fatally injured while playing an initiation game.

Nov. 21, 2008 Michael Starks
Sigma Nu, Utah State University
—Died from alcohol poisoning.

Dec. 2, 2008 Carson Starkey
Sigma Alpha Epsilon, California Polytechnic State University
—Died from alcohol poisoning.

March 1, 2009 Arman Partamian
Pigs (unofficial local fraternity), State University of New York, Geneseo
—Died from alcohol poisoning.

Oct. 20, 2009 Donnie Wade II
Phi Beta Sigma, Prairie View A&M University
—Collapsed during exercise drills.

Oct. 15, 2010 Samuel Mason
Tau Kappa Epsilon, Radford University
—Died from alcohol poisoning.

Feb. 25, 2011 George Desdunes
Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Cornell University
—Died from alcohol poisoning.

Nov. 2, 2012 David Bogenberger
Pi Kappa Alpha, Northern Illinois University
—Died of cardiac arrhythmia triggered by alcohol.

Feb. 17, 2012 William Torrance
Delta Gamma Iota, Vincennes University
—Died from alcohol poisoning.

Sept. 2, 2012 Philip Dhanens
Theta Chi, California State University, Fresno
—Died from alcohol poisoning.

Nov. 4, 2012 Mason Sumnicht
Sigma Pi, California State University, Chico
—Died from alcohol poisoning.

April 20, 2013 Marvell Edmondson II and Jauwan Holmes
Men of Honor (unofficial local fraternity), Virginia State University
—Drowned during an initiation ritual.

Dec. 8, 2013 Chun “Michael” Deng
Pi Delta Psi, Baruch College, City University of New York
—Pushed and fatally injured in a weighted backpack.

July 1, 2014 Armando Villa
Pi Kappa Phi, California State University, Northridge
—Died from heatstroke after a long hike.

Nov. 14, 2014 Nolan Burch
Kappa Sigma, West Virginia University
—Died from alcohol poisoning.

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