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UC Irvine Fraternity Suspended Amid Investigation Into Hazing

School: Beta Theta Pi is sanctioned by its national headquarters after a pledge files suit, saying he suffered a grand mal seizure.

January 15, 2002|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A UC Irvine fraternity has been suspended by its national headquarters during an investigation of a pledge's claim that he suffered a grand mal seizure and was hospitalized after a weekend of hazing in Big Bear.

UCI, meanwhile, is conducting its own investigation of Beta Theta Pi in connection with a lawsuit filed Nov. 28 by Jeff Warden, who said he was forced to exercise in freezing temperatures and had beer forced down his throat while being subjected to continuous verbal abuse during the initiation in December 2000.

Diane Kim, the campus director of student judicial affairs, said a decision on whether to impose a penalty is expected by the end of the month. Sanctions could include suspending the fraternity for an extended period of time or making it the first Greek organization to be banned from UCI.

Hazing is a misdemeanor under the state Education Code and is punishable by fines of $50 to $5,000 or not more than a year in the county jail. Kim also will decide whether to refer the matter to police, said Randy Lewis, UCI's associate dean of students.

Beta Theta Pi, which has had a chapter at the school for 26 years, has a reputation for being the top-ranked academically.

"Basically, we're a bunch of smart guys who are good at sports," said Edwin Steen, fraternity president. He declined to comment on the incident, other than to confirm the investigations. The local chapter has not hired an attorney, he said.

Although hazing is specifically prohibited by UCI, "it's hard to enforce," said Paul Suhr, president of UCI's Interfraternity Council.

Warden, 20, is a sophomore film studies major from Colorado Springs, Colo., who wants to be a director. His lawsuit, filed in Orange County Superior Court, seeks unspecified monetary damages for assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The suit also names 13 Beta brothers as defendants.

In describing the stay at Big Bear in an interview and in his lawsuit, Warden tells a tale of 18- and 19-year-old pledges pushed so hard that they break down in tears and rebel against the fraternity.

Rush was in its final weekend on Dec. 8, 2000, when Warden and two other pledges drove with about 15 fraternity members and alumni to Big Bear. Warden said he thought they were going snowboarding.

When the group arrived in Big Bear about midnight, Steen, then the vice president, told pledges to hand over their cell phones and valuables for safekeeping. The pledges were offered beer, and Warden said marijuana was passed around.

He said he didn't smoke, and insisted on having a soft drink. As the evening went on and Warden still refused to drink beer, fraternity members chanted his name, "Jeff! Jeff! Jeff!" so loudly that he couldn't hear himself talk. Finally, two members picked him up and shoved the keg hose into his mouth.

What followed was a night of the fraternity members imitating drill sergeants, yelling abuse at the pledges. Pillowcases were placed over their heads as they were moved from cabins that were as hot as a sauna to those that were unheated.

When morning came, pledges were handed a cup filled with what Warden thinks was raw eggs and hot sauce. Next came a main course of eggs-raw and scrambled, with green food coloring-that pledges were told to eat without using their hands. One pledge objected, and a member pushed the youth's face into the plate.

When they finished eating, pledges were ordered to hold Warden by the legs and the head and use him as a human squeegee to clean the table.

Then he was handed a mop and told to clean the floor. "I dropped the mop I told them, 'That's not what we're here for.' I was confused and furious at the same time.'

Warden said another drinking game began, and he was made to do push-ups. By this time, he said, he was so tired he could barely finish one. As he lay on the ground, he was forced to join in a simulated sex act with the two other pledges.

When he got up, Warden said he told the frat members he didn't feel well, and went outside for a few minutes. Back inside the cabin, Warden said he felt his field of vision constricting.

"I was coherent, and then I wasn't," Warden said. "I could feel something happen to me.'

The next thing he remembered he was in leg and arm restraints at Bear Valley Community Hospital.

He was diagnosed with a grand mal seizure. Warden said he never experienced one before, and hasn't had one since.

Fraternity members took him from the hospital and dropped him off at his aunt's house in San Juan Capistrano.

A few days later, Warden's temperature hit 101.5, and he went to UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, where he was subjected to tests, which turned up no abnormalities.

Betas told him not to tell anyone what had happened because the fraternity would get in trouble, Warden said. They left phone messages asking him to come to meetings.

But he said he had had enough of the Greek life. He avoided fraternity members for the rest of the school year.

Last fall, he reported the Big Bear events to a campus ombudsman. "He said I definitely had a case, and I should get counseling and get a lawyer, and he'd notify the school.'

Warden said that he hadn't plan to sue. The fraternity had assured him they would pay the $10,000 in medical bills. But he said they paid him only $3,000.

"It's kind of sad," Warden said. "My whole view of fraternities has changed. I thought they stood for brotherhood, friendship and people you'd know for life.'

'My whole view of fraternities has changed. I thought they stood for brotherhood, friendship and people you'd know for life.'

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