CHICO, Calif. — When the green campus of Cal State Chico goes blue in the moonlight and local farm boys sneak out to drink cheap beer, the curious, racy side of this university is readily apparent.
The heavy doors to the old houses on fraternity row, built in a sort of California Gothic style, are open or unlocked, and some lead to rooms and basements where nearly medieval hazing rituals have given the school its titillating reputation as dark, risky -- even dangerous.
At one fraternity known as "heavy" -- that's "wild" in Greek circles -- a young man in a sweatshirt and baseball cap stands on the porch and calls to a young woman in a tight sweater.
"Ladies night!" he beckons. "Of course, it always is."
This party atmosphere has colored life here for years. But now, more than a month after at least eight Chi Tau fraternity brothers allegedly forced a 21-year-old pledge to drink 5 gallons of water, causing him to die of water intoxication, some here say it's time to bolster the university's reputation before it slides further.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 31, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 134 words Type of Material: Correction
Cal State Chico -- An article in Tuesday's California section about hazing at Cal State Chico mistakenly said that a pledge to a fraternity at nearby Butte Community College died of alcohol poisoning. He did not die but was hospitalized. The article also said Chico has a population of 35,000; according to the city, the population is 71,317. In addition, University President Paul Zingg was quoted saying the school would shut down its Greek system if problems with hazing did not abate. Zingg made his comments to a group of 850 students and others, and his remarks were quoted in the local media. He did not speak with The Times. Also, although the article characterized the school as being well-known for its basketball program, its winning baseball program may be best known outside campus.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 19, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 384 words Type of Material: Correction
On March 31, The Times published a correction of four errors in a March 29 article about controversies arising from fraternity hazing at Cal State Chico. At the same time, editors began a full review of the story, which was published on the front page of the California section. Based on that inquiry, which included a visit to Chico by a Times editor, the paper has concluded that the article fell far short of Times standards. Beyond the specific errors, the newspaper's inquiry found that the methods used in reporting the story were substandard. The quotations from anonymous sources and from two named sources, a Mike Rodriguez and a Paul Greene, could not be verified...CX: Additional inaccuracies found during the investigation include the following:* In describing a hazing death this year, the article said that the victim died after drinking five gallons of water from a "rubber bladder bag." The Butte County district attorney reported that the amount of water exceeded five gallons and that it came from a plastic jug, not a bladder bag...CX: * The story also reported that the victim was alone at the time of his death. The D.A. reported that this was not the case...CX: * The article attributed to "medical examiners" the idea that the victim may have experienced a moment of euphoria shortly before his death. That belief has been expressed by the victim's father, who told the Chico Enterprise Record that he based it on his own research. Butte County's district attorney said it does not appear in any medical reports related to the current case...CX: * The article said that the parents of Adrian Heideman, a hazing victim who died in 2000, showed their son's day planner to hazing expert Hank Nuwer. Nuwer informed The Times' readers' representative that he was not shown Heideman's day planner by his parents; he heard it described by Heideman'
University President Paul Zingg called the death of Matthew Carrington "the last straw. The university has no intention of waiting around for another death."
University officials are now investigating the Greek system, and Zingg said that if it appears beyond repair, he will shut it down.
Cal State Chico, with 14,000 students, is 90 minutes north of Sacramento and, to those beyond their college years, may be best known for its basketball team. But the school's racy reputation goes back decades, and in 1987, Playboy ranked Chico the No. 1 college in the country for partying. It was cause for celebration among many of the 875 members of the Greek system, cause for damage control on the part of administrators.
Chico State suffered its first hazing death about two decades ago, administrators say, but few records remain from that time.
The second came in the fall of 2000, when Adrian Heideman, a pledge at Pi Kappa Phi, died of alcohol poisoning.
In 2002, a fraternity member at nearby Butte Community College died after drinking so much that his blood-alcohol level rose to 0.496% -- more than six times the amount at which a person is considered legally drunk. The university does not consider the death its responsibility, but many students and scholars who study hazing tie the incident to Chico because the young man's fraternity was affiliated with a house recognized at the university.
Just 11 days before Heideman's death, Cal State Chico was the site of a speech by Franklin College professor Hank Nuwer, considered one of the nation's leading scholars on the history and ancient ritual of hazing.
Heideman's parents later showed Nuwer their son's day planner. He apparently had attended Nuwer's warning speech.
"I didn't deliver another speech for six months," Nuwer said. "Since then, though, my talks have gotten much tougher -- I mean much tougher."
Ritualistic hazing dates to centuries before the ancient Greeks, though the politicians, warriors and philosophers of Athens might have taken hazing to its orgiastic apogee, Nuwer said.
The first recorded hazing-related death at an American university occurred at Cornell in 1873.
Since then, hazing deaths, often in accidents connected to alcohol, have been recorded across the country.
The wild highs of modern American hazing came with periods of prosperity in the 1970s and '80s and again with the dot-com boom of the mid-1990s.
"The day I moved into the dorms, 22 fliers were slipped under my door telling me where to find the hottest coeds looking to take me home," a student named Brandon told Playboy in 2002, when Chico slipped to second in the magazine's rankings, behind Arizona State University.
Some current and former students embrace Chico's reputation. On a recent Thursday night, two young women walked to a nearby bar and spoke of the town's wild image, one they helped to promote.
They declined to give their names, but one said she was 24, a Chico graduate, and for a short time, a Playboy bunny.
"I posed for Playboy. It was great.... I received quite a few letters from the U.S., and others from Germany, France, Australia, England, Rome, Argentina. Most people thought it was great," the 5-foot-2 brunet said with a smile. "I'd love to pose again."
Elsewhere downtown, the music came in waves, traveling through the concrete and brick of the Mr. Lucky nightclub -- only the bass drum's "doom-doom-doom-doom" had the energy to depart the club.
Mr. Lucky is a dance club seemingly built for students: dark, loud and affordable. Like the fraternity houses, it's also a place for secrets and inebriation.
"Listen, I think this is a great town; it's my hometown, and I think the university is terrific," said a woman who, like many students on every side of the debate, declined to be identified. "I'm in a sorority. Mine's pretty mellow. Some are pretty hard-core. Some of the fraternities are really, really just gross.