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Five years later, still haunted by drowning

September 15, 2007|Sandy Banks

She doesn't talk much about her daughter these days. She's accepted the fact that Kristin is gone, that life goes on, that the answers she needs may never come.

It's been five years since police showed up in the middle of the night to tell Patricia Strong-Fargas that her 22-year-old daughter, Kristin High, had drowned in high surf at Dockweiler State Beach.

Police said it was an accidental drowning. Officers pulled the bodies of Kristin and 24-year-old old Kenitha Saafir from the water just before midnight Sept. 9, 2002. Television news reports would later describe the dead women, both Cal State L.A. students, as "coeds partying at the beach."

But a lawsuit filed in 2002 by Strong-Fargas alleged a more troubling explanation: The young women died in a hazing ritual while pledging one of the country's most venerated black sororities.

The sorority denied responsibility and said there was no official chapter at Cal State L.A. No criminal charges were ever filed against anyone involved. But the official explanations have never comforted Strong-Fargas.

Kristin was always a type-A daughter. Super student, athlete, campus leader, mother of a 2-year-old son. Joining Alpha Kappa Alpha was something she had always wanted.

But her mother said the weeks-long process of pledging was more grueling than Kristin had imagined. She'd straggle home late at night, exhausted and edgy. She wouldn't talk about what was going on. "I didn't worry as much as I should," Strong-Fargas said this week. "There were things I missed, because I trusted her. Kristin was always on top of things."

According to her family's lawsuit, Kristin, Kenitha and two other pledges were worked nightly to exhaustion, in sessions that often lasted until 1 or 2 a.m.

The night they died, the lawsuit claims, they'd spent hours at the beach doing calisthenics before they were ordered to walk backward into the ocean. A wave hit Kenitha and knocked her down. Kristin knew Kenitha couldn't swim, so she went in after her. Both were dragged by high waves under the water, the lawsuit alleges.

That is what Kristin's mother believes, based on witness accounts collected by the family's private investigator, Robert Freeman. She doesn't know for sure because the two pledges who survived won't talk to her.

The next day, when the young women brought Kristin's car home, her mother said Kristin's pledge journal was missing and numbers had been deleted from her cellphone. "They wanted to just drop the keys and run," Strong-Fargas said when I interviewed her this week at the small Christian school she runs in South Los Angeles.

"These were girls who had spent hours at our home, who had eaten with my family, played with Kristin's son. They were the only ones who could tell me what happened to my daughter. And they couldn't even look at me in my face."

Accusations of hazing surfaced almost immediately, but were never proven.

"I've had an easier time infiltrating street gangs than penetrating this organization," Freeman, a former cop, told me not long after the young women died, a few months into his investigation for the family.

Alpha Kappa Alpha leaders said from the start that the group had no role in the deaths. The sorority's chapter at Cal State L.A. had been suspended for hazing, so the pledging process was unsanctioned.

Like every collegiate Greek organization, the sorority has rules against hazing -- a "risk management" policy, their website calls it.

According to those who track hazing injuries, more than 80 pledges have been killed or injured around the country in the last 15 years during rites that involve binge drinking, beatings or extreme physical exertion.

But the deaths of Kristin and Kenitha had special resonance among Greek-letter organizations. "Their deaths were like 9/11 for fraternities and sororities," said Lawrence Ross Jr., the author of a book on black Greek organizations and an anti-hazing lecturer on campuses. "It forced a lot of people out of denial."

As a reporter, I covered the story when they died. I suspected from the first bare-bones account that this was no simple jaunt on the beach. Because when I was a college student, I pledged a sorority.

The insults, the paddling, the forced exercise routines that I endured went beyond humiliating and veered perilously close to dangerous. But I didn't balk.

Then, I believed the party line: Surviving brutality was a badge of honor, keeping secrets a measure of loyalty. Now, I'm not so sure.

I've always been glad that I pledged and proud I made it through. As difficult as it sometimes was, the process gave me confidence, and taught me to draw on an inner strength that's served me well in adulthood.

But then I made it out alive.

Now, 35 years down the line, I'm no longer courting the respect of would-be sorority sisters. I'm a mother with a daughter in college. And I'm wondering what secrets I'll be willing to share if she comes to me one day and says, "Mom, I'm thinking of pledging a sorority."

The full story from that night may never be told. Both families sued the sorority. After months of depositions -- and Strong-Fargas sat through every one -- the lawsuits against Alpha Kappa Alpha were settled. The deal that kept the cases out of court included a financial payout that the families are not allowed to disclose and a promise by the sorority to work harder to end hazing.

Today, to mark the fifth anniversary of her daughter's drowning, Strong-Fargas is speaking at a forum on hazing, where students and parents can talk about how to recognize abuse and stand up to it; how to tell the difference between a wacky request and a dangerous stunt that could lead to death.

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

The forum will be from 3 to 5 p.m. at St. Augustine Baptist Church, 8704 S. Figueroa Ave, South Los Angeles.

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