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Police searched Fresno State fraternity house after hazing death

An 18-year-old died of alcohol poisoning in August after he and other pledges were locked in a room and told they could not leave until they had consumed bottles of tequila, rum and vodka, police said.

October 11, 2012|By Diana Marcum, Los Angeles Times

FRESNO — Fresno police searched a fraternity at Fresno State University as part of an investigation into the hazing death of an 18-year-old freshman, according to newly released court documents.

A search warrant filed in Fresno County Superior Court said detectives wanted to search the Theta Chi fraternity after its members evaded questions, leading to fears that they might hide or destroy evidence about the death of Phillip Dhanens of Bakersfield. Police declined to discuss the results of the search.

Dhanens died of alcohol poisoning after he and 14 other fraternity pledges were locked in a room the night of Aug. 31 and told they could not leave until they had consumed bottles of tequila, rum and vodka, police said.

Dhanens, a football player and band member in high school, drank heavily and became agitated before passing out. Fraternity members then carried him to a designated "Drunk Room" for observation by the "Sober Brothers," the search warrant said. About three hours later, he stopped breathing.

An autopsy found that alcohol consumption caused Dhanens brain to swell. His blood-alcohol level was 0.36.

The death was the second alcohol-related fatality at a Fresno State fraternity party in six years. In 2006, a 19-year-old died of alcohol poisoning at a Phi Gamma Delta fraternity party. The university suspended that fraternity for five years.

Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has written four books on hazing, said the university needs to act more aggressively to prevent such deaths. Nuwer said the 2006 fatality was "a terrible bystander death with 70 witnesses, and no one there said anything to police — and the school only suspended the organization."

"After this latest death, Fresno State students and administration held a candlelight memorial. Is that enough?" asked Nuwer, whose research found that 80% of hazing deaths over a seven-year period were alcohol-related.

A statement by Paul Oliaro, vice president for student affairs, said "Fresno State is awaiting completion of the police investigation before deciding upon the appropriate university response to this tragic incident. Theta Chi remains on interim suspension from university recognition."

The mother of a young man who died at a fraternity initiation at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2008 said she found the Dhanens' death "too familiar, too similar to what happened" to her son.

After the death of Carson Starkey, Julia Starkey and her husband founded an organization called Awake Aware Alive to teach students the signs of alcohol poisoning. Their son died after fraternity members started to drive him to a hospital but changed their minds because they feared getting into trouble. Instead, they put him on a mattress to sleep it off, and he never woke up.

diana.marcum@latimes.com

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