Alcohol poisoning a 'reward' gone awry, teen's family says
Michael Starks was the most desired pledge this fall among members of Sigma Nu fraternity chapter at Utah State University. As the 18-year-old freshman's "reward," a posse of sisters from the sorority next door "kidnapped" Starks to kick off a night of drinking that ended with Starks' death early Friday, according to members of the Starks family.
The tragedy stemmed from an induction routine other fraternity brothers endured in past years, claims Starks' older brother George, a Salt Lake City book publisher and coffee shop owner. That scenario was divulged during an impromptu discussion between George Starks and a Sigma Nu member on the fraternity lawn the day after paramedics responded to a 911 call to find the USU freshman unresponsive from acute alcohol poisoning, George Starks says.
Logan police Capt. Jeff Curtis said Friday that a 19-year-old woman provided fatal amounts of alcohol to Michael Starks. The woman, also believed to be a USU student, has not been arrested, Curtis said. He didn't know if she was a member of the next-door sorority, Chi Omega.
Curtis blamed Starks' death on hazing, a crime under Utah law. Prosecutors are awaiting toxicology results and have not yet filed any charges, according to the Cache County Attorney's Office.
Investigators are still trying to determine whether other students -- in addition to the 19-year-old, whose name was not released -- supplied alcohol to Starks.
"At this point in time, we have interviewed several people involved, probably 20-plus," Curtis said. "There could be some charges with other students. The investigation has become widespread."
Meanwhile, USU President Stan Albrecht on Tuesday indefinitely suspended Sigma Nu and the Chi Omega sorority as student organizations.
"President Albrecht has also instructed the university attorney to conduct an investigation and initiate appropriate action in accordance with the USU Student Code, which specifically prohibits hazing of, or by, USU students," the university announced in a statement.
Chi Omega's leadership in Memphis also suspended activities at USU's chapter on Wednesday, mirroring an earlier move by Sigma Nu executives in Lexington, Va. Both organizations have emphasized their zero-tolerance stance toward hazing and alcohol abuse and have vowed to investigate their chapters' role.
Chi Omega and Sigma Nu's USU members declined to answer questions Monday and ordered news media off their properties, directing queries to national headquarters.
"We have heard that members of the Chi Omega chapter at Utah State may have been with Michael Starks the night before his death; however, we have not confirmed if any, or how many, of our members may have been involved," Chi Omega executive director Anne Emmerth said Tuesday. "We are encouraging any of our members who may have information to cooperate fully with the ongoing police investigation. We will partner with the university in their investigation and I, myself, will be on the ground in Logan Monday to determine if there was further Chi Omega involvement."
Reached Wednesday in Virginia, Sigma Nu executive director Brad Beacham, who had already returned from Logan, said he could not comment until his staff concludes its own investigation.
Starks' death occurred during the week fraternity pledges were sealing their commitments to Sigma Nu. Starks, an on-campus dorm resident and recent graduate of Judge Memorial High School in Salt Lake City, was staying at the fraternity.
"They had taken his cell phone away. He was to have only contact with professors and fraternity brothers," George Starks said in an interview Wednesday, the day after his brother was buried. Last Saturday, George retrieved his brother's laptop, clothing and sleeping bag from the Sigma Nu house.
"There wasn't even a bed in there," he said. "It was like Lord of the Flies in there."
USU Greek members were shocked by Michael Stark's death and skeptical of the hazing allegations.
"Our fraternity was shut down because of hazing and it took 15 years to get started again," USU freshman Mark Speth said. "If hazing occurs there is very serious punishment, not only at the university level but from the national office."
Speth, a 27-year-old Iraq War veteran and member of Delta Sigma Pi since 2002, lauded USU's 308-member Greek community for its commitment to public service and character-building mission.
"I have met a lot of wonderful people worldwide I wouldn't have a chance to meet if I weren't a member," he said. "Whenever something bad happens, people point to the fraternities and sororities because of the bad images they've had over the years."
Tribune reporter Melinda Rogers contributed to this story.
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