Fraternities have announced sweeping changes in recent years, but families of young men who have died in hazing-related incidents say it’s not enough.
The fraternity wasn’t allowed to haze him, but 20-year-old Alex Beletsis was dead anyway. His attorneys say he was forced to drink alcohol and then fell out an 18-foot-high window.
Not only did the members of Theta Chi cause his death, Beletsis’ attorneys argue, but they also tried to cover it up during a subsequent investigation by the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Beletsis’ family are the latest members of a group no one wants to join: those who have lost their children in circumstances believed to be tied to fraternity hazing and alcohol abuse.
On Thursday, they filed suit in Santa Cruz Superior Court against Theta Chi, individual members of the fraternity, and the owner of the property where Beletsis died.
For decades, at least one young man has died annually in connection to fraternities and hazing. Increasingly, universities are taking more punitive measures to rein in bad behavior at fraternities, such as campus-wide sanctions or banning Greek life altogether. Some states have passed laws that make it a crime to haze.
That’s true in California, where Matt’s Law exists, so named after the 2005 hazing death of Matthew Carrington. At the same time, families are also seeking to hold the institutions responsible for the deaths of their loved ones.
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That’s why Alex Beletsis’ parents say they are suing Theta Chi, seeking damages to be decided in court as well as legal expenses.
“Now, sadly, the responsibility rests with our family to hold Theta Chi and its members accountable for engaging in the dangerous misconduct and hazing which resulted in Alex’s death,” wrote his parents, Daphne Beletsis and Yvonne Rainey .
Theta Chi didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.
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Drinking. A fall. A shattered skull
Beletsis had been through all the drinking before, when he first joined the Theta Chi chapter at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Other young men vomited around him, the lawsuit says, while fraternity brothers shot anti-semitic and misogynistic jeers at them.
In June 2018, Beletsis was up for an officer position, which meant he would have to go through another round of hazing.
Vodka, Jägermeister and other types of alcohol flowed during the Crossover night, an event to celebrate new members and raise existing ones. Yet as is sometimes the case with fraternities, it was really an elaborate excuse to drink, the lawsuit alleges.
So they drank, and they later did cocaine, according to the lawsuit. Beletsis grew “incoherent, mentally unstable, and panicky.”
His fraternity brothers sent him to the bathroom so he could “settle down.” Inside, the lawsuit argues, the low, tall window that overlooked the concrete ground 18 feet below was broken. And it would be easy enough to open without the “full weight” of an adult against it.
How it happened is unclear, but Beletsis fell out the window. He shattered his skull and injured his spine.
The ambulance driver that came might have known the route. In recent years, emergency responders had rushed to this house seven times, the lawsuit says. It wasn’t the fraternity’s official home, but it was where the chapter president and other members of the organization lived. These types of houses, experts say, are often maintained by fraternities to avoid closer scrutiny from universities.
After his fall, Beletsis clung to life for nearly two-and-a-half weeks. On day 18, his family removed him from life support.
‘You know someone knows’
The university’s then-chancellor, George Blumenthal, issued a message earlier this year saying the college no longer recognized Theta Chi as a fraternity. Scott Hernandez-Jason, a university spokesman, told USA TODAY one student had been “dismissed and several more may face serious discipline.”
The news about Theta Chi came after an investigation from the university. Hernandez-Jason said because the event was off-campus, there was a brief delay in launching an investigation. That started in October, and the fraternity was suspended in January.
“Through what proved to be a complex investigation, more information came to light — all of which resulted in the dismissal of Theta Chi,” he said.
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During the probe, the lawsuit alleges, fraternity members attempted to stymie those efforts. One of the group’s members told the university the party where Alex had died was not a fraternity event. The lawsuit alleged the national fraternity told the university the same thing. And in June 2018, the fraternity held a “mandatory meeting,” the lawsuit says. There the minutes included the message that it was “crucial not to provide information” and promised fraternity members the national organization supported them.
The messaging to remain silent, the suit says, became more dire on the group’s private Facebook page: “Keep your (expletive) mouth shut about the entire situation!”
The silence and seeming coordination that follows a young man’s fraternity death is familiar to Cindy Hipps. She is the mother of Tucker Hipps, a young man who died in mysterious circumstances while attending Clemson University.
Hipps is now an activist against fraternity hazing, and she said it was hard to find answers about what happened to her son because no one in the fraternity would talk.
However, she had access to her son’s cell phone. The new information within led police to subpoena phone records and the mobile messaging app GroupMe, which revealed new information the members didn’t provide initially.
Hipps said the lack of information compounded the anguish of losing a child.
“You know that someone knows,” Hipps said.
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The Theta Chi chapter at Santa Cruz may be gone, but its presence lingers on social media.
On Facebook, one of Beletsis’ last postings is for a Theta Chi event in spring. The Theta Chi chapter at UCSC has since disbanded, but it may not have been Beletsis’ death that stopped them. He died in June 2018. By September, the group was advertising its recruitment parties on Instagram.
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
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