In the early morning hours of Feb. 25, 2011, after he was bound by zip ties and blindfolded, fed vodka, pixie sticks and strawberry syrup, and forced to sing “Seasons of Love” from “Rent,” Gregory Wyler ’12 turned to George Desdunes ’13 and asked, “Are you alright? Can you hear me?”
“I thought [Desdunes] was okay because I’d seen him pass out numerous times,” Wyler recalled Tuesday as he gave testimony during the criminal trial of Max Haskin ’14, Ben Mann ’14 and Edward Williams ’14, three former members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity charged with first-degree hazing and first-degree unlawfully dealing with a child.
Wyler turned out to be wrong. Several hours after the mock kidnapping, during which Haskin, Mann and Williams allegedly gave Wyler and Desdunes alcohol, Desdunes was found unresponsive on a couch at SAE. He died at Cayuga Medical Center later that day.
As the other SAE brother kidnapped that night, Wyler is likely to have more insight into the events surrounding Desdunes’ death than perhaps anyone other than the pledges themselves. On Tuesday, he gave a painstakingly detailed, nearly minute-by-minute account of the evening, though both the passage of time and the circumstances of the night — clouded by booze and blindfolds — posed challenges to certainty.
While cross-examining Wyler, Haskin’s lawyer Raymond Schlather J.D. ’76 sought to portray the kidnapping as no more than “play-acting,” the act no more than a “drama” in which any participant could break character and end the performance. Much of Wyler’s testimony seemed to support that interpretation.
Wyler agreed, for instance, that the brothers who had been reverse-kidnapped by the pledges were supposed to then contact other SAE brothers for help. According to the script as dictated by the tradition of the event, the brothers would then arrive at the mock-kidnapping and end it, Schlather said.
Wyler said that he attempted to set this course of events in motion by sending a text message to another SAE brother for help. That brother was apparently busy, and while it is impossible to know what would have happened had he been available, Schlather said that Desdunes, in fact, opposed the intervention.
“You were seated right next to George Desdunes in the town house, and after you [sent the text], you said, in substance, ‘I just summoned help,’” Schlather said, addressing Wyler. “And George then, realizing that your phone had been used ... actually scolded the pledges for not removing your phone before you made that text. Isn’t that right?” Wyler agreed.
Schlather used this and other parts of Wyler’s testimony to buttress his argument that Desdunes was a willing participant in the mock kidnapping.
For instance, Wyler said that after vomiting twice he asked that he no longer be made to drink. The pledges reportedly agreed to stop making Wyler drink at that point, and apparently did the same when, shortly afterwards, Desdunes asked them to stop.
“As soon as [Desdunes] said he had had enough they stopped for him as well?” Schlather asked. Wyler said yes.
Wyler also agreed that, as Schlather described, the “active part of the ritual was over” once the two SAE brothers told the pledges they had “had enough.”
Before the defense was called to cross-examine the witness, Assistant District Attorney Andrew Bonavia had Wyler recount the precise chain of events of the night. He expressed frustration with Wyler’s answers on several occasions, at one point asking Judge Judith Rossiter J.D. ’86 to treat Wyler as a “hostile witness” given his purported inability to remember the evening.
“Judge, this is now the fourth member of this fraternity that we’ve tried to ask questions of that say they don’t remember,” Bonavia said. “The forgetfulness is evasive; these are college-aged students and they have no memory of the events of this evening.”
Bonavia argued during the first day of testimony that alcohol, fraternity culture and the reckless actions of the SAE pledges directly led to Desdunes’ death, according to The Ithaca Journal. The Journal also reported that on the first day, Bonavia said opting out of the mock kidnapping would have hurt the fraternity member’s reputation.
That account of the event mirrors the one asserted in the brief filed by Marie Lourdes Andre, Desdunes’ mother, in June.
Andre’s suit, which seeks $25 million in damages, alleges that pledges “compelled [Desdunes] to consume alcohol until he lost consciousness.”
“As a direct and proximate result of SAE defendants’ negligence, [Desdunes] endured great mental and physical suffering until he died,” the suit states.
But in line with his defense briefs, Schlather claimed that Desdunes was a heavy drinker and known as “blackout George.” Wyler admitted that he had heard the nickname used and said he had seen Desdunes passed out on several prior occasions, even after being able to stand and talk moments before.
On the morning of the pledging ritual, Desdunes was able to get out of the vehicle at the SAE house with the assistance of the pledges and, Wyler recalled, seemed okay when he saw him at the house library. Schlather argued that this, in conjunction with Desdunes’ reputation as a heavy drinker, gave the pledges reason to believe Desdunes did not need medical attention upon his return to the fraternity.
Desdunes’ drinking habits were further corroborated by testimony provided to police and recently obtained by The Sun. Though the name of the person making the statement is redacted, he says in the document that he is the SAE brother “in charge of rituals that involve initiation.”
“[Desdunes] would be someone that you would check on in a bar, for example, if he was keeled over, you want to make sure he was ok. He’s ‘Black Out’ George; it’s what he does. He’s been known to sleep walk before after drinking; he’s peed on another brother’s door; he’s peed on a brother’s PS3 system and in his own bed after drinking as well,” the person states. “I almost expected to hear that George would be in the ER from drinking too much.”