August 6, 2007

Administrators Charged Along With Students in Hazing Death at Rider University

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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) – Two Rider University officials, including the dean of students, and three students were indicted Friday in the death of a freshman after a drinking binge at a campus fraternity house.

The school dissolved the Phi Kappa Tau chapter Friday, and authorities said the aggravated hazing charges should send a message to students and administrators alike.

“The standards of college life, when it relates to alcohol, need to be policed carefully,” prosecutor Joseph Bocchini Jr. said.

Gary DeVercelly Jr., of Long Beach, Calif., had a blood-alcohol level of 0.426 percent, more than five times New Jersey’s legal limit for driving, when he was pronounced dead March 30 at a Trenton hospital, authorities said. He died the day after drinking at the Phi Kappa Tau house on the private school’s campus in central New Jersey.

Further action related to the officials and students involved is to be decided next week, university spokesman Earle Rommel said.

“This has been a very painful time for the university family and the university,” he said. “We recognize that alcohol abuse by college students is a national challenge.”

Friends of the freshman said DeVercelly, 18, told them he would be drinking vodka during pledge initiation at the fraternity house, The Times of Trenton has reported.

The five officials and students charged were Ada Badgley, 31, the university’s director of Greek life; Anthony Campbell, 51, the dean of students; Adriano DiDonato, 22, a student who was also the residence director and house master of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house; Dominic Olsen, 21, pledge master of Spring 2007 Phi Kappa Tau pledge class; and Michael J. Torney, 21, the chapter president.

If convicted, the officials and fraternity members would face a maximum penalty of 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Bocchini wouldn’t discuss evidence in detail, but he has said previously that the investigation revealed some of the pledges drank entire bottles of hard liquor in under an hour.

There were also charges at the municipal level against 15 people accused of providing alcohol to minors, with another 23 charged with underage drinking. Three students also face drug charges after a search of the fraternity house, Bocchini said.

Speaking from his home in California, Gary DeVercelly Jr.’s father, Gary DeVercelly Sr., said the family was grateful for the indictments but still devastated over the death.

“We find it terribly disturbing that the university and its officials were apparently directly involved in the circumstances leading to our son’s death,” DeVercelly Sr. said.

The indictments mark one of the first times that university officials have been criminally charged in a suspected hazing death, said Doug Fierberg, a lawyer who has represented hazing victims since the mid-1990s.

Fierberg, who has been retained by the DeVercellys, said the family hasn’t yet decided whether to file a lawsuit.

A message left at Badgley’s university office was not immediately returned and a home number was not listed. Campbell didn’t immediately return a call to his house. Torney’s lawyer also didn’t immediately return a call.

Paul Norris, a lawyer for DiDonato, said he couldn’t understand why his client was facing charges over a part-time university job. DiDonato was in the fraternity house but wasn’t present at the late March party, Norris said.

“He thought he was taking on a job as an informal mediator. But he didn’t expect to be in this role that he’s somehow responsible as a police officer,” Norris said.

Olsen’s lawyer, Tim Donohue, said his client was still grieving DeVercelly’s death and was so shocked to hear about the indictment that he couldn’t speak.

“He was so choked up,” Donohue said.

The national council of Oxford, Ohio-based Phi Kappa Tau voted July 22 to suspend the Rider University chapter’s charter, said the fraternity’s chief executive, Steve Hartman.

The national fraternity was investigating how a local chapter may have developed a custom of a drinking-based initiation, especially when alumni of the chapter from 10 or 20 years ago couldn’t recall such activities, Hartman said.

“We like to think we know in a general sense what’s going on without being there,” Hartman said.