Fraternity Brothers Sentenced
after Guilty Pleas in Hazing Death.
October 28, 2005
Cuffed and jailed: Fraternity brothers sentenced after guilty pleas in hazing death.
By TERRY VAU DELL - Staff Writer
OROVILLE - The parents of Matthew Carrington say they hope jail terms handed down to four Chico fraternity brothers - who pleaded guilty in court Friday to the hazing death of their son - will help deter such "irresponsible" acts in the future.
The deceased pledge's mother, Debbie Smith, said although "I know that Matt's death was never intended, I hate that the last three days of Matt's life were so torturous. ... My pain is so great that at times I don't know how I'm going to make it." She told the defendants through tears Friday.
In separate statements of remorse, the four convicted Chi Tau members admitted that forcing Carrington to drink gallons of water while performing rigorous
exercises in a frigid basement as part of a "hell night" initiation into the rogue fraternity was both "stupid and dangerous."
Carrington, a 21-year-old Chico State University freshman, collapsed Feb. 2 during the third and most strenuous night of the fraternity rite and died about an hour later at a local hospital.
An autopsy determined the excessive water intake under such extreme conditions caused his heart to stop.
It was at least the third fatal hazing case at Chico State in the past decade, but the first case resulting in any felony convictions,according to District Attorney Mike Ramsey.
Before a phalanx of local and national news cameras in Butte County Superior Court Friday, Ramsey condemned Carrington's death as "madness" and said he hoped the
jail terms will send a message to other fraternities that engaging in any type of illegal hazing has "serious consequences."
Besides sentences ranging from 90 days to one year in jail, the four defendants, Gabriel John Maestretti, 22, Carlos James Devilla Abrille, 22, Jerry Ming Lim, 25, and John Paul Fickes, 19, must participate in an "anti-hazing outreach program" as a condition of
probation. They must also pay fines totaling up to $3,100.
Because one of their lawyers was facing a family emergency, court proceedings were continued to Nov. 23 for two remaining co-defendants, Trent Stiefvater, 20, and Richard Joseph Hirth, both charged with misdemeanor hazing only.
The guilty pleas by the four felony suspects Friday averted a jury trial that was scheduled to start Wednesday.
Tears flowed freely as relatives and close friends of the deceased pledge, all wearing his favorite color red, and sporting buttons with Matt Carrington's picture, remembered him fondly in court and denounced the way he died.
"What really stinks about the situation is that Matt didn't choose to die, these guys on trial right here made that decision for him," said Andrew McPhee, a close friend of the victim.
Calling their actions "selfish and cowardly," McPhee said as bad as the torture the fraternity members put Carrington through, what bothers him more is "they let Matt die alone, by himself with no concern over anyone's well-being other than their own."
Unable to get through his own written address, the deceased pledge's stepfather, Greg Smith, had his cousin, Rich Smith, read it for him.
Describing the stepson he helped raise as "an example of everything good in this world, "he said he had no qualms about him attending "a party school" like Chico State.
"He knew how to have a good time, but how not to take it to excess," Carrington's stepfather noted.
"I do know one thing for sure," he told the judge, "these young men that were in that house that night don't have an ounce of responsibility or give a damn about anything but their Greek system. ... If they really gave a damn just one could have made a difference, if they would have just stopped it, but they didn't, not one of them."
Michael Carrington, who has created a nonprofit foundation aimed at bringing public awareness to combat all student-on-student violence, was overcome with emotion as he described the "sense of powerlessness" he felt when notified by police that
his son was dead.
"The fact that all you are pleading guilty to your crime brings me no comfort," he told the four fraternity members.
"I want you all to remember that you didn't just accidentally kill a pledge; you killed Matthew William Carrington," the victim's father added, sobbing.
Standing before an enlarged photo of a smiling Carrington taken on his 21st birthday, Ramsey pointed to the 5-gallon water jug which figured prominently in the Feb. 2. fraternity death.
"We will no longer accept the killing of our best and brightest in some stupid, macho initiation test of manhood," the district attorney said.
Ramsey explained afterward that the disparate sentences handed down Friday reflected the varied level of involvement in Carrington's death among the four fraternity brothers.
Maestretti, the "most culpable," in the prosecutor's view, pleaded guilty as charged to involuntary manslaughter and hazing and receiving the stiffest sentence - one year in jail. He also is barred from using alcohol and must reside in a clean-and-sober living environment" when he gets out of jail.
Reading from a prepared statement, the heavyset Maestretti, who like the other felony suspects had faced up to four years in prison if convicted at trial, apologized to Carrington's family for his actions. But he said he didn't feel he deserved their forgiveness.
"Hazing is not funny. It is not cute, It is stupid and dangerous," said Maestretti. "It is not about brotherhood, but about power and control. ... My actions killed a good person," he acknowledged.
"I accept my punishment with the hope that it will serve as a warning to others not to follow the path I did," the Chico fraternity member added.
Similar written statements were read by Fickes Abrille and Lim.
Lim, who at the time of Carrington's death was the Chi Tau "pledge general" in overall charge of the fraternity initiation ritual, agreed that "hazing is wrong. ... It demeans and humiliates people, and as the tragedy of this case demonstrates, it can destroy
lives," the told the courtroom.
While "nothing I can say here today will bring back Matthew Carrington or lessen the grief that his family feels, I want them to know that I will do whatever I can to inform others of the stupidity and dangerousness of hazing," Lim added.
Both Fickes and Lim pleaded guilty Friday to a felony accessory charge in addition to misdemeanor hazing and received identical 180-day jail sentences from Judge Stephen Benson. Like Maestretti, they were also placed on five years formal probation.
Abrille, who Ramsey said had left during the night and may have returned to the Chi Tau house after Carrington suffered the fatal collapse, pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor hazing count. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years probation.
On Oct. 3, Chi Tau member Michael Fernandes drew a 30-day jail term after entering a guilty plea to a single misdemeanor hazing count.
Kevin Sears, Ficke's attorney, called Friday's resolution "equitable."
He said all four of the defendants had had gone through the identical initiation ritual and would never have put Carrington through it if they thought it was dangerous.
Carrington's family also seemed in general agreement with the way the high-profile hazing case wasresolved.
"I only hope that this will prevent more such tragedies," said Carrington's mother, who in recent weeks has given talks about the dangers of hazing to one or more sororities in the Bay Area, where she lives.
Though "not common," Ramsey said a similar water hazing ritual led to the death of a fraternity pledge in Pennsylvania last year and may have figured in at
least two other student deaths.
The district attorney said he felt news footage of the four Chico fraternity members being handcuffed and led off to jail Friday, is the "best deterrent" against such hazing.
Among national media covering Friday's court sentence, was syndicated TV show "Inside Edition," NBC's "Dateline" and National Public Radio.