Brian Gillis died from an overdose at a frat party in SLO. The case remains unsolved and his parents want answers.
STORY BY DANIEL BLACKBURN
PHOTOS BY CHRIS GARDNER
The Sigma Chi fraternity
at Cal Poly has long
been under official
scrutiny for members'
drug and alcohol use.
The bacchanal strains of Spring Break were fading, and for the boys of Cal Poly's suspended Sigma Chi fraternity, it was time to get down to the business of serious partying.
It was "big bro" weeka modernized version of the "big brother" concept of yesteryearand the Sigma Chi pledge class of 11 was prepping for a rigorous night of binge drinking under the watchful tutelage of the fraternity's senior members.
There was much to do before the party could commence. Some brothers scattered into nearby residential halls and sorority houses to secure that universal frat party main ingredientgirls.
Others took up a collection to buy alcohol, an effort that would materialize in a random collection of spirits to stoke the revelers' enthusiasm. The appropriate drug supply was secured. And several headed for the nearby Vons grocery store for a basketful of whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and maraschino cherries for a very special party game.
Some of the brothers, though, were taking it easy.
Sigma Chi member Brian Gillis was one whose pre-party schedule was blank. Gillis, 19, who had pledged the previous semester and was a full-fledged member now, had not committed to "adopt" a pledge, partly, he said, because he didn't want to spend the $80 or so it would eventually cost to be a "big bro."
As his brothers scurried about in their party-preparation mode, Gillis headed for a friend's house, just blocks from the Sigma Chi headquarters at 1310 Foothill Blvd.
The sun was setting on what had been a pleasantly bucolic spring day when Gillis climbed into his black 2000 Ford Ranger pickup truck for the short drive to his friend's house.
It would be turn out to be Brian Gillis' final sunset.
Sigma Chi pledges in the spring 2002 class had been subjected to a steady routine of hazing ever since their blue-blazer initiation.
While hazing is formally prohibited by policies of both Cal Poly and the national fraternity organization, this particular chapter of Sigma Chi didn't hesitate to ignore the rule. Other rules the outlaw frat group chose to shun were sanctions against alcohol and drugs, both of which were part of daily life.
The pledges, following fraternity fiat, had been sleeping in a small crawl space under the rented house of Sigma Chi president Joel Edwards, their sleeping bags scattered around on tarps covering the dirt.
Apart from the discomfort of the accommodations, the pledges were frequently roused from their slumber by members and forced to endure miles-long runs into the darkness. Once they were driven in their undershorts in the dark to the top of Cuesta Grade, where they were left to their own devices. They were told when and what to eat, and when to shower.
On other occasions, pledges would be lined up and blindfolded while a member shouted obscenities in their faces. When they spoke in front of the members, they would be booed, hissed at, and otherwise demeaned.
Pledges were assigned to daily "flag duty"raising and lowering the American flag in front of the frat house on a precise schedule. Failure to carry out this assignment properly would result in a pledge being obligated to hold a flashlight on the flagpole all night.
But this night was to be special. A ceremony was planned, designed to reveal to pledges the identity of their "big bro."
When the young men arrived at the Foothill frat residence on that fateful night, each was greeted by a member with an offering of a 40-ounce can of Old English malt liquor.
Each then took a turn trying to identify his heretofore-secret big bro, with shooters of tequila for those guessing wrong.
After racing to chug the alcohol, the pledges were required to strip to their boxer shorts. Then they were escorted into a closed-door bedroom where a group of girl recruits awaited. There, the pledges busied themselves searching the girls for hidden maraschino cherries and covering one another with whipped cream and chocolate to be licked off faces, chests, and other body parts.
Pledges lucky enough to find a cherry were rewarded by being allowed to slurp a shot of booze out of the girl's belly button.
Observed one member: "We do the beer, we do the girls, and then we hose 'em all off, clean 'em all up."
The hijinx were a welcome respite from the dreary world of rules for the boys of Sigma Chi; because of a recent suspension of their charter, they now felt a relaxation in the prohibition against drinking alcohol on frat house premises. The reason for the suspension? Previous alcohol use.
* * *
Gillis, upon leaving the Foothill Boulevard frat house, drove to a nearby house occupied by fraternity brother Matthew Heintz. Another friend, Ken Schaeffer, was already there.
Accounts differ as to what transpired during the time Gillis spent at the Heintz house.
Nick Potter, a Sigma Chi officer, said in a sworn depositionobtained as part of an ongoing lawsuit filed by the parents of Gillisthat Potter subsequently learned that Heintz, Gillis, and Schaeffer all had consumed GHB. A colorless, odorless substance most commonly found in liquid form, GHB (Gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid) is a designer drug gaining in popularity among college students and "rave" partygoers. It produces euphoria and relaxes the inhibitions. Chemically, and in its results, GHB is similar to Rohypnol or "roofies," the so-called "date-rape" drug (see box).
GHB had not yet at that time become a true drug of choice among college students. But it was rapidly gaining a grip, and today local law enforcement authorities express big concern over the drug's proliferation.
But some people around Cal Poly had certainly discovered the drug. Many Sigma Chi members, for all their ongoing denials, would eventually reveal to investigators or lawyers a common knowledge of GHB's availability and use.
In the refrigerators of various Sigma Chi members, at any given time, a concoction the boys called "Faderade" could be found. This was usually a fruit-juice-based drink, often in its original container, to which a powerful dosage of liquid GHB would be added.
Sigma Chi pledge Robert Poorman, in deposition, said he was once at "one of the members' houses"he said he didn't remember whosewhen he opened the refrigerator.
"I went to grab a Gatorade and [the home's resident] said, 'Be careful which one you take. Don't take that one, take that one. That one isn't Gatorade. It's Faderade.' I wasn't told specifically that it had GHB, but I had that understanding that's what was in it. It had something in it that would make you feel drunk."
Potter, who also related stories about "Faderade," said his impression of the fraternity's official position on drug use was one of don't ask, don't tell.
"The general understanding," he said during one deposition, "was if you were going to do it, try not to do it in front of other people, and if you're going to try it, try not to do it at the house."
Potter emphasized to questioners that he did not use GHB or any other drug.
Potter said he learned more about the source of Gillis' fatal dosage of GHB when he was a roommate of Heintz's in 2003.
"As far as me finding out from Heintz that he gave [Gillis] the GHB [on the night of April 3, 2002], I found out over the course of the past year when I was [Heintz's] roommate, but I was unaware of who gave it to [Gillis] up until that point," said Potter.
Later in the deposition Potter was asked by Dan O'Neill, an attorney for Gillis' parents, "Basically from what you know from Matt Heintz and other individuals is that Matt Heintz had GHB and he gave some to Brian Gillis?"
Potter said Heintz told him he "went into his room and found the bottle tipped over."
Potter was referring to a small glass container that held a clear liquid. Heintz told Potter "he had a sense that [Gillis had taken some of the spilled GHB]."
Heintz's attorney, David Cumberland of San Luis Obispo, offered scant comment.
"I don't comment on ongoing cases," he said. He acknowledged, though, that his client "is aware of" the allegations made by his fellow fraternity members. Cumberland also suggested the substance in question is "an [analog chemical variation] of GHB."
Brian Gillis was
19 when he died.
At about 9 p.m., as the party was kicking into high gear, Sigma Chi member Gillis returned to the residence.
Some members later would report that he had been seen drinking one of the 40-ounce malt liquors. Several people would subsequently say that he appeared to be sober, while others would say he seemed intoxicated.
At about 10:30 p.m., according to cell phone records, Gillis talked to an old girlfriend in Poway, the San Diego-area community where his family resides. She would later relate that Gillis' voice was slurred, that she had difficulty understanding some of the things he said.
Gillis spent part of the evening talking to fraternity brothers Potter and Nick Coccimiglio, mentioning that he had had "a great time" during a Mexican holiday on spring break. Sometime thereafter, the three parted. Gillis said goodnight to Coccimiglio and Potter, turned, walked down the driveway, and disappeared into the darkness.
A truly accurate description of Gillis' activities during the subsequent several hours has proved elusiveto police and private investigators, to campus officials, and to Gillis' family.
Somehow, though, the young man ended up in his own bed in Stenner Glen's apartment 11E, at 1050 Foothill Blvd. Exactly how he got there remains the subject of much debate.
One of Sigma Chi's pledges, Adam Morte, needed to report to work as a checker at Vons at 3:30 a.m., and Gillis had offered to drive.
Coccimiglio, whose apartment was next door to the one shared by Gillis and Brian Schnarr, said he tried to awaken Gillis at 1:30 a.m., but was told by Gillis to "leave me alone."
At 9:30 a.m. the next morning, Coccimiglio, by his account, was departing for a class when he heard Gillis snoring.
Shortly before 10:30 a.m., Schnarr, returning from an overnight stay with a girlfriend, started working on a computer at a desk in his bedroom. After about a half hour, he glanced over at his roommate Gillis.
Disturbed suddenly by an overwhelming aura of stillness, Schnarr stood and approached the supine figure on the bed.
Schnarr called his name: "Brian?"
There was no response. Gillis did not seem to be breathing. Schnarr touched his friend's face, recoiling at the chill.
Brian Gillis was dead. His apartment was only two blocks from Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center.
First to arrive at the apartment following Schnarr's frantic 911 call were San Luis Obispo paramedics Scott McMillan, Neal Berryman, and Erik Baskin, followed closely by Lt. Steve Tolley, and detectives Chris Staley and Sue Murphy of the SLO Police Department.
The firefighters found Gillis lying atop bed covers on his back, still fully clothed. He had vomited a bloody substance onto the pillow. Berryman checked for vital signs, and at 11:06 a.m. made the official determination that Gillis had died.
When police interviewed Schnarr and Coccimiglio, both suggested that Gillis might have taken the illegal drug GHB in the hours leading up to his death.
GHB, originally developed for use as an anesthesia, also produces deep reversible depression of cerebral metabolism, decreases heart rate, and generally slows down the body's functions. An amount of less than a single teaspoon will quickly induce a deep coma and can eventually cause death.
Coccimiglio told investigators that he had last seen Gillis alive in the Stenner Glen parking lot. They had walked to Gillis' apartment, said Coccimiglio, during which time Gillis reportedly told his friend that he had consumed GHB and that he "thought he had taken too much."
Gillis ate a bowl of cereal and then lay down on the bed, said Coccimiglio, observing that he was tired, and asked his friend to awaken him in time to take pledge Morte to work.
According to Coccimiglio's statement to police, Gillis had told him "on several prior occasions" that GHB was rapidly becoming Gillis' favorite recreational drug, even though he said he had tried it for the first time only a few days earlier.
Based on information obtained from fraternity members following Gillis' death, San Luis Obispo Police investigators obtained a search warrant for the home of a man who was not a member of the fraternity. Although some drug paraphernalia was found, nothing like GHB was in the house, according to court records.
The night after Gillis died, about 30 members of Sigma Chi gathered at Lake Nacimiento to discuss the tragedy. They sat around a campfire in what one member described as a "round-table." Officers of the fraternity later would deny to authorities that they discussed any kind of "cover-up" or tried to fabricate a story to protect the house and its members.
"We were out there to remember his life," Potter said of Gillis.
Patricia Gillis, too, remembers her son's life. And his death. She has been on a nonstop mission since her oldest son died to learn the source of the GHB that killed Brian. She expressed extreme frustration with local law enforcement's investigation in the aftermath of Brian's death.
"The police act as though this is an everyday occurrence," she said. "It is my opinion that the San Luis Obispo Police Department will never admit they botched the investigation. Sigma Chi has been running the police department and their parents for years. The police are obstructing justice."
Patricia Gillis said she believes that police are handling the case as "just another overdose of a college kid," and are not taking seriously her contention that Brian Gillis might have consumed the GHB without really knowing what he was doing.
In a lawsuit Patricia Gillis filed after Brian's death naming 10 defendants, she alleged that Sigma Chi members "conspired" to obfuscate the true facts of events leading up to his death.
She said this week she plans to ask the San Luis Obispo County Grand Jury to investigate the police handling of the case.
"We believe when Brian began to lose consciousness, he was picked up by a Sigma Chi brother and possibly others at the party, driven to Stenner Glen in his own truck, carried up three flights of stairs, and placed or positioned in his dorm room bed, and was already dead or left to die," Gillis said in her letter to the Grand Jury.
"This was done so that the Sigma Chi fraternity could avoid any possible criminal charges for the drug dealing that had been going on that night," she wrote. "There has been a massive cover-up since that horrific night."
Indeed, in addition to a lack of prosecution of the alleged source of the GHB, there are significant gaps in the chain of accurate information.
Gillis' truck was found in the Stenner Glen parking lot near his apartment, despite testimony of some of those people at the fatal party that he was seemingly incapable of driving and was walked home by fellow frat members.
Scott Barnes, a county resident who retired after 20 years as an investigator for the military and several federal agencies, specialized in youth deaths in the workplace. He has taken an interest in the case, he said, because he has university-age children and thought he could be helpful to the Gillis family. He said he has participated in "at least a hundred" probes into mysterious deaths of young people.
"I have grave doubts" about the thoroughness of the police investigation, said Barnes, noting that he has seen the color and black-and-white Gillis autopsy photos. "I think it was handled poorly from the get-go."
"The photos show a degree of lividity suggesting that the Gillis boy had been dead for, at the very least, several hours before the paramedics got there," said Barnes.
That would conflict with the statement of Gillis' roommates that he had been heard snoring at 9:30 a.m.
Lt. Rocky Miller of the San Luis Obispo Police Department said that "a number of inconsistencies exist" in the statements of Sigma Chi members and others at that fateful party.
He said the matter has been turned over to the district attorney.
"But I don't know if we will ever be able to prosecute anyone," he added. "There is concern as to whether there is criminal culpability. From what we have seen, we don't have a good criminal case yet."
However, Miller said investigators "have been given new information" developed during ongoing civil proceedings.
"It's tough to know where we go at this point," he said, adding that the department "would love to prosecute."
* * *
Cal Poly's Sigma Chi chapter lost its charter in August 2002, just months after Brian's death. The reason? Alcohol and drug use by members.
News Editor Daniel Blackburn can be reached at email@example.com.