As we reported on Friday, the circumstances that led to the death of Cornell sophomore and SAE brother George Desdunes on Feb. 25 are still somewhat mysterious. The university confirmed in a press release that George was “provided alcohol while in the care of certain members and associate members” of his fraternity, and that the resulting intoxication contributed to his eventual death. Still, much about the account struck us as frustratingly (and deliberately) vague.
It does seem pretty clear that the “members” and “associate members” described in the account were brothers and pledges, respectively. But, we still weren’t certain if the drinking occurred during a pledging event; nor did we know exactly what it meant that he was “provided” the alcohol. Today, however, we have a genuine theory.
Yesterday morning, IvyGate received an email from a someone claiming to be an alumnus of the Cornell chapter of SAE. We were able to verify that this person was in fact in the fraternity, and that he graduated within the past 10 years. He told us that during his time at Cornell, SAE pledging protocol involved a custom whereby new members were “encouraged to occasionally kidnap a brother.” The basic scenario involved three-to-five pledges corralling the chosen brother, then spiriting him away to an isolated location for some form of reverse-hazing.
Said our tipster:
At that point usually the pledges would haze* the brother in some way, mostly by just getting him really drunk (usually, really drunk). When I read that [Desdunes] was “in care of … associate members” that is what came to mind. Especially around this time: late feb to early march is when pledging has fully gotten under way and before the busier stuff starts so that’s the couple weeks when the “fun” pledging activities went on. But considering how drunk the kidnapped brother would be when he was returned, it’s not hard to see how it could have gone too far.
(*In a later email, the alumnus said that “hazing” was meant in “at least some jovial sense” that “usually meant that the brother was at least somewhat complicit.”)
Like our source said, the kidnapping scenario meshes pretty well with the whole “in the care of” portion of the Desdunes story. It also bears similarity to several tips we’ve received. So maybe that is what happened on Feb. 25 — or maybe it’s not. Our tipster made clear to point out that he wasn’t present at SAE that night, that he can’t definitively say what occurred, and that the pledging program may have changed since he graduated. Our point in mentioning this all is that the information represents the first real headway we — or anyone else writing about the tragedy — have made in trying to understand what really happened the night George Desdunes died.
Of course, even if this interpretation of events proves true, the fatal error that night wasn’t making Desdunes drink. It was the failure to call for help when it became clear how serious his condition was. That’s presumably a big part of the reason why the University booted SAE off campus. And it could very well explain why the Ithaca Police Department’s investigation into the death is still ongoing, nearly a month later. Neither Cornell, nor SAE have yet responded to our inquiries. (UPDATE: A spokesperson for the university said Cornell would not comment further on the situation while investigations were still under way.) The IPD, meanwhile, isn’t fielding questions about the investigation.
As always, if you have any information to confirm what actually happened on Feb. 25, hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below is a copy of the tipster’s first email in full. His name has been redacted to protect his anonymity:
from <redacted> to email@example.com date Sun, Mar 20, 2011 at 2:24 PM subject Desdunes Death Circumstances mailing list <tips.ivygateblog.com>
First of all, I’m hoping you can keep this anonymous. I don’t have any crazy info but I can conjecture based on my own experience there, so it would be nice not to have my name associated with it.
I was a brother at Cornell SAE about 10 years ago. When we were pledging, one of the things that was encouraged was to occasionally kidnap a brother. It was never violent or physical or anything like that, but usually involved getting 3-5 pledges alone with a brother and getting him in a car and running off to someone’s dorm or somewhere nobody was around. At that point usually the pledges would haze the brother in some way, mostly by just getting him really drunk (usually, really drunk). When I read that he was “in care of … associate members” that is what came to mind. Especially around this time: late feb to early march is when pledging has fully gotten under way and before the busier stuff starts so that’s the couple weeks when the “fun” pledging activities went on. But considering how drunk the kidnapped brother would be when he was returned, it’s not hard to see how it could have gone too far.
I don’t mean to trivialize this or anything by calling those the fun activities, but sadly usually they were. Also I could be way off in my guess here and pledging activities could have changed since I was there. But that’s my guess. Also I suspect that many other fraternities around the country do this kind of thing during pledging, so maybe someone will read this and avoid the “Well they must have been doing something really crazy, but we’re not that bad” pitfall and realize that even just getting someone drunk can go too far very easily It’s a lousy feeling to know that we perpetuated the same pledging activities that led to this horrible tragedy.