After Former Pledges Acquitted, Cornell SAE Found Guilty of Hazing in George Desdunes’ Death

After ruling three former Cornell Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledges not guilty in the death of Cornell student and SAE brother George Desdunes, a Tompkins County Court judge found Cornell’s SAE chapter guilty of hazing in Desdunes’ death, The Ithaca Journal reports. While the three former pledges were acquitted, the judge used details from their trial in the decision to find SAE guilty, as the fraternity chose to “disregard or ignore the proceedings in Criminal Court.”

Details from the trial seem to describe the fraternity as … well, a fraternity. According to The Journal:

“Witnesses testified about a beer pong tournament held at 122 McGraw Place the night that Desdunes died, and described a house where alcohol was readily available to pledges and members regardless of age. In her decision, Rossiter wrote that ritual line-ups at the fraternity constituted hazing under New York law. During the weekly line-ups fraternity members subjected assembled pledges to taunts, punishments and directives.”

However, what could have been the most damning piece against the fraternity is this: “Witnesses testified that at a line-up two days before Desdunes died, fraternity members berated pledges for not conducting more of the ritualistic mock-kidnappings that were a fraternity tradition.” Unfortunately, they seemed to have listened. Read the rest of this entry »

BREAKING: Cornell SAE Pledges Acquitted In George Desdunes’s Death

Close to a year and a half after the hazing related death of George Desdunes, the Cornell student and Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brother, a Tompkins County Court judge acquitted all three former SAE pledges of all charges Tuesday afternoon, The Ithaca Journal reports. Desdunes had been found unresponsive on a couch in the SAE house in February 2011, following a kidnapping ritual in which he was tied up and fed alcohol by pledges in the fraternity.

According to The Journal,

“Max Haskin, Ben Mann and Edward “EJ” Williams — the three former Cornell freshmen and pledges to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity — were cleared of all criminal wrongdoing in a case that put a spotlight on binge drinking in college fraternity culture.”

Haskin, Mann, and Williams are no longer enrolled at Cornell.

The defense’s successful argument seems to have relied on depicting Desdunes as someone who routinely consumed large amounts of alcohol. “Fraternity members brought to the stand testified that Desdunes was known to be a heavy drinker, with defense attorneys trying to establish that he had been voluntarily consuming large amounts of liquor for hours prior to his encounter with the pledges,” according to The Journal.

SAE was also a defendant on hazing charges. However, according to The Journal, their verdict has not yet been announced. SAE and 20 members of the fraternity were also named in a $25 million wrongful death civil lawsuit by Desdunes’ mother, Marie Lourdes Andre, which has yet to be resolved.

“The TKEover has begun”: Did Cornell Frat Market Its Coolness After the Death of a Brother?

Last March, Cornell revoked its recognition of Sigma Alpha Epsilon after the alcohol-related hospitalization and death of SAE brother George Desdunes ’13. Of the 22 pledge brothers in that year’s pledge class — whose reverse-hazing contributed to Desdunes’ death — six left Cornell for good. All of the remaining 16, meanwhile, flocked to Tau Kappa Epsilon. But did TKE take them in — or did SAE take them over?

It’s getting clearer: TKE now faces losing university recognition, after another alcohol-related hospitalization of another pledge a freshman (who thankfully survived). This follows TKE’s hosting planning to host, last September, the White Party, a bash traditionally thrown by SAE, and other signs that the killed-off frat had reanimated in TKE’s body.

Now, thanks to a tipster, we have a better idea of how this all came about.

First, background: Publicly, SAE/TKE brothers have basically stuck to the position that their union was immaculately conceived. One pledge told the Cornell Daily Sun last April that “It’s hard to say where the idea [of TKE taking SAE’s pledges] first came about, but a bunch of guys in SAE and TKE know each other, so it just seemed logical.” And Ryan Yeh ’13, incumbent president of TKE, gave the Sun the same impression: “Like all great ideas, it’s hard to say who came up with it first . . . The two fraternities had quite a few brothers that were mutual friends outside of the house.”

TFM, right?

Not quite. A well-placed tipster tells IvyGate that SAE made the rounds with a sales pitch of sorts (bolding ours): Read the rest of this entry »

Cornell Frat Presidents Plagued With Selective Memory

In today’s Cornell Sun was a letter from six fraternity presidents who urged all houses to come together and implement reforms to help save the Greek system. Which was all well and good. A kid died last spring, and some changes are in order. Nothing wrong so far.

It wasn’t all that long, though, before the writers jumped into one of those forceful — and predictable — declarations of victimhood you see every time a Greek system at any school winds up in hot water:

Most chapters are using safe practices and following all of the rules that are in the recognition policy. Unfortunately, what we do every day, every week and every semester is overshadowed by the shortcomings in judgment and leadership of a select few houses.

They go on to talk about all the philanthropy and public service they do, and how, in spite of that, they’re still unfairly villainized, or something along those lines. This is boring.

What is interesting, though: One of the letter’s cosigners, Ryan Yeh, is president of TKE, the fraternity that absorbed 16 SAE pledges after that house was kicked off campus. That being the case, remnants of one of those “select few houses” who screwed the pooch are actually, in a way, represented in this letter. Symbolism. Read the rest of this entry »

Cornell President Pens NYTimes Op-Ed: “A Pledge to End Fraternity Hazing”

Cornell’s Greek community can expect some pretty radical changes in the coming weeks and months. That’s the word from President David Skorton, who took to the pages of the New York Times today to outline, in broad strokes, his plan for a hazing-free Cornell:

Yesterday, I directed student leaders of Cornell’s Greek chapters to develop a system of member recruitment and initiation that does not involve “pledging” — the performance of demeaning or dangerous acts as a condition of membership. While fraternity and sorority chapters will be invited to suggest alternatives for inducting new members, I will not approve proposals that directly or indirectly encourage hazing and other risky behavior. National fraternities and sororities should end pledging across all campuses; Cornell students can help lead the way.

The move was all but inevitable after Cornell sophomore, and SAE brother, George Desdunes died after a night of reverse-hazing, back in February. That story has (rightfully) been a persistent black mark on the university over the past half-year, as a months-long police investigation resulted in the May indictment of four SAE pledges; followed shortly thereafter by a $25-million wrongful-death lawsuit against the fraternity, filed by Desdunes’ mother. The university had already planned on overhauling regulations for Greek organizations, and it became clear almost immediately after Desdunes’ death that those efforts would be redoubled.

We’ll keep the comment to a minimum for now, except to say that Skorton’s sentiments are all well and good, but ending decades-long, institutionalized practices is a bit more difficult than telling the Grey Lady, “It shall be so.” It will be interesting to see what substance comes out of Skorton’s initiative.

Desdunes’ Mother on Cornell SAE: “I Want Those Kids To Take Responsibility For Their Actions”

Marie Lourdes Andre appeared on NBC’s “Today” show this morning for a conversation with Matt Lauer about her $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against Cornell’s SAE. Andre filed suit against the fraternity earlier this week, a little more than four months after her son, George Desdunes, was found dead following a night of “reverse-hazing.” She appeared alongside two of her attorneys, and all three made it very clear that they intended to ensure that nothing like her son’s death could ever happen at SAE-Hillcrest again.

Watch the video below:

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Cornell SAE Sued For $25M Over Death of Brother

It always felt like the other shoe had yet to drop in the case of George Desdunes, the Cornell sophomore and SAE brother who was found dead in his fraternity house on Feb. 25. Four former SAE pledges were charged in May with first-degree hazing and first-degree “unlawfully dealing with a child” — which carry with them maximum penalties of one year in prison (no small punishment, to be certain). But still, given the magnitude of the circumstances, it felt like retribution hadn’t been fully doled out.

Not so much any more: Desdunes’ mother, Marie Lourdes Andre, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the frat with a price tag of $25 million. She said, according to the Associated Press (by way of the Cornell Sun):

With the death of my son, I find some comfort in knowing that this lawsuit may bring about changes in fraternities that will prevent other families from suffering as I have.

In the initial weeks and months following Desdunes’ death, its circumstances remained shrouded in mystery. But the story we now know goes something like this:

George and another SAE brother had been whisked away on the night of Feb. 24, in what was called a “voluntary kidnapping.” (SAE had a history of such stunts.) His captors were a group of pledges, who administered “reverse-hazing” — wherein Desdunes would answer questions about the frat, drink for wrong answers, and perform calisthenics, according to the suit. The pledges later returned him to the SAE house, his wrists and ankles bound with zip ties and duct tape, and left him asleep on a couch, where he was later found. An autopsy revealed that his BAC was 0.409 at the time of his death.

The lawsuit deals another brutal (but not unwarranted) blow to SAE, who had already been suspended from operation for five years following a Cornell investigation into George’s death. “Local chapter officers and members” were also named as defendants in the suit, according to the AP, though their names have not yet surfaced.

Update: Here’s an ABC News video clip detailing the story. — C.B.

Update No.2: The Cornell Sun is now reporting that the lawsuit names 20 former SAE brothers and pledge members as defendants, in addition to the fraternity. — C.B.

Four Cornell Frat Boys Indicted for Crimes Tied to Their Brother’s Death

The death of Cornell student George Desdunes at the alleged hands of his frat brothers is now officially a matter of law. Four individuals–three of them known to be former Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledges, and a 19-year-old whose court records are sealed due to his age–were indicted yesterday for charges associated with Desdunes’ demise. The defendants, who pleaded not guilty, have been pegged with the misdemeanor crimes of first-degree hazing and first-degree unlawfully dealing with a child, according to the Cornell Daily Sun. SAE faces the same charges, and representatives of the frat will be summoned to court to deal with them–although considering that SAE has been disbanded at Cornell and its recognition rescinded by the university, it’s not totally clear who’s going to show on its behalf.

The four former frat brothers, among them Max Haskin, Benn Mann, and Edward Williams,  have been released without bail and are now roaming free–although not on Cornell’s campus, since (according to a press release from the county DA) none are enrolled in the school any longer. Presumably they’re counting their lucky stars that they haven’t been charged with anything as serious as manslaughter. Still, the Sun reports that the attorneys plan to “vigorously contest” the allegations, and that the brothers don’t believe they’ve committed any crime.

Details of Desdunes’ death, an event that’s been shrouded in gossipy mystery for weeks, are also beginning to emerge. It’s already common knowledge that he died from alcohol poisoning, but authorities have since asserted that his blood alcohol level was 0.35 percent–more than four times the state’s legal limit. The Wall Street Journal has unearthed more information on the circumstances of this intoxication:

In the early morning hours before his death, Desdunes had consented to a mock kidnapping — a fraternity ritual in which pledges quiz brothers on fraternity lore. Desdunes and another brother had their hands and feet tied with zip ties and duct tape. When they answered questions incorrectly, the pair did exercises or were given drinks like flavored syrup or vodka. Pledges dropped him off at the Ivy League fraternity house after 5 a.m., according to court documents.

SAE has a history of such “kidnappings,” but no word on whether they also have a history of this kind of sadistically fruity bondage. They’ve claimed in the past that their “hazing” activities involve some level of complicity on the victims’ part, but having experienced flavored syrups firsthand, we find it hard to believe that someone would drink them with any degree of willingness. In all seriousness, though, the events of this case will hopefully shed some much-needed light on a form of fraternity stupidity that goes way beyond keg stands and ice luges.

Cornell’s SAE Has History of Alcohol-Fueled Brother “Kidnappings”

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.”)

Read the rest of this entry »

Cornell Rescinds University Recognition of SAE After Death of Brother

The Cornell chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon is no more. The University withdrew its recognition of the fraternity today — quite coincidentally the Friday before Spring Break; almost like they were trying to bury the story, huh? — and demanded that all brothers vacate the house by the end of the month, according to the Cornell Sun.  The University had previously put the frat on temporary suspension, pending the results of an internal investigation into the death of SAE brother George Desdunes on February 25. The house will be barred from operation for at least five years.

Desdunes’ death is a subject that’s dominated campus scuttlebutt this past month, though few officially confirmed details have yet come to light. Up until now, we knew that alcohol was involved, and that George’s body was found in the frat house. But, neither the university, nor investigators, nor (especially) SAE were forthcoming with regards to specifics. Now, however, Cornell is releasing a little more information:

The University found that Desdunes was provided alcohol “while in the care of certain members and associate members” of SAE and became incapacitated, [Vice President of Student and Academic Services Susan] Murphy stated.

“Even though the members and associate members recognized the condition Desdunes was in, they failed to call for medical care. He subsequently died,” she said.

We still don’t have any official confirmation about what exactly was going on that night — though rumors are aplenty. Parsing through Cornell’s statement, a few more interesting bits of information pop out. “Members and associate members” presumably means brothers and pledges, respectively; although we don’t know for certain whether there were pledging activities involved. The part about Desdunes being provided alcohol while “in the care” of others is peculiar, to say the least. And the bit about no one calling for help is incredibly sad, though unfortunately not all that remarkable. (For what it’s worth, Cornell’s Interfraternity Council passed a new “medical amnesty” resolution this week, with the hopes of avoiding that sort of inaction in the future.)

The Ithaca Police Department has been investigating the circumstances of the death in consultation with the Tompkins County District Attorney, which seems to indicate that investigators are looking into the possibility of some manner of malfeasance. However, we can’t prove that. The IPD declined to confirm the specifics of the investigation — or even that the investigation is still ongoing — and the Tompkins County DA’s office hasn’t yet responded to our inquiry for more information.

Whatever the case may be, this all still seems very opaque and suspicious. We’ll keep you posted. And if you have any information that can help us confirm what actually happened that night, hit is up at tips@ivygateblog.com.

UPDATE: After the jump, read the University’s entire statement, per Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy:

Read the rest of this entry »