DKE Fraternity Hazing Probe at LSU Stymied by Code of Silence That’s ‘Alive and Well,’ DA Says

The allegations against members of LSU’s now-closed Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity were horrendous.

Pledges forced to lie down on broken glass while being urinated on, doused in gasoline, struck with pipes, kicked with steel-toed boots, burned with cigarettes, and more.

That was in February 2019, when nine DKE members were arrested and accused of hazing and other related offenses.

Sixteen months later, no indictments have been returned by a grand jury nor have charges been levied by prosecutors.

A candid East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said it comes down to a lack of two things: cooperation from witnesses, and proof.

“We have little to no cooperation with any potential witnesses,” he said. “At this point, given the lack of cooperation and the amount of time that’s passed, it has impacted our ability to proceed.”

Moore characterized the investigation as ongoing but one that has “been pretty much at a standstill since March,” when the coronavirus outbreak struck Louisiana.

The district attorney said he still wants to speak with LSU’s dean of students to find out whether any of the arrested individuals or potential witnesses spoke with the university and, if so, what was discussed.

All nine of the arrested DKE members were enrolled at LSU when Phi Delta Theta pledge Max Gruver, 18, of Roswell, Georgia, died in a 2017 alcohol-related hazing incident on the school’s campus.

The DKE arrests stemmed from conduct that allegedly occurred in fall 2018, one year after Gruver died.

The DKE arrest warrants suggested a code of silence made DKE members too fearful to speak out, and Moore said he found that to be the case among full-fledged fraternity members and their pledge brothers.

“These kids love each other. They don’t believe anything wrong happened. They don’t want to break the chain. They don’t want to be considered a rat,” he said.

The code of silence? “There’s no doubt it’s alive and well in fraternity organizations,” Moore said.

Gruver’s parents claim in an ongoing lawsuit against LSU and others that the university polices sorority hazing more strictly than fraternity hazing, and that male students who enter Greek life face a greater risk of injury than females. They echoed the district attorney’s sentiments.

“We are thankful for Max’s pledge brothers, who showed bravery and courage, by coming forward and lifting the veil on the events of the night Max died,” Stephen and Rae Ann Gruver said Wednesday in a statement.

“Until more individuals do the right thing and speak out against hazing, these dangerous activities will continue and more lives will be senselessly lost. True brotherhood is taking care of one another, regardless of personal and organizational cost,” they added.

Those arrested back in early 2019 in the DKE case were Charles “Chase” Brakenridge II, 24, of Ferriday; Blake Andrew Chalin, 21, of Gretna; Cade Rain Duckworth, 24, of Lafayette; Gaston Thomas Eymard, 24, of Kenner; Shakti P. Gilotra, 23, also of Kenner; Joseph Dylan Harkrider, 20, of Zachary; Malcolm Richard McNiece, 24, of Baton Rouge; Alexander Joseph Rozas, 24, of Jennings; and Garrett Joseph Sanders, 22, of Minden.

Moore emphasized that an arrest can be made on a showing of “probable cause,” but the standard for a conviction in court is the much more stringent “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Harkrider, who was booked on a count of misdemeanor criminal hazing, is the only one of the nine arrested still enrolled at LSU, university spokesman Ernie Ballard said.

Baton Rouge lawyer Franz Borghardt, who represents Harkrider, said he and his client “appreciate the careful investigation and consideration the District Attorney’s Office has dedicated to these hazing allegations.”

“They are difficult cases and my client is eager to put this case behind him and focus on finishing his education,” he said.

The Advocate reported previously that Brakenridge and Rozas, both booked on identical misdemeanor counts of principal to criminal hazing and representative duty to report criminal hazing, graduated from LSU in May 2019.

Mike Small, an Alexandria-based lawyer who represents Brakenridge, said Tuesday he had an investigator conduct witness interviews early on in the case.

“My review of those witness statements made me feel quite confident that I could successfully defend any hazing charge that might be filed against Chase,” he said. “I’ve had no recent contact with Mr. Moore or any of the prosecutors in his office and remain hopeful that no charges will be filed against my client.”

Rozas’ attorney, Baton Rouge lawyer Tommy Damico, said he likewise investigated his client’s involvement after the initial coverage of the alleged incidents calmed down and determined that “Alex … had not committed any actions that would warrant prosecuting him for any hazing violations. … Mr. Rozas has graduated from LSU and is moving forward with what I believe will be a very successful life.”

DKE’s national organization closed the LSU chapter in January 2019, shortly before the hazing arrests, saying the fraternity did not tolerate “this kind of behavior.” The national chapter had investigated allegations from a grandfather who reported hazing wounds on his grandson, over the student’s objections.

It is not clear when the fraternity will be allowed back on LSU’s campus.

Duckworth, Eymard, Gilotra and McNiece were the only DKE members arrested on felony counts. Each man was booked with second-degree battery, and Duckworth also was booked on additional felony counts of attempted second-degree battery and false imprisonment. Each man also was booked on misdemeanor criminal hazing.

Gilotra, according to an arrest warrant, made a pledge “walk barefoot on broken glass while he threw objects at him.” The victim later “had to pull pieces of glass out of his feet,” the warrant states.

Baton Rouge lawyer Philip House, who represents Gilotra, said his client “did not commit any of the criminal acts of which he was accused.”

McNiece allegedly forced pledges to do push-ups while reciting facts about DKE and kicked them in the chest with steel-toe boots if they gave incorrect information; forced pledges to drink two 40-ounce beers duct-taped to their hands, unable to remove the tape until the drinks were gone; and poured gasoline on a pledge, causing some of it to get in the pledge’s eyes, another warrant says.

Eymard allegedly struck pledges in the back and face with a silver pipe one night, injuring many. One pledge said “things got as out of hand as I had ever seen it” that night, according to a warrant.

Another warrant says a pledge accused of “narcing” was beaten up at the residence of Chalin, one of the nine arrested. The pledge was ordered to get into the “bows and toes” position, which is a plank with only toes and elbows touching the ground, and remain there while being kicked and punched, the warrant states.

Chalin then made the pledge take a “new boy shower” — a ritual that involves pledges holding a milk crate filled with ice and cayenne pepper or creole seasoning above their heads while standing in a cold shower and looking up. As the ice melted, the pepper would drip into their eyes.

Another victim described to police being forced to climb into an ice machine filed with water and frozen ice and remain there for at least 30 minutes.

Moore expressed disappointment that the alleged DKE hazing incidents occurred a full year after Gruver’s highly publicized death, which resulted in one Phi Delta Theta member, Matthew Naquin, being convicted of negligent homicide and two others pleading no contest to misdemeanor hazing.

“It shows we still have more work to do in education and training,” he said.

Moore said the fact that no one died during the alleged DKE incidents has nothing to do with why no one has been prosecuted.

“It’s a matter of proof and cooperation,” he reiterated.

In contrast to the DKE investigation, numerous Phi Delta Theta pledges and some Phi Delta Theta members cooperated with Moore’s office and testified at Naquin’s trial.

Naquin, 22, of Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, was sentenced to 5 years in prison, with 2½ years of the time suspended. He also was put on probation for 3 years, fined $1,000 and ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service. He began serving his sentence in January and was released from prison in April.

Phi Delta Theta has been banned from LSU’s campus until at least 2033 as a result of the investigation into the events leading to Gruver’s death.

In 2018, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law the Max Gruver Act, which says people who participate in hazing activities that result in death when the victim’s blood alcohol level is at least 0.30% would face up to five years in prison and fines of up to $10,000. Hazing that doesn’t lead to death would be subject to fines of up to $1,000 and six months in prison.

Gruver’s blood-alcohol level was 0.495%, which is more than six times the legal limit to drive in Louisiana.

Organizations — fraternities, sororities, associations, social clubs, athletic teams and similar groups on college or high school campuses — that knowingly allow hazing could also face fines of up to $10,000.

Moore referred to the legislation and other efforts to halt hazing and said, “A lot’s gone on since Gruver (died), but we knew it would be difficult to stop.”

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