Three MSU Fraternity Members Face Felony Charge Over Phat Nguyen’s Hazing Death

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Three members of the since-disbanded Pi Alpha Phi fraternity at Michigan State University are facing criminal charges in connection with the death of Phat Nguyen in November 2021, court records show.

Ethan Tin Cao, Andrew Hoang Nguyen and Hoang John Huu Pham each has been charged with one felony count of hazing resulting in death and three misdemeanor counts of hazing resulting in physical injury. The charges recently were filed in connection with a Nov. 20 party that ended with the 21-year-old student’s death, and three other pledging fraternity members hospitalized due to alcohol consumption.

The penalty for the felony is 15 years in jail and/or $10,000, while the misdemeanors each carry 93 days and/or $1,000.

The men were released on $5,000 personal recognizance bonds. All three are scheduled for pre-exam conferences on June 17. Their preliminary exams are slated for June 23, Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Mike Cheltenham said.

The Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office received the charges at the end of March, he said.

Phat Nguyen died early Nov. 20 at 413 Stoddard Ave. in East Lansing. Police responded to a call for medical assistance about 2 a.m. and found four individuals “passed out,” one of whom was “unresponsive and not breathing,” according to a press release provided at the time.

Three of the individuals received medical care at Sparrow Hospital and were released.

Brian Morley, the attorney for Andrew Nguyen, said the tragedy of the case can’t be overstated, but the criminal case will come down to whether the incident had “somebody forcing somebody to do something.”

“The question becomes whether or not this is hazing, or — and this is where I am not minimizing anything — was this drinking at a college party, which occurs right, wrong, or indifferent all day, every day throughout the county,” Morley said.

Edwar Zeineh, Cao’s lawyer, said his client entered a not guilty plea.

“We always are conscientious of the facts and circumstances surrounding a case, and namely here, we have a young person who died. But I am in no position (to say) that my client was in any way, shape or form, the cause of death,” Zeineh said. “At this stage, I look at these charges and say: these are charges that have to be vigorously defended against.”

Police affidavits refer to the fraternity event as a “crossing party,” at which attendees were to celebrate the four pledges becoming full members of the group.

“At this party, the victims had alcohol poured down their throats and drank until incapacitated. Once the victims were unconscious, party attendees drew on them, slapped their hands and buttocks, and put food on the victims,” the affidavits said. “These actions led to the hospitalization of (three) ‘crossing’ members and the death of (one).”

Cao was the fraternity’s “pledge master,” Andrew Nguyen was the “pledge dad” and Pham was the organization’s president, the affidavits said.

The fraternity chapter has since been disbanded. Michigan State University removed the organization’s registered student organization status and suspended its charter for at least 10 years in December, while the Pi Alpha Phi National Board closed the chapter.

According to the police documents, officials observed video of Andrew Nguyen pouring alcohol into the pledges’ mouths. Cao and Pham are implicated through their positions within the fraternity, with prosecutors saying they “knew these actions were taking place and knew the nature of the (crossing) party.”

Chelthenham said he believes this is the first time the prosecutor’s office has sought the felony charge of hazing resulting in death. The charge became law in 2004 with Michigan’s passage of Senate Bill 0783, which prohibited the hazing of an individual by someone affiliated with an educational institution.

“Hazing means an intentional, knowing, or reckless act by a person acting alone or acting with others that is directed against an individual and that the person knew or should have known endangers the physical health or safety of the individual, and that is done for the purpose of pledging, being initiated into, affiliating with, participating in, holding office in, or maintaining membership in any organization,” according to the Michigan Penal Code.

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