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Hazing Deaths Or Injuries

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  • Hazing Deaths Or Injuries

    Son of former Cowboy star sues OU fraternity, claims he was injured in hazing incident

    A former student at the University of Oklahoma has filed a suit against a fraternity there, alleging he was struck with a baseball bat, fell down and suffered a brain injury in a 2015 hazing incident spurred by OU’s loss to the University of Texas in their annual football game.

    Blake Novacek, the son of former Dallas Cowboys tight end Jay Novacek, was an 18-year-old freshman and pledging to the Gamma Phi Chapter of Beta Theta Pi when the incident allegedly occurred in the fall semester of 2015, according to the lawsuit.

    It is the same fraternity under fire at Penn State University for not calling 911 for 12 hours after a 19-year-old pledge fell down a flight of stairs during a hazing event this past February. Tim Piazza died two days later from brain injuries and internal bleeding and 14 fraternity members have since been charged with misdemeanors in connection with his death. Beta Theta Pi has since been permanently banned from Penn State.

    The lawsuit, filed in Tulsa County Court on Sept. 29, alleges pledges were called to the fraternity house near the OU campus in the early morning hours of Oct. 11, 2015, where nearly 100 current and alumni fraternity members were waiting.

    Novacek, a freshman from Joshua and graduate of the Grapevine-Colleyville school district’s University Prep online school, was among those pledges.

    As part of the initiation process, the pledges had been required to memorize certain fraternity information or “pledge facts.”

    The frat members and alumni blindfolded the pledges, put pillowcases over their heads, then took them to individual members’ rooms.

    “The reason they were being hazed on that particular evening? OU had lost to the University of Texas in the previous game. They decided to haze the boys because OU lost,” said Christopher Cooke, one of Novacek’s attorneys. Texas had beaten OU 24-17 on Oct. 10 in Dallas.

    Novacek was taken to the room of Shane Muselmann, a member of the fraternity, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit states Muselmann was heavily intoxicated and showed Novacek a video of hogs being slaughtered, asking the pledge if he knew what the video meant.

    He then began asking Novacek pledge facts, becoming enraged when the pledge was unable to recite facts correctly, the lawsuit states. The suit alleges Muselmann then swung a baseball bat, striking Novacek in the abdomen and causing the pledge to fall backward and strike his head on a hard object.

    Novacek lost consciousness and woke up several hours later on a couch in the fraternity house, his attorney said.

    “He was carted down to the basement and put on a couch and sat unconscious for 10 hours with no medical help,” Cooke said.

    Cooke called it “pathetic” that older men were present at the fraternity house during the night of hazing.

    “It wasn’t just college kids that were in the fraternity house that night,” Cooke said. “There were adults who were previous graduates and members of the fraternity who participated in the hazing that evening. I’m talking 30-year-old men, 40-year-old men, 50-year-old men.”

    The suit names the national, state and local chapter of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity as well as Muselmann and another fraternity member, Gavin Martindale. Novacek is seeking a judgment of more than $150,000, including punitive damages, from each defendant.

    Muselmann, Martindale, and the fraternity have denied the allegations.

    The lawsuit states Novacek was threatened by Martindale, to keep his mouth shut about the hazing incident or the fraternity would ruin him, his family’s reputation, damage his property and have him kicked out of school.

    Because of his fear of their threats, Novacek did not immediately report the incident, Cooke said. Nor did he immediately seek medical treatment, Cooke said.

    “Blake did not realize the extent of his brain injury for a while,” Cooke said. “He was scared to tell his own family for a while because of the threats from the fraternity. For the most part, he laid low.”

    About a month after the incident, he — and later his mother — did report the incident to Novacek’s counselor, Cooke said. That counselor, according to the OU website, is associate director of the Sooner Success Program.

    “Neither one of them ever received a follow-up call at any time,” Cooke said. “... It died there.”

    Rowdy Gilbert, OU’s senior associate vice president for public affairs, said in an emailed statement Thursday afternoon that the university “investigates every report of a violation of the Students Rights and Responsibilities Code.”

    He did not, however, answer questions regarding whether Novacek’s alleged hazing incident had been investigated and, if so, the outcome of that investigation.

    “It would not be appropriate to comment on matters involved in pending litigation,” Gilbert said.

    Cooke said Novacek also discussed the hazing with the pledge class president several months after the incident but was asked not to file a report. Though Novacek claimed he wouldn’t, his car was vandalized the next day, the lawsuit alleges.

    And Cooke said it wasn’t the first time that Novacek had been injured in a hazing incident with the fraternity. He said the fraternity had formed a fight club, where pledges were instructed to fight each other while fraternity members watched.

    He said Novacek broke his nose in one of the fights.
    Novacek provided photos to the Star-Telegram of what he said were fight club events.

    Zach Allen, president of the Beta Theta Pi Corp. of Oklahoma, said the photos, however, were not taken at the frat house on OU’s campus.

    “The pictures with boxing gloves were taken at an out of town home of one of the pledge brothers where they had voluntarily gathered as a group during a pledge class retreat. Some of them spontaneously decided to engage in boxing matches at that home,” Allen said in an email. “The boxing was not an organized or planned event, nor did it occur at the chapter house.”

    Allen also denied the lawsuit’s allegations, saying the it was the first “any of us have heard of any of the plaintiff’s alleged grievances, which supposedly arose two years ago.”

    In an emailed statement, Muselmann said the lawsuit and allegations “came as a complete surprise to me.”

    “The allegations against me are completely false, and I have no idea why they are being made,” he said. “My family is hiring an attorney, and I intend to aggressively fight this suit and defend my reputation.”

    Ben Reed, Martindale’s attorney, said Friday he would not comment in great detail on the allegations due to the pending lawsuit but “my client unequivocally denies the allegations.”

    “Gavin looks forward to clearing his name and reputation as the true facts emerge, Reed said. “We are confident in his vindication.”

    In an updated statement issued Thursday evening, Allen said, “we have performed an initial investigation of Blake’s allegations and have yet to uncover any evidence whatsover which corroborates the substance of his claims.”

    “To the contrary, we have numerous witness accounts and other evidence which contradict Blake’s story and which question his credibility,” Allen wrote. “Based on our investigation to date, we firmly believe Blake’s allegations are false and that his lawsuit is entirely without merit.”

    Allen said many fraternity members and pledges, including Novacek and the two members he names in the lawsuit, had actually been in Dallas on the weekend of the Texas-OU game and were not present at the fraternity house on Oct. 11, 2015, the date listed in the lawsuit as when the alleged hazing incident occurred.

    Cooke said the lawsuit should have read “on or about” Oct. 11, 2015. He said because of his client’s memory issues, Novacek does not remember the exact date of the incident, only that it occurred in the week following the Texas-OU game that year.

    Martin Cobb, a spokesman for the national fraternity, said in an email that he could not comment specifically on the allegations because of the pending lawsuit, but “Beta Theta Pi’s position on hazing is unequivocal and unwavering: it is not condoned and it will not be tolerated.”

    He said the fraternity is working with alumni and undergraduate leaders in Norman “to determine the basis for allegations they deem to be unfounded and without merit.

    “We remain convinced that Beta’s record of leadership and character will shed important light on these claims, and are committed to that truth, whatever it may be,” Cobb said.

    The injury prompted problems with Novacek’s memory, Cooke said.

    As a result, he had to abandon plans for his own sports radio show at the university and dropped out of college after his grade point average fell from a 4.0 to a 0.70 by the end of the semester, Cooke said.

    “He can’t remember his own Social Security number at this point,” Cooke said.

    Since his injury, Novacek, now 20, has been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder. He remains under the care of several physicians, Cooke said.

    “He’s going to have to live with the consequences of this for the rest of his life,” Cooke said. “That’s what ultimately brought him to file the lawsuit.”

    Novacek’s father, Jay Novacek, was a five-time Pro Bowler who played tight end for the Cowboys from 1990 to 1995. A back injury forced him to retire in 1997. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008 and is one of eight Cowboys on the 2018 early nominees list for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

  • #2
    Nine Face Hazing-Related Charges in Death of Ohio University Student
    Two people face involuntary manslaughter charges and one is charged with reckless homicide in the November 2018 death of Collin Wiant, who died after inhaling nitrous oxide.
    ImageCollin Wiant died after collapsing at an unofficial party at the Sigma Pi fraternity’s off-campus house in Athens, Ohio, in November 2018.Credit...via the Wiant family

    The death of 18-year old Collin Wiant, who collapsed and died during an off-campus fraternity event at Ohio University last November, has cast an unwanted spotlight on the Midwestern school and hazing activities in general.

    In February, Mr. Wiant’s family sued the fraternity, Sigma Pi, which their son had sought to join. In April, the university expelled the fraternity. And on Tuesday, nine men, including seven Sigma Pi members, were indicted by an Athens County grand jury in connection with events that prosecutors said led to Mr. Wiant’s death from inhaling nitrous oxide.

    “The overall lesson that I think is so difficult for our youth when they live in this video game culture is that if something goes wrong, they can reset it, start it over, and everything’s O.K.,” Keller J. Blackburn, the Athens County prosecuting attorney, said in announcing the charges on Tuesday.

    But in real life, he added, “their decisions have actual consequences.”

    All but one of the men are current or former students. They are charged with various offenses including trafficking in harmful intoxicants, hazing and permitting drug abuse, charges Mr. Blackburn said are likely to result in probation rather than prison time.

    But James Dylan Wanke, 25, the general manager of the store where the nitrous oxide was purchased, and Joshua Thomas Androsac, 20, a member of the Sigma Pi fraternity who the authorities said provided the drug to Mr. Wiant, were charged with first-degree involuntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of 11 years in prison.

    Corbin Michael Gustafson, 22, who prosecutors say was present while Mr. Wiant ingested the nitrous oxide, was charged with reckless homicide, a third-degree felony which carries a maximum prison sentence of five years.

    Bob Toy, a lawyer representing Mr. Wanke, said that his client planned to plead not guilty but reserved any further comment until after his client’s arraignment on Friday.

    It was not immediately clear who would be representing Mr. Androsac or Mr. Gustafson, both of whom could not be reached for comment on Tuesday evening. No date has been set for their arraignments.

    Collin’s mother, Kathleen Wiant, said in a phone interview on Tuesday evening that she and her husband, Wade, “do not take any joy in anyone’s pain.”

    “We know that justice needs to be served and will be served,” Ms. Wiant said. “And that’s important because that’s a catalyst for change, and we need change so kids stop dying from hazing.”

    The charges in the Ohio University case come amid a spate of high-profile incidents on college campuses possibly connected with drugs or alcohol.

    Several students have died recently, including three in the last two weeks, at San Diego University Washington State University and Arizona State University, said Ms. Wiant, who has been sharing her son’s story with college students, as well as state lawmakers in order to push for more stringent and uniform penalties for hazing, as well as more transparency for parents seeking information.

    Ms. Wiant said she planned to push to make hazing a felony in Ohio. She has also traveled to Washington to lobby for the END ALL Hazing Act, which was introduced to a House of Representatives committee in June and would require higher education institutions to disclose hazing-related misconduct.

    About a month after enrolling at Ohio University, Collin Wiant pledged the Sigma Pi fraternity. But on Nov. 12, 2018, he collapsed at an unofficial party at the fraternity’s off-campus house. A coroner later determined he had died of asphyxiation after inhaling nitrous oxide from a canister, known as a whippet.

    In February, the family filed a wrongful-death suit against the local chapter of Sigma Pi, which was later expelled from the college’s campus. The lawsuit is still pending.

    “The tragic death was devastating for our community, but it’s encouraging to see progress in the criminal case,” said Carly Leatherwood, a spokeswoman for the university, in an interview on Tuesday.

    Ms. Leatherwood said the university had taken several measures to increase transparency and improve the culture of group activities on campus.

    After a series of alleged hazing activities at several fraternities this fall, the university began publicizing information about groups that may have violated the student code of conduct, she said.

    The university also set up a hazing prevention task force for all clubs and organizations on campus.

    Mr. and Ms. Wiant met at Ohio University, where they were heavily involved in Greek life.

    Mr. Wiant said he was encouraged that stories about his son’s death, includinga six-part investigative series and a podcast by the The Columbus Dispatch documenting the fallout, had made hazing a topic of conversation between parents and children in cars and living rooms.

    “It’s not just legislative actions that are going to count,” Mr. Wiant said. “It’s at the core family level, encouraging your kids to go out into the world and make smart decisions.”

    Ms. Wiant added: “There is only one thing that’s ever going to stop hazing: kids reporting it.”