Texas State fraternity was under investigation before pledge’s death

3:37 p.m Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 Local

The death of a Texas State University student who attended an off-campus social event hosted by a fraternity could result in criminal charges, but no decision will be made until an extensive investigation is completed, San Marcos Police Chief Chase Stapp told the American-Statesman on Wednesday.

“Any death in our community we take seriously, and especially the death of a young person like this who had so much ahead of him,” Stapp said. “Once we know the complete picture, we will have to have discussions with the district attorney on the most appropriate course of actions.”

Matthew McKinley Ellis, 20, a sophomore from Humble, near Houston, who was majoring in business administration and pledging Texas State’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, was pronounced dead by medics Monday morning after his friends noticed that he wasn’t breathing and called 911.

His death came about a week after the fraternity’s national organization ordered its Texas State chapter to cease social activities because of an ongoing investigation, university officials confirmed. Texas State began the investigation Oct. 4 based on a complaint it received Sept. 21. The university would not disclose the nature of the complaint.

“We are heartbroken” by Ellis’ death, Mark Guidi, executive director of the fraternity’s national group, said in a statement, adding that all members have been advised to “cooperate fully” with school administrators and law enforcement officials.

Stapp said it likely will take a month to six weeks before a decision is made on criminal charges because officials are awaiting results of a full autopsy, including Ellis’ blood alcohol level and toxicology tests. Authorities said alcohol might have been a factor in his death. If so, anyone who furnished alcohol to Ellis — the drinking age in Texas is 21 — could face charges.

Under Texas law, hazing is a misdemeanor unless it results in a death, in which case the charge can be elevated to a felony.

Meanwhile, the student’s death and the fraternity’s apparent disregard of the directive from its parent organization prompted Texas State President Denise M. Trauth to suspend activities of all 31 fraternity and sorority chapters while the university conducts a top-to-bottom review of the Greek system.

In advance of a Wednesday evening candlelight vigil in memory of Ellis, one student after another said in interviews that they were saddened by Ellis’ death, but they seemed roughly split on whether the sweeping suspension of Greek activity was warranted. They were unanimous, though, in asserting that Texas State’s reputation as a party school didn’t square with their experience.

“I don’t think it’s a party school at all,” said Kendra Perry, a freshman theater major who was studying outside Flowers Hall. “More than anything, it’s quiet.” The suspension of Greek activity is understandable because “their reputation reflects on this school,” she said.

Miranda Jordan, a senior psychology major, agreed. “I’ve been out twice since I transferred here in spring 2017,” she said. The suspension of Greek activity is “a good precaution because they aren’t sure what happened.”

“I thought it was a little extreme,” senior history major Staton Johnson said of the suspension. “I don’t think you can hold other fraternities responsible.”

Jaryon Busby, a freshman psychology major using a skateboard to get to class, agreed that other fraternities should not have been suspended. Busby lives in the same on-campus dormitory, Blanco Hall, where Ellis lived but didn’t know him.

Matthew Flores, a Texas State spokesman, said the suspension should be seen as “hitting the pause button” to address some important questions. “Are other fraternities or sororities engaging in similar practices? Are the disciplinary actions we’ve meted out in the past sufficient? There’s a very real concern about how our Greek system operates. The death of a student shakes the whole campus. And when there might have been measures in place to prevent it, you can’t help but be moved by that,” Flores said.

Ellis is the second Texas State student to die in a little more than a year in conjunction with an off-campus Greek event. In October 2016, 20-year-old Jordin Taylor, a member of the Alpha Delta Pi sorority, was fatally struck and dragged by a bus near Martindale.

Of Texas State’s nearly 39,000 students, about 2,400, or roughly 6 percent, belong to Greek organizations, Flores said. No fraternity or sorority houses are on campus, but some are just across the street.

Many universities in the United States have struggled to control hazing and alcohol consumption at Greek parties. Just this week, Tufts University in Boston said an investigation found that more than half of 17 Greek organizations hazed students and violated school policies on alcohol abuse and sexual harassment. And security camera footage recovered with the help of the FBI revealed that a pledge who died had been given at least 18 drinks in less than 90 minutes at a Pennsylvania State University fraternity house, with 26 people facing criminal charges that include involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault.