By Dalton Karwacki
Today marks the five-year anniversary of the alcohol-related death of Rider freshman Gary DeVercelly Jr. The incident brought about a slew of legal actions, media coverage and lasting effects on the Rider community.
DeVercelly, 18, of Long Beach, Calif., was taken to the hospital after a night of heavy drinking at the now-defunct Phi Kappa Tau (PKT) fraternity house on campus. The Lawrence Township Police Department (LTPD) arrived after reports of a student vomiting from alcohol consumption at 1:52 a.m., on March 29, 2007. DeVercelly and another freshman, William Williams, were taken to the emergency room at the Capital Health System in Trenton.
LTPD began investigating the event as a possible hazing incident and forced PKT members out of the building later that morning. Displaced members were instructed to stay with friends. Both DeVercelly and Williams were associate members of PKT, a term better known as “pledges.”
Meanwhile, DeVercelly, who had suffered cardiac arrest but was resuscitated by EMTs at the scene, was placed in the intensive care unit. He had reportedly consumed three- quarters of a bottle of Absolut vodka within 15 minutes. DeVercelly’s family flew in from California and met President Mordechai Rozanski and Dean of Students Anthony Campbell at the hospital.
DeVercelly, in a coma and on a respirator, was found to have a blood alcohol level of .426. After being informed that their son would not recover, the family decided to take him off the respirator. DeVercelly died at approximately 10:30 a.m. on Friday, March 30, 2007.
Justin Scerbo, ’10, a Rider alumnus, stated in an email that DeVercelly’s death affected the campus in a major way and caused a lot of anxiety for those attending Rider.
“It was pretty stressful,” he said. “It seemed a lot of extra scrutiny was placed on the campus image and it was obvious. Through all the extra mention inside and outside of the classroom, Rider wanted to make sure everyone knew the gravity of what happened.”
Scerbo, who did not know DeVercelly personally, also said that the incident had a big impact on the Greek community at the time.
“While I was in the process of pledging a fraternity, it completely changed the image and responsibilities on Greek Life,” he said.
Kristie Kahl, ’10, was a freshman at Rider at the time of DeVercelly’s death.
“It was kind of crazy because you don’t really think that would ever happen,” she said. “When you went to Daly’s, you were being bombarded by people trying to get a quote from you to put it on the 6 o’clock news, but a lot of people wanted to be left alone. And seeing PKT marked off with police tape, it was surreal to think someone had passed away from drinking.”
Following DeVercelly’s death, the University took action to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. Public Safety temporarily increased its presence in fraternity and sorority houses and Rozanski launched a task force to review the University’s alcohol policy.
Campbell and then-Director of Greek Life Ada Badgely were both placed on paid leave and indicted on charges of aggravated hazing; these charges were dropped due to lack of evidence on August 28, 2009.
Rider’s chapter of PKT was dissolved because of the dangerous underage drinking that occurred at an unregistered party.
Kahl rushed Alpha Xi Delta the semester after DeVercelly’s death and said that, by then, a lot about the process had changed.
“Looking into hazing was much more enforced,” she said. “After Gary, there was a major change. The process was very different; there was no drinking allowed at all. The president [of the sorority], as well as Greek Life, enforced it majorly.”
Mike Potts, ’11, was a student at Lawrence High School and had been accepted to Rider when Devercelly’s death occurred.
“There was quite a bit of talk among the other students at Lawrence High School regarding his death, so my attending the University became a bit questionable,” he wrote in an email. “I didn’t want to think that the school I was already so fond of could actually have such a bad partying reputation.”
Potts also stated that he and many other students at Rider discussed the issue of personal responsibility when it came to DeVercelly’s death during his freshman year at the University.
“Honestly, everyone that talked about it that first year, and even in the following years, were most concerned with how irresponsible he had been,” he said. “People, especially freshman, over drink all the time, but you can’t possibly think that downing 3/4 a bottle of Absolut Vodka in a half hour is going to end well.”
Three former PKT members, President Mike Torney, House Manager Adriano DiDonato and Pledge Master Dominic Olsen, were also charged with aggravated hazing. The indictments alleged that “on or about March 28 – 29, in connection with the initiation of applicants to a fraternal organization, the defendants knowingly or recklessly organized, promoted, facilitated or engaged in conduct which resulted in serious bodily injury to Gary DeVercelly and William Williams.”
Aggravated hazing carries a maximum penalty of 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
DiDonato and Olsen entered Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI), a program for non-violent first offenders that serves as a rehabilitative alternative to ordinary prosecution, generally through fines and community service. Once the program is completed, and if no crimes are committed during the probation period, the charges are dismissed.
After entering PTI, DiDonato and Olsen were each given 36 months of probation, 100 hours of community service, and mandatory alcohol counseling and fined $125. Torney was not eligible for PTI because of a prior offense.
On December 28, the DeVercelly family filed a civil suit against the University. The wrongful death suit cited the University for reckless mismanagement and willful disregard for its fraternities. The filing came after settlement talks between the family and the University broke down. The lawsuit called for $50 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages.
A lawsuit was also filed against Torney, who agreed to pay the family a $150,000 settlement and to provide information for the lawsuit against the University.
Torney ultimately pleaded guilty to the criminal charges. He admitted that, although he was not present at the party that resulted in DeVercelly’s death, he was responsible for not exercising control over it as president of the fraternity. The plea was the result of a deal that led to three years of probation, 100 hours of community service and alcohol counseling, rather than the prison sentence and a fine.
In September of 2009, the University reached a settlement with the DeVercelly family over the wrongful death lawsuit. While the terms of the settlement were confidential and no financial amount was disclosed, the University was cleared of any wrongdoing and was not required to admit liability in DeVercelly’s death.