Hurtful Memories Heal Slowly
By Jeff Frankel
This Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Gary DeVercelly Jr.
The freshman from Long Beach, Calif., died March 30, 2007, at Capital Health System at Fuld campus, after authorities said he consumed a lethal amount of alcohol.
Since then — and despite several positive movements on campus, including plans for a new residence hall and an increase in enrollment — DeVercelly’s death has continued to have an influence on the Rider community, most notably in the form of a new alcohol policy and a $75 million lawsuit filed by his parents against the University.
In addition, two University administrators, Dean of Students Anthony Campbell and Director of Greek Life Ada Badgely, were indicted in connection with his death, but all charges were eventually dropped.
And even a year after his death, loved ones are still mourning his loss.
“You are truly a special person and I have never met anyone like you,” DeVercelly’s then-girlfriend, Diane Poissant, wrote on a filled message board honoring him online. “You cared so much about everyone and always made sure we were safe and taken care of. All your friends and family miss you so much and we know that you are looking down on us. You will forever be in our hearts, Gary.
“You were the one person I could tell anything to and you were always there whenever I had a problem. I will never forget all the fun times we had and our long three-hour phone conversations. I love you, Gary, and I know you will always be looking out for all your loved ones.”
The brothers of the former fraternity can’t believe a year has gone by already, said Brian Pawelko, Lawrenceville SGA vice president and former Phi Kappa Tau (PKT) member.
“It’s definitely tough,” he said. “Most of the brothers think back and it seems so short, but it really was a year ago. I don’t think there is ever a way we can forget about that.”
His death still strikes a nerve with school administrators, including Campbell.
“I still feel for Gary and for his family,” he said. “I’m still saddened by that. To me, anytime a student’s life is lost, it’s a tragedy. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about Gary and think about some of the other students as well.”
For a time three fraternity brothers, seniors Adriano DiDonato, of Princeton, and Dominic Olsen, of Kenilworth, N.J., and former PKT fraternity president Mike Torney, of Randolph, N.J., faced charges along with Campbell and Badgley.
Charges against the administrators were later dropped, and DiDonato and Olsen were granted Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI) to avoid trial and criminal sentencing. Torney was unable to apply for PTI because of a prior offense. He will face a judge on April 22 to accept a plea deal or fight the charges in court.
The DeVercelly family later filed a civil suit against the University claiming that negligence by officials, employees and PKT brothers caused the freshman’s death after an alleged fraternity hazing.
Filed in Mercer County Superior Court on Dec. 28, the wrongful death suit cites what it calls the University’s reckless mismanagement and willful disregard of its fraternities, along with the PKT members’ failure to help DeVercelly after he drank three-quarters of a bottle of Absolut vodka.
“It’s still moving forward and the defendants are coming forward and producing documents,” said Douglas Fierberg, the lawyer retained by the family. “We are likely to add additional injuries as we learn new information.
“I have recently talked to the family and they are still devastated over his senseless death.”
Fierberg is considered one of the nation’s most prominent lawyers in wrongful death and serious personal injury cases involving colleges.
Following DeVercelly’s death, Rider made sweeping changes to its own alcohol policies as a result of the 19 recommendations conceived by the Presidential Task Force on Alcohol, Personal Responsibility and Student Life.
The new guidelines prohibit alcohol at both residence halls and Greek houses, and Greek Life can no longer host parties where alcohol is served in an unsupervised manner.
“I think it’s certainly changed, there’s no doubt against that,” Pawelko said. “I think the overall campus attitude has changed, it’s a little more somber.”
The Department of Public Safety has also stepped up in being even more proactive when it comes to the safety of the students, said Vickie Weaver, director of Public Safety.
“We do park, walk and talks in the residence halls and all the exteriors,” she said. “The students know that we’re there. By doing the walk-throughs through residence halls and Greek houses, we’ve been able to identify some potentially troublesome areas and address them before matters get out of hand.”
The new restrictions may have already pushed drinking off campus and have changed the atmosphere of the University, Campbell said.
“I think it has changed in terms of the mood,” he said. “This is a year of transition, and anytime you have transition, [the] change is difficult. It takes a while for people to mourn the past and understand the future.”
However, he also said that Greek life has made giant leaps forward since the policies were introduced.
“The Greek groups as a whole have done a very good job of stepping up,” Campbell said. “When you look how Bid Day is now, compared to Bid Day a year ago, when you look at Sweetheart Weekend now and Sweetheart Weekend a year ago, they are totally different events. They’ve stepped up and taken the lead in non-alcohol related events.”
Campbell also said he feels confident that students are learning to live by the new rules.
“For the most part, I would say that most of our students are adapting,” he said. “That’s the best way to put it. I think students have been understanding of what we are trying to do and have been supportive, generally, of the process.”