By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A grand jury indicted four people Thursday in the death of a Louisiana State University student whose blood-alcohol content was more than six times the legal limit for driving after fraternity members allegedly subjected him to a hazing ritual.
The state grand jury issued the indictments six months after 18-year-old Maxwell Gruver died at a hospital after a night of drinking at the Phi Delta Theta house on LSU’s campus. Fraternity members found the freshman from Roswell, Georgia, lying on a couch and couldn’t tell if he was breathing.
The jury indicted Matthew Alexander Naquin, 20, of Boerne, Texas, on a felony negligent homicide charge, which is punishable by up to five years in prison. Three others were indicted on a misdemeanor charge of hazing: Sean-Paul Gott, 21, of Lafayette, Louisiana; Ryan Isto, 19, of Baton Rouge; and Patrick Forde, 21, of Westwood, Massachusetts. The misdemeanor charge is punishable by up to a maximum of 30 days in jail.
Police originally arrested 10 people in October, but prosecutors presented the grand jury with evidence of possible charges against nine of them. Ultimately, the grand jury indicted only four.
Gruver’s father, Stephen, praised the work of investigators.
“We really appreciate everything that they’ve done,” he said outside a Baton Rouge courthouse.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore said Louisiana’s hazing statute doesn’t sufficiently address the harm done in this case. He said Gruver’s family is trying to rally support for changing the law to toughen the penalties.
“Our hazing statute is inadequate to cover the death of their son,” Moore said.
Naquin’s attorney, John McLindon, said, “We will be ready to go to trial, and we will show Matthew Naquin did not commit negligent homicide.”
Witnesses said that Naquin singled out Gruver during a hazing ritual involving 18 to 20 pledges and forced him to drink more than other pledges the night before his death, according to a police report. Naquin targeted Gruver because he was frequently late for events and forced him to drink because he was having trouble reciting the Greek alphabet during “Bible Study,” a ritual testing their fraternity knowledge, witnesses told police.
One pledge said Gruver was made to take at least 10-12 “pulls” of 190-proof Diesel, while other pledges had to drink less of the hard liquor, according to the police report. A second fraternity member said he told Naquin and another member to “cut it out” because it was “getting out of hand,” and a third member said he warned Naquin and the other member to “slow it down” several times, to no avail.
Several fraternity members said they had checked on Gruver throughout the night before finding him on a couch at the fraternity house around 9 a.m. on Sept. 14, police said.
All 10 of the arrested suspects were associated with Phi Delta Theta.
Forde’s attorney, Kris Perret, said the grand jury’s decision shows his client wasn’t responsible for events that led to the Gruver family’s “very sad and unnecessary loss.” Perret noted Forde was no longer an active member of the fraternity at the time of Gruver’s death.
“As such, he had no control or authority over the events that took place at the fraternity house that night,” he added in an email.
A lawyer for Isto didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment and Gott didn’t respond to a text message at a number listed in court papers. Isto is a U.S. citizen whose parents live in Ontario, Canada.
East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Beau Clark concluded Gruver died of acute alcohol intoxication, with aspiration: He had inhaled vomit and other fluid into his lungs. An autopsy showed Gruver’s blood-alcohol content at death was 0.495 percent, Clark said. The legal blood-alcohol limit for driving in Louisiana is 0.08 percent.
LSU President F. King Alexander said in a statement after the indictments that the university is “taking necessary steps to change the culture on campus related to hazing.”
“Today’s decision by the grand jury furthers the fact that behaviors that threaten the safety of our students will not be tolerated. Hazing is dangerous and unacceptable,” Alexander said.
Other universities have tried to crack down on hazing after deadly incidents led to criminal charges against fraternity members.
Nine members of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity at Florida State University were charged with felony hazing after a 20-year old fraternity pledge died at an off-campus initiation party in November. The state medical examiner said pledge Andrew Coffey had a blood-alcohol level of .447 at the time of the autopsy.
A Penn State fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, and 14 of its members faced criminal charges over the February 2017 death of a pledge fatally injured falling down stairs after alcohol-related hazing.