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Three Charged in Hazing Death by Alcohol

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - Theta Chi Fraternity killed a Fresno State student by locking him and other pledges in a room with "fatal quantities of alcohol" and telling them to drink it all, parents claim in court.

Three fraternity members have been criminally charged for the death of 18-year-old Philip Dhanens, who died on Aug. 31, 2012, the Fresno County District Attorney said. The fraternity house has been closed.

Dhanens' parents, Paul and Diane, of Bakersfield, sued the Beta Upsilon Chapter of Theta Chi Fraternity and six of its members for the death of their son, in Superior Court.

Fresno State is not a party to the complaint.

The fraternity brothers "knew that Philip had consumed too much alcohol as a result of the bid night hazing ritual, that he was ill, and that he was unable to walk or take care of himself," but they "abandon(ed) him on the 'Drunk Room' floor," the parents say in the complaint.

Philip, 18, a freshman, died of alcohol poisoning from the Aug. 31, 2012 hazing, his parents say.

The day started with a pinning ceremony in which Philip and 14 others became pledges of Theta Chi. Defendants Leonard Serrato and Aaron Raymo then told the pledges to meet at the Theta Chi house, the complaint states.

It continues: "Before returning to the Theta Chi house, defendants Serrato, Raymo and [Daniel] Dukes drove to a liquor stores and purchased a large amount of alcohol for the pledges.

"Upon reconvening at the Theta Chi fraternity house, defendants Serrato, Raymo and [Charles] Austin-Fisher escorted the pledges to the Chapter Room and ordered them to sit in a semicircle. Once seated, the Executive Board members presented the alcohol to the pledges, passing the bottles of hard liquor, including rum, Tequila and vodka, to the pledges while officers and members yelled and chanted the fraternity name, encouraging the pledges to drink. The pledges, including Philip, were told they were not allowed to leave the Chapter Room to join the other fraternity members in the house until they drank all the alcohol in the Chapter Room. Two full bottles of hard liquor were finished by the pledges within only 10 minutes. The Executive Board members then passed around additional bottles for the pledges to drink.

"After approximately 20 minutes, Philip had become visibly incapacitated, exhibiting signs of severe intoxication, including passing out and falling out of his chair and onto the floor. Before he fell out of his chair, Philip was asked by fraternity members if he was all right, and he answered, 'No,' indicating that he was experiencing conscious pain and suffering and that his condition required immediate, qualified attention.

"Defendants Serrato and Raymo ordered the assistance of four, still unidentified, fraternity members to drag Philip to the 'Drunk Room,' where he was to be watched over. Defendants Serrato and Raymo additionally ordered fraternity members to care for Philip. Approximately 12 Theta Chi members who were referred to as the 'Sober Brothers' were assigned the task of watching over and caring for Philip. After depositing Philip in the 'Drunk Room' the other pledges continued to drink heavily. Half of the remaining pledges vomited several times.

"Philip was left unmonitored in the 'Drunk Room' until a few hours later, when fraternity members found Philip covered with his own vomit and lying motionless. Philip was pale in color, and 911 was called. Emergency medical personnel and Fresno Police responded to find that Philip was unresponsive and not breathing. Philip was rushed to St. Agnes Hospital for treatment."

Philip was declared brain-dead at the hospital. His blood alcohol level was 0.38 percent, his parents say.

Philip's parents claim the "fraternity members were evasive with the police detectives, refusing to assist the investigation after receiving a text message directing the brothers to 'keep everything to themselves.' None of the fraternity members have been willing to explain to police why Philip was abandoned for several hours as his brain swelled from alcohol poisoning. After being dragged to and left helpless in the 'Drunk Room,' Philip's chance to surviving the hazing slipped away. Had Philip received proper care after his physical condition and the world 'no' plainly identified the need for emergency medical assistance, he would have survived."

Philip's parents claim the fraternity members' "unbridled loyalty to each other and fraternity defendants has led them to refuse to cooperate with the investigation into the cause of Philip's death and to destroy evidence that would demonstrate their culpability for Philip's death."

On Tuesday, the day before the lawsuit was filed, Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan said that charges were filed against three fraternity members, who are also defendants in the complaint: Leonard Serrato, 28; Joseph Raymo, 24; and Daniel Baker 22. They were charged with hazing and providing alcohol to a person under 21 years of age proximately causing death, Egan said in a statement.

"While these defendants have no prior criminal history and the evidence does not show that they intended for Mr. Dhanens to die, their actions led to deadly results requiring criminal intervention to hold them accountable," the district attorney said.

Egan said that 82 percent of hazing deaths involve alcohol.

The Dhanens claim in their complaint that other chapters of Theta Chi have been involved in hazing that resulted in serious injuries, including the death of a student at Lenoir-Rhyne University in 2008.

The Dhanens seek punitive damages for wrongful death.

They are represented by Kelly Corcoran with Kerr & Wagstaffe in San Francisco.

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