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Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Virginia, Four Others Sued Over Hazing Deaths

CHESTERFIELD, Va. (CN) - The families of two Virginia State University freshmen who drowned to death in a hazing initiation sued the commonwealth and four convicted fraternity organizers for $125 million in total damages.

In a pair of lawsuits filed in Chesterfield County, Va., the families of 19-year-old freshmen Marvell Edmondson II and Jauwan M. Holmes, claim their sons, fraternity pledges, were rounded up just after midnight on April 20, 2013, and forced to swim across the Appomattox River as their final task for initiation into the Men of Honor group.

According to the complaints, "supervisors and/or mentors and other upper class members of Men of Honor ... misrepresented to the group of initiates that the Appomattox River was only "chest high" and was reasonably safe to cross at the point where the young men entered the water."

Edmondson and Holmes were swept away by the strong river current and drowned, say their mothers, Kim R. Edmondson and Dionne Williams.

"Shortly after Holmes and Edmondson were swept away and lost," the complaints continue, "the students and men supervising and ordering the hazing convened at Mac's Grill, a restaurant owned and operated by one of the men, James Mackey. When Christian Cavazos, one of the students who had been attempting to cross the river, found out that local authorities or rescue personnel had not yet been notified that Holmes and Edmondson were missing, he immediately left the restaurant and went into Petersburg to notify police so that search and rescue efforts could begin."

The bodies of Edmondson and Holmes were later discovered downstream.

James Mackey Sr., Charles Zollicoffer II, Eriq Benson and Cory Baytop, the four members of the group named as defendants in the civil suit, entered guilty pleas on Feb. 12 for the involuntary manslaughter and hazing of Edmondson and Holmes.

In exchange for their guilty pleas, the men received individual suspended sentences ranging from five to 14 months in jail. Judge David E. Johnson also reduced the defendant's hazing charges, a misdemeanor in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The men, who range in age from 20 to 37, will begin serving their sentences by March 2, the Times Dispatch reports.

Although VSU claims the Men of Honor are an "underground" social club not affiliated with the campus in any way, the complaint alleges that the club recruited on and around campus.

According to the complaints, VSU, as a public university and agent of the commonwealth, violated their duty "to take reasonable and safe measures to investigate, supervise, eradicate, and/or warn about allegedly non-affiliated or "underground" social clubs such as the Men of Honor, where the school knew or reasonably should have known that such groups existed, maintained a presence and network of student members on campus, and they continued to attempt to and did recruit students to join and be subjected to illegal, unreasonably dangerous hazing, even if such groups were not officially approved by or affiliated with the school."

The families, who seek $25 million in damages from each of the defendants, are represented by Gregory Hooe of Marks & Harrison P.C. in Tappahannock, Va.

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