Fatal binge... 08/27/97

Advocate file photo: LSU Police Lt. Robert Jones leaving the SAE frat house in Aug. 1997. 

Mark Saltz

Twenty years ago, LSU was reeling from the death of Benjamin Wynne, a 20-year-old student who celebrated his acceptance into Sigma Alpha Epsilon by drinking more than two dozen alcoholic beverages, including a deadly concoction of Jagermeister, Crown Royal and 151-proof rum.

After Wynne's death, which made headlines across the nation as the frightening extreme of LSU's hard-partying fraternity culture, school officials vowed to critically review their Greek life policies.

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Benjamin Wynne... 08/07/98

Benjamin Wynne, a Mandeville High School graduate

But in the years that have followed, LSU, like many large public universities, has continued to struggle with allegations of fraternity hazing or binge drinking, and — in one case just a year after Wynne died — cruelty to animals resulting in the death of a sheep.

Last week, Maxwell Gruver, an 18-year-old pledge for Phi Delta Theta, died in what school officials say is being investigated as a possible hazing incident. Law enforcement officials are still conducting interviews, but a preliminary autopsy report found high levels of alcohol in Gruver's system. The same day Gruver was pronounced dead, LSU President F. King Alexander announced the suspension of all Greek life activities on campus, which means all sorority and fraternity events are currently banned, including pledging.

LSU's administration declined requests for an interview to discuss policies put in place to respond to hazing and binge drinking over the years. But other LSU employees and past administrators acknowledged that changing the occasionally dangerous culture of Greek life partying is a truly difficult task, even as some praised other aspects of fraternity and sorority culture on campus.

As of Friday, LSU reported that four fraternities and one sorority are banned from campus because of past bad behavior in recent years. Two other fraternities — including Phi Delta Theta — are suspended, and three more are on probation. The bans are never permanent, so LSU is often a revolving door of organizations that are kicked off campus only to return in later years.

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091617 Greek LSU timeline.jpg

"You've got to punish the fraternity severely, but it seems to me it's almost impossible to curb that kind of behavior today," said William Jenkins, who served as LSU chancellor at the time of Wynne's death. "And it's tragic. It's absolutely tragic."

Wynne's death

Wynne was a transfer student from Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, which he'd attended for two years. Going to LSU was an exciting achievement for Wynne, his family said in an interview after his death. But he died after only a single day of classes.

Wynne was at the now-closed Murphy's Bar on Aug. 26, 1997, with members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, celebrating his invitation to join the frat on pledge day. While at the bar, Wynne was estimated to have thrown back more than 20 alcoholic drinks, a combination of beer and a house specialty called the "Three Wise Men," a mix of three different liquors.

Shortly after midnight someone called 911 from the SAE house to report that Wynne was turning blue and wouldn't wake up. Authorities arrived and found two dozen fraternity members and pledges unconscious. Wynne and a friend who drank himself into a coma were taken to the hospital. Wynne was pronounced dead there.

He was found to have a blood alcohol level of .588, which was more than six times the legal limit to drive at the time. He also had traces of the date rape drug GHB in his system.

Wynne's family declined comment for this story. But a year after his death, Wynne's mother, Janie, said she was hopeful that her son's story wouldn't be forgotten and would serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of binge drinking.

Jenkins said Wynne's death was one of the hardest things he dealt with as LSU's leader. He responded by banning SAE from LSU for four years.

LSU assembled a panel that made recommendations about how to improve safety in Greek organizations. One of the main recommendations was to ban alcohol in all university residences, but that never became policy. Students at LSU can still have alcohol in their rooms if they're 21 years old or older.

Another outcome of Wynne's death was the creation of the Campus-Community Coalition for Change, which was funded by a grant from the American Medical Association. The group was tasked with coming up with a program that reduces high-risk drinking.

LSU credits the coalition with helping Greek organizations ramp up their own enforcement of anti-hazing and alcohol policies, as well as noting that the Panhellenic council began surveying dropout pledges to find out if they left because of risky behavior. 

The coalition also pushed a local ordinance in Baton Rouge passed by the Metro Council that curbed late night drink specials at bars, which advocates hoped would curb binge drinking around campus. The grant money for that organization dried up in 2007.

In the years that followed Wynne's death, LSU also tweaked other policies, such as mandating that student organizations like fraternities register their parties ahead of time.

Jenkins said he spent every year after Wynne's death meeting with all of the leaders of Greek organizations.

"I cautioned them, and I cautioned them, and I cautioned them," he said.

Victor Felts, who was LSU's former director of Greek affairs in the years that followed Wynne's death, said the university was taking on the difficult task of trying to change a deeply-rooted fraternity culture.

"It was an attempt to get the organizations back to their core values and really try to get to exist not just as a social outlet, but as a leadership organization to prepare them to be better citizens and adults," Felts said.

Both Felts and Jenkins also emphasized that fraternities and sororities contribute positively to campus life. Jenkins noted that they help develop members' leadership skills, and as organizations raise significant dollars for charity.

"Historically, I'm anything but anti-Greek, many students who come through fraternities and sororities end up very successful in life," he said. "The standards simply have to be followed."

But even after Wynne's high-profile death, some LSU fraternities continued their other traditions of wild parties and sometimes vicious treatment of pledges.

In 1998, one year after Wynne's death, Kappa Sigma was kicked off campus for a "barnyard party," where witnesses later accused the fraternity of animal cruelty against chickens, a goat and a sheep. The sheep died. 

A few years later, a Kappa Alpha Psi pledge was hospitalized after he was paddled and caned so hard by members of his fraternity that he had to have surgery to remove infected and dead tissue from his buttocks. Later, a student filed a lawsuit alleging he was stripped to his boxer shorts in a sugar cane field, beaten and forced to inhale rubbing alcohol as he pledged the Delta Chi fraternity.

Wynne's own fraternity, SAE, returned to LSU in 2004 only to be kicked off again in 2012 after allegations of hazing, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and endangering the safety of others. SAE returned to LSU again in 2015.

Time for change?

Bob Mann, a 12-year Manship School of Mass Communication professor, said if it turns out that Gruver died of alcohol poisoning, he'd like to see the university follow the lead of Pennsylvania State University and other schools and ban alcohol in fraternity houses.

"This is serious business, LSU has to get this right," Mann said, noting that another student hazing death at Penn State this year has become a national controversy.

Earlier this year a Penn State sophomore died at a fraternity party. He'd consumed toxic levels of alcohol and fell down the stairs. Members of his fraternity waited hours before finally calling for help.   

Penn State permanently banned the fraternity from campus, a harsh sanction LSU has never used. The university also limited the number of parties fraternities could hold with alcohol and issued a ban on liquor, kegs and daylong parties.

Kevin Cope, an LSU faculty member for more than 30 years, said Wynne's death sent a sobering chill across the campus. But as memories have faded, he wonders if LSU's concerns about enforcement have also waned.

He said it's time for LSU to take a serious look at all of Greek life.

"This is a symptom of a wider problem with regard to the mentality of the Greek life world," he said. "There's a fundamental question of whether the behavior and attitude of Greek organizations is still consistent with the goals, hopes and mission of the university." 

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.