As they mourned the death of their son after a night of forced drinking with his new fraternity brothers at LSU, Rae Ann and Stephen Gruver pleaded with the Louisiana Legislature in 2018 to create harsher criminal penalties for hazing.

The Legislature listened and passed the Max Gruver Act, which his parents described as "groundbreaking and precedent-setting for the rest of the country." The legislation made hazing a felony that carries up to five years in prison, among other changes.

This week, authorities deployed that new statute for the first time.

LSU police arrested Phi Kappa Psi member Terry Pat Reynolds, 21, on one count of felony hazing, along with 12 counts of misdemeanor hazing and another count of failure to seek assistance. Reynolds is accused of hosting a party where he forced new members to down entire bottles of alcohol, leaving one freshman hospitalized with a .451 blood-alcohol content and organs that had begun to fail.

Reynolds' arrest will put the new law to the test.

"It's kind of like a double-edged sword — horrible to see something like this happen, but the publicity will help educate people about these new laws and hopefully save lives in the future," Stephen Gruver said in an interview Friday. "Of course it opens old wounds for us. Just three years after we lost our son … I don't really have words."

Doctors were able to save the freshman's life, but his severe alcohol poisoning elevated the case to a felony. The law specifies that if hazing involves "forced or coerced alcohol consumption" resulting in a BAC of .30 or higher, whoever was responsible for the hazing faces up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

LSU spokesman Ernie Ballard confirmed that this marks the first time university police have used the statute.

"They picked the wrong case," said Lewis Unglesby, the veteran defense attorney representing Reynolds.

Unglesby maintained that "there's a significant misunderstanding over the real facts of the case," but would not go into detail about it. The version of events presented in Reynolds' arrest warrant says that he invited dozens of new fraternity members to his house on Oct. 18, plying them with alcohol and telling some they couldn't leave until they had finished whole bottles.

Police concluded that Reynolds hazed at least 12 fraternity members that night — hence the 12 misdemeanor counts against him — but one became particularly intoxicated, and Reynolds did not help him. Instead, the dangerously drunk freshman went to a female student's apartment after the party.

Another student saw him sometime between when he left the party and when he visited the apartment. That student called for help and other fraternity members drove the freshman to Baton Rouge General Medical Center, where he was routed to the intensive care unit.

Few details are known about why the freshman was visiting the young woman, or what happened in the aftermath. But hours after his hospitalization, she died by suicide inside her apartment.

Reynolds, for his part, became angrier as the night went on, though the exact timeline and reason for his anger aren't clear. Sometime after the party, he messaged the new members reminding them that they had four weeks left of pledgeship, according to his arrest warrant. "You boys f--- me, we will f--- you," he threatened them. "It's open season starting tomorrow." 

Unglesby, who insists that Reynolds harbored no malice toward his fraternity brothers, has gone on the attack against the new criminal hazing statute, calling it unconstitutional. He particularly takes issue with a sentence that says it doesn't matter whether a victim consented or acquiesced to the hazing — even if there's evidence to that effect, it's not a valid defense.

"That's crazy," Unglesby said. "Your free will is your free will. I don't think you can ever eliminate the rights of a human being to make their own decision in criminal law."

Gruver's parents wish their son's death had been more of a wake-up call to other LSU fraternity members, especially considering the anti-hazing activism that they've helped organize at LSU and on other college campuses across the country.

"They just turned a blind eye to it," Stephen Gruver said. "When will these young adults start to listen and believe our message?"

The Gruvers have a civil lawsuit pending against LSU; one fraternity member who hazed Gruver was convicted on a charge of negligent homicide and sentenced to five years in prison with 2.5 years suspended. His arrest and prosecution came before the new criminal hazing law was enacted.

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III — who has described the recent case as "unbelievably similar" to the Gruver case — said now that Reynolds has been arrested, prosecutors will have to review the evidence and continue their own investigation to determine what charge they'll pursue in court.

Moore said he hopes to interview the freshman who was hospitalized. The young man has yet to give a statement to law enforcement, but he has been released from the hospital.

Securing a felony conviction remains exceedingly rare in hazing cases across the country. But Louisiana is among a handful of states that have strengthened their hazing laws in response to tragedies on their college campuses.

Pennsylvania is another: The Keystone State's governor signed a new law just months after the Max Gruver Act was enacted in Louisiana. That law came in response to the hazing death of Timothy Piazza, who died in February 2017 after becoming dangerously drunk during an initiation event at his Penn State fraternity house.

The Pennsylvania law includes a felony definition of aggravated hazing that "results in serious bodily injury or death" to the victim. It also includes a "reckless indifference" clause that requires witnesses to provide help when they become aware of the hazing.

Another new law in Florida — named after Andrew Coffey, a fraternity pledge at Florida State University who died from alcohol poisoning with a BAC of .447 in November 2017 — strengthened the penalties in that state, though the existing law was already one of the strictest in the nation and included a felony option. That statute was created in 2005 following a 2001 hazing death in which a University of Miami student drowned.

One of the recent changes allows Florida prosecutors to pursue hazing charges even if the victim has already been inducted into the fraternity, which closed a loophole requiring them to be a pledge.

Louisiana's Max Gruver Act addressed a similar question, which could become relevant in the Reynolds case.

Reynolds' arrest warrant refers to the hospitalized freshman and his classmates as "new members" of the chapter, not pledges. That's likely because they had already been officially accepted into the chapter earlier this semester. But the law specifies that in addition to pledging or being initiated, criminal hazing can occur when the victim is simply seeking to "maintain membership" in an organization.

The Gruvers have also been pushing for a law change in Georgia, their home state. A proposed bill, also named for Max Gruver, passed the Georgia Senate earlier this year but was stalled in the approval process after the pandemic hit. Stephen Gruver said the legislation was modeled after Louisiana's new laws. He hopes more states will follow suit in the future. 


Email Andrea Gallo at agallo@theadvocate.com