Two former LSU students and ex-Phi Delta Theta members who pleaded no contest to misdemeanor hazing in the 2017 alcohol-related death of fraternity pledge Max Gruver were sentenced Friday to 30 days in jail by a judge who said the penalty — the maximum allowed under the law at the time — is “not enough.”
“You put the plan in motion that ultimately caused Mr. Gruver’s death,” state District Judge Beau Higginbotham told Sean-Paul Gott, of Lafayette, and Ryan Isto, of Butte, Montana. “You are directly responsible for his death.”
Gott, 22, and Isto, 20, were immediately taken into custody. The two — who expressed their regret to the court and the Gruver family in court — were handcuffed before being led from the 19th Judicial District courtroom by East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies and taken to Parish Prison. Their attorneys said they won’t appeal the sentences.
Isto’s former LSU roommate, Matthew Naquin, was convicted July 17 of negligent homicide in Gruver’s death and will be sentenced Oct. 16 by Higginbotham. Naquin, 21, of Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, faces up to five years in prison.
In court Friday, Gott, who has since graduated from another university, turned to Max Gruver's parents, Stephen and Rae Ann Gruver, and apologized. “I have full regret. I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m sorry,” he said, calling Max Gruver “a wonderful kid.”
Testimony at Naquin’s trial indicated Gott sent a group text instructing the fall 2017 Phi Delta Theta pledge class to report to the fraternity house that ill-fated night.
“I wish I had never sent that text,” Gott said Friday.
Isto apologized to the court, the university, and then to the Gruvers.
“I think about that night every day,” Isto said. He said he will use the tragic event as “an opportunity to build on the anti-hazing movement.” His attorney, Michael Fiser, said Isto is on the dean’s list at a university in Montana.
The misdemeanor hazing charge to which Gott and Isto pleaded no contest last year carried up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $100, under the law in place at the time of the Gruver hazing. Higginbotham did fine each of them $100.
Last year, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law the Max Gruver Act — which Gruver’s parents were instrumental in promoting — and other anti-hazing bills meant to reduce hazing and hike penalties.
Under HB 78, which became the Gruver Act, people who participate in hazing activities that result in death when the victim's blood alcohol level is at least 0.30% would face up to five years in prison and fines of up to $10,000. Hazing that doesn't lead to death would be subject to fines of up to $1,000 and six months in prison.
Organizations — fraternities, sororities, associations, social clubs, athletic teams and similar groups on college or high school campuses — that knowingly allow hazing could also face fines of up to $10,000.
Gruver’s parents spoke in court before Gott and Isto were sentenced.
“These young men are very lucky the Max Gruver law wasn’t in effect at the time,” Rae Ann Gruver said.
Higginbotham agreed, saying they benefited from “a very archaic rule,” the prior hazing statute.
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Max Gruver, 18, of Roswell, Georgia, had been at LSU just a month when he died of alcohol poisoning after a hazing ritual called "Bible study" at the now-closed Phi Delta Theta fraternity house. He and other pledges were told to chug 190-proof liquor the night of Sept. 13, 2017, if they gave wrong answers to questions about the fraternity or could not recite the Greek alphabet.
Gruver died the following morning. His blood-alcohol level was 0.495%, which is more than six times the legal limit to drive in Louisiana. An autopsy also detected THC, the chemical found in marijuana, in Gruver's system.
Stephen Gruver said Gott and Isto — and Naquin — gave his son and the other pledges “poison” in the form of 190-proof liquor.
“In my opinion 30 days is not enough for their crimes,” he told the judge, adding that the lives of all of the pledges there that night were put in danger.
Outside the courtroom after the sentencing, Rae Ann Gruver said the 30-day sentence, while inadequate, “says something.”
“It puts a message out there,” she said.
The message, her husband said, is that “hazing has to end.”
“We’re not done,” Stephen Gruver said. “That’s what the rest of our lives are dedicated to.” He added that “Max has been guiding us through this whole process.”
Higginbotham called Gruver’s death tragic and unnecessary.
“Everything has limits,” Higginbotham said. “When you don’t abide by the limits, problems arise.”
The judge noted that Gott’s testimony as a prosecution witness at Naquin’s trial “differed greatly” from what attorneys in the case had suggested it would be. He said Gott appeared to try to shoulder the blame for Naquin.
“I did not get that you were remorseful,” Higginbotham added.
The judge said he found it telling that Isto apologized to the court and LSU before the Gruvers. Isto testified at Naquin’s trial that he too had been hazed as a Phi Delta Theta pledge.
“You try to use as an excuse that this was done to me so it’s OK for me to do it to someone else,” Higginbotham said.
Isto testified at the trial that he saw Naquin hand Gruver a bottle of alcohol at the "Bible study" and order him to drink. Isto said he saw Gott do the same to pledges. Isto also acknowledged telling pledges to drink, but said he didn't order Gruver to drink.
Several pledges testified Naquin appeared to target Gruver that night. Trial testimony indicated Naquin disliked Gruver and wanted him cut from the fraternity.
Another former LSU student charged with hazing, Patrick Andrew Forde, 22, of Westwood, Massachusetts, also testified as a prosecution witness at Naquin's trial. Prosecutors haven't decided whether to prosecute him.
Naquin also is charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly deleting hundreds of files from his phone during the criminal investigation and after a search warrant had been issued for the phone.
Phi Delta Theta has been banned from the LSU campus until at least 2033 as a result of the probe into the events leading to Gruver's death.