Two former LSU students pleaded no contest Thursday to misdemeanor hazing in the alcohol-related death of freshman fraternity pledge Max Gruver, whose mother said was ready to “spread his wings and soar” when he arrived at the university a year ago.
Sean-Paul Gott and Ryan Matthew Isto agreed to cooperate with East Baton Rouge Parish prosecutors and testify at the July 8 trial of a third ex-LSU student, Matthew Alexander Naquin. Naquin is charged with negligent homicide — a felony — in Gruver’s death Sept. 14, 2017.
A fourth former LSU student charged with hazing, Patrick Andrew Forde, has pledged his cooperation and truthful testimony at the trial, state District Judge Beau Higginbotham was told Thursday by prosecutor Morgan Johnson and Forde’s attorney, Kris Perret. Johnson said a decision will be made later on whether to prosecute Forde.
Also Thursday, Higginbotham ruled that prosecutors can use at Naquin’s trial evidence of other alleged incidents involving Naquin and Phi Delta Theta pledges in the weeks and days leading up to the 18-year-old’s death.
Those incidents include: an Aug. 30, 2017, “hurricane party” at which pledges were told they had to drink hard liquor, which caused one pledge to become ill, vomit and pass out; a late-night Sept. 8, 2017, “firewatch” at which Naquin allegedly fired plastic pellets from an airsoft pistol at pledges guarding Phi Delta Theta’s tailgating location for the LSU-Chattanooga football game; Naquin telling a pledge sometime between Aug. 20 and Sept. 13 last year that he wished he could cut Gruver from the pledge roll; and a Sept. 11, 2017, warning from a local Phi Delta Theta official to Naquin that he tone down his interactions with pledges.
Naquin’s attorney, John McLindon, objected to the judge’s ruling and said he would consider appealing it.
Higginbotham did not set sentencing dates for Gott and Isto. He did decide that what prosecutors have described as inconsistent grand jury witness testimony won’t be turned over to the defense at this point because the purported inconsistencies are not material to guilt or innocence. Prosecutors had cited their ethical obligations in pointing out that the grand jury had heard inconsistent testimony from witnesses.
Naquin, Gott and Isto were in the courtroom, as well as Gruver’s parents, Stephen and Rae Ann Gruver. The Gruvers said they had spent 18 years preparing their son for college.
“He wanted to spread his wings and soar,” Rae Ann Gruver said, adding that Max was excited about becoming a member of Phi Delta Theta on the LSU campus.
“He thought he had met some real friends,” she said, her voice quivering. “Max’s death was not an accident, because hazing is not an accident. No family should ever feel the pain our family feels.”
An autopsy showed Max Gruver, of Roswell, Georgia, had a blood alcohol level of more than six times the legal limit to drive in Louisiana. Coroner's officials said Gruver's death could be attributed to alcohol poisoning and also aspiration, meaning he suffocated on his own vomit.
“We’ll never know what he would have done with his life,” Stephen Gruver said. “There is no justice, because the only justice would be to have our son back.”
The Gruver family is suing LSU, Phi Delta Theta, and Naquin, Gott, Isto, Forde and others, in federal court for $25 million in damages.
Higginbotham noted that the no contest pleas entered by Gott, 22, of Lafayette, and Isto, 19, of Butte, Montana, carry the same weight as a guilty plea in criminal court. A no contest plea, however, cannot be used against an individual in a civil court proceeding.
Authorities have said Naquin, 20, of Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, and other senior Phi Delta Theta members targeted Gruver in a hazing ritual they called "Bible study," in which pledges were required to chug 190-proof liquor when they gave wrong answers to questions about the fraternity.
Isto’s attorney, Michael Fiser, said after court that his client clearly participated in a hazing ritual – the same ritual that Isto had to endure when he joined the fraternity. But he said Isto did not plan or coordinate the hazing event that took Gruver’s life.
“And it was clear that he had little if any contact with poor Max Gruver, whose tragic death haunts him every day,” Fiser said.
Forde, 21, of Westwood, Massachusetts, was not in court Thursday.
“We appreciate the opportunity provided by the District Attorney to meet with Mr. Forde and to allow him to provide a complete and truthful explanation of the facts as he knows them surrounding this tragic event, and specifically, his lack of involvement therein,” Perret said afterward.
Johnson disclosed in court Thursday that Gott has agreed to turn over the password to his seized cellphone. Gott had previously declined to do so.
Naquin’s phone also was confiscated pursuant to a court order, but McLindon cited Naquin’s constitutional right against self-incrimination in refusing Thursday to give prosecutors his passcode.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said outside the 19th Judicial District Courthouse that the FBI has indicated it may be able to access the contents of Naquin’s phone without the passcode.
Phi Delta Theta has been banned from the LSU campus until at least 2033.