Two former members of LSU’s now-banned Phi Delta Theta chapter testified Tuesday they saw an obnoxiously loud Matthew Naquin hand Max Gruver a bottle of 190-proof liquor and order him to chug from it the night the 18-year-old pledge died of alcohol poisoning following a 2017 hazing event at the fraternity house.
But Naquin, who is standing trial on a felony negligent homicide charge in Gruver’s death, wasn’t the only Phi Delta Theta member who ordered pledges to drink alcohol the ill-fated night of Sept. 13, 2017, Ryan Isto and Patrick Forde told a six-person jury and two alternates.
Isto, who was Naquin’s roommate at LSU, said he also saw Sean-Paul Gott, of Lafayette, hand alcohol to pledges and tell them to drink. Forde also said he witnessed Gott scream at pledges and order them to drink.
“Did you ask pledges to drink that night?” prosecutor Morgan Johnson asked Isto. “Yes,” he answered, adding he did not ask Gruver to drink because he “didn’t know him well enough.”
Isto, 20, of Butte, Montana, pleaded no contest last fall to misdemeanor hazing, agreed to testify at Naquin’s trial and is awaiting sentencing. Forde, 22, of Westwood, Massachusetts, also is charged with hazing. He is cooperating with prosecutors, who said they’ll decide later whether to prosecute him.
Gott, 22, pleaded no contest last year to hazing and is scheduled to testify. He hasn’t been sentenced either.
Naquin, 21, of Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, faces up to five years in prison if found guilty. The verdict must be unanimous.
Naquin and Gott were expelled from LSU following an investigation into Gruver’s death.
Earlier Tuesday in her opening statement to the jury, Johnson argued that an aggressive and "over the top" Naquin is to blame for Gruver’s death. But Naquin's lead attorney, John McLindon, told jurors that while Gruver's death was tragic, it shouldn't be pinned on Naquin.
"Matthew Naquin did not kill Maxwell Gruver. Max Gruver died, but nobody killed him," McLindon said in his opening statement.
Gruver died of alcohol poisoning after a hazing ritual called “Bible study,” in which Phi Delta Theta pledges were required to chug hard liquor if they gave wrong answers to questions about the fraternity, authorities have said. His blood-alcohol level was 0.495 percent, which is more than six times the legal limit to drive in Louisiana, an autopsy revealed.
An autopsy detected THC, the chemical found in marijuana, in Gruver's system.
Johnson acknowledged to the jury that Gruver, of Roswell, Georgia, drank alcohol in social settings and smoked marijuana in his brief time on LSU's campus. She said he arrived at the university on Aug. 15, 2017. Gruver accepted an invitation to pledge Phi Delta Theta five days later, the prosecutor said.
Johnson, however, said Naquin ripped up Gruver's bid card, made it his personal mission to keep Gruver out of the fraternity, and forced him to drink 190-proof liquor — what she called poison — at the Bible study hazing event.
Gruver died the next morning.
Isto, who said Naquin and another fraternity member tore up Gruver’s bid card, testified Naquin didn’t feel Gruver fit in.
“He wanted him to be cut because he didn’t think he was a good fit,” Isto said, but added Naquin “wasn’t super vocal” about wanting to have Gruver’s bid reviewed. Isto said Naquin didn’t have the authority to cut a pledge.
Forde, who once was a Phi Delta Theta member but was not enrolled at LSU when Gruver died and had no formal affiliation with the fraternity, testified he was at the fraternity house the night of the Bible study and into the next morning and saw Naquin and Gott screaming and ordering pledges to drink alcohol when they incorrectly recited the Greek alphabet.
Forde said he also witnessed Naquin walking across pledges’ thighs as they sat against a wall as if sitting in a chair.
“Did you agree with how he (Naquin) was acting?” Johnson asked Forde. “No,” he replied. “He was going crazy screaming at the pledges and stuff.”
McLindon conceded to the jury that Naquin was acting “like a drill sergeant” at the Bible study.
“Matthew Naquin was without a doubt the loudest one there. I think they’ll prove that. But being loud doesn’t equate to criminal behavior,” McLindon said.
Dalton Babineaux, who was president of Phi Delta Theta's LSU chapter in the fall of 2017, testified that Naquin's poor treatment of pledges leading up to Gruver's death was in violation of the fraternity's hazing policy.
Two days before the Bible study, Naquin had been warned by his fraternity brothers to tone down his interaction with pledges, Johnson said. LSU graduate Michael Comeaux, who was vice president of LSU’s Phi Delta Theta chapter at the time of Gruver’s death, testified that all members were advised at a Sept. 11, 2017, meeting not to treat pledges poorly.
“We never called out anybody,” Comeaux said, but he acknowledged that what he had heard about Naquin’s interactions with pledges was alarming.
Comeaux, who had training as a lifeguard and athletic trainer, said he was studying at the library the night of the Bible study and checked on Gruver when he returned to the fraternity house about midnight. Comeaux said he had been advised that Gruver had too much to drink. Gruver was sleeping or passed out on a couch when he saw him, and he checked on him again at 1 a.m., Comeaux said.
“At the time I didn’t notice anything that prompted me to call EMS,” he said.
Isto said he and Naquin left the fraternity house around 11 p.m., and Gruver stated he had an early class the next morning and asked that someone wake him up by 7 a.m. Isto said he did not feel Gruver was in trouble.
“No one did,” Isto said.
LSU student Sean Pennison, who was arrested in the hazing case but was given immunity and is a cooperating state witness, testified he was living in the fraternity house in 2017 and saw Gruver after the Bible study had concluded.
“He seemed intoxicated but I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary,” Pennison said.
Forde said he heard Gruver snoring “a little loud” when he left the fraternity house around 2:30 a.m.
“I thought he would wake up and be fine,” Forde said.
McLindon said witnesses told investigators that after the hazing event had concluded upstairs at the fraternity house, Gruver walked downstairs and chugged more liquor before going to sleep on a couch. The attorney said he believes the additional alcohol is what killed Gruver.
The trial could last into next week.
Phi Delta Theta has been banned from LSU's campus until at least 2033 as a result of the probe into Gruver’s death.
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