A former LSU fraternity member accused in the 2017 hazing death of Max Gruver had obstructed justice during the criminal investigation by deleting hundreds of files from his own phone the same day a judge approved a search warrant for it, prosecutors alleged Friday.
State District Judge Beau Higginbotham also had signed an order directing Matthew Naquin to preserve the contents of his cellphone, East Baton Rouge Parish Assistant District Attorney Morgan Johnson wrote in a notice of intent to use so-called "other crimes" evidence at Naquin's negligent homicide trial set to begin July 8.
Naquin, 21, of Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, is not charged with obstruction of justice, but prosecutors are asking for the judge’s permission to tell the trial jury about the deletion of phone files.
“We think it’s for a jury to consider that,” District Attorney Hillar Moore III said.
Higginbotham will hear the prosecution motion Wednesday, as well as any other outstanding motions from either side.
Gruver, 18, of Roswell, Georgia, died Sept. 14, 2017, 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.
“Multiple witnesses reported that (Naquin) was central to a criminal hazing event leading to Mr. Gruver’s death,” according to the motion filed by Johnson. “Further multiple witnesses stated that (Naquin) was vocal about this dislike of Mr. Gruver and wanted him 'cut' from the fraternity.”
Naquin’s former LSU roommate, Ryan Matthew Isto, 19, of Butte, Montana, and ex-LSU student Sean-Paul Gott, 22, of Lafayette, pleaded no contest last fall to misdemeanor hazing and agreed to testify at the trial. Another former LSU student charged with hazing, Patrick Andrew Forde, 21, of Westwood, Massachusetts, is cooperating with prosecutors and also will testify at the trial. Prosecutors said they’ll decide later whether to prosecute him.
“Several boys deleted things from their phone, including one boy who has been given immunity by the District Attorney,” Naquin’s lead attorney, John McLindon, said after Friday’s court proceeding. “It will be interesting to see if those boys are investigated for obstruction of justice.”
Johnson claims nearly 700 files were deleted from Naquin's phone on the afternoon of Nov. 8, 2017, shortly after Higginbotham signed the search warrant for the phone.
McLindon, after a District Attorney’s Office investigator informed him of the search warrant and preservation order, called Naquin at 3:13 p.m. that day. The call lasted for roughly seven minutes, the notice of intent states. At 3:59 p.m., some 693 filed were deleted from Naquin’s phone.
“The State is unaware of any information to suggest that John McLindon counseled or suggested to his client that items be deleted or destroyed from this phone,” a footnote in the motion says. “This reference to the call between lawyer and client is to show the context of the time that notification was made and the time that data was removed from his device.”
The motion alleges that an app called "CCleaner" on Naquin's phone enables a user to “wipe a large amount of data from a device quickly and easily."
The FBI could not recover the files, but the metadata confirms they were deleted on Nov. 8, 2017, the prosecutor said.
Hundreds of other files also were deleted from the phone, but the FBI's data extraction efforts could not determine the date and time those files were deleted, she added.
"There is still an ongoing effort to recover deleted data from (Naquin's) phone and as such, the State reserves the right to amend this motion should additional deleted data be recovered," Johnson wrote.
Naquin’s attorneys turned over his phone to the District Attorney’s Office nine days after the warrant was signed, prosecutors said.
Naquin was indicted in early 2018. Last week, McLindon filed a motion seeking to quash the indictment because a computer glitch kept younger people off the East Baton Rouge Parish grand jury that indicted him. On Thursday, Johnson filed a bill of information charging Naquin with negligent homicide and on Friday dismissed the grand jury indictment.
“We did this in order to maintain the trial date of July 8,” the prosecutor explained to the judge.
McLindon, who had previously waived Naquin’s appearance at Friday’s court proceeding, pleaded not guilty on his behalf to the superseding bill of information.
Naquin faces up to five years in prison if convicted on negligent homicide.
Gruver's blood-alcohol level was 0.495%, which is more than six times the legal limit to drive in Louisiana. An autopsy also detected the chemical found in marijuana, THC, in his system.
Phi Delta Theta has been banned from LSU's campus until at least 2033.