Sawyer Reed was an LSU senior — an enthusiastic member of Sigma Chi with impressive grades and law school aspirations — when he overdosed on heroin at his apartment just off campus and died in October 2015.
An announcement two months later said Sigma Chi's LSU chapter would close for the next three years after an investigation found evidence of drug use and hazing at the fraternity.
LSU said the closure was not related to Reed's death, but records show a group of alumni advisors acted in direct response to it by starting an investigation and ultimately pushing to impose routine drug testing on chapter members. When the students balked, LSU administrators and Sigma Chi national leaders agreed to suspend the chapter.
Fast forward to 2019 when Sigma Chi was preparing to return to LSU's campus this past semester after serving out the suspension.
The fledgling chapter had barely gotten off its feet when alumni advisors once again sounded the alarm bells and started pointing fingers at each other. Their recent concerns address what some consider a longstanding problem: members of their own ranks — men who graduated from college decades ago — partying with underage Sigma Chis. They're worried such behavior could perpetuate a culture of reckless abandon that had gotten the chapter in trouble before.
Tensions came to a head when several lead advisors recently announced their decision to disband amid continuing infighting. Now the fraternity faces an uncertain future at LSU as alumni scramble to meet the university's advisory requirements before the start of fall semester later this month
The chapter's recent history highlights the large role that alumni play in overseeing fraternities on college campuses nationwide, for better or worse. It's a relationship that often goes unnoticed even as universities struggle to curb dangerous tendencies within their Greek organizations before more students end up injured or dead.
Reed transferred to LSU from a state school in Texas, where he had pledged Sigma Chi as a freshman. He received permission to join the LSU chapter before arriving on campus and settled right in.
"He wanted to experience a big football school," his mom, Kristin Reed, said in a recent telephone interview from her family's home in Dallas. "It was a new social environment for him. I think it was just a faster crowd."
Kristin Reed talked to her son on the phone several hours before his death. He had just earned a 97 in a business law class and was excited to share the news. He was also planning a quiet Friday evening in anticipation of LSU's big football game against Florida the next afternoon.
It was around 4:30 a.m. Saturday morning when Dallas police officers arrived at the Reeds' house. The family soon learned that Reed had been pronounced dead after his roommate found him unresponsive in their bathroom.
A law school application was found on Reed's nightstand.
Family and friends were shocked and heartbroken but noted some small warning signs. The most memorable were his descriptions of wild parties inside the Sigma Chi house.
News of what happened rocked the Sigma Chi community later that morning.
In an email to Reed's dad several weeks later, chapter advisor Loren Kleinpeter described the immediate reaction among fraternity members. Reed's parents provided a copy of that email to The Advocate. At the time, Kleinpeter was chair of the chapter advisory board, the group of volunteer alumni that takes an active role in overseeing chapter activities.
Kleinpeter said the students "appeared to be somewhat in a state of shock" and called a meeting to discuss whether to cancel their post-game plans.
"I secretly hoped that they would vote to cancel the party to honor Sawyer," he wrote. "But the majority voted to go forward."
Kleinpeter said Reed's death made him and other members of the chapter advisory board wonder "what else was happening in the chapter that we were missing." The chapter's housing corporation, an alumni-owned nonprofit that in turn owns the Sigma Chi house, had recently finished installing a video surveillance system. Alumni viewed the footage, which showed two separate instances of students snorting cocaine off tables in the library: the night before Reed's death and the night after — at the party the students had voted not to cancel, according to the email.
Kleinpeter said that led him to believe "that while some of the chapter may have truly desired to honor Sawyer, the majority just wanted to have a good time."
Alumni advisors met with chapter leadership and learned that the students in charge had been aware of the drug use but had taken minimal steps to prevent similar incidents or initiate the traditional discipline process, Kleinpeter wrote. He noted the students were essentially "taking the position that it was not important that the bank had been robbed, but rather (that) the robbers were caught by a video surveillance system."
He then suggested the chapter start drug testing its members.
Some Sigma Chis embraced the idea of drug testing, Kleinpeter wrote. "Then the push back started."
The final proposed plan included allowances for "study drugs" like Adderall and stated that a member could return to the chapter after failing a drug test upon completion of certain conditions, including a rehab program, Kleinpeter wrote.
"That made no difference," he said. The advisory board gave all active members a deadline to get tested, but most ignored the order.
The alumni then called a meeting for pledges to commit to testing, according to the email. Kleinpeter said most of the pledge class and about 20 parents attended the meeting, though the parents weren't invited.
"Not a single pledge signed the drug policy on that Sunday evening," he wrote. "The pledges and their parents felt that they could dictate the terms of the drug policy … as well as when the drug screen would be taken."
The chapter was closed soon thereafter when alumni informed LSU administrators and Sigma Chi national leaders of the students' response. When reached for comment recently, Kleinpeter didn't elaborate on the contents of the email but said he and other alumni "vigorously supported the closing of the chapter in 2015."
"That is the story. When the chapter returns, there will be mandatory drug testing from that point going forward," he wrote to Reed's father. "These changes will all be a direct result of Sawyer's tragic death. Out of every tragedy comes some good."
Since Sigma Chi returned to campus this spring, that promise has been upheld. But other concerns have surfaced this past semester.
Local alumni helped orchestrate the fraternity's return, hoping to restore honor to the Sigma Chi name and create a positive fraternal experience, said Ed Kramer, secretary of the housing corporation, which calls itself the "House of the Southern Woods" in honor of the various native tree species used to construct the chapter house decades ago.
Alumni hosted an event Feb. 13 — "the 100 Men of the Southern Woods" dinner — to celebrate their recent campaign to raise money for renovations to the house, Kramer said. It was also an opportunity to look ahead to the chapter's future.
Kramer said the group had recruited a Sigma Chi member from another school who would transfer to LSU and lead the new chapter, which is called a "colony" until it earns official chapter status. The student also attended the dinner.
Emails among alumni, which Kramer provided to The Advocate, detail how the evening unfolded. Several alums relocated to a bar after dinner along with the recruit, who was too young to legally drink, and two Sigma Chi staff members, according to the emails. The group then relocated again to the house of another alum, where the student ended up spending the night.
The two Sigma Chi staffers left around 4 a.m. and returned to the Sigma Chi house, according to an email from Kleinpeter, who is now president of the housing corporation. The email notes the student stayed put because he "was too inebriated to travel to the Sigma Chi house."
Kleinpeter described his personal disappointment at hearing the news: "It is truly unfortunate that on an evening that I thought was one of our finer hours, a stain of dishonor was cast upon the White Cross," referring to the fraternity's insignia.
He also cited longstanding concerns about certain alums becoming a bad influence on the undergraduates they're supposed to mentor and oversee, emphasizing the importance of being "their advisors, not their drinking buddies."
Kramer contacted LSU's director of Greek life, Angela Guillory, after learning about what happened in February, saying he felt compelled to report underage drinking — and because he didn't believe other alumni would be transparent.
"I cannot continue in good faith to volunteer or endorse Sigma Chi unless something is done to purge this chapter of this systemic illness that exists," he wrote in an email to Guillory. "If not, I fear for the young men that pledge and fall victim to this institutionalized system of wrongdoing."
An LSU spokesman declined to provide details about how administrators responded to the complaint, saying officials can't comment on matters involving individual students, citing their privacy rights.
Sigma Chi national Executive Director Mike Church said in a statement the fraternity's leadership was also informed about an LSU alumni event in February "where alcohol was consumed by an underage individual."
He said an investigation found that "two employees of our headquarters staff were indeed present at the event and, while they did not directly purchase alcohol for the individual, they did witness him drinking and failed to intervene, which is a direct violation of our policies."
Church said the two employees were reprimanded and received counseling. He also said the organization has enhanced its training practices for staff to "call further attention to this important issue. There have been no repeat incidents and we appreciate the open candor from all involved."
Issues surrounding how to navigate the relationship between fraternity alumni and active members aren't unique to Sigma Chi or LSU.
Questions arose several months ago in the aftermath of news about egregious hazing practices at LSU's Delta Kappa Epsilon house, which resulted in the chapter's closure and the arrests of nine DKE members. Records later revealed that LSU administrators had received multiple prior warnings about problems at DKE and had turned some complaints over to alumni advisors, but were not satisfied with the internal review.
Guillory, the director of Greek life, called the DKE chapter advisor after receiving a report about possible hazing from the mother of a pledge in March 2018, according to LSU records. The advisor told Guillory he would look into it, then said he had "confirmed nothing going on at the house."
When Guillory asked how he determined that, he said he had checked with the students in charge of the chapter: its president and vice president. "I think we were under the impression that an alumni would investigate," Guillory responded, according to LSU records. "This is disappointing."
Similar issues with alumni oversight came to light during the recent trial of former LSU student Matthew Naquin, who was convicted of negligent homicide in the 2017 hazing death of Phi Delta Theta pledge Max Gruver.
Naquin's defense attorney, John McLindon, asked jurors to consider why the fraternity as a whole "hasn't been indicted" for failing to prevent the hazing. To support that point, McLindon asked another fraternity member, Ryan Isto, to name the chapter's alumni advisor, which he was unable to do. Isto also testified he had seen the house mother just one time.
David Easlick, a former executive director of DKE who now serves as an expert witness in hazing cases nationwide, said alumni can have a big influence on their chapters and can contribute to the fraternity culture for good or ill.
"In some chapters, it's absolutely normal for older alumni to drink with everyone," he said. "You could have parties where there's a 65-year-old guy out front throwing up next to an 18-year-old. … For some reason, fraternities don't seem to think the drinking age applies to them."
He said primarily in the South, where fraternities have long histories and lots of legacy members, the alumni "can really get carried away — with alcohol, hazing, you name it."
"On the other hand, they can be an incredibly positive influence," he said. "When you have really strong alumni oversight, that absolutely can create a healthy culture of transgenerational friendship. It's refreshing to see."
Justin Landry, LSU's Interfraternity Council president, said that "strong alumni engagement in a chapter can be a very helpful tool for undergraduates."
"They have seen what works and know what does not work in terms of event planning, programming and recruitment," he said. "It is always nice for chapter leadership to have that resource in their corner."
Church, the Sigma Chi executive director, said LSU alumni did the right thing in reporting the recent instance of underage drinking.
"Sigma Chi … is an unrelenting leader in its efforts to create a healthy, safe and vibrant fraternal experience. A strong team of well-trained volunteer alumni advisors is crucial to the success of that mission," he said. "We are proud that the men involved in that capacity in our colony effort at LSU are exceptional partners in that mission and we appreciate their actions to prevent situations like this one from occurring again."
Kleinpeter said he and others are "working diligently together to ensure that the future Sigma Chi chapter at LSU is reflective of Sigma Chi's timeless values and lofty aspirations." He said that includes a new policy banning alcohol from alumni events where undergraduates are present and "other measures to ensure that only those alumni who share a positive vision of the future of the chapter are engaged with the undergraduate men."
The colony now has 28 members and is looking ahead to its second semester back on campus. Renovations are set to begin soon on the chapter house, funded by alumni contributions.
But a recent announcement from lead advisors presented a bump in the road. The announcement came last month, documented in emails among alumni, that the chapter advisory board had chosen to dissolve, a decision that upended the framework of alumni overseeing the new group of Sigma Chis at LSU.
Kleinpeter said a plan is in the works to establish a new advisory board as soon as possible. He said he's confident this minor setback won't have lasting consequences for the colony.
The university's Greek life policies require such a board of alumni volunteers to oversee several aspects of chapter life, including recruitment and the judicial process. The question now is who will replace the board members who have stepped down — and the deadline is looming as summer draws to a close.