Garry and Mary Ellen Jordan were planning an unannounced visit to LSU.

They would show up and tell their son he had no choice but to withdraw from school. He needed help and he wasn't getting it there. 

The couple attended Sunday morning Mass at their church in Covington and were getting ready to leave their house when local police arrived and delivered the news: Graham Jordan had been found unresponsive in his dorm room a few hours earlier.

"He went to bed and woke up — well, he didn't wake up. He was dead," Garry Jordan said. "It seems to me that LSU has a surprising number of kids dying there, between the drug overdoses and the hazing." 

At least three LSU students died from accidental drug overdoses in 2017 alone, according to coroner's reports and LSU records obtained by The Advocate. Two of the students — Graham Jordan and his close friend — were members of the now-shuttered Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. 

But their deaths prompted little public response from either LSU administrators or DKE national leaders, adding to existing evidence of problems within the chapter going unaddressed. It wasn't until egregious hazing allegations surfaced last fall that the chapter was investigated and later closed. That decision came amid heightened scrutiny of the entire LSU Greek system following the 2017 hazing death of freshman Phi Delta Theta pledge Max Gruver.

Records show that other LSU fraternities have faced drug use issues in the past, but the problem is much bigger than Greek life.

Eight LSU students have died from accidental drug overdoses since the beginning of 2015. Several others fatally overdosed not long after withdrawing from school and were identified as students in their obituaries, according to an Advocate analysis of public records. 

Their deaths highlight possible consequences of the destructive behavior that surfaces among college students experimenting with alcohol and drugs, especially as prescription pills become more popular on campuses nationwide. LSU parents want to know what universities can — and should — do to protect students who embrace the carefree culture of house parties and tailgates but later find themselves in over their heads, sometimes secretly struggling with addiction. 

***

Police reports show that Graham Jordan was out at Bogie's, a popular LSU bar on East Boyd Drive near campus. His friend told police he seemed intoxicated but did not appear to have had too much to drink.

The two later returned to Graham's dorm around 2 a.m. and he went into the bathroom for several minutes. When he came out, he was "acting strange and swaying" but his companion assumed it was from drinking, according to police reports.

About five hours later, the friend woke up and noticed something was wrong. That's when Graham's roommates called 911 and tried unsuccessfully to revive him.

Autopsy results and police reports show he had ingested Xanax along with a lethal dose of fentanyl — the powerful synthetic painkiller that has ravaged communities across the United States during the nation's ongoing opioid crisis. Counterfeit prescription pills, sometimes laced with fentanyl, are becoming more prevalent nationwide according to the national Drug Enforcement Administration. Law enforcement officials couldn't confirm that's what killed Graham but said some evidence points in that direction. 

Graham grew up on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. He graduated from St. Paul's, a private Catholic high school across the street from his parents' historic home in downtown Covington where his friends would often hang out on weekends and after sports practice. He earned good grades and mentored younger students on the lacrosse team, developing a reputation for his kind spirit and encouraging words

His parents said Graham had occasionally been caught drinking and smoking marijuana in high school, but nothing to suggest more serious underlying problems. Then he went to LSU and pledged DKE his freshman year. 

"He was a different kid after that," Garry said. "I'm not blaming the fraternity, but it was like night and day. It's hard seeing your kid messed up and you can't do anything about it."

Graham decided to sit out the beginning of junior year. He didn't acknowledge that his drug use had gotten more serious in the previous months, but his parents were worried. He spent the semester at home and started treatment for anxiety and depression.

His parents allowed him to return to LSU in January 2017, hoping he would focus on classes and distance himself from the friends who partied too hard. Graham was a history major — fascinated most with WWII — and was considering law school in the future.

He died Jan. 29 at age 21, less than a month after returning to LSU.

"Nothing is said about the party culture and the drugs available on campus," Mary Ellen said. "What parents need to know is that even if your child is not inclined toward that behavior, it's very much in their face."

***

Several months after Graham's death, his close friend and fraternity brother died from what authorities ruled an accidental overdose at an apartment near campus. Coroner's records show he had ingested a combination of alcohol, cocaine and alprazolam, which is the generic name for Xanax. 

Symmes Culbertson, a recent LSU grad and fellow DKE member, said he decided to channel his grief into raising awareness about the often unseen dangers of drug use among college students. 

He said drugs have become so accepted within certain groups of students that it's "very hard to tell the difference between people who actually have a problem and are struggling with addiction, and people who are using recreationally."

Recent studies show that prescription drugs in particular have become more prevalent — "study drugs" like Adderall and sedatives like Xanax — including among students without valid prescriptions. People tend to consider them safer than street drugs, though they're often just as dangerous. 

Culbertson said Xanax is popular because it's cheap and plentiful. Students often use it to enhance the effects of alcohol, meaning they can save money at the bar or avoid using a fake ID if they're underage. He said many buy counterfeit pills, sometimes without knowing the difference. Knockoff prescription drugs containing fentanyl have been blamed for an increasing number of accidental overdoses nationwide in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Culbertson ultimately created a short film that shows how one fictional college senior faces the impacts of his growing addiction to pills. The film seeks to move beyond old stereotypes, according to the project website: "The face of addiction is not sunken faces and tattered clothes. It's bright eyes and khaki shorts."

Despite being aware of his friends' drug use, Culbertson said, he viewed it as just another aspect of the college party scene, not unique to DKE or the LSU Greek system as a whole. 

"Part of what really came to scare me is that I watched this happen to people around me for four years and hadn't really even thought to say anything until it was too late," he said. "How were none of us deciding that this was a bigger issue?"

***

It appears he wasn't alone in brushing concerns under the rug, according to David Easlick, the former longtime national executive director of DKE who now serves as an expert witness in hazing cases nationwide.

Even after the DKE chapter's second fatal overdose in several months, neither DKE national leaders nor LSU administrators issued a public response or launched an investigation. In contrast, LSU's Sigma Chi chapter was shut down for three years after a member died from an accidental drug overdose off campus in 2015. His death raised concerns among alumni, who started investigating and soon found evidence of blatant drug use inside the chapter house.

Easlick said DKE should be ashamed of its silence.

"That's a pretty goddamn good indicator that something's wrong. It should have raised more than red flags," he said. "Someone should have been down there investigating the next day. … You can't just sit there and let people die."

Doug Lanpher, the current DKE executive director, declined to answer questions or respond to criticism about how the fraternity responded to the fatal overdoses. 

The outcome of the organization's hazing investigation, which resulted in nine arrests and closed the chapter earlier this year, did not address drug use. National leaders said only that investigators found students had violated the fraternity's hazing and alcohol policies. Police later accused DKE members of engaging in abusive hazing rituals that included beating pledges with a metal pipe, dousing them with gasoline and urinating on them. But none of the students arrested are also facing drug charges. 

LSU's Office of Student Advocacy and Accountability is still conducting its own investigation, which will determine how long the chapter will be banned from campus.

LSU spokesman Ernie Ballard III said there was no evidence that either of the fatal overdoses occurred during chapter activities, so the incidents didn't trigger an investigation into the DKE chapter. But he said the "safety of all students is of the utmost importance to us." He said the LSU community "mourns the loss of all students who have passed away, and we understand how difficult these times are for family, friends and loved ones." 

Ballard listed a number of existing programs and resources through the LSU Student Health Center that are aimed at addressing substance abuse among students. The center offers mental health counseling and wellness coaching, then refers students to more intensive addiction treatment options if needed. 

All incoming students are required to complete an online education program on alcohol, drug use and sexual violence prevention. Ballard said fraternity advisers also receive additional training that's more specific to Greek organizations.

LSU also adopted a medical amnesty policy in 2018 that allows students who call 911 for help to later avoid university sanctions for related alcohol or drug violations. The policy notes that "amnesty is intended to promote action when an emergency situation is present." Ballard said that's one of several recent changes that arose from discussions following Max Gruver's death. 

"Safety is a shared responsibility," he said. "The university does all it can to educate, provide information and offer assistance to students. But we know that our influence can only go so far. … It is ultimately up to the students to make wise decisions in their personal lives."

***

Parents want more action from both LSU administrators and local law enforcement.

Garry and Mary Ellen Jordan, both attorneys, said they're disappointed no one was ever held accountable for selling the drugs that killed their son. 

"I think LSU wanted to avoid the publicity of someone selling fentanyl to students," Garry Jordan said. "To me it was a chance for the administration and campus police to take a stand and say we're gonna get to the bottom of this. … That never happened."

Court records indicate no arrests have been made in the fatal overdose cases identified by The Advocate dating back through 2015. 

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he's heard from several frustrated families who want dealers held accountable in LSU overdoses cases. Most of those cases are still considered open investigations and could result in future arrests.

But he said solving drug distribution cases has become more challenging for a number of reasons, including getting access to locked cell phones, which often contain evidence investigators need to support an arrest.

Moore also emphasized the scope of the problem, which extends far beyond LSU as the opioid crisis continues to devastate communities nationwide.

Fatal overdoses in East Baton Rouge more than doubled from 37 in 2010 to 83 in 2016. Last year overdoses claimed 102 lives — of which 32 involved fentanyl, according to coroner's records. Those records don't include nonfatal overdoses, which are more difficult to track because of medical privacy laws. It's unknown how many LSU students have overdosed but survived within recent years.

"It's a mess overall," Moore said. "And fentanyl is weaponizing the market. It's the semi-automatic, not the revolver, of drugs."

The Jordans pointed to an initiative at the University of Mississippi that was launched in response to the death of William Magee, who overdosed not long after his college graduation. The William Magee Center for Wellness Education is scheduled to open on the Ole Miss campus this fall with a focus on educating students, providing support services and conducting research. 

William Magee's father, who was publisher of the Oxford Eagle newspaper at the time, wrote a column about his son's descent into drug addiction that went viral online after its publication in 2016. It presents a familiar narrative of excessive alcohol and drug use — including "Xanax, lots of Xanax" — that's "all contextualized into a good collegiate reason as opposed to abuse or a problem."

David Magee told The Advocate he thinks most universities are afraid to discuss these alarming trends because administrators are worried it could hurt enrollment. But he said acknowledging and addressing the problem will actually have the opposite effect.

"Why wouldn't we turn around and talk openly and honestly about providing wellness education to our students because we love and care about them?" he said. "I can tell you it's absolutely going to be a recruiting tool."

***

Karen and Paul Morgan lost their son Jonathan in April 2017 when the LSU freshman died from an accidental drug overdose. Karen Morgan had scheduled a meeting with Moore to discuss her son's case, but it was rescheduled when news of Max Gruver's death broke that morning.

The spotlight then turned to hazing in subsequent months, which helped Karen Morgan and other parents push a proposal through the legislature in 2018 that holds people accountable if they see someone in danger — whether from hazing or drug use or other reasons — and don't call 911.

People who violate the state's "duty to assist" statute now face maximum penalties of $1,000 in fines and one year in prison. Those maximum penalties increase to $2,000 and five years if the unreported harm results in a death. The new law was designed to work hand in hand with the state's existing good Samaritan law, which gives people immunity from prosecution when they call 911 to report an overdose.

Karen Morgan pursued the bill because she believes it would have saved her son's life.

She said detectives raised questions about the timeline of events the morning of Jonathan's death — and whether the friend who found him unresponsive waited before calling 911. The friend initially told police he had left Jonathan's apartment around 11 p.m. but later admitted he spent the night there, Karen Morgan said.

She said investigators had reason to suspect that efforts had been made to clean up the scene that morning, but not enough evidence to support an arrest. Police reports corroborate her statements. 

Jonathan Morgan, 19, grew up in Mandeville and graduated from Mandeville High School before moving to Baton Rouge to attend LSU. He played football and guitar, was an honors student and planned to major in psychology.

"He had such a bright future," Karen Morgan said. "His story just highlights how any kid is susceptible to this." 

She said her son was prescribed Adderall as a high school junior but later stopped taking it because he didn't like the highs and lows. She knew he experimented with marijuana and started doing cocaine in social settings at LSU.

After hearing about Graham Jordan's death, Karen Morgan texted her son the obituary, hoping it would give him pause. She told him: "Please, for God's sake, be careful."

Another LSU student — also from the north shore — had overdosed and died just a few months earlier and Karen Morgan had heard about both deaths through friends and colleagues in the area. Just three months later, she found herself facing the same unbearable grief.

"It's hard for me to talk about Jonathan in this light because I feel like I'm dishonoring him. He was a whole person, but he made a bad choice that took his life," she said. "So many of us have made bad choices, and we learn from them. We use them as stepping stones. … Jonathan never had that opportunity."


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.