The parents of a Clemson University student who was found dead in a lake near the South Carolina campus allege that their son was killed by his fraternity brothers in a hazing stunt gone wrong because he could not afford to buy them all breakfast from McDonald’s.
According to the New York Daily News, 19-year-old Tucker Hipps died on the morning of Sep. 22, but accounts vary widely as to the circumstances of his death.
Clemson’s Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter claimed when Hipps’ body was found that he had lagged behind on a morning run with members of the fraternity and never caught up. A preliminary coroner’s report found that he died of blunt force trauma to the head consistent with a fall and it was assumed that he has slipped and fallen on a footbridge over the lake or along one of its trails.
Now, however, Gawker.com is reporting that Cynthia and Gary Hipps have filed a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against Clemson University, the national and local chapters of Sigma Phi Epsilon, and fraternity brothers Thomas King, Campbell Starr and Samuel Carney, implicating them in the death of Tucker Hipps.
According to the suit, the morning run was organized on the evening of Sep. 21. Tucker Hipps was ordered by text message to bring “30 McDonalds biscuits, 30 McDonalds hash browns, and 2 gallons of chocolate milk” to the fraternity house in the morning. He replied that he couldn’t afford to do so and would need help to make the tab.
The food was not apparently purchased and some form of altercation took place during or after the run.
“Upon information and belief, Defendant King confronted Tucker about the Pledges’ failure to bring the requested McDonalds breakfast…Defendant King and Tucker had a confrontation over the Pledges’ failure to bring the requested McDonalds breakfast,” say court papers.
At some point, Tucker Hipps was reportedly pitched headlong over a bridge rail and into Lake Hartwell. The Daily News said, “The court records are unclear about how this might have happened, not directly accusing anyone of pushing Hipps and also noting the frat has ‘a long tradition’ of members forcing pledges to jump off the bridge and swim to shore.”
Members of Sigma Phi are accused of colluding to cover up Hipps’ disappearance, lying to police and to his girlfriend, saying that they had seen him on campus.
The family and its legal team pieced together the version of events outlined in the suit from “testimony by students” and from the network of text and phone messages between Tucker and the defendants on Sep. 21 and 22.
The exact number of people present when the 19-year-old went over the bridge rail to his death is still unclear. However, the coroner’s report said that his face, wrists, arms and chest had abrasions consistent with a face-first fall. If he had slipped and fallen or jumped off of the bridge, be presumably would have landed feet first.
The Hipps family released a statement through their attorney that said, in part, “Tucker Hipps’s death was a senseless and avoidable tragedy. The culture of hazing and inappropriate conduct by social fraternities must be stopped. Universities and fraternities must make change from within to protect their own. Cynthia and Gary Hipps have filed these lawsuits in the hopes that change will happen and that no other parent will feel the pain that they have been forced to endure. Tucker lost his life, but we must not let it be in vain.”
Clemson University suspended all fraternity activities on campus in the wake of Tucker Hipps’ death. This incident, plus the exposure of systemic racism within fraternities’ charters, a long and well-established history of sexual violence against women and a culture of binge-drinking and irresponsible behavior have many U.S. colleges and universities re-thinking their hands-off approach to campus Greek life.
UPDATE: One of the three Sigma Phi Epsilon members charged in the death is Samuel Quillen Carney, son of Democratic Rep. John Carney of Delaware.
Delaware Online reported that Samuel Carney helped to organize the Sep. 22 morning run from which Tucker Hipps never returned.
Rep. Carney and his wife Tracey released a statement saying that “no one — certainly no parent — can feel anything but sympathy for this family’s grief and anger.”
The statement continued, “We have faith that those trusted with investigative and legal authority will act based on facts. Our advice to Sam since the tragedy in September has been to tell the truth and remember that any detail might help. That continues to be our message to him.”