A grand jury recommends criminal charges for FSU fraternity members
The grand jury criticizes the culture of secrecy from a victim's "so-called brothers"
When a fellow Florida State University fraternity pledge discovered Andrew Coffey had no pulse the morning after an alcohol-filled party, he didn’t immediately call 911.
Instead, the pledge called and texted five other members of the fraternity first, causing an 11-minute delay in summoning help.
Those 11 minutes would not have saved Coffey’s life, but the delay was broadly representative of the culture of the fraternity, according to a grand jury presentment released Tuesday.
“The brothers, pledges, and officers were more concerned about getting in trouble than they were about trying to save Coffey’s life,” the grand jury said.
On Tuesday, a Leon County grand jury presentment recommended that prosecutors pursue criminal charges against members of the FSU fraternity, saying the fraternity engaged in hazing and underage alcohol abuse related to Coffey’s death.
The presentment comes weeks after Coffey, a prospective member of Pi Kappa Phi, was found unresponsive and declared dead after a night of partying. FSU officials suspended all fraternity and sorority activity in the wake of Coffey’s death, and FSU President John Thrasher said he wanted to create “a new normal” for safe Greek life.
An autopsy found that Coffey died of acute alcohol poisoning and that he had a blood alcohol level of .447, more than five times the legal driving limit, according to the presentment. Testing of other bodily fluids shows that his peak blood alcohol level reached up to .558, the presentment said. The police investigation in the case remains ongoing.
Above all, the grand jury cast a harsh light on the “culture of secrecy” of the fraternity and noted that there were “elements of conspiracy and obstructionism” in the case. A majority of fraternity brothers refused to speak to investigators, and those who did speak provided testimony that sounded “rehearsed,” according to the presentment.
“Their lack of accountability was illustrated by the lack of substance in their testimony, their demeanor while testifying, and the overall glib attitude of Andrew Coffey’s so-called brothers towards this very serious matter,” the grand jury stated.
The presentment also says that as Coffey was unconscious on a couch, a number of fraternity members continued drinking, partying and playing pool around him, oblivious to his impending death. A letter from Coffey’s mother included in the presentment said Coffey “died alone in a room full of people.”
“The Pi Kappa Phi creed uses words like loyalty, responsibility, standards, conduct,” Coffey’s mother, Sandy, wrote. “Easy words to put down on paper. Obviously more difficult to live by.”
The national organization of Pi Kappa Phi released a statement that it was “saddened by the details in the grand jury presentment about the tragic death” of Coffey.
“Since originally learning of Andrew’s death, Pi Kappa Phi has continued to direct the students at Florida State to cooperate with all investigative efforts,” the statement said.
Focus on fraternity hazing
The FSU case is similar to the deaths of young men at other American universities in recent years.
At Penn State, for example, more than two dozen Beta Theta Pi fraternity members have faced criminal charges related to the death of Timothy Piazza, a sophomore pledging the group. An excessively intoxicated Piazza fell down a flight of stairs, but fraternity members did not call for help until the next morning, when it was too late, officials said.
A grand jury report on the Penn State case released last week described a pervasive environment of hazing, abuse and excessive alcohol consumption that occurred under the university’s nose.
Coffey was a junior who had transferred to FSU and was studying civil engineering, a school spokesman said. He had planned to enlist in the Navy after graduation, according to his mother.
“I can’t get a job where I sit behind a desk all day, it will drive me crazy,” he said, according to a letter from his mother. “I want to get out and see the world.”
After his death, FSU’s Thrasher indefinitely suspended Greek life.
“I want to send a message that we’ve got a serious problem and we need to deal with it, and they’re part of the solution,” Thrasher said. “And the sooner they can come to the table and we can all talk and find those solutions, the sooner this will be lifted.”
Coffey’s final night
On November 2, Coffey was attending Big Brother Night, a party to celebrate pledges joining a mentorship with a “big brother.” The members, pledges and two hired strippers attended the party at an off-campus home, according to the presentment.
The fraternity was under a liquor ban, meaning only beer or wine was allowed. But the pledges were told that ban was expressly lifted for Big Brother Night, and Coffey was handed a bottle of Wild Turkey 101 proof bourbon, the presentment says.
Coffey drank enough that he passed out and had to be carried to a couch. At least a dozen other pledges vomited due to alcohol consumption, according to the presentment.
“While pledges were not physically ‘forced’ to drink, it is clear that the environment created by the leaders led to an expectation of abusive drinking or face possible ostracism,” the presentment states.
As other fraternity brothers and pledges continued drinking, partying and playing pool around him, Coffey remained unconscious. His big brother went home, according to the presentment.
The next morning, another pledge found Coffey on the couch and discovered he had no pulse, and eventually called 911 for help.
In attempting to investigate his death, law enforcement was “frustrated” by members’ unwillingness to speak, according to the presentment. Law enforcement interviewed 22 pledges, while 19 pledges refused to speak. Of the full fraternity members, 16 were interviewed and 22 refused to speak to investigators. Of the nine members of the fraternity’s leadership council, seven refused to speak.
Those who did talk to investigators weren’t that helpful, the grand jury said.
“Many of the witnesses’ testimony appeared rehearsed, as if they were speaking off a ‘script,’” the presentment said. “They presented many of the same answers as each other, and volunteered much self-serving information without being asked.”
The grand jury recommended that the members face criminal charges. The presentment also advised FSU to make cooperating with investigations a condition of enrollment at the university, and questioned whether Greek life belongs on college campuses.
“While fraternities and sororities bring countless benefits to participants and the community as a whole through lifelong friendship, philanthropy, and character building, Andrew Coffey’s death should make us question whether these benefits are outweighed by the danger of an organization whose culture celebrates drinking to excess,” the grand jury said.
CNN’s Tina Burnside contributed to this report.