Florida student's drinking death renews calls for aggressive 'culture change' in fraternities

With nine men now facing charges in the hazing death of a fraternity pledge at Florida State University, the prosecutor leading the case called Thursday for a "major culture change" within college fraternities -- and said he hoped criminal prosecution would prevent future deaths.

"It doesn’t get much more serious than a 20-year-old man being dead," State Attorney Jack Campbell told Fox News. "The loss of a bright and outstanding man is as serious an issue as this office will ever handle."

"When the Florida Legislature made hazing a crime, they gave me my marching orders to prosecute it when I find it," Campbell said in a phone interview. "Part of the criminal justice system is to create negative consequences if you do something we call a crime."

On the night of Nov. 2, leaders of the Florida State Pi Kappa Phi fraternity had plans to host a "Big Brother Night," during which new pledges are introduced to their sponsor and handled bottles of hard liquor to drink. The fraternity -- at the time it was under a chapter liquor ban -- planned to defy university and national chapter alcohol rules by arranging for new pledges to be taken from the College Avenue fraternity house to a party at an off-campus Tallahassee house, according to court records.

The plan proved deadly.

Andrew Coffey, a civil engineering student from Pompano Beach and a pledge at Pi Kappa Phi, died in the early hours of Nov. 3 after drinking an entire bottle of Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon.

Florida State promptly responded by indefinitely suspending its fraternities and sororities. And on Wednesday, arrest warrants were issued against nine men, who range in age from 20 to 22, in Coffey's death.

The men -- Luke E. Klutz, Clayton M. Muehlstein, Anthony Oppenheimer, John B. Ray, Kyle J. Bauer, Christopher M. Hamlin, Conner R. Ravelo, Brett A. Birmingham and Anthony Petagine -- will be charged with "college hazing-cause injury or death."

Investigators say Coffey and other pledges were coerced into consuming excess amounts of hard liquor. Coffey's blood-alcohol level was nearly seven times the legal limit for driving when he passed out on a couch while others played pool nearby, according to authorities.

Coffey's death follows a string of other hazing-related deaths within the last year at universities across the country.

Timothy Piazza, a 19-year-old Beta Theta Pi fraternity pledge at Penn State, died Feb. 4, 2017, after being given 18 alcoholic drinks in less than 90 minutes during a hazing ritual. On Sept. 14, 2017, 18-year-old Maxwell Gruver died of alcohol poisoning at Louisiana State University as part of his initiation into the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. And on Nov. 13, also last year, 20-year-old Matthew Ellis died after attending an off-campus party with members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity -- where he was a pledge -- in what investigators believe was a consequence of alcohol poisoning.

Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has studied hazing since the 1970s, said there has been at least one hazing-related death every year in the U.S. since 1961 -- with some years up to nine. About eight in 10 hazing deaths are alcohol-related, according to Nuwer.

"That’s one of the most common ways young men die in fraternity hazing," Nuwer said of the "bottle exchange" ritual that took place shortly before Coffey's death.

Nuwer outlined several ways schools can prevent such deaths, including a complete shutdown of "rogue chapters" -- unaffiliated local chapters that have "absolutely no supervision" -- as well as affiliated chapters that defy mandates of the national chapter outlawing hazing.

"The Penn State fraternity [Beta Theta Pi] was doing a lot of hazing behind closed doors," he said.

"There’s definitely a movement going on now as a response to the four pledging-related deaths last year. I think there's a great sense of public outrage."

- Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has studied hazing since the 1970s

While Nuwer's research spotlights a culture of dangerous hazing rituals spanning decades, he said he is encouraged by recent measures enacted by various college and universities around the country to change Greek life.

Nuwer cited Iowa State University's announcement Wednesday that it is adopting new alcohol policies for its sororities and fraternities. Chapter funding cannot be used to buy alcohol, and liquor can't be part of rush or initiation induction events, according to the new requirements.

"I was gratified to see that Iowa State has come up with dramatic sanctions regarding alcohol," Nuwer told Fox News. "There’s definitely a movement going on now as a response to the four pledging-related deaths last year. I think there's a great sense of public outrage."

In a statement to Fox News on Wednesday, Pi Kappa Phi said it closed the Florida State chapter in early November.

"We continue to await the conclusion of the criminal proceedings to determine what additional discipline is appropriate for former student members of the chapter," Pi Kappa Phi spokesman Todd Shelton said in an email.

FSU President John E. Thrasher said that the arrest warrants served Wednesday in Coffey's death represented "the first step in seeking justice for Andrew and his loved ones."

Coffey was remembered by his friends and family as a charitable young man who was also a fierce competitor on his high school swim team.

However, Nuwer said, "when you make someone go through this hazing, you're not looking at the pledge as human."

Cristina Corbin is a Fox News reporter based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @CristinaCorbin.