In a wrongful death lawsuit filed last week in Athens, the parents of an Ohio University student who died in November allege that hazing by his fraternity chapter caused his death.
The suit, filed by the parents of Collin L. Wiant, 18, in Athens County Common Pleas Court, seeks a jury trial against the defendants – Sigma Pi Fraternity’s Epsilon Chapter in Athens, and the Sigma Pi Fraternity’s international organization. The family lives in Dublin, near Columbus.
Wiant, a pledge of the fraternity chapter, was found unresponsive at 45 Mill St., a rooming house that’s allegedly an unofficial annex of that fraternity chapter, on Nov. 12, The NEWS previously reported. OU initiated a cease-and-desist order for all organizational activities for the fraternity chapter a few days later.
The university issued a similar cease-and-desist order on March 25, 2014, for “alleged conduct (that) puts the health and safety of Ohio University students at risk,” according to OU records provided Friday. More on that probation, which ended in mid-2015, on pg. 3.
The Wiants’ lawsuit alleges that Collin Wiant died after being provided with, or forced to take, “illegal drugs containing nitrous oxide” by fraternity members, with small canisters of nitrous oxide found near his body (commonly referred to as “whippets”). The suit references a “toxicology report” that apparently shows Wiant died of asphyxiation due to nitrous-oxide ingestion. However, no autopsy or toxicology report has been issued publicly yet in Wiant’s death.
The NEWS has obtained a “preliminary autopsy report” from the Athens County Clerk of Courts, dated Nov. 13, the day after Wiant’s death, that says the preliminary findings in his death were “rule out drug intoxication: frothy pulmonary edema, history of carbon dioxide cartridges near body.” Ben Ashcraft, with the Athens County Coroner’s office, explained Friday that the preliminary autopsy report was simply indicating “that drug intoxication has not been confirmed as being or not being a cause of death at this time.”
The suit alleges that hazing of pledges is a common practice of the fraternity chapter, and Wiant in particular was subject to a host of these behaviors, along with other recent pledges.
Jonathan M. Frost, executive director and CEO of Sigma Pi Fraternity’s international organization, sent a comment Friday afternoon in response to a request for comment from The NEWS.
“We are aware of the tragic passing of Collin Wiant this past November, and we continue to extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends,” Frost said. “To my knowledge, Sigma Pi International has not been served with a lawsuit involving Mr. Wiant, so we are not able to comment. If we are served with a lawsuit, our attorneys will review and determine the appropriate response.”
The Wiants’ lawsuit alleges that much of the hazing happened inside the “fun room” or “education room” inside 45 Mill St. as it was called by the fraternity, where pledges, including Wiant, were “whipped with a belt… pelted with eggs, forced to do wall sits, among other forms of hazing.”
Additionally, Wiant was forced to do constant tasks for the fraternity, according to the suit.
“Due to the never-ending list of tasks required of him by the fraternity, Collin was forced to miss many classes and forgo sleep,” the suit reads. “This caused a decline in Collin’s academic performance.”
The suit alleges that Wiant and other pledges were locked inside fraternity President Elijah Wahlib’s bedroom at the Mill Street apartment, and together were forced to drink a gallon of alcohol in one hour. (It’s not stated what sort of alcohol was involved.) They were also forced to “play football” inside the house, without protective gear, forced to tackle and hit each other. The suit additionally lists a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where Wiant allegedly was pelted with eggs, hit with a belt, and repeatedly punched by other fraternity members.
“The fraternity provided and/or forced pledges, including Collin, to take cocaine, marijuana, Adderall, Xanax, along with moonshine and other types of alcohol,” the suit reads. “The combination of drugs and alcohol caused Collin to black out numerous times.”
On the night of Wiant’s death, Wiant was seen heading to the house on Mill Street, and was overheard saying, “I know I’m going to be hazed,” the suit alleges.
The suit also alleges that within a few hours of Wiant’s death, the fraternity chapter called an “emergency meeting of its members” to initiate all current pledges as full members of the fraternity chapter.
“This action was designed to close ranks within all fraternity members to make sure they all told the same story concerning the events of earlier that morning,” the suit reads.
The suit argues that the fraternity chapter and its international organization have failed to enforce their policies that forbid hazing. It notes that Hofstra University revoked a Sigma Pi fraternity chapter’s charter in 2017 after news surfaced of chapter pledges being “forced into dog cages, covered in hot sauce, forced to chug milk, and vomit on each other.”
The University of Colorado also recently (in November 2018) ordered the Sigma Pi fraternity chapter at that college to cease operations after some university students there alleged they were drugged while attending fraternity parties.
The Athens Police Department is still conducting an investigation into this case, Athens Prosecutor Keller Blackburn said Friday.
“It’s my understanding that (APD) Det. McCall is going to forward the file to us when it’s complete,” Blackburn said.
The lawsuit names multiple “John Does” in addition to the local and international branches of the fraternity. Sean Alto, an associate with Columbus law firm Cooper & Elliott LLC (which filed the lawsuit), said Friday that those are people who could be named in the future with some culpability for Wiant’s death.
“We know who was in the house when Collin died; the problem is, we’ve made attempts to talk to dozens of people, dozens of witnesses… and they’re not willing to talk to us,” Alto said. “…We have to speak to those people whether voluntarily or through subpoena.”
At least three pledges with the Epsilon chapter of Sigma Pi dropped out during the pledge process, Alto added.
“I think the reasons why… down the road, will come out,” Alto said.
Meanwhile, OU recordsshowing that Sigma Pi was placed on probation on March 25, 2014 note a similar pattern of behavior as alleged in the lawsuit. The records include a tip from somebody, likely an OU student, sent on Feb. 23, 2014, to Jenny Hall-Jones, OU’s then dean of students. Hall-Jones is still dean of students, but also has the title of senior associate vice president for student affairs.
The tip states that the student had seen “15 or 16 boys” standing outside of a house allegedly affiliated with the fraternity, shivering despite low temperatures “for what could have been hours” while wearing blindfolds.
“I looked into it all week to find that Sigma Pi’s name has come up quite a few times this year from horror stories told by the people who joined last semester,” the tip reads. “When I asked why people stay, they claimed it’s a small campus and they fear being judged by the Sigma Pis for quitting. I fear there may be others that feel trapped this semester.”
The 2014 probation, similar to this most recent probation, ordered the fraternity to cease all organizational activities; it ended on May 3, 2015, after the fraternity completed a community service project and was ordered to develop “two new member activities that reflect chapter and OU values.”
OU spokesperson Carly Leatherwood said that the university’s Sigma Pi chapter remains under a “cease-and-desist order” from the university, pending the results of the university’s investigation into the fraternity.
“This is a very sad situation, and our hearts go out to Collin’s family and friends who have been impacted by this tragic loss,” she said in an email Friday.