Authorities describe a painstaking investigation into the death of Chun Hsien Deng, stitching together dozens of interviews to determine what happened and working to determine the level of culpability of the people who were there or might have otherwise been involved.
POCONO SUMMIT, Pa. — The authorities in Monroe County, Pa., said Tuesday it took them nearly two years to begin bringing charges against fraternity members in the hazing death of a Baruch College freshman in 2013 because they were misled by students and forced to pursue a grand jury investigation to compel them to testify.
A grand jury has recommended that five people face third-degree-murder charges and that a total 37 would face a range of criminal charges, including assault, hindering apprehension and hazing in Chun Hsien Deng’s death on Dec. 9, 2013.
The police said Deng, 19, known as Michael, died of blunt-force trauma during a fraternity retreat in this bucolic stretch of Pennsylvania, apparently given during a hazing ritual. He was blindfolded and made to wear a backpack weighted with sand while trying to make his way across a frozen yard as members of Pi Delta Psi tried to tackle him.
The authorities described a painstaking investigation, stitching together dozens of interviews to construct a narrative of what happened and working to determine the level of culpability of the people who were there or might have otherwise been involved.
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“That’s part of why this investigation took so long,” Michael Rakaczewski, an assistant district attorney, said Tuesday. “We want to make sure it was a thorough investigation.”
Lawyers for some of the students criticized prosecutors for failing to use their discretion in deciding which of the men should face charges and for putting pressure on them to testify during the grand-jury process.
“I think everybody got charged,” said Hugh H. Mo, a lawyer who represents Danny Chen, one of the students who eventually took Deng to the hospital and was charged with hindering apprehension, hazing and criminal conspiracy. “You should make a distinction about the degree of culpability, or some distinction of who should be charged.”
But the authorities said they had been stymied by members of the fraternity who tried to mislead them. The police “met with a lot of individuals who refused to cooperate,” Rakaczewski said.
Some of them, he added, “lied to the police, they hid and tried to hide evidence, and a lot of that was based on trying to cover up and hide the fraternity’s involvement in the case.”
Chief Chris Wagner of the Pocono Mountain Regional Police Department said, “It was planned and it was a, we’ll say, a group effort,” on the part of people linked to the fraternity trying to thwart the investigation.
Part of the reason officials went to the grand jury is because it had subpoena power and could coerce members of the fraternity into testifying, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said they were following the recommendation of a grand jury in charging the 37 people, including charging five of them — and the fraternity — with third-degree murder.
“Some of these individuals have a greater responsibility in this event than others,” Wagner said. “It did take investigators a while to really filter that and determine exactly who did what and what their degree of involvement was in the case.”
In an interview Monday night, E. David Christine Jr., the Monroe County district attorney, acknowledged investigators took their time to reach this point. “We prefer to be careful here,” he said.
Among those charged with lesser counts is Andy Meng, who had been the national president of the fraternity. The authorities said fraternity members at the retreat reached out to Meng while Deng was unconscious, and he encouraged them to hide items related to the fraternity.
Todd Greenberg, Meng’s lawyer, said in a statement his client “was not present in Pennsylvania at the time of his death, had no role in his medical treatment and did not commit any wrongdoing regarding the investigation of his death.”
Meng is the brother of U.S. Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., Mo said.
Mo described the prosecutors’ approach as “very harsh,” saying they had unfairly compelled students to testify before many had lawyers. He said the majority were still not represented, and that many came from immigrant families.
“Who actually participated? Who instigated? Who is the leader?” Mo said. “Those are the people that should be charged.”
Baruch College, part of the City University of New York, said in a statement Tuesday it had permanently banned the fraternity after Deng’s death, and had also suspended all pledging activities for campus Greek organizations starting in the fall of 2014.
Since then, participation in Greek life has dropped at the Manhattan college, the statement said. The college declined to comment on the disciplinary status of any students involved, though Mo said the majority were forced to leave school.
“We owe it to Michael and his family to hold accountable those who were responsible for the senseless death of this promising young man,” Baruch College President Mitchel Wallerstein said in the statement.
In an effort to not overburden the local court system, officials said they would spread out the charges over the coming weeks.
“We’re starting with the people that we believe are the least involved and working our way up to the most serious charges involved,” Wagner said.
The authorities said they were taking the case “very seriously” and found the actions of the people at the retreat and of fraternity leaders troubling. Rakaczewski said an official prohibition of such hazing activities meant little if they were still quietly condoned.
“That’s improper and it’s illegal, and we do want to hold everybody involved accountable, including the fraternity as well,” he said.
The fraternity itself is among those facing the most serious of charges, including third-degree murder and assault.
“Obviously, you can’t put a fraternity or a corporation in jail,” Rakaczewski said, “but you can hold them responsible; part of that is financially.”