This story aired Dateline Saturday, June 24
CALIFORNIA — Those who descended these steps of a fraternity house entered a world designed to terrify: The floor, damp with sewage and the walls, splattered with taunts. Over a door was written, “In the basement nobody can hear you scream.”
Sometimes secrets can be deadly.
In that basement, just what happened to the young man named Matthew Carrington?
Debbie Smith, Matthew Carrington's mother: You just had to love him. To know Matt was to love him.
Debbie Smith is talking about her first-born son, 21-year-old Matthew Carrington. Once, when he was little, it was just the two of them—broke and on their own.
Smith: I think that’s what helped make him the kind of person that he was. You know? Because he was really thoughtful, he was really considerate, very smart about money.
Debbie remarried eventually and the home video made the new family dynamic obvious: a close, caring working class family, struggling to survive in the affluent suburbs east of San Francisco.
Matt was not like some kids who graduate high school eager to start a life away from home. He worked nearby, went to community college, and remained devoted to home, family, and especially his mother.
It was two years before he applied to Chico State university, a rural college about 200 miles north of San Francisco, to study math and accounting.
Smith: Matt was very into his education. He was career-minded, he wanted to make something out of himself, and that’s what he was going to do.
Keith Morrison, Dateline NBC: Were you surprised to hear he was going to join a fraternity?
Smith: Yeah, I was surprised. And so he was like, “Mom, you know I really think this is going to be good for me.”
The brothers at the Chi Tau house, Matt told his mom, were like him. They weren’t pretentious, they were working-class kids. And she didn’t worry about Matt, because he was hardly an “Animal House” frat boy. He didn’t use drugs, didn’t even drink beyond an occasional beer.
Gabe Maestretti, one of Matt's fraternity brothers: Matthew was great kid. A real good kid.
Maestretti was one of Matt’s fraternity brothers.
Morrison: Had you got to the stage where you considered him to be your friend?
Maestretti: Absolutely. Absolutely. I was at the stage where Matt was my brother. That’s the hardest part. Is the fact that—you know, he was my friend.
And so when the hospital called to say he was desperately ill, Debbie was alarmed, of course, but also baffled.
It was a Wednesday, 6:15 a.m.
Smith: And they said, um, “Matt’s in critical condition, and—you need to speak with the doctor.” And I said, “Oh my God.” And then he came on and he said, “you need to get here as soon as you can.”
Matt had collapsed, they told her, while working out in the basement of the Chi Tau fraternity house.
Matthew’s fraternity brothers said they wondered if he had too much to drink, and the exertion plus alcohol may have been too much for him.
Maestretti: My actual initial thought to the whole thing was that he was intoxicated.
Maestretti was at the house when Matthew collapsed.
Maestretti: It seemed like he was just sleeping.
Unable to revive Matt, his fraternity brothers began to panic and placed a call to paramedics.
Maestretti: I never prayed so hard in my entire life that anything happened. I prayed that he was okay harder than I’ve ever prayed in my entire life.
Debbie, was praying, too, on the three hour drive to Chico. Praying, and trying to understand what had happened to her son. As far as she knew, Matthew kept his distance from Chico’s notorious party scene.
As she drove, she talked to a nurse on her cell phone.
Smith: And I said, “Stay with Matt, and is there anybody with him?” Nobody’s with him, I said, “Why is he alone? Why was he found in this frat house with all these people, and now he’s alone? Why isn’t there somebody with him?”
Morrison: And you didn’t know how bad it was.
Smith: I didn’t know how bad. I just knew it was really, really bad, I just knew it. I said, “We just need to get to him, he can’t be alone, we just have to get to him.” (crying)
Smith: So when she kept calling me on the phone I said, I know it’s bad, I know there’s something wrong, and I know you have got to tell me what’s happening to my son. And she said, “Well we don’t like to tell you this on the phone,” and I said, “Oh God (crying), no don’t let it be that.” And she said, “Debbie (sniffle), Matt didn’t make it.” And I just screamed, and screamed, and screamed ...
Later, at the hospital, doctors seemed to be at a loss.
Smith: At that point they just didn’t know, they had no idea what was wrong with him, they didn’t know why he died.
Confused and heart-broken, Debbie and her family met with Matt’s fraternity brothers hoping they could tell her something — anything — about what happened.
John Fickes, fraternity brother: There was no anger, no hatred, no malice towards us. They just wanted to know what happened to their kid.
John Paul Fickes was one of Matt’s fraternity brothers.
Fickes: we got just a couple sentences out just before everybody just broke down in tears.
Smith: They started telling us about Matt and how sorry they were. And—you know, what a sweet person he was and how much they liked him.
Debbie wasn’t the only one to get a call that morning. So did Chico police detective Greg Keeney. Why a police detective to investigate Matthew’s death?
It was just a hunch, really, from the ambulance attendants. They weren’t so sure that Gabe Maestretti and the other brothers at the Chi Tau house had been totally honest.
But detective Keeney wasn’t at all sure what he’d find.
Morrison: When you first arrived to talk to these kids, did you have any reason to suspect that they might have been culpable?
Det. Greg Keeney: You know, we just didn’t know. It was a big unknown is what it was.
So how did this young man die?
The answer to that question was as bizarre as anything detective Keeney had heard, and it would launch him on an investigation of the very strange practices of the Chi Tau fraternity.
Detective Greg Keeney arrived at the Chi Tau fraternity just after day break on the morning of Matthew Carrington’s death.
Det. Keeney: The one thing that really just stood out to me was the complete lack of any sort of furniture at all.
But the room that most left an impression on detective Keeney was this filth-strewn basement.
Det. Keeney: It was dark. It was it was cold. For me, it was just like one of those medieval dungeons.
A place, you’ll remember, that was meant to terrify. The place where, “nobody can hear you scream.”
Detective Keeney had gathered the fraternity brothers together, and took them downtown. And one by one, alone in these interrogation rooms, they finally admitted Matt had been going through a hazing ritual. Why wouldn’t they have said so earlier? Well, hazing it turns out can be illegal in California.
But this particular hazing, the young men insisted, was all very innocent—there were no beatings. No booze. No drugs. Not really hazing. Simply an initiation.
Jerry Lim, fraternity brother (interrogation): It’s more humiliation than anything else.
Detective: Is this initiation stunt; is this something that you guys have done before?
Lim: Yeah. I did it.
Detective: Other pledges? The same thing?
Lim: It’s always been done this way, as far as I know. It’s more humiliation than anything else.
Elsewhere at the police station, as he was about to undergo questioning, Matt’s friend and pledge partner, Mike Quintana, made a disturbing discovery.
Michael Quintana: His blood is still on my hands.
Det. Keeney: It is? Do you want to clean your hands off?
Matt had been bleeding from his mouth after he collapsed, Quintana said...
Quintana: He started jolting ...
Det. Keeney: Like a seizure or something?
Quintana: like a seizure, exactly.
They’d reached the end of five months of initiation hijinks, said Quintana: Dressing up like women. Sleeping in the frigid basement.
They were at the peak of “hell week,” the final stretch before acceptance as full members. That night they’d been told to strip to their underwear, drench themselves with water, and stand on a bench while the others peppered them with questions about the fraternity.
Quintana: We basically drank water out of this Alhambra bottle and we passed it back and forth with a leg up. They wouldn’t let you go to the bathroom, so basically you pissed on yourself.
Maestretti, told police, and us, that when Matt collapsed, it didn’t seem that serious.
Maestretti: He wasn’t in like this position that you felt there was a dire emergency. I remember him being almost just like—like really, really tired.
Morrison: So when he laid down on that couch and appeared to be asleep, you said don’t worry about it.
Maestretti: The idea was kind of reached—let’s just kind of watch him. Make sure he was—make sure he was okay.
But Det. Keeney had the uneasy feeling that Maestretti and his fraternity brothers were still hiding something.
Det. Keeney: I think they tried to mislead theinitial responding officers to see if they would get away with it. Because they just told the paramedics that he had been working out and he had a seizure. Although the paramedics knew there was something completely different. And Keeney soon found out why they might have been going to such lengths to be evasive.
Det. Keeney: They had fallen into some problems with the school.
This strange old house, Keeney discovered, was once part of the Delta Sigma Phi organization until its Chico members had one too many brushes with the law. Complaints of everything from striking an officer to giving alcohol to a minor, to sexual battery. So many run-ins with police that college administrators stripped the house of its charter. That’s how this place became Chi Tau. It wasn’t a proper fraternity, no national affiliation, it was just a name they took.
In fact, the established fraternities around Chico seemed to have nothing but contempt for Chi Tau. Still, its members hoped if they just stayed out of trouble, they might soon get their coveted charter back.
Maestretti: We were pretty close. From all of our—
Morrison: To getting back in?
Maestretti: We were pretty close to getting back in. At least recognized by the school.
But certainly not if it was determined they’d been hazing pledges...hazing them so severely that one of them had died. To Det. Keeney it seemed a motive for a cover-up. And the detective had his suspicions there had been a similar death at another fraternity.
Det. Keeney: We had, a few years ago, had another pledge that died of alcohol poisoning. And—
Morrison: I mean that’s kind of what you expect to hear from somebody that age.
Det. Keeney: Sure.
Det. Keeney: Sure. And so we expected that something like that was going to turn up at some point. That we were going find something like that out.
But that’s not what happened. The coroner found no drugs or alcohol in Matt’s system. Physical abuse was also ruled out. The cause of Matthew Carrington’s death? Water intoxication.
Morrison: And that’s what killed him.
Det. Keeney: That’s what killed him.
Det. Keeney: It makes your brain swell. It makes your lungs swell. And eventually stop your heart.
All that water diluted Matt’s blood, washed life-sustaining electrolytes right out of his system. His internal organs bloated with fluid.
Three gallons would have been enough to place Matt’s life in danger. But Matt and his pledge partner were given something close to 25 gallons of water—equivalent to five water cooler jugs.
And only then did it dawn on detective Keeney what really happened. Though it seemed Matt’s frat brothers still didn’t get it.
Fickes: You drink, you pee yourself, you throw up, you get tired of it.
Fickes repeated to us, the same story he told police; that Matt’s death was just an unintended consequence of a water-hazing ritual that they had all endured when they were pledges.
Fickes: And every once in awhile somebody will tell you to “pour one for the homies,” which mean you pour the jug of water over your head.
Fickes said the night Matt died, some fraternity members were watching a movie in the basement while others were gambling—a carnival like scene with the hazing of Matt and his pledge partner, the main attraction.
Jerry Lim had been selected to organize the night’s activities.
Morrison: Who was in charge that night?
Lim: That night?
Lim: I was in charge. They were instructed to stand on one leg while they drank water and that was about it. That’s how the night goes.
But there was a little more to it than that. It was frigid in that basement room, the temperature in the 30s. The pledges stood on that bench in underwear for hours, holding up the heavy water jug, dousing themselves, and drinking more and more—their wet freezing bodies blasted by house fans. And whenever ordered, they’d drop to a floor, which had recently been flooded with sewage, and do their pushups.
Morrison: How long did you keep it going?
Lim: About an hour to an hour and a half. Somewhere around there.
Morrison: And then what?
Lim: I left a person in charge. I told them that I needed to go to bed so I could go to school. And I told Matt and Mike that it was basically almost over. And I went to bed.
By that time, it was around 1:00am. Both pledges were exhausted, but okay. And then, as most of the members went to bed, a new player joined the game. Gabe Maestretti, who had been asleep on one of the couches.
Fickes: Then Gabe woke up and he assumed position of in charge.
Maestretti: I remember weird pieces.
Maestretti told us he was unable to assemble those pieces into a complete picture, because he was still under the influence of a night of bar-hopping.
Maestretti: I can’t give you like a chronological of what happened. It’s all mixed up.
Morrison: ‘cause you were drunk.
Maestretti: ‘cause I was drunk, absolutely. ‘Cause I was drunk.
Maestretti: I don’t remember. Good or bad, I don’t remember. That’s the thing. I don’t—
Morrison: Do you remember making them stand on one foot from that bench? Drinking gallons and gallons and gallons of water?
Maestretti: I don’t remember making them drink any water.
But Matt’s pledge partner, Mike Quintana remembers Maestretti’s involvement quite clearly. He told Keeney, and later us, that Maestretti’s hazing went on most of the night. They were exhausted, disoriented, andhypothermia was setting in.
Then, around 4:00 a.m…
Quintana: We were working on our sixth bottle and we were about halfway done. And Gabe pulled us off of the bench again. And—had us do this ridiculous amount of push-ups. And Matt actually, you know collapsed. I noticed his tongue was in between his teeth and he started shaking and jerking. And—I’m like—what’s—something’s wrong. He’s having a seizure. You know, call an ambulance, but they didn’t call an ambulance.
Quintana, a trained lifeguard, tried to administer first aid, but had his hand bitten as he pried Matt’s jaws apart.
Quintana: And these guys are like, “It’s okay. It’s no—big deal.” I started balling. I couldn’t stop crying. Because I had just seen one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen in my life. In one of the hardest days or nights that I’ve ever had in my life. I was—
Morrison: You were a mess?
Quintana: —I was broken.
In that dark, wet, cold basement, Matthew Carrington was dying. An entire hour slipped by, but no one called 911. Was it because the fraternity’s application for a new charter was at risk?
Morrison: When and how did you understand that this was worse than they said it was?
Quintana: After Matt had a seizure and we got him on the couch. I was sitting next to his head and his breathing got really faint. And it went from faint to nothing within 30 seconds. And that’s when I said, you know, “Oh my God, he stopped breathing.” I said, “Call an ambulance, go, go.” And that’s when the ambulance got called.
Alone, Quintana gave matt CPR as he waited for paramedics to arrive. It didn’t click till after they started strapping Matt up that, “Oh my God, he might actually die.’”
Quintana’s account was the evidence Detective Keeney needed to make the case that Matt Carrington’s death was no accident. For Detective Keeney it was obvious: a crime had been committed. The question was— would Matt’s fraternity brothers get away with it?
Matthew Carrington was a victim of an initiation rite as old as male bonding: hazing.And as detective Greg Keeney had discovered, this hazing ritual had been bizarre.
Besides the humiliations, the exercises, the boys had been forced to consume, by Keeney’s estimate, 25 gallons of water.
Morrison: Had you ever heard of such a thing before?
Det. Keeney: No. None of us knew that drinking a bunch of water could kill you.
A month after Matt’s death, the district attorney, Mike Ramsey, held a press conference announcing that seven of Matt’s fraternity brothers had been arrested—charged with illegal hazing.
That much was expected. What made California legal histories were the other charges brought against Maestretti and three others Chi Taus: involuntary manslaughter.
The possible penalty: Four years in prison.
Debbie Smith was still numb from her son’s death, unbelieving at what had happened that night at the frat house.
Debbie Smith: Not until they had the press conference did we get the grueling details. And that was -
Keith Morrison, Dateline correspodent: It cannot have been easy for you.
Smith: Oh, my God, that experience was awful. To have to hear what they did to him. I was in shock. I mean, I thought I knew what went on down there. I thought it was an accident. I didn’t know, you know that he could have been saved.
Could Matthew’s life have been saved? Maybe.
Remember, before his fraternity brothers called 911, they left Matt on this couch, dying, for close to an hour.
Morrison: When he collapsed, there was a decision not to call 911 because you were about to get the recognition of the fraternity back.
Maestretti: As far as I know that was—
Morrison: Didn’t want to get in trouble.
Maestretti: That wasn’t the issue. As far as I know. Like I said, I don’t really remember that.
Quintana: And I look back now and I see that they were just afraid. Because they were afraid of getting in trouble because they knew what they were doing was wrong.
Morrison: Do you think that really was what they were thinking at that moment?
Quintana: Looking back on it now, oh yes, it definitely was.
Maestretti and the others pleaded not guilty and as they waited for trial, maintained a determined, stoic silence.
Until Michael Quintana took the stand at the preliminary hearing. While pointing an accusing finger, he told the court what he had seen and heard the night Matt Carrington was killed.
Quintana (testimony): A minute into it is when he started leaking out of his mouth and out of his nose... there was this orange kind of foamy blood ...
On the stand for five hours while one defense attorney after another tried to put a dent in his story.
Defense Attorney: You wrote out, or you gave a number of statements in this matter, is that correct?
Defense Attorney: And were you trying to be honest as you possibly could be?
Quintana: Everything I’ve ever said about this case I’ve been as honest as I can.
Defense attorney: Including today?
Defense Attorney: At no time have you attempted to embellish anything in order to deflect any attention from yourself?
Quintana was unflappable, his testimony damning.
Defense Attorney: I asked you did you have blankets and pillows and you said, “no.” is that right?
Quintana: No. That is not correct.
If a jury believed this young man’s harrowing story, the fraternity brothers could be spending years in prison.
Two weeks before the trial was to begin, first Maestretti, then all the others, were asking for plea deals. Guilty pleas in exchange for sentences of a year or less.
And the prosecutor answered: maybe. But only if Matt’s mother agreed, and how could she?
Morrison: How would you expect her to feel about you?
Maestretti: I’ll expect her to hate me till the day she dies.
But the mother, who loved her son so dearly, was unable to find it in her heart to hate his killers.
Matthew Carrington’s mother came to court, and with tears flowing down her cheeks; she read a statement agreeing to the plea deal on one condition: Gabe Maestretti and all the rest of them would have to agree to educate college students about the dangers of hazing.
Smith: So that other lives can be saved and through this maybe we can someday put a stop to hazing altogether.
Maestretti: Her heart is amazing.
In the end the fraternity brothers got sentences of 1 to 12 months and have been ordered by the court, in accordance to Debbie’s wishes, to take part in an anti-hazing educational campaign. And that’s why they talked to us.
Maestretti: That night was just supposed to be stupid. Had no idea it was dangerous. Had no idea.
Morrison: Why should anybody believe that you’re now going to commit your life to somehow making up for what you’ve done?
Maestretti: Honesty I don’t care what anybody else believes. It doesn’t matter anymore. What you think about me, what anybody thinks about me personally, doesn’t matter. The only way, the only way for us to stop what’s going on is for there to be fear from college students. That they say, “okay, well there’s people who are being punished for hazing.” That’s what matters.
The old fraternity house in Chico is deserted now.
Det. Keeney: It’s just sitting empty.
Morrison: Who owns it?
Det. Keeney: Don’t know.
Morrison: Don’t know?
Detective Keeney says no individual or organization wishes to lay claim to the property... there could be liability concerns, he says.
Det. Keeney: And I don’t know if the owner is going to be stepping forward any time soon.
And up and down fraternity row, says Detective Keeney, it’s been a little quieter.
Smith: The worst thing, I think, that could happen is to find out that another mother is going through what I’m going through. That another family’s been ripped apart like our family’s been ripped apart. I don’t want to see that happen to another family.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints