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Family is unhappy with hazing outcome

Michael Starks
Michael Starks

Was justice served in the alcohol poisoning death of a Utah State University fraternity pledge? It depends on who you ask.

After the death of 18-year-old Michael Starks in November of last year, 12 people were charged with hazing, with some also charged with supplying the alcohol to Starks and others with obstructing justice. This week a 1st District judge dismissed the hazing case against Sigma Nu chapter president Cody Littlewood with the approval of the prosecution, resolving the last of a dozen cases.

Among the 12, five saw jail time and the remaining cases were dismissed. The fraternity chapter and a sorority chapter were both disassociated from USU and had their charters yanked from their national organizations.

But Starks' father, George Starks, says he feels the prosecution backed off from aggressively pursuing the case and failed to send a strong message that there is no tolerance for hazing.

"I do not feel it has been enough," George Starks told the Deseret News. "I am disappointed in the way they have progressed with the cases in Logan. I have met with the judge and the district attorney and told them I am disappointed they have not been able to use my son's death as a landmark to show the dangers of hazing."

Starks had been participating in an initiation ceremony for Sigma Nu. The initiation involved the "kidnapping" of Starks and another pledge by Chi Omega sorority women. At some point during the activity, a bottle of vodka was produced and some started drinking. Prosecutors say Whitney Miller admitted to bringing the bottle, which she had asked an adult to buy at the liquor store for her.

Shortly after returning to the fraternity house, Starks was found unconscious and not breathing. He was later pronounced dead at a local hospital.

Lead Cache County prosecutor Tony Baird said he has spoken with the Starks family and knows they are furious at the outcome of the cases, but he said he feels those who were directly connected with supplying the alcohol to Michael Starks were brought to justice.

"They've lost a son and a brother and they are tremendously hurt and they have lashed out against the people that were charged and they have lashed out even at our office, and I understand that," Baird said. "But I can't let that anger color trying to do my job, and that is trying to work justice and hold people accountable for what they did, but no more than what they did."

Baird called the cases some of the most challenging and emotional of his career. Initially, his office knew there was some probable cause among people at the party and the filing of 12 hazing cases motivated people to cooperate. But as they put together a clearer picture, prosecutors discovered that it was a smaller group who had direct involvement with the alcohol, Baird said.

He admitted his office was split over whether there was enough evidence to charge people with hazing.

"Many didn't come with any intention or knowledge that there was going to be any alcohol," he said.

One aspect that "muddied the waters" in the case was the evidence that Michael Starks had a past history of using a fake ID to buy alcohol and marijuana abuse, Baird said.

George Starks said this was a lost opportunity for prosecutors to send a strong message to young people that encouraging minors in illegal activity should not be tolerated.

"It is tragically disappointing to back off of the prosecution rather than to drive home the position," Starks said. "We are not willing to be forceful in the prosecution of the problem."

Contributing: Ethan Thomas