When the blindfold came off, fraternity pledge Harrison Kowiak stood in a pitch-black field. He was ordered to run to the other end and find a rock with his name on it. Doing so was all that stood between him and membership in the fraternity.
As he ran, he was repeatedly pushed and tackled by the fraternity members he hoped to soon claim as brothers. Instead, he suffered head injuries and died hours later.
These details, alleged in a lawsuit filed Friday in Durham County Superior Court, are part of a narrative explaining the death of Kowiak, a 19-year-old sophomore at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory.
"Once you ran the gantlet... once you picked up your rock, you were a member of the fraternity," said David Kirby, a Raleigh attorney representing Kowiak's family. "This was supposed to be a fun evening and an evening of accomplishment. But it turned into an evening of complete tragedy."
His parents are seeking more than $10,000 in damages and have named the Theta Chi fraternity, the university, two Lenoir-Rhyne administrators and 21 fraternity members in the lawsuit. The suit was filed in Durham partly because a Durham resident, Guy Crabtree, is the administrator of Kowiak's estate.
The 27-page complaint accuses the fraternity of a long history of hazing and claims the university didn't do enough to enforce anti-hazing policies. A Lenoir-Rhyne spokeswoman declined to comment Friday.
Kowiak was one of two pledges involved in the event, which capped off Theta Chi's "Hell Week," according to the lawsuit.
It claims that on Nov. 17, Kowiak suffered a severe brain hemorrhage after being repeatedly knocked to the ground. Kowiak, of Tampa, Fla., was a golf team member who weighed 160 pounds; some of the fraternity members who engaged in the event, known as "bulldogging," were football players weighing more than 250 pounds, according to the lawsuit.
Kowiak and the other pledge had been told to wear light-colored clothes. The fraternity brothers wore dark clothing and were barely visible, the lawsuit states.
"He was hit so hard he couldn't physically get up," said Kirby, the Kowiak family attorney. "They literally drug him over the finish line. It was the kind of thing hazing policies were adopted to prevent."
Further, the fraternity brothers didn't take Kowiak's injuries seriously at first, accusing him of faking, the lawsuit alleges. They eventually drove him to a regional medical center and told workers there Kowiak was hurt while playing football or basketball, the suit claims.
Kowiak was eventually flown to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte and died the next day.
No charges pressed
Local authorities investigated, and in January, Catawba County District Attorney Jay Gaither declined to press charges against any of the fraternity members.
"I don't think anyone ever believed that group of people went out there with the intent to harm this individual," Capt. Roy Brown of the Catawba County Sheriff's Office said Friday.
The university and the Theta Chi fraternity each has anti-hazing policies prohibiting intentional actions that produce "mental or physical discomfort."
Theta Chi has 11 chapters at North Carolina universities, including at UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University, N.C. State and Wake Forest.
Dale Taylor, executive director of the national Theta Chi organization, said Friday that he had not yet seen the lawsuit and thus could not comment.
Kowiak received both academic and athletic scholarship money to attend Lenoir-Rhyne, Kirby said. He grew up in New Jersey rooting for the New York Yankees and Knicks, and liked snowboarding and skateboarding in addition to golf, according to a November Tampa Tribune account of a memorial service held for Kowiak on the Lenoir-Rhyne campus.
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