George Desdunes ’13 voluntarily consumed a large amount of alcohol before consenting to take part in the “mock kidnapping” that preceded his death last year, according to court papers filed by the defense lawyers representing three former Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledges charged in connection with Desdunes’ death.
However, a woman who was with Desdunes that night said that he expressed concern about the event and appeared relatively sober shortly before he was taken by the pledges, a police report recently obtained by The Sun indicates.
After Desdunes, a brother in SAE, died the morning of Feb. 25, 2011, a Tompkins County grand jury indicted three SAE pledges — Max Haskin ’14, Ben Mann ’14 and Edward Williams ’14 — on charges of first-degree hazing and first-degree unlawfully dealing with a child. All three, as well as a fourth whose identity was not released because of his age, pleaded not guilty to the charges in May.
Their lawyers’ explanation for Desdunes’ death diverges from the one outlined in a separate, $25 million wrongful death lawsuit filed by Desdunes’ mother in civil court against SAE. It also outlines a different account of the night than the one presented by the Tompkins County District Attorney.
While Marie Lourdes Andre, Desdunes’ mother, alleges in her suit that pledges “compelled [Desdunes] to consume alcohol until he lost consciousness,” the defense argues that the consumption of alcohol during the incidents leading up to his death was ”wholly voluntary.”
Andre’s suit says that after a hazing event in which he was tied up and given alcohol by pledge members, Desdunes became so intoxicated that he “required immediate medical treatment. Instead, he was taken by the pledges, still bound at the wrists and ankles, and dumped on a couch in the SAE house where he was unattended and left to die.”
But according to the defendants’ lawyers, Desdunes voluntarily drank “at least 10 to 12 ounces and perhaps as much as 15 to 20 ounces of alcohol (rum and whiskey)” — one shot is appoximately equivalent to 1.5 ounces — at the SAE fraternity earlier in the night, before the pledge event. One former SAE brother reportedly saw Desdunes “with a virtually empty bottle of Captain Morgan rum” and another later observed Desdunes in an “intoxicated condition,” the defendants’ paper states.
Desdunes then went to at least one Collegetown bar, the documents say, before he agreed to be “kidnapped” by the pledges. Pledge members took Desdunes and another SAE brother to the townhouse apartments on North Campus, where they engaged in a “time-honored reverse custodial arrangement whereby the pledges took custody of a fraternity member, loosely restrained and blindfolded the member and engaged in mock questioning about fraternity history and related information.”
In contrast to the lawsuit filed by Desdunes’ mother, the lawyers for the defendants maintain that any alcohol consumed by Desdunes during the pledging event was done so by choice.
“There is no claim or statement supplied which indicates that there was any force, coercion, duress or trickery employed by defendant or anyone else to have Mr. Desdunes, or someone else, consume what is purported to have been alcohol,” Mann’s lawyer, for instance, says in court documents. Contrary to prior reports, there “were no marks, injuries or other indicia of physical injury having been sustained by Desdunes,” according to a motion filed in court by Haskin’s lawyer.
Additionally, Haskin’s lawyer says Desdunes may have had a flu-like illness at the time of his death.
“According to some of his fraternity brothers, Desdunes had not been feeling well during the days leading up to this incident and was believed to be suffering from a pneumonia-type lung congestion,” the defense brief states. It notes that the pathologist evaluating Desdunes’ body determined that he “‘died of acute respiratory failure (pulmonary edema) secondary to acute ethanol toxicity.’”
The defense says it is more likely that the alcohol Desdunes had consumed throughout the rest of the night — as opposed to what he might have had during the “kidnapping” event — led to his death.
“Any alcohol that Desdunes may have consumed during the incident involving these four individually named defendants was relatively insignificant compared to what Desdunes apparently had consumed voluntarily over several hours in different venues earlier in the evening,” Haskin’s lawyer argues. “The vast quantity of alcohol … consumed by Desdunes prior to the mock kidnapping was the cause of any physical injury he sustained.”
But an Ithaca Police report recently obtained by The Sun provides evidence that complicates the defense’s narrative. Although the document confirms that Desdunes attended a bar in Collegetown before his “kidnapping,” it suggests that Desdunes was essentially sober and in good condition before being taken into custody by the pledges.
Ready to leave Dino’s bar at 12:57 a.m. on Feb. 25, Desdunes sent a text message to a female friend of his, a recent Cornell graduate who had been communicating with him throughout the evening. That woman, whose identity has been redacted from the police report, agreed to meet Desdunes in front of Collegetown Pizza.
Though “slightly” inebriated herself, the woman “did not believe that Desdunes appeared intoxicated” upon meeting him and some of his friends outside of CTP shortly after 1 a.m. The two then went back to her residence, according to the IPD report.
Before departing, Desdunes told her about his fraternity and expressed “concern about being ‘kidnapped’ by the ‘pledges,’” the woman later told police.
Yet regardless of Desdunes’ condition prior to the “kidnapping,” the defense lawyers contend that it will be clear that their clients are not guilty during the trial, which is set to begin May 21.
Haskin’s lawyer, for instance, says that none of the defendants named in the criminal case provided the alcohol purportedly consumed by Desdunes and Gregory Wyler ’12, who also consented to being restrained and quizzed about SAE traditions and folklore, according to the court documents.
“As the event was in progress, another pledge — who has not been indicted — apparently brought alcohol to the event,” the documents state. “None of the four individually named defendants herein brought alcohol to the event, or even anticipated that alcohol would be involved in the event.”
Raymond Schlather J.D. ’76, Haskin’s lawyer, also argues that either Wyler or Desdunes could have ended the questioning at any point. Douglas Fierberg, a lawyer for Desdunes’ mother in the civil lawsuit, said he did not wish to comment on the criminal case. Additionally, the office of the Tompkins County District Attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
“Although they were loosely restrained with zip ties and blindfolds, Wyler and Desdunes freely consented to the incident and remained in control with respect to terminating the event,” Schlather argues in the documents.
His description of the pledging event contradicts previous accounts of the evening, which have portrayed Desdunes’ involvement in the pledging event as non-voluntary. The suit filed by Desdunes’ mother argues that, in addition to the zip ties and duct tape, a “noose” was tied around Desdunes’ neck so tightly that it left “ligature marks.”
This account of the evening has been widely disseminated throughout the national media. ABC News, citing Andre’s lawsuit, reported that the pledges “forced [Desdunes] to drink so much alcohol that he passed out and died.” The Root reported that Desdunes “was forced to guzzle liquor after he made a mistake reciting fraternity history.”
The University has also recounted the narrative of Andre’s lawsuit. President Skorton, for instance, wrote in a New York Times editorial on Aug. 23 that Desdunes “died in a fraternity house while participating in a hazing episode that included mock kidnapping, ritualized humiliation and coerced drinking.”
But the prevalence of this understanding of the events of Feb. 25, 2011, does not mean it is accurate, Schlather said.
“The plaintiff’s lawyers, those representing the family of Mr. Desdunes, were very active in getting into the national limelight and turning the case into something that it isn’t simply by saying what they claimed it to be,” Schlather said. “There’s been incredible damage done to these young men simply because of the drumbeat raised by a tragic death … to paint [the pledges] as the causes of Desdunes’ death is not only unfair, it is grossly inaccurate and almost malicious.”