Reflecting what Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan called a national norm, her office on Tuesday charged three Fresno State students with misdemeanors in a fraternity's hazing-related alcohol death.
Aaron Joseph Raymo, 24, Leonard Louis Serrato, 28, and Daniel Woodard Baker, 22, each faces two misdemeanor counts of hazing and providing alcohol to a minor contributing to the 2012 death of freshman Philip Dhanens, a Theta Chi fraternity pledge. If found guilty, Raymo, Serrato and Baker could each be sentenced to up to a year in jail and $5,000 in fines.
Egan said the three defendants have no criminal history and evidence shows that they didn't intend for Dhanens to die, but "their actions led to deadly results requiring criminal intervention to hold them accountable."
She said misdemeanors were charged because most hazing cases filed around the country result in misdemeanor pleas. A national expert on hazing supported her point Tuesday.
Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said the investigation is over, unless information arises that points to other potential suspects with involvement in the case.
Officers conducted 67 interviews and totaled 700 investigative hours, Dyer said. The case was a high priority because "a young man lost his life needlessly," he said.
Serrato, Dyer said, had been a bartender and should have known to take responsibility for someone who was drinking in excess.
"These individuals had an obligation to care for Philip Dhanens," he said.
A mother's prayers
Dhanens' parents, Paul and Diane, stood beside Dyer and Egan at a news conference Tuesday.
"I have prayed for the fraternity brothers since the first time we met at Saint Agnes Hospital as my son lay brain dead," Diane Dhanens said in a brief statement.
She said she urged them to speak truthfully to create a change in fraternity culture that promotes excessive drinking so that other college students could be spared an alcohol-fueled death.
Dhanens, a strapping 18-year-old from Bakersfield, was only a couple of weeks into his first semester of college when he pledged with the fraternity.
On Aug. 31, he went to a party at the fraternity's off-campus house, where 14 pledges -- 12 younger than age 21 -- were locked in a room with eight bottles of hard liquor. The pledges were told they couldn't come out until the bottles were empty, police said.
Baker, the fraternity president, oversaw the events of that night along with Raymo and Serrato, Dyer said Tuesday.
Dhanens drank an estimated 37 one-ounce shots of hard liquor that included whiskey, Tequila and brandy within 80 to 90 minutes, Dyer said.
Two days later, Dhanens died at Saint Agnes Medical Center. The Fresno County Coroner's Office said Dhanens' blood-alcohol level was 0.36, more than four times the legal limit to drive.
Tough to prove a felony
Only one hazing case has ended with a felony conviction in California, said Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Indiana and author of four books on hazing.
In that case, a Chico State student died of water torture, hypothermia and alcohol consumption, he said. The most severe sentence was a year in jail, he said.
Nuwer said it's difficult to get felony convictions in hazing deaths, but it doesn't mean cases can't get filed that way.
"It really is a violent crime," he said. "When somebody is under the influence of alcohol like that, their body goes into a kind of shock.
"In essence, you are asking somebody to drink poison. If you asked them to drink 37 ounces of poison, you would be looking at serious charges."