PSU student’s suicide case ongoing
Penn State Altoona Chancellor Lori Bechtel-Wherry sat in her office in the E. Raymond Smith Building during a mid-July summer lull.
It was a quiet day on the Ivyside campus, and there were no signs of students except for the photo of 18-year-old freshman Marquise Braham on Bechtel-Wherry’s desk.
Students return to Penn State Altoona this week, but Braham won’t be among them as investigations, now 140 days old, will continue into his suicide during spring break near his home in Long Island, N.Y.
The culture Bechtel-Wherry has been so proud of in her 10 years as chancellor has clearly been tainted by the death. Penn State Altoona boasts one of only two nationally accredited health centers in the Penn State University system, along with national awards the Altoona campus has won for suicide prevention.
She called Braham’s death “my worst nightmare.”
“I think about him every day,” she said. “I think about his family every day. I keep his family in my thoughts and prayers. His picture is right there, so I look at him every day as a constant reminder to be vigilant and do everything I can to ensure other students are safe. That’s my single focus.”
And it’s why Bechtel-Wherry, who attended Braham’s funeral, has stayed in the background as the legal process has unfolded. She intends “to let investigations run their course, to watch and effect appropriate action and do everything in my power to see that nothing like this ever happens again.”
Braham’s family believes Braham was distraught over hazing.
They allege he endured abuse while pledging PSU Altoona fraternity Phi Sigma Kappa, a process he completed in December, and that he was even more upset about witnessing a new class of pledges being hazed in the spring.
Information obtained from a cellphone and laptop Braham left behind after he jumped to his death off the Marriott Long Island Hotel in Nassau County, N.Y., on March 14 convinced his family of hazing, family spokesman Mike Paul said.
Logan Township police have secured those devices as part of an investigation.
Braham’s family contends the hazing involved controlled substances and inappropriate sexual behavior.
Paul, who has branded himself as The Reputation Doctor, is described as “one of the leading crisis PR and reputation management experts in the world” on his website, reputationdoctor.com.
He went on the offensive Aug. 13, tweeting to Gov. Tom Corbett and Attorney General Kathleen Kane that the “State of Penn has 1 of the worst #hazing records in U.S.” and encouraging authorities to “#ProsecuteThem” based on the family’s accusations.
Logan Township Police Chief Ron Heller has given no indication that a criminal case is on the horizon.
But Paul said with an estate established in Braham’s name, the Braham family is one step closer to suing an assortment of organizations and individuals that could include Penn State and the fraternity.
The purpose of such a lawsuit would be to prevent the same tragedy from happening again, Paul said.
Bechtel-Wherry believes the issue is complicated, and, whatever happens with regard to charges or lawsuits, the full truth might never be known.
“Suicide is a very complicated issue,” she said. “We will never really know everything, probably. … Whatever facts I have (after the investigations will impact the decisions) we will make from there.”
Fraternity members return to school
Facebook shows that a Phi Sigma Kappa group photo including Braham was taken in the front yard of 2967 Gwin Road. In the summer, a lost cigarette lighter laid on a path overgrown with grass at the empty house. It’s one of three houses, police say, where Phi Sigma Kappa members gathered or lived.
When Phi Sigma Kappa members return to campus, their fraternity will continue to be on suspension pending the outcomes of investigations.
The investigations include one student code of conduct investigation led by the Penn State Student Affairs Department in State College, one criminal investigation conducted by Logan Township police aided by Penn State Altoona police, a fraternity bylaws investigation conducted by the national Phi Sigma Kappa Fraternity and, finally, an investigation conducted by private investigators of the Braham family.
The last time Heller saw all the fraternity members in one place was a May memorial for Braham at the campus.
Heller didn’t stay for the memorial. He only visited to speak with Braham’s family members, who traveled from New York to attend.
While Heller spoke with one of the women from the Braham family, she seemed distracted. Her eyes were looking over Heller’s shoulder, to where the fraternity members were seated.
“Are they looking at us? Just say yes or no,” Heller said.
“Yes,” she said.
They were all looking at them.
“It’s OK, they know who I am,” Heller told her. “They are wondering why I’m talking to you.”
The memorial the Braham family traveled to campus for was organized by students who knew Marquise from his work in the campus Residence Life Department.
Campus officials later added the fraternity’s ritual because of a request from national Phi Sigma Kappa Grand President Bill Neugebauer.
Bechtel-Wherry said she made sure that campus officials asked the family, already on their way to the residence life memorial, whether it was ok with them for the fraternity to conduct a ritual after the event. She said she would not have allowed Neugebauer and the fraternity to conduct a funeral ritual on campus without the Braham family’s approval. The family’s official response: “That’s not our decision to make.”
Paul said their answer was a test. “We wanted to see if the university would do the right thing or not. … No matter what she says, the university has liability regarding that, and she has liability regarding that. After the university made clear to everyone that they were suspended, not to have a presence on campus, they are allowed to conduct a funeral ritual led by their national president. You either have guidelines or you don’t. These are the type of things that come back to bite them over and over again.”
Bechtel-Wherry said she thought allowing the students from the fraternity to assemble was, “the right thing to do,” and said she would have made a different decision if the family had objected when asked about the ritual.
“We would not have done the ceremony without the Braham family’s OK,” she said.
Tensions boiled over at the conclusion of the night. Several fraternity members verbally demeaned, at an arm’s length, two men with cameras who declined fraternity brothers’ earlier requests not to photograph their ritual. The men turned out to be private investigators for the Braham family.
City Council ties
Bill Neugebauer, the national grand president of Phi Sigma Kappa, which is conducting its own investigation of its Penn State Altoona chapter, was adviser of the Penn State Altoona chapter last year.
He is also a member of the Altoona City Council, which has a mutually beneficial relationship with Penn State Altoona. The campus has transformed the identity in downtown Altoona with the Devorris Downtown Center and the Sheetz Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence.
Neugebauer declined to comment for this story, and Bechtel-Wherry denied a conflict of interest exists.
“That has no bearing – we have all kinds of issues, staff related – I don’t care if it’s the relative of the president of the United States. Right is right, wrong is wrong, and due process is due process,” she said. “I am not intimidated or afraid of anything. The truth will bear out in these various investigations, and that’s the end of the story.”
She said she is not friends with Neugebauer but is an acquaintance through her office.
The campus recently finished a $20-plus million fundraiser, and a majority of funds will be used for building renovation and construction.
Campus officials declined to answer whether more construction projects were planned for expanding the campus’ identity downtown, but Bechtel-Wherry said no project with City Council would ever affect an investigation.
Another Altoona city councilman, Bruce Kelley, is associated with the fraternity. As an honorary alumni member of the fraternity brought on board by Neugebauer, Kelley attended three meetings with the fraternity last year.
They were just getting ready to help a local arts group raise money for Easter Seals around the time Braham died in March.
Kelley was saddened by Braham’s death, having been impressed with the quality of students in the fraternity.
“It’s a very diverse group from all over the country,” he said. “They seemed like a great group of young people.”
A group photo of the fraternity, five rows deep, was posted on one of the brothers’ Facebook pages. All members, along with Neugebauer and Kelley, were sharply dressed in jackets and ties.
Three brothers are shown flashing their middle fingers with others in goofy poses, with their mouths agape or pointing to the camera in a display of adolescent swagger.
At one end of the kneeling front row, one member stands out from the rest. With others gesturing around him, Marquise Braham simply rests his right elbow on his right knee and gives a gentle smile.
In his short time as a Penn State Altoona student, Braham was a student leader in the residence life department, held a job at an on-campus cafe where his friends could get him to put extra bacon on their orders, and he was a member of Phi Sigma Kappa. Brothers who played soccer with him knew him as a relentless competitor.
During the May memorial ceremony on campus, a fraternity brother took the podium and said the last time he saw Marquise was the Friday (March 7) before spring break: “He was still the happy Marquise that we all knew, with that smile.”
What secrets Braham might have been hiding behind that smile remain a mystery, or at least unproven so far.
“I have great empathy for the parents. I have kids that age,” Kelley said. “I am sure they are desperately looking for answers, signs that people missed. Any of us would.”
Secrecy is integral to maintaining the familial bond of a fraternity.
Pledges, even ones that don’t get in, must promise not to speak about what they go through while pledging. But the secrets of Greek life are not anything depicted in the movie “Animal House,” or more recently “Neighbors,” said a Penn State Altoona fraternity member not in Phi Sigma Kappa.
It’s really about becoming a man, doing good for the campus and community and forming solid friendships, he said.
Household management, community service, brotherhood, career networking, these are the benefits of Greek life, he said.
Acceptance to a fraternity has nothing to do with drinking unsafe amounts of alcohol or worse, he said.
“That doesn’t happen,” he said.
But he didn’t tell his parents about his pledge process, because it wasn’t their business, he said, though he assured them he wasn’t hazed.
If a pledge doesn’t get in, it’s because he doesn’t appear to share the same values and commitment to doing actual work that fraternities perform for the campus.
The good side of Greek life is not publicized at all, he said.
However, the dark side does exist. A California University student died this summer in what police are investigating as a fraternity hazing ritual, and Oklahoma State University’s Phi Delta Theta fraternity is suspended beginning this year because of hazing. In Pennsylvania, Baruch College student Michael Deng’s death has left fraternity brothers facing homicide charges stemming from initiation rituals gone too far.
Campus has power
Power to compel the fraternity members, all with legal counsel, to cooperate with police rests with campus administration. State law gives the campus authority to withhold grades, diplomas or transcripts. PSU Altoona spokeswoman Shari Routch declined to say when or if that authority would be exercised.
The campus’ legal counsel denied the Mirror’s request made under the state’s open records law for access to a Penn State Altoona Student Affairs investigation report. No reason for the denial was cited except that Penn State is “state-related,” not a state agency, and is not bound by the open records law.
Bechtel-Wherry said she trusts the processes of each investigation. She said the campus investigation is unfettered by her, but she waits eagerly for results before speaking about the future of Greek organizations on campus. Beyond Phi Sigma Kappa, there is one other fraternity at Penn State Altoona.
“With that said, I want (investigators) to take their time to do it right,” Bechtel-Wherry said. “I want the truth to come out, and then we’ll deal with that as it may be.”
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.