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No charges following investigation of USF fraternity hazing

TAMPA — The fraternity pledges entered the empty strip-mall storefront one by one, wearing matching outfits in the near-midnight darkness.

Inside, a handful of men were waiting. When the door closed, the pledges were met with fists and slaps and smacks from a 2-by-4 board.

Then the pledges went outside, where they were told to sit on the railroad tracks, bouncing their bruised behinds on the metal rails.

They were told to leave and come back with chicken and beer. When the offering was deemed "unsatisfactory," the men crushed the food and resumed the beatings.

That's what a former pledge for the Omega Psi Phi fraternity at the University of South Florida said happened Aug. 22 and 23, prompting an investigation that was closed Friday by the Hills­borough State Attorney's Office without any criminal charges being filed.

It's not that the violent incidents didn't happen, but based on the law, "we had nothing we felt we could go forward with," said State Attorney's Office spokesman Mark Cox.

The eight men accused of delivering the blows, seven of whom were former USF students, could not be charged with hazing essentially because of a paperwork issue.

Though the Omega Psi Phi fraternity was recognized by USF and had participated in new membership activities in previous years, in 2010 they had not filled out forms to conduct recruiting. Any new membership activities were therefore outside of USF sanctions and could not technically be "hazing."

The next logical step would be to classify the beatings as criminal battery, but there was a problem there, too.

Because the fraternity pledges voluntarily participated in the events Aug. 22 and 23 — in one instance inflicting injury on themselves by bouncing on the railroad tracks — the actions are not legally deemed battery.

In the end, just one out of eight pledges was cooperative with investigators. Here's what he said happened:

Late on Aug. 22, the group was summoned to 2112 W. Busch Blvd., formerly the Caribbean Delights restaurant. There was a sticker on the door depicting Omega Psi Phi's Greek letters. The pledges were told to each enter the building alone.

In his statement, the unidentified pledge said he was beaten for about 20 minutes before the group went out to the railroad tracks. A couple of hours later, fraternity members told the pledges to leave and return with beer and Popeye's chicken. The food was crushed and the beatings resumed.

At some point during the second night, the pledge who went to police decided to leave the group. But in text messages after the incident, the others seemed to encourage him to soldier on.

"It felt weird at first but we got through it," one wrote.

"Pain. Pain is temporary. Que Psi Phi is forever," wrote another.

The eight men who led the activities either denied that the physical abuse happened or did not give statements to investigators. Two reached by the Times on Friday declined to comment. The others did not return calls.

USF had suspended the fraternity pending the investigation, but it was unclear Friday whether it would be reinstated now that the case is closed.

A regional Omega Psi Phi representative told Hillsborough investigators that a USF chapter had never been officially approved.

Reach Kim Wilmath at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

No charges following investigation of USF fraternity hazing 06/17/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 17, 2011 11:25pm]
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