POCONO SUMMIT, Pa. — The fraternity brothers decided that Chun Hsien Deng had a bad attitude. Like three other Pi Delta Psi fraternity pledges who went before him on a cold December morning in 2013, Mr. Deng was forced to run across a frozen yard through a knot of his fraternity brothers, while he wore a blindfold and a backpack weighted down with 20 to 30 pounds of sand.
The gantlet, called the Glass Ceiling, symbolized their burden as Asian-Americans trying to break into the mainstream. The backpack stood for the weight of their fraternity bonds, one member told the police, according to a grand jury report. Mr. Deng, a freshman at Baruch College whose parents emigrated from China, did not fall into line.
He fought back, kicking one of the men lined up to tackle him, a fraternity brother told investigators. A second told the police he did not say the things he was supposed to, adding, “He got the ‘Bros’ mad.” So the brothers hit harder.
One ran at Mr. Deng from 15 feet away and plowed into him with his head lowered, in a move known as the spear, student witnesses said. Others pushed him to the ground, the force of each blow amplified by the weight on Mr. Deng’s back.
After they were done, Mr. Deng was dying from brain and bodily injuries, a prefinals weekend retreat had turned into the scene of a murder investigation, and his fellow pledges, big brothers and fraternity leaders were its primary suspects.
Prosecutors in Pennsylvania said this week that they intended to charge five people with third-degree murder and 32 others with a range of counts, including assault, hindering apprehension and hazing in the death of Mr. Deng, known as Michael, on Dec. 9, 2013.
American colleges have struggled for years to tamp down on fraternity hazing, a task that has bedeviled administrators as they try to curb sprawling late-night parties, relying on witnesses with fierce loyalties to their student groups. If nothing else, the details of Mr. Deng’s death, as described in the grand jury’s report released on Tuesday, show how hard it has been to control the violence. Baruch, a public commuter school in the heart of Manhattan, barely has a Greek scene to speak of, and the retreat happened in a weekend rental house in Tunkhannock Township, Pa., in the Pocono Mountains, more than 100 miles away. Yet so many students participated, according to the authorities, that their court appearances have to be spaced out so as not to overwhelm the small courthouse where they are being charged.
Pi Delta Psi’s Baruch colony, founded in 2010, was designed to help Asian-American students — many of whom were the children of immigrants — find a place in the pecking order of a school buzzing with aspiring businesspeople.
For Mr. Deng, a competitive handball player who graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, the group offered “the possibility of personal connections, friendship, a sense of belonging to the Asian community, and having access to some of those connections because he intended to be involved in international business,” a family lawyer, Douglas E. Fierberg, said on Tuesday. But the Glass Ceiling was a manifestation of the barriers they faced, and a test for new pledges to prove they could surmount them. “We should help each other to enter the mainstream of society,” said Hugh H. Mo, a lawyer for one of the defendants, echoing the group’s guiding philosophy.
On that December morning, he said, the tradition took on a “Lord of the Flies” dynamic.
After they were done tackling him, Mr. Deng’s brothers carried him inside the two-story home. His body felt like a “dead weight,” one member later told the police, according to the grand jury report. Another described it as “straight like a board.”
He was laid down near the fireplace and stripped of the black hooded sweatshirt and black sweatpants that were his uniform for the initiation. They put him in a blanket, then gave him water and chocolate and put sugar on his lips to try waking him up.
After 10 minutes, Mr. Deng “started sucking air and making snoring sounds,” one member said. Some students noticed his pupils did not dilate. They reached out to the fraternity’s national president at the time, Andy Meng, who told them by phone to hide everything showing the group’s symbol, according to the grand jury report. One member told the police that “the protocol is to first put away fraternity letters, paddles, banners etc.,” to shield the organization.
The brothers grew nervous, but not nervous enough to call an ambulance. “Kwan stated no one called for an ambulance because someone looked it up and the bill/cost was too high,” the grand jury report says, citing the account of Kenny Kwan, who prosecutors say will be charged with murder in the tackling on Mr. Deng that started with a 15-foot running head start.
Instead, they pulled up their cellphones’ browsers and searched for terms like “Concussion can’t wake up,” “snoring but not waking up” and “pupils don’t dilate.” One member asked for advice from a friend whose grandfather had recently fallen and died.
It was an hour before three members took him to the hospital. He was mumbling, shivering and snoring, as if he had phlegm stuck in his throat. There, doctors found constellations of bruises spread across his head, cheeks, back and thighs. His head injuries were so severe that a doctor determined they would have required “hundreds of pounds of impulsive loads.” He also had traumatic asphyxia, likely from hits or tackles magnified by his backpack’s heavy load. When investigators searched the home, whose facade of brick and siding gave it the stately look of a traditional fraternity house, they found Mr. Deng’s clothes stuffed in a garbage bag. Despite the members’ best efforts, the police also found clothing, paddles, banners, signs and notebooks, all bearing the fraternity’s logo.
Then it came time for the authorities to determine responsibility But some of the members “lied to the police, they hid and tried to hide evidence, and a lot of that was based on trying to cover up and hide the fraternity’s involvement in the case,” Michael Rakaczewski, an assistant district attorney in Monroe County, Pa., said at a news conference on Tuesday.
Prosecutors decided to pursue a grand jury investigation, they said, because the grand jury had subpoena power and could require members of the fraternity to testify.
Mr. Mo, who represents one of the students who took Mr. Deng to the hospital and is being charged with hindering apprehension, hazing and criminal conspiracy, described the prosecutors’ approach as “very harsh,” saying they had unfairly compelled students to testify before many of them had lawyers. He said that a majority of the men were still not represented, and that many came from immigrant families lacking the wherewithal to get good legal advice.
“You should make a distinction about the degree of culpability, or some distinction of who should be charged,” Mr. Mo said. He added: “Who actually participated? Who instigated? Who is the leader? Those are the people that should be charged.” Asked about the investigation, Mr. Rakaczewski, the prosecutor, said only that criminal defendants “have all the rights afforded them under the Constitution and can file whatever pretrial motions they deem appropriate.” Efforts in person and by phone to reach the men facing murder charges were unsuccessful on Tuesday. The mother of one man, Daniel Li, said in Mandarin outside their home in Queens before closing the door: “He’s been in a very terrible mood. Please understand.” Lawyers for three of the men either declined to discuss the charges in detail or did not respond to phone messages. Prosecutors also said they would charge the fraternity with murder, saying that would allow them to hold the organization responsible financially.
Todd Greenberg, a lawyer for Mr. Meng, the former national fraternity president who was charged with hazing and hindering apprehension, said in a statement that Mr. Meng “was not present in Pennsylvania at the time of his death, had no role in his medical treatment and did not commit any wrongdoing.”
His sister, Representative Grace Meng, a Democrat from Queens, expressed condolences for Mr. Deng’s family in a statement and added, “I love my brother very much and as his sister I’ll be here for him as he goes through the legal process.”
Baruch College said in a statement on Tuesday that it had permanently banned the Pi Delta Psi fraternity after Mr. Deng’s death, and had also suspended all pledging activities for campus Greek organizations starting in fall 2014. It declined to comment on the disciplinary status of any students involved, though Mr. Mo said a majority of the students were forced to leave school. At least two of the fraternity members facing charges were students at St. John’s University, including one, Raymond Lam, who graduated last year and was one of those charged with murder. The university said it was never notified of the investigation, and so did not take any action against the students.
Mr. Fierberg, the lawyer for Mr. Deng’s parents, who have sued the fraternity and several of its members, said they were disturbed by the revelation on Tuesday that some members had undressed him after his injury, and that they had singled him out for worse abuse because he resisted. “He’s saying, ‘Do not do this to me,’ ” Mr. Fierberg said, “and the result is they do it worse.”
Installation view, The Glass Ceiling, Sarah Lawrence College Gallery, 2020 Photos by Jared Buckhiester