The importance of Gordie Bailey's story was easy to convey a decade ago.
A good-looking, funny kid from Dallas, the captain of the high school football team, pledged the Chi Psi fraternity at the University of Colorado-Boulder. One night, he drank too much, and died at 18.
Once a timely call to action, even Bailey’s parents admit the story has become dated. And while their rabid fight to shine a light on the hazards of hazing and drinking has maybe saved lives, stories like Bailey’s continue to happen, year after year.
Since Bailey’s death on Sept. 17, 2004, 29 other pledges died in alcohol-related hazing incidents across the country, said hazing expert Hank Nuwer. In 2017, fraternity chapters closed or were suspended at Penn State, Louisiana State, Florida State and Texas State after pledge deaths — and universities found themselves grappling with how to respond. Many campuses — not just those with deaths — temporarily shut down Greek life activities, perhaps in desperate attempts to send a message.
There’s a familiar pattern to fraternity deaths, explains Nuwer: A pledge dies, there’s a big reaction, new students come in, people forget the name and the fraternity returns to campus. Bailey’s case followed a similar path. Now, as more deaths happen annually, it would be unsurprising if other tales of other victims do the same.
Bailey’s parents, Leslie and Michael Lanahan, already experienced the common rhythms of a fraternity death: The earth-shattering phone call, the discussions with administrators, the criminal and civil court proceedings, and finally, the rebirth of the chapter. They vowed to move mountains, to push institutional changes that would save others.
Years later, they’ve become accustomed to the stories. “It’s just sad to think of a family going through that absolute nightmare that we went through,” Leslie Lanahan said. “I see those moms on TV and I know exactly how they’re feeling.”
‘This is ancient history’
Asking around CU-Boulder campus, few people have ever heard of Gordie Bailey .
Most college-aged students today were just starting elementary school when Bailey and other pledges were blindfolded, taken to the woods and told to drink copious amounts of whiskey and wine.
Bailey passed out later that night with his shoes still on, prodding members to draw slurs all over his body. He was found face down on the floor of the Chi Psi house the next morning with a blood-alcohol level of .328, more than four times the legal driving limit in Colorado. He died of an alcohol overdose.
“Gordie will always be part of the story of the University of Colorado-Boulder, especially in Greek life, but you’ve reached the point where new kids coming in — this is ancient history,” said Marc Stine, the advisor of the independent Interfraternity Council (IFC) in Boulder, which oversees 21 fraternity chapters. “It’s like the names of the guys who died in World War II that are up on the marble plaque.”
The Chi Psi chapter at Boulder, which had 107 members as of last fall, was named by the national organization as its top chapter in 2016-17 . It's still in the same house Bailey was found in 13 years ago.
However, since Bailey died, the chapter has been subject to judicial actions by the independent IFC, which is tasked with enforcing organization violations. Stine said the issues were minor and were not related to hazing, alcohol or sexual assault. Boulder Police records show officers responded to the Chi Psi house 36 times since the beginning of 2016 for everything from noise complaints, to theft and a report of a drunk person.
Boulder Police Chief Greg Testa said the work of the university and the local community has driven down problematic activity in the city. Now, CU-Boulder fraternities and sororities each have an assigned police officer who attends regular meetings with students.
“I think we have a good relationship today,” Testa said. “That’s not something I would have said years ago.”
Bailey’s death served as a “tipping point” for the university, said Stephanie Baldwin, CU-Boulder’s assistant director for Greek life.
In 2005, months after Bailey died and Chi Psi was ousted from campus, the university asked its sororities and fraternities to agree to two big safety changes: delay new-member recruitment to the spring and welcome live-in house directors.
The ideas were accepted by sororities but panned by the fraternities, who instead launched their own independent system, the Undergraduate Interfraternity Council at the University of Colorado Inc., which has no affiliation with the university. It still stands and is believed to be unique to CU-Boulder.
The Interfraternity Council is a not-for-profit corporation entirely run by CU-Boulder fraternity brothers. Its Judicial Board, made up of fraternity members, investigates, tries and doles out punishment for violations related to hazing, alcohol and sexual assault.
Stine, who advises the independent IFC as its Greek advocate, said claims of hazing, sexual assault and alcohol violations have decreased across CU-Boulder fraternities since the split. However, the organization does not release details of Judicial Board activities.
But it has had its problems, expelling three fraternities from its ranks since Bailey died, all for violations related to hazing and alcohol.
Delta Chi was booted in 2008 after an alcohol-related hazing incident caused "major damage" to an Estes Park, Colo., motel, Stine said. Sigma Pi was expelled in 2013. Kappa Sigma, which was also linked to sexual assault, was removed in 2015. The final straw for Kappa Sigma, Stine said, was when a group of its members, upset about sanctions, showed up at the IFC president's house in the middle of the night and demanded he come out and fight.
Despite the expulsions, the Sigma Pi and Kappa Sigma chapters are still listed on their national organizations' websites and remain in operation in Boulder, despite not having affiliations with the university or the independent IFC.
The university does not track hazing reports, but said it hands down discipline on the “rare occasions” hazing does happen, university spokesman Ryan Huff said in a statement. University crime statistics for 2016 show drugs and alcohol contributed to nearly 600 arrests and citations and close to 2,500 disciplinary referrals at CU-Boulder.
Stine views the independent IFC as a mature organization with an outstanding operational system. Joining a CU-Boulder fraternity, he said, is one of the safest places for a young man to find bonding. “The right kid with the right group, there is probably not a better college experience,” he said.
Twelve years after the split, the universities and the fraternities still don’t see eye-to-eye.
In July, CU-Boulder announced it would restart its own Interfraternity Council in order to build connections between fraternities and sororities, and because, as Baldwin said, the current system forces students to choose between their university and their fraternity.
The university invited the more than 20 unrecognized fraternities in Boulder to join, but was rebuffed.
“The answer is no,” said Stine, who said the fraternities are “fiercely protective of their independence.”
As part of CU-Boulder’s plan, Phi Delta Theta would be one of two new fraternities coming to Boulder. In July, the university boasted Phi Delta Theta as “the largest fraternity to feature an alcohol-free housing policy.” Two months later, a Phi Delta Theta pledge named Max Gruver would die with a blood-alcohol level of .496 during a hazing ritual at the LSU chapter.
The university didn’t reconsider Phi Delta Theta after Gruver’s death, Baldwin said. “I think it was just a reminder for us to remember what the new member program should look like and making sure we’re focusing on the right things,” she said.
Chi Psi’s rebound
Chi Psi’s three-story red-brick house sits in an off-campus Boulder neighborhood called “The Hill,” where Greek houses and student apartments sit among concert halls, sub shops and stores catering to the college crowd.
Like many universities, partying and drinking are inextricable parts of college life at CU-Boulder, with liquor stores and bars surrounding off-campus housing. In 2011, the year Chi Psi returned to campus, Playboy named it the nation’s top party school for its easy access to booze and marijuana.
When Chi Psi suspended – the day after Bailey died – it was the oldest fraternity in Boulder. A group of alumni members maintained ownership of the house and rented it before the chapter was restarted.
Stine said a group of alumni lobbied to restart the chapter, but Chi Psi associate executive director Donald Beeson said returning to campus was always the plan. “It was always our intent to recolonize, but we did not move forward until we determined the environment in Boulder could support the type of chapter we wanted to create,” he said.
Alumni or the national fraternity often lead efforts to reinstate an ousted fraternity chapter, said Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana. This usually happens about five years later, to allow remaining members of the fraternity to leave or graduate.
Temporarily booting a chapter off campus, Nuwer said, is generally seen – among national fraternities – as a fit and just method of punishment after a fraternity death. He expects the shuttered chapters at Penn State, Florida State, LSU and Texas State to return once a new flock of students come through.
For a public university like CU-Boulder, keeping an off-campus fraternity from returning, or sanctioning fraternity members for their affiliation, is often impossible, especially if they aren’t concerned with being recognized, explained Sean Callan, a Cincinnati attorney who often represents Greek letter organizations.
It’s a matter of the First Amendment right of freedom to associate. Put simply: a public university can’t tell a student what types of groups he or she can join outside of school, including an off-campus fraternity. Private schools can do this and, if a fraternity is based on the grounds of a university, a public school could refuse to allow a fraternity from returning based on ownership, unless there was a conflicting lease agreement.
‘All of them have a chance of dying’
The most surprising part of the process after their son died, the Lanahans say, is how fraternities like Chi Psi defended themselves.
“It seemed to be that that this was viewed as acceptable collateral damage in their business,” said Michael Lanahan, Bailey’s step-father. “Everybody was trying to circle the wagons and nobody really seemed to care about Gordie, or Gordie’s family, or what they had done.”
The Lanahans team up with Douglas Fierberg, a premier attorney in fraternity death cases, in its lawsuit against Chi Psi. National fraternities, he said, share a playbook in defending themselves against deaths.
“Virtually every fraternity, national fraternity, argues that it has no liability for the wrongdoing of its members or its local chapters,” he said.
Fierberg said fraternities argue they have no direct duty to supervise their chapters and therefore are not responsible for any injuries or death. Similar provisions are sometimes written into insurance policies, which can include an exclusion for coverage when risk management policies are violated.
In the case of Bailey, the Lanahans were given a monetary settlement, which was substantially impacted, Fierberg said, by a Colorado law capping non-economic damages. At least 10 members of Chi Psi pleaded guilty to charges of providing alcohol to a minor.
The Lanahans directed the entire settlement to the Gordie Foundation, which has now joined with the University of Virginia to create the Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. The Gordie Center aims to reduce hazardous drinking and hazing through education.
To this day, Michael Lanahan’s blood pressure goes up talking about Gordie’s death. While she doesn’t find it difficult to take about anymore, the topic of her son’s death still causes Leslie Lanahan to shed a tear.
But what really frustrates Michael, is when fraternity deaths like Bailey’s are cast off as rare circumstances. To him, it belies the real factor contributing to deaths like his son’s: rampant hazing and alcohol abuse.
“Fortunately, not all these pledges are dying, but all of them have a chance of dying,” he said. “And that’s the larger issue.”
So what will it take to fix the problem? Despite the deaths, Leslie isn’t discouraged. She feels she’s saved some lives. Just as Gordie’s death was a tipping point for CU-Boulder, Michael hopes a different kind of reckoning is coming, one in which young students eager to join a group find the will to stand up to abusive hazing.
But Michael Lanahan said the real shift will come when colleges and fraternities experience financial pains by losing students and members after pledges die. “I think every university president wakes up on a Sunday morning and just hopes the police don’t call them.”
Sean Rossman reported from McLean, Va. Trevor Hughes reported from Boulder. The Associated Press contributed to this article.