A Murder on Campus

Last February 6, 21-year-old Nick Armstrong pledged Tau Kappa Epsilon at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. After the traditional bid-night party, he fell asleep on a couch at the fraternity house. He never woke up.

January 2000By Comments

It was close to three in the morning last February 7 when Clint Hart walked into the Tau Kappa Epsilon house near the campus of Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. The TKE bid-night party had broken up a couple of hours earlier, and the house now appeared to be empty. The beer had flowed freely at the party, which capped the day when rushees learn whether or not they have been invited to join a fraternity or sorority. To keep the high-spirited night going a little bit longer, Clint, a member of TKE (pronounced “teek”), planned to fetch some leftover beer to share with friends at another house.

Entering the dilapidated, trashed two-story building on Academy Street, he was as surprised to see the other people in the frat house as they were to see him. There were two of them, and they didn’t look like frat boys. One was tall and skinny, with longish hair and an earring, and he wore a baseball cap backward and a white shirt. The other, shorter and stockier, with a crew cut and a brooding scowl, had on a black shirt with the logo of the metal group Pantera. The only light was in the next room, and it was shining on someone who was asleep on the couch—Nick Armstrong, one of the new TKE pledges. Clint watched Nick lying there peacefully as he apprehensively made conversation with the strangers. He had a bad feeling about these guys. Instinct told Clint that there was something to fear, so he acted as if he too were a trespasser. “What are you guys up to here? You guys here to take that guy’s wallet?” he asked them, indicating the sleeping Nick in the other room.

“We’re not here to steal,” replied the short one in the black shirt. “We’re here to kill.”

Clint managed to strike up a conversation with them, keeping them occupied with a stream of casual questions. The information he got—that they were from the nearby town of Lockhart, that the tall one had been at the party earlier—would later prove crucial in helping the police track them down.

Still playing the trespasser, Clint went over to Nick on the pretext of stealing his wallet. “Hey, get up,” he whispered, grabbing Nick by his belt buckle and gently shaking him. But Nick, besides being a heavy sleeper, had had a few beers. He emitted a low groan at Clint’s nudging, but he wouldn’t get up. Clint returned to the two boys and told them that the sleeping kid didn’t have a wallet on him. Then he suggested that they all get out of the house because the rest of the TKEs were probably on their way back.

The tall one said that he wanted to stick around to find some people to drink with. Nevertheless, they all walked out of the house together and started to go their separate ways. Clint hurried away, bothered by a nagging suspicion. About twenty yards from the house, he glanced over his shoulder and saw the boy in the white shirt running through the darkness back into the house.

Clint sprinted off to get backup. It didn’t seem to him that it took much time to find someone, blurt out his story, and run back, but it was enough. The house was empty when Clint and his friend got back, and Nick was still lying there. Only now his head was split open and blood was pooling in his ears, spilling onto the tan upholstery of the couch. He would never regain consciousness. The next day, in an Austin hospital, he died.

American universities are still idealized as tranquil bastions of scholarship, and a murder on campus is jolting—witness the frenzy surrounding the killing of a Yale coed a year ago and the murder-suicide of two Harvard roommates in 1995. In September I visited Southwest Texas to determine what impact, if any, Nick Armstrong’s chilling and inexplicable murder had had on campus life and school policy.

The events of that February night—traditionally a night of boozing and partying—sent shock waves through the campus community. In addition to Nick’s murder, another fraternity pledge had almost died from alcohol poisoning during a hazing ritual. And the aftershocks of both incidents continue to be felt. The day after Nick’s death the university administration suspended the fraternity system. Before being reinstated, the fraternities would have to go through a new accreditation process, in which they would agree to clean up their act and focus more on their charters’ goals of scholarship and community service. Last summer the Greek leaders made presentations to the administration outlining their new policies. If their presentation was accepted by the administration, their fraternity was reinstated. (So far, twelve of the fourteen fraternities on campus, including TKE, have had their suspension lifted.)

In late August Southwest Texas—once known as one of Texas’ premier party schools—also announced that, starting in the fall of 2000, alcohol would be banned from all of the fraternity houses. (Some fraternities, in a show of good faith, have already complied with the ban.) It was the sixteenth school nationally—and the first in Texas—to limit the use of alcohol by its fraternities. Fraternities will still be allowed to have parties at which alcohol is served, but those parties will have to be held at off-campus locations where a responsible (and insured) third-party vendor will pour the drinks. “The third-party vendor will have the liability,” the university’s vice president of student affairs, James Studer, told me, “and the atmosphere will be more controlled. As it stands now, there is little supervision of who is drinking and how much.”

Southwest Texas’ students and members of the administration alike are quick to point out that Nick Armstrong’s murder was the type of killing that could have happened anywhere. He was the victim of a random, pent-up rage that was seeking ventilation, with incomprehensible and horrifying results. Indeed, school administrators point to the near death of the other pledge the night Nick was killed as being more influential in the creation of the new policy.

According to Studer, alcohol is a pernicious force on campus and a greater problem by far than any drug. Its influence permeates many levels of college life, he said, from the illegal drinking of underage teens to the excessive drinking of students (often fraternity members) that results in poor grades to the incidents (fights, date rape) that occur with higher frequency in the presence of alcohol—what happened in the early-morning hours of February 7 being the tragic extreme.

By the time Nick Armstrong died, the police had narrowed their search to Jeremiah Wilkerson, a 21-year-old plumber’s assistant who had a history of trouble with the law relating to drugs and alcohol. (The other boy with him that night, Dustin Warmack, had been questioned by the police and released.) Jeremiah had himself briefly been a student at Southwest Texas a couple of years before the incident. Earlier on the night of the murder, he and three other boys from Lockhart had crashed the bid-night party at the TKE house and ended up scuffling with fraternity members before being ejected from the party. Nick, who was also 21, hadn’t been present during the altercation; he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when Jeremiah came back to the house seeking revenge. Whether or not Jeremiah was drunk at the time of the killing, he certainly had been earlier in the evening, according to his brother, Christopher, who had been with him at the party. “I could tell he was drunk, just by the way he looked in that picture,” his mother, Jeanette Wilkerson, says, referring to a snapshot taken at the party that was crucial in the police’s identification of her son as a suspect. No one will ever know exactly what made Jeremiah crush Nick’s head with a metal baseball bat that night. Before police officers could apprehend him, he drove to his father’s property in Van Zandt County east of Dallas and shot himself in the head with his dad’s handgun.

Jeremiah had been living with his mother, his brother, and his mother’s fiancé in a small house in Lockhart. The two boys had grown up in the nearby small town of McMahan; their parents had split up when the boys were young, and Gary Wilkerson had remarried and was living in Edgewood. (Gary Wilkerson refused to be interviewed for this article.)

Jeremiah’s childhood seems to have been happy enough, full of soccer games and Boy Scout activities. He attained the rank of Eagle Scout (Jeanette proudly displays the letter of commendation he received from President Clinton) and made A’s and B’s in high school with little effort. To make extra money, he sold newspapers outside Kreuz Market, the famous barbecue joint.

Jeremiah’s trouble with the law began in high school, when he and some friends were caught by the police after a night of playing “mailbox baseball,” smashing mailboxes with a bat from a car. Jeremiah’s sentence included community service and probation.

In the fall of 1996 he enrolled at Southwest Texas State University but lasted only two semesters. “He liked to party more than he liked to study,” says Jeanette. In the spring of 1997, after dropping out of school, he moved to Edgewood to live with his father. Also that spring, Jeremiah was caught with marijuana in his car, a violation of his probation. In June, when he was nineteen, he met fifteen-year-old Summer Martinez and they soon became inseparable. In September Jeremiah was sentenced to six months in an intermediate sanction facility (ISF), a low-security, work-intensive alternative to prison, in Gonzales; he started serving his sentence in November 1997. While he was in the ISF, he learned that Summer was pregnant. According to Summer, he welcomed the idea of having a child, and his letters to her were filled with their plans for the future.

Jeremiah was released from the ISF in April 1998, and in June, Nikolas Austin Wilkerson was born. The young family moved in with Jeremiah’s father and stepmother. Both Jeanette and Summer say that Jeremiah was somehow different after his incarceration—a little more quiet, a little more aggressive. Summer says that he was “meaner,” as though something dreadful had happened to him in the ISF. According to Rex Malatek, the facility’s director at the time, Jeremiah’s confinement was uneventful. As for Jeremiah, all he would say about it was, “I don’t ever want to go back there.”

Although Jeremiah and his father “got along like best friends,” says Summer, Gary had rules for living with him that Jeremiah wouldn’t follow, and he asked them to leave, which incensed Jeremiah. Summer moved back into her mother’s house in Terrell and Jeremiah moved back to Lockhart, although they still considered themselves a couple. Jeremiah worked as a plumber’s assistant in Austin, trying to save up enough money so that Summer and Nikolas could live with him. Through the fall, he sent them a quarter of his paycheck every week. At Christmas he gave her a ring and promised that they would soon be married. That was the last time Summer saw Jeremiah.

George and Becky Armstrong received a telephone call at around six in the morning on February 7, informing them that their son was in Austin’s Brackenridge Hospital with head trauma. As they made the agonizing three-hour drive from their Baytown home to Austin, Nick’s friends were assembling at the hospital—thirty or forty of them, from all over the state. “At the hospital, you couldn’t even walk down the hall,” Becky says. She and Nick had always been close, and they had talked on the phone the day he was assaulted. “He was so excited because he was finally going to have a weekend off,” she says. “He had worked [at San Marcos’ Outback Steakhouse] straight through since Christmas because they needed him, and he hadn’t had a weekend off since then. He didn’t say anything whatsoever about a fraternity.”

And it was a little odd that Nick would want to join a fraternity. “When he first got to Southwest,” Becky says, “he kind of talked about it. He called me and said, ’Well, Mom, the girls all like the fraternity boys and [if you’re not in a fraternity] it’s hard to feel like you’re somebody.’ And I said, ’Well, now, if you really want to be in a fraternity, we’ll figure out a way.’” But before they hung up the phone, Nick seemed to have made up his mind. He told his mother that he had decided not to pledge because once you joined a frat, you were encouraged to socialize mostly with fraternity brothers. “I have too many friends to just hang around with one group,” he said. About sixteen months later, however, Nick changed his mind.

He had enrolled at Southwest Texas as a sophomore, after spending his freshman year at a junior college in Baytown. He had considered going to the University of Texas in nearby Austin, but deciding it was too large, he chose Southwest Texas because of its proximity to the Hill Country—a part of Texas that he loved—and its easy access to camping sites and other places where he could enjoy the outdoors.

Nick was the kind of student every college hopes to attract. The middle child of a supervisor in an Exxon chemical plant and a kindergarten teacher, he was by all accounts a magnetic, gregarious young man. Literally a choirboy, he seemed to like most of the people he met and was liked in turn by everyone who met him. Growing up in Baytown, he was happiest in a group, whether singing in the church choir or playing basketball or going camping with friends. “He was hardly ever home,” says Becky. “He’d come home in the afternoon and instantly get ten phone calls from his friends wanting him for all sorts of things.” The uncomplicated yet difficult art of being comfortable in the world came naturally to Nick. He had the enviable ability to live perfectly in the moment, free of the anxiety and self-consciousness that torture so many young people. He played on the football team in high school because he enjoyed the camaraderie. Of his fondness for pickup basketball, his mother recalls, “He was always getting a game going, and the guys would laugh and tell me that Nicholas wasn’t the best basketball player—he might accidentally jump on their feet—but he was the hardest playing, and they all liked to have him on their team.”

The Armstrongs are a devoutly Christian family. Besides singing in the church choir, Nick also sang and played guitar at early-morning services. “Nick’s secret was that he gave a lot of love and he received a lot of love,” his mother says. “Old ladies loved him, children loved him, and his friends loved him because he was fun.” One of the most touching things the Armstrongs found when they were cleaning out Nick’s dorm room was a series of meditations on the Bible that he had done for a class at school. “It was important to me that he was keeping his faith,” says Becky.

Southwest Texas boasts one of the most beautiful campuses in Texas. Set on a hill rising from the middle of downtown San Marcos, the school’s signature building, a castlelike structure known as Old Main, dominates a serene setting of ponds, the spring-fed San Marcos River, and green slopes that invites studying outdoors on beautiful spring days. But its placid academic ambience notwithstanding, the school has long been infamous as a party school.

That reputation dates from the seventies, when two things happened simultaneously: San Marcos went from being a dry town to one that allowed the sale of alcoholic beverages, and the state’s drinking age was lowered from 21 to 18. Almost instantly, locals say, clusters of bars opened everywhere—around the courthouse square, about four blocks south of the campus, there were two or three per block—and a wild, drunken element appeared in San Marcos; before long, the university had become a magnet for Texas students looking to drink and be merry instead of hitting the books. This hedonistic atmosphere persisted throughout the seventies and the eighties.

Since Jerome Supple became Southwest Texas’ president in 1989, however, the university has taken dramatic steps to improve the quality of both its academics and its student body. In 1992 the school significantly raised its admission standards and is now among the most selective of Texas’ public universities; enrollment has grown steadily to 21,798 this year, its largest student body ever. President Supple, ever mindful of the lingering shadow over the school’s image, had made drinking the focus of his 1998 fall convocation address. “The abuse of alcohol threatens the health, safety, and academic success of our students,” he said. “We can’t ignore it. We will embark on an aggressive alcohol education campaign this year to raise awareness and to help educate the entire campus community.” With nationally recognized physics, geography, creative-writing, and teacher training-programs, Southwest Texas seemed, at the beginning of the spring 1999 semester, on the verge of overcoming its party school reputation.

But the events of February 6 and 7—Nick’s murder and the near death of the other fraternity pledge from alcohol poisoning—would only reinforce it. Of course, student drinking and fraternity hazing aren’t limited to Southwest Texas. In Austin a University of Texas student who won a $1.65 million settlement from the Kappa Alpha fraternity in September still suffers memory problems from the head injuries he received last year during Hell Week hazing, when he was also spat and urinated upon and thrown against a wall. A year ago a student who was drunk fell to his death in the stairwell of a parking garage at Texas A&M. And on September 5 a graduate of West Texas A&M passed out and died at a frat party where he had been drinking. Unfortunately, the alcohol-related death of a student is not all that uncommon at the state’s largest universities—but a brutal, senseless murder at a small school like Southwest Texas can be a transforming event.

The day after Nick Armstrong died, hundreds of Southwest Texas students gathered in a candlelight vigil around a statue of two rearing stallions in a part of the campus known as the Quad. During the vigil, which was organized by the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, friends of the slain young man were asked to talk about him. There was a religious atmosphere to the event, which attempted to find some good in such a terrible tragedy. “I haven’t seen so many people caring for each other at one time,” the student newspaper, the Daily University Star, quoted one student as saying. At the end of the vigil, a bell was rung 21 times, once for each year Armstrong was alive.

That night, students’ attitudes started to change. “I stood out by the stallions on the Quad during the candlelight vigil that week,” Lanita Hanson, the director of student activities, told me in September. “The students had to have someplace to gather to mourn together. I watched kids’ lives change that night. I saw them realize that life is short. Absolutely, in no way, should we ever look at Nick’s death as being in vain.” The murder had a galvanizing effect on the school, bringing the students together in a desire to change the campus culture and bolstering the administration’s position that the Greek system needed to be revamped. The fraternities were left with little choice but to comply.

Throughout the student body, it didn’t take long for the discussion to shift from the sensational murder to the subject of fraternities and alcohol. The Daily University Star ran letters and editorials both attacking and defending the fraternities, looking for some way to assign blame or make sense of Nick’s death. “I have been attentive to the dialogue that has been going on since this tragedy happened,” one editorial proclaimed. “What I have heard and observed sickens me. There are those who are genuinely grieving and miss that young man. Then there are those who are upset because they see the terrible injustice done to them by having their privileges removed. Let me tell you, if it were up to me, disbanding those organizations and not merely suspending privileges would be the order of the day.”

The paper quoted another student as saying, “I don’t think all the fraternities should have been suspended . . . they shouldn’t be held accountable for something that could have happened anywhere.”

The student body was engaging in a debate as a way of dealing emotionally and rationally with the murder. Key issues that went straight to the heart of the school’s identity—party school or ivory tower—came up repeatedly in the discussion: “All this makes Southwest look bad. Now we live up to our party school image, and the media is making it worse,” one student told the paper.

Hanson, a well-spoken and energetic woman who spends most of her workdays interacting with students, had been at the school for only about six months when Nick Armstrong was killed. Having held similar jobs at Texas A&M and other colleges, she has an intimate understanding of the fraternity mentality. Not unlike a camp counselor, she deals with the Greeks in a no-nonsense manner and seems to have a certain affection for them. When it was announced that the fraternities were suspended and, months later, that their houses were to become alcohol-free, Hanson was in a good position to assess the situation. “They [the Greeks] are the most educated people on our campus about risk management because they get it all the time,” she told me. (The school expects fraternity members to undergo training in how to minimize the risks associated with drinking.) “So the implementation of risk management is where we’re really hoping they’ll step up. And that’s where the leadership skills come in: Is the chapter just hearing it or are they actually doing it?”

After Nick died, the TKEs were subject to intense scrutiny by the media, the administration, and their fellow students. They abandoned their house as though it were haunted. “The whole last semester was a time of soul-searching,” Jon English, then the fraternity’s president, told me. “We asked ourselves, What are we doing? What are we here for? After the murder happened we had two choices: We could either disappear or get together and make something good happen for it.”

During rush week at Southwest Texas, the fraternities check out the prospective pledges and make presentations to them describing fraternity life and what it means to be a Sigma Nu or a Pi Kappa Alpha or whatever. The rushees, of course, want to be invited to join the fraternity they think is best, while the fraternity wants the pledges who best fit its profile (for example, some fraternities are known for valuing brains, others brawn or wealth). Rush is climaxed by a high-energy event called Steps, in which the fraternity and sorority rushees—who have earlier received invitations from one or more groups—assemble backstage at the school’s Evans Auditorium and, one by one, step up to a microphone onstage and announce their choice of affiliation. A raucous audience of fraternity and sorority members cheers the new pledges. In the past, building on the frenzy of Steps, the Greeks would then throw themselves into alcohol-fueled bid-night parties.

Last spring, all of this happened on the same day. That was changed for this fall’s rush: To keep the emotions of the rushees and the fraternity and sorority members in check, Steps was held in the middle of the week following rush, and the bid-night parties were delayed until the weekend. The day Nick Armstrong was killed had been intense, a series of highs and lows for the young pledges culminating in big blowouts. The rapidity of the rush process explained why none of Nick’s fraternity brothers seemed to know him well—they had only been around him a week. It also might explain why Nick hadn’t told his mother that he was joining a fraternity. He may not have wanted her to know until he knew the outcome of rush.

This past fall, the TKEs had expected rush to be a sad affair. Given the ignominy they had suffered the previous semester, they were prepared to take only a handful of pledges. But to everyone’s surprise, even shock, they pledged thirty young men, more than any other fraternity on campus. “The whole accreditation process that [the fraternities] went through caused them to spend time assessing who they were and what they really wanted out of their experience, and that’s what we wanted every fraternity to do,” said Lanita Hanson. “But I think the TKEs really understood the value of the fraternal experience more poignantly after experiencing the death of Nick.”

According to Jon English, there was a new kind of student looking to join the fraternity: “We used to have rush and these kids would figure they could drink and go to parties whenever they wanted. Now they’re looking for brotherhood, and they want leadership skills and connections after they graduate. That’s what they’re looking for, and it’s kind of weird, because I didn’t look for that when I rushed.”

One of their new pledges, sophomore Jacob Canonaco from Dallas, explained that it was the sincerity of the TKE presentation that made him want to join. Canonaco, who calls the TKEs “the biggest leaders I ever met,” said that he wants to be active at Southwest Texas as a campus leader: “I want to be known on campus, and I want to evolve into a better person.”

The new face of TKE and other fraternities isn’t really new. The upstanding image is more in line with the ideals of their charters, vice president Studer told me: “The reason we have fraternities on our campus is that they have some ideals that are pretty good: scholarship, leadership, community service, social. They had been basing it purely around social.”

The socializing hasn’t given way entirely to high-minded goals of service and leadership. On September 10 the TKEs, two other fraternities, and three sororities threw a bid-night party for their newest members. Although the alcohol ban would not be enforced for another year, the bash was voluntarily held off campus, at an arena in the little town of Redwood, about eight miles from San Marcos.

As the party began to heat up, a huge Southwest Texas shuttle bus arrived, literally rocking back and forth from the chanting and shaking of the young men and women stuffed inside it. When the door opened, men in jeans, polo shirts, and brown ankle boots and women in short shorts or short skirts spilled out. Many of them were clutching beers as they headed to the front door of the Redwood arena and under a handwritten sign proclaiming that “you must be over 21 to drink.” Hanging around outside were several beefy Guadalupe County sheriff’s deputies, who were moonlighting at the party.

Another bus full of excited Greeks pulled up; meanwhile, the number of cars in the parking lot had begun to grow. It seemed responsible that the fraternities would hire buses to take students to the party, but what about those who had driven themselves? For a couple of miles, the road from San Marcos to Redwood is dark and winding, with several sharp S curves. Was there any way they would be sober at the end of the night? Indeed, there are those who fear that the school’s new alcohol policy, in pushing people farther off campus, will result in their having to drive more after drinking. But vice president Studer, for one, doesn’t seem worried. “At a [fraternity house] party with several hundred people, lots of them were driving already,” he told me.

When I tried to get into the party, I was stopped by a puffy-faced fraternity member who was working the door. He knew I was a reporter. “Every time we talk to the media, they make us look bad,” he said. “Now why don’t you just turn around and leave.” Outside, the deputies shrugged. They were jawing amiably with some frat boys, who were teasing the older men about leering at the scantily clad coeds. “You’re jealous of us, aren’t you?” one of the boys asked the cops. I wondered if Nick Armstrong would have said something like that.

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