An Isolated Incident
That’s how officials at Southern Methodist University described the fatal drug overdose of sophomore Jake Stiles, whose body was found in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house in 2006. Then his father stumbled across evidence that campus police had ignored—and learned a painful lesson about the politics of damage control at one of the state’s most exclusive universities.
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On New Year’s Day 2007, Tom Stiles resolved to do something he had been putting off. He climbed the stairs of his two-story house in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, where he worked in sales for a company that made identification card systems, and entered his office. On his desk was a box full of possessions that had belonged to his son, Jake, a sophomore at Southern Methodist University who had died from a drug overdose after a party celebrating the end of the fall semester. The weeks since his death had gone by in a fog of tearful phone calls and visits from relatives. Friends from church had persuaded Tom and his wife, Rhonda, to get out of the house and go to Honduras for Christmas to participate in a charity mission. Now they were home and still numb. Jake had grown up here with his older sister, Amelia; the closet of his old room was still full of the polo shirts he had worn—two at a time, for some reason—to high school every day, like a uniform. A number of mothers who had known Jake as a lifeguard at the neighborhood pool had come to his memorial service. He had taught their kids to swim.
Jake had been found lying on his couch in his room at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house by friends the afternoon after the party. The medical examiner discovered alcohol and cocaine in his system, along with something more unusual: fentanyl, a prescription painkiller similar to morphine but much more powerful. Used to treat patients who have already developed a tolerance to opiates, it is typically administered through a slow-release skin patch to avoid the risk of overdose. Abusers of the drug often cut a thin strip off the patch and take it orally, which gives a quick and potent high. Tom was surprised to learn that Jake used cocaine, but it was the fentanyl—something he had never even heard of—that he could not get his head around. Where on earth, Tom wondered, had his son found something like that?
Jake had seemed to love college life. With his curly hair and pudgy frame, he resembled the actor Seth Rogen, and he had the same gift for self-deprecating humor. A month before his death, he had won the title Mr. University in a sorority-sponsored talent contest in which he read aloud an essay on how to date SMU girls. “Keep in mind these key topics that are always on the minds of SMU students,” he wrote. “Any sort of gossip (especially Greek related), luxury fashion, luxury automobiles, lavish vacations, one of your multiple homes, your parents’ professions, and any other materialistic part of your life that is easy to embellish.” Jake’s grades had been poor the previous spring, but Tom and Rhonda, a social worker, had attributed the decline to the distraction of Jake’s pledgeship in SAE.
At Jake’s memorial service in Naperville, a man who introduced himself as a representative of SAE’s national office, located in nearby Evanston, had approached Rhonda and offered his condolences. Then he said something that left her humiliated. “There’s not much we can do with kids who already have a problem,” he told her. Rhonda’s pastor, overhearing the exchange, quickly steered her away from the conversation. A couple weeks later, however, Tom found himself reading something similar in the Dallas Morning News. “Some students come here with these problems,” Jim Caswell, SMU’s vice president for student affairs, told the News on December 21. Caswell also said that drug abuse at SAE was “isolated and not a chapter-wide problem,” a comment that echoed the findings of fraternity officials, who had told the Daily Campus, the SMU student newspaper, on December 8 that Jake’s death appeared to have been an “individual isolated incident” and that there was “no reason to believe the chapter or chapter members were involved.” With the medical examiner’s finding of death by accidental overdose, Caswell told the News, the investigation had now been “resolved to our satisfaction.”
Tom was not the type to pick up the phone and chew somebody out, but the implication that his son had been an addict was infuriating. He and Rhonda considered themselves strict parents. When Jake came home inebriated one night the summer after his freshman year, they had made him write out a plan for how he was going to bring up his grades the next fall. He had seemed okay when they saw him over the Thanksgiving break. But he’d also been upset over something that had happened at a fraternity party just before the holiday, an incident that, looking back on it, was portentous. Jake’s close friend and roommate at the SAE house, Clark Scott, had overdosed on alcohol and drugs at a fraternity party and nearly died. Jake had insisted that he was not using drugs himself, but he was clearly shaken and seemed almost reluctant to go back to SMU to finish the semester. Jake had a tendency, as Rhonda would say, to get “overwhelmed” by things; he had taken the antidepressant Zoloft for years. Tom and Rhonda found themselves wishing, not for the first time, that their son had not gone to college so far away, and they looked forward to Christmas. “You just have a couple more weeks,” Rhonda had told Jake. “Then you’ll be home for a nice, long break.”
Tom began pulling Jake’s things out of the box and laying them on his desk. He spotted Jake’s cell phone, a narrow black Samsung, which he flipped open and turned on. Jake loved to send text messages, and the inbox and outbox were filled with dozens of notes. At the top of the inbox was a message from one of Jake’s high school friends, sent the day after his death. It read, “Jake ill nevr 4get u. u were such an amazing person. U were always kind-always happy. U had a true zest 4 life and im so glad I got a chance to know u. we’ll miss u.” Then Tom looked at the outbox. He was surprised to see that on December 5, three days after Jake’s death, a number of messages had been forwarded to the e-mail address of Mike Snellgrove, SMU’s chief of police.
Tom had spoken with the campus police, who handled the investigation from beginning to end, on a couple of occasions, but no one had mentioned anything of interest on Jake’s phone. Eighteen messages had been forwarded, each of them seemingly discussing drugs. Tom was struck by their tone: Jake and his friends talked about cocaine the way he and his wife talked about the weather. “Sure I’ll do a rail,” one of his fraternity brothers had written, referring to a line of cocaine, in a text sent after midnight on a weeknight. One message in particular brought Tom up short. “That was a delicious morph patch,” Jake wrote at 2:40 in the morning on December 2, the day of his death. It was sent to someone identified only by the initials “AB.”
“How long ago did you take it,” AB replied.
“I took half last nite and half tonite . . . perfect dose,” Jake answered.
That was the last text he sent. Tom carried the phone downstairs to show Rhonda. “I think I understand now,” he told her.
Nestled among the tree-lined streets and stately homes of the twin enclaves of University Park and Highland Park, the SMU campus has a regal beauty, with Georgian Revival—inspired buildings of red brick and neatly manicured lawns on which students rarely walk, sunbathe, or throw Frisbees. The endowment, fueled by gifts from the school’s army of wealthy and well-connected alumni, is impressive, and the annual cost of tuition, room and board, and fees—$43,000 last year—is comparable to that of the Ivy League.
But SMU does not have the academic tradition of the Ivy League. It has long battled its reputation as a place where wealthy families send their coddled, underachieving children. Only six out of ten students graduate in four years. (At Duke University, which SMU considers one of its benchmark competitors, nine out of ten do.) Friday classes are rare, and students are allowed a generous ten weeks to drop a course in lieu of failing it. Freshmen can repeat certain classes they don’t pass without any adverse impact on their grade point average. Students who find themselves short of credit hours can enroll in summer courses at a satellite campus in Taos, New Mexico, where they can stay in cozy cabins and do some sightseeing on the weekends. The school has a robust Greek system, the members of which have a reputation for hard partying. In a recent survey, more than half of SMU students polled said they thought the typical SMU student was at least an occasional cocaine user. (Only 6.6 percent reported ever having used the drug themselves, however.)
A death on campus, particularly one that involves drugs, is a public relations nightmare for any university. The death of Jake Stiles—and the press it generated in Dallas—could not have come at a more sensitive time for SMU, which was in the final stages of securing the George W. Bush Presidential Library, a prestigious plum that SMU president R. Gerald Turner and the board of trustees had diligently pursued for years. In fact, the day after the school announced that the investigation into Jake’s death had concluded, Turner convened a press conference to report that SMU appeared to have beaten out its two remaining competitors and that, barring any unforeseen developments, SMU would host the library.
After the holidays, Tom Stiles called SMU police captain Tommy Jones, who had led the investigation into Jake’s death, to ask about the text messages. Jones confirmed what Tom had already suspected, that “AB” was Austin Bryan, a fraternity brother Jake had mentioned from time to time. Jones agreed that the text exchange about the morph patch, an informal name for a dose of fentanyl, was a good lead, though he said he hadn’t been able to interview Bryan, a fifth-year senior who lived off campus, before he left town for Christmas break. Jones assured Tom that he would contact Bryan just as soon as he returned to school.
Then Jones told Tom something disturbing. Jake’s phone had been missing from his room when the initial search for evidence was conducted; someone had apparently removed it after Jake died but before the police arrived. Jones put the word out among the fraternity brothers that the police were looking for the phone, and one of them turned it over on December 5. (It was at this point that an SMU police officer sorted through the text messages and forwarded the drug-related notes to Snellgrove.) It wasn’t hard to see why his son’s friends might have been worried. Jake’s phone provided a snapshot of life at the SAE house, a life in which drug use seemed commonplace. In addition to Bryan, three other brothers—including the young man who eventually returned the phone—had discussed buying or using drugs with Jake in the days and hours leading up to his death. One of the brothers had sent Jake on an errand to buy cocaine for him the night he died. All of them were identified by name. Three days after Jake’s death, then, SMU investigators knew or had good reason to suspect that at least five SAE brothers had been using or supplying one another with illegal drugs. They also knew that a sixth SAE member, Clark Scott, had nearly died from a drug overdose two weeks before. Other brothers were implicated in the text messages too, though not by name.
It sounded to Tom like Jones still had a lot of work to do on the investigation, yet there seemed to be a sort of dissonance developing between what Jones had learned and the official pronouncements from SMU and SAE. Nevertheless, Tom came away from the conversation with Jones feeling reassured and confident that the SMU police, at least, were interested in taking a closer look at the circumstances surrounding his son’s death.
But then Jones stopped returning Tom’s calls. Weeks went by, and then months, and still he heard nothing about the investigation. But he was reading some alarming things about SMU in the Dallas Morning News. On May 2 a freshman named Jordan Crist died of alcohol poisoning in his dorm room. Two weeks later, senior Meaghan Bosch was found dead one hundred miles south of Dallas in the town of Hewitt. Her body had been dumped in a portable toilet on a construction site; she was later determined to have died after overdosing on a combination of cocaine, methamphetamine, and oxycodone. The university had never had a string of student deaths like this, and substance abuse at SMU was becoming the talk of Dallas. On June 4 Bosch’s father held a news conference at Dallas police headquarters. “Drugs are woven into the Greek system and the social fabric of the university,” he said. “The administration is either unwilling or has been incapable of addressing this issue, and we urge the administration of the university to radically change their approach to this problem.” Shortly thereafter, President Turner announced that the school was forming a task force to examine its policies on drug and alcohol abuse and to suggest reforms.
The events of that spring made Tom see the university’s handling of his son’s death in a new light. The continuing silence from the campus police began to seem sinister, and he spent his evenings alone in his office, poring over Jake’s autopsy report and news clips about his son. He felt certain that SMU had the answers to his questions about Jake’s death; the administration simply did not want to provide them. “Closure” was not a word that Tom used, but he knew his unanswered questions were keeping him from moving on. Rhonda was struggling too. She was seeing a therapist twice a week. At one point she called Amelia in tears to ask if she thought Jake had been lonely at SMU.
Tom channeled his grief into his research. The bland innuendo of the autopsy report was maddening. It mentioned Jake’s “history of cocaine use,” yet it did not say how that had been determined. It referred to “drug paraphernalia” found in Jake’s room, but it did not say what, specifically, officers had recovered. The police had obviously told the medical examiner more about their investigation than they had told Tom, which was next to nothing. And there was still the biggest question of all: Where did Jake get the drugs? It was in Tom’s nature to organize, and he began to make a detailed list of all his questions about how his son had died. It grew longer and longer as the months passed.
Tom also began amassing a file on Austin Bryan, mainly through Internet searches. He found that Bryan had an intriguing family story. He was raised in New York and lived in Europe for a time, but he had deep Texas roots. His father, J. Shelby Bryan, was a great-great-great-great-nephew of Stephen F. Austin. His ancestors also included the founders of Bryan, the East Texas town adjacent to Texas A&M University. Shelby, a native of Houston, built one of the first cellular telephone companies, which made him a very wealthy man. He moved to New York in the mid-eighties and married his second wife, a Park Avenue psychologist, with whom he had two sons, Austin and Jack. Shelby became a big player in national politics, helming the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for two years and giving hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to various candidates and committees. In 1999 President Clinton named him to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Around the same time, Shelby made the tabloids for his extramarital affair with Vogue editor in chief and Manhattan society icon Anna Wintour, the inspiration for the ruthless magazine executive in the novel and movie The Devil Wears Prada. Like his father, Austin began appearing at society events and charity balls dressed in his tuxedo, a pretty girl on his arm, surrounded by New York’s glitterati.
Tom knew that his son had gone to college with the progeny of some of the most powerful people in Texas—a place he knew little about—but it was just beginning to sink in what this really meant. He began to suspect that SMU administrators simply didn’t want to get to the bottom of how his son had died if that meant bringing even more embarrassment down on the university and its students and alumni. He and Rhonda debated the risks of going public with what they knew. It would inevitably bring another round of painful press reports about Jake’s drug use, the prospect of which, Tom was now convinced, university officials had come to regard as their ace in the hole, preventing him from speaking up. Amelia worried that her parents’ fight with SMU was prolonging their pain. “Mom, you can just let it go,” she told her mother. “I can’t do that,” Rhonda had replied. “When I’m seventy years old, I have to be able to know that I did everything I could to find out what happened to Jake.”
In June, Tom sent out a press release in which he accused the SMU police of failing to follow solid leads about where Jake had obtained the drugs that killed him. He hinted that other students might have been involved, though he didn’t name anybody. Tom also had an attorney send a letter to SMU demanding a copy of the official police report on Jake’s death. That’s when he realized how weak his hand really was.
Police reports are typically public records under state law and can be requested by anyone once an investigation is complete. University police departments are strange animals, however. They are empowered to investigate crimes that occur on campus, and they can turn their cases over to the district attorney if charges need to be filed, just as municipal and state police forces do. But campus police at private universities are not subject to Texas open-records laws because they are not, strictly speaking, agents of the government. Police officers at SMU work for the board of trustees, just as all university employees do.
As such, they are not immune to the push and pull of campus politics. Especially since the sixties, when university police departments came into widespread use, the inherent conflict between the need to provide a safe environment and the instinct of administrators to protect the reputation of the school and its students has led to some notorious scandals. In 1989, after a series of incidents in which private universities were caught covering up serious crimes committed on campus, Congress passed the Clery Act, which required most public and private universities to regularly disclose criminal activity on campus. But that has not removed the discretion of university police to make what is often a subjective decision: whether or not a crime has been committed. An overdose is usually an accident, but that does not mean there is nothing to investigate. A few months before Jake’s death, for example, a fraternity member at the University of Alabama died from an overdose. Investigators discovered that the drug in question—by coincidence, fentanyl—had been given to the victim by a fellow fraternity brother, who was apparently stealing drugs from a pharmacy where he worked. The case resulted in a manslaughter charge against the student who provided the drugs.
SMU’s response to Tom’s demand for information came in a terse letter from S. Leon Bennett, the general counsel and vice president for legal affairs and government relations: The university would not release the police report. The investigation, he wrote, concluded “that Mr. Stiles’ death was not a result of any other person’s involvement, directly or indirectly.” In addition, the investigation “did not suggest that other members of the University community had been involved in supplying illegal drugs to Mr. Stiles.” The case was a tragic accident, Bennett said in a phone conversation with Tom’s lawyer, and it was SMU’s position that no further investigation was needed. He closed his letter by inviting Tom and Rhonda to participate in the discussion groups being convened at that time by President Turner’s substance abuse task force.
Tom’s lawyer told him he was probably never going to see that police report. Tom was dumbfounded. How could it be that a mother and father did not have a right to know everything there was to know about their son’s death?
Austin Bryan graduated in the spring of 2007 and eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he went to work for Men’s Vogue. Neither the SAE chapter nor any individual members were ever disciplined by the university. Jim Caswell, the vice president for student affairs who had overseen the school’s handling of the case, retired and subsequently died of cancer, in October 2007. But Tom could not let the matter drop. He found a champion in George Henson, a Spanish lecturer at SMU who kept the issue alive over the course of the next year with a series of op-eds in the Daily Campus criticizing the university’s handling of Jake’s death and the substance abuse problem on campus. On the anniversary of Jake’s death, in December 2007, the Daily Campus ran a story headlined “Stiles Family Still Searching for Answers,” which noted that Tom and Rhonda had yet to see the police report. Four months later, their battle with SMU was mentioned again in an article on a pair of alleged sexual assaults and other disciplinary problems at the SAE house. “We were unaware that [Mr. Stiles] remained interested in the report,” Bennett told the reporter.
In June 2008 Tom was surprised to receive a call from the new SMU vice president for student affairs, Lori White, who offered to meet with Tom in Kansas City, where the Stileses had relocated. She had been on the job for barely a year and knew little about the original investigation or Tom and Rhonda’s subsequent ordeal. She wanted to make a fresh start, she told him. She came to the meeting, held in a conference room at Tom’s attorney’s office, accompanied by new SMU police chief Rick Shafer, who had been the assistant chief at the time of Jake’s death but had not worked on the investigation. She produced a copy of the police report, a thin stack of pages stapled at the corner, and handed it to Tom, who struggled to contain his emotions as he picked it up and began reading. The first page was a sketch of the scene where Jake’s body had been found; his son was represented by a crudely drawn figure with one hand stretched above his head. On the following pages were lists of evidence found in the room, along with summaries of interviews with four individuals: the two SAE brothers who had found Jake’s body and two people with whom he had spent time the night before his death, including the last person to see him alive.
More significant than anything in the report were the things that were missing. There was no mention of the text messages found on Jake’s phone. When Tom produced his own transcript of the messages, both White and Shafer said they had never seen them before. And there was no record of an interview with Austin Bryan. In fact, neither White nor Shafer seemed to know who Bryan was. Tom had waited so long to see what Bryan had said to SMU police about that night, to see what story he might have told to explain the exchange about the fentanyl patch. But there was no story at all. They hadn’t even talked to him.
On a warm sunny day in October, Don Donnally took me on a tour of the SMU campus in his silver Maserati. Donnally, who is in his early sixties and has thinning red hair and rimless glasses, is an executive at Bear Stearns in Dallas. He was an SAE at Southern Methodist in the sixties, and he has been the chapter’s alumni adviser since 1975. Donnally, whose son was in Jake’s pledge class at SAE, was one of the first people to arrive at the house after Jake’s body was found. It was Donnally who had contacted the Stiles family with preliminary findings from the medical examiner’s office, informing them that Jake’s death had been drug related.
We stopped at the SAE house, a sparkling three-story redbrick structure with white columns and a tidy lawn. Donnally helped raise money for the construction of the house, which was completed in 2005. His wife did the interior decoration, he explained, as we walked through a large common area downstairs, which featured a dining room, five televisions mounted on a single wall, and a pool table, where a few young men looked up and nodded as we passed. Donnally seemed to know all the brothers by name. He stooped to pick up a small piece of white glass in a hallway, tsk-tsking as he noticed a shattered lightbulb above his head. He showed me a recent composite photo of the chapter, in which Jake’s image had been placed in the center, with the words “In Loving Memory” underneath it. Austin Bryan’s appeared in the upper right corner. He was the only member not wearing a suit, and the camera had caught him in an ironic smile. His photo was labeled “Pledge Trainer.”
Donnally introduced me to chapter president Royce Wilson, a handsome, square-jawed young man who had been Jake’s pledge brother. Wilson’s father, Ed, is an SMU trustee and the president of Tribune Broadcasting. Wilson told me that following Jake’s death, the chapter had instituted a zero-tolerance policy for drugs in the house. They had yet to catch anyone, though. “I really do think it was an isolated incident,” he told me. While we spoke, Wilson’s cell phone kept sounding off from his shorts pocket, letting him know he had received another text message. He ignored it.
Donnally had never seen the transcript of the text messages on Jake’s phone, he said, nor had he seen the police report. When I told him about the text exchange with Bryan, he seemed genuinely surprised. Donnally said he hadn’t known Bryan that well, since he lived off campus, but he nevertheless thought highly of him. He had even directed a couple young men whose grades were suffering from excessive partying to seek advice from Bryan, he said, because he was older and seemed so responsible. He was also unaware of Bryan’s wealthy and well-connected family, and that news seemed to cause him almost as much consternation as the idea that Bryan might have known something about Jake’s death. “His father wasn’t connected in Dallas—not at SMU,” he said. “I know pretty much everyone who is.” We continued our tour of campus, with Donnally pointing out all the new buildings, but he still seemed slightly embarrassed that he had not known that Bryan was descended from the families who had built Texas. “He sure didn’t dress or drive or act like it,” he said. Even after he dropped me off at my car, he could not let it go. He leaned over the mahogany-inlaid console of the Maserati and called out after me. “There’s not much in Bryan,” he said. “Was his dad an Aggie?”
That afternoon I talked to Chief Shafer. Shafer, a sober, red-faced man, had committed to reexamining the investigation at the meeting in Kansas City and had told Tom he would report back on his progress in thirty days. Four months had now passed, and I asked him how the reinvestigation was going. “We are not ‘reinvestigating,’” he corrected me. “We are looking into the new information we have,” he said, referring to the transcript of the text messages that Tom had given him.
Shafer told me he had recently spoken with Mike Snellgrove, who had assured him that the police did not have those messages at the time of the original investigation. I asked Shafer, who said he had never personally examined Jake’s phone, about the forwarded text messages that Tom claimed to have found, the ones sent to Snellgrove’s e-mail. Didn’t that mean somebody, either Snellgrove or Stiles, was lying? “I’m not gonna tell you Tom is a liar, but let me ask you this,” he said, throwing his hands out to the sides. “If we did have all this, then why wasn’t [Bryan] interviewed? He’d be at the top of the list.”
As human frailties go, incompetence and malfeasance leave a similar footprint, and divining where one ends and the other begins can be difficult, especially two years down the road. Snellgrove, who is now the assistant chief of police at Vanderbilt University, did not return phone calls and e-mails for this story. Tommy Jones, who headed the investigation, now works at the district attorney’s office in Dallas and declined to comment on the record. Interviewed by phone, Bennett, the administrator who refused to provide the police report to the Stileses, was more forthcoming. He withheld the police report from Jake’s parents, he said, to protect the reputation of other students interviewed by the police. He told me that Snellgrove had in fact brought him a transcript of text messages found on Jake’s cell phone at the time of the original investigation, despite what Snellgrove had recently told Shafer. He recalled that the messages dealt with drugs, and he remembered the text in which Jake said he had taken half of the patch on one night and half on another night. He said he did not know why the transcript Snellgrove showed him was not in the police file today.
Bennett said that he had read the transcript that Tom had made and given to Shafer in July. Considering the number of SAE brothers implicated in illegal drug use in just 48 hours’ worth of texts, and taking into account Jake’s overdose and his roommate Clark Scott’s near-fatal overdose, I asked if the university had an obligation to at least discipline individuals or the chapter itself, if not pursue criminal charges. “Well, with almost two years of hindsight, and assuming the facts that you’ve given me, I think that would be a rational way to think about it,” he said.
“So you’ve actually seen Jake’s phone?” he asked. I told him I was going to visit the Stileses to look at it at the end of the week. “My imagination would have said to me that the phone was long gone,” he said. After the slightest pause, he added, “I’m glad to know that it’s available.”
In the weeks following my visit to campus, SMU police seemed to renew their interest in the case. Investigators called dozens of Jake’s friends and fellow fraternity brothers, and an attorney for SMU sent Tom a letter asking that an investigator be allowed to take Jake’s phone to an FBI crime lab for a forensic examination. An officer also telephoned Austin Bryan, to ask him, for the first time, what he knew about Jake’s death. According to Chief Shafer, Bryan declined to be interviewed.
One person the police did not try to contact was Clark Scott. In early November, I met him at a bar near the campus of Wichita State University, in Kansas, where he is now a student. Clark, who also works part-time at a bank and waits tables in the evenings, is a short, slightly built young man who could easily pass for sixteen. In conversation, however, he has a wry sense of humor and a quiet dignity that comes across as hard-earned. Immediately after he left SMU, he spent several months in rehab and has now been drug-free for almost two years. Clark has spent a lot of time thinking about his experience at SMU and the meaning of Jake’s death. “My mom and my girlfriend told me not to talk to you, to put this all behind me,” he said, “but I have to be able to sleep at night.”
Clark met Jake in the fall of his freshman year at SMU, when the two lived in a dormitory called Boaz Hall, on a floor reserved for students in the academic honors program. The pair pledged SAE in the spring, along with two other friends from the floor. They decided on SAE for the same reason most of their pledge brothers did: It was the frat that hosted the best parties, with the hottest girls. Jake and his friends first heard the name Austin Bryan, or AB, as he was known, during pledgeship. The actives would invoke his name as a sort of bogeyman to intimidate the pledges. It was widely known that Bryan had been addicted to cocaine at a young age and had been through rehab before he attended high school. “Austin is crazy,” they would say. They told wild stories about his supposed exploits, his apartment full of guns, his expensive Italian motorcycle, the secret parties and nightclubs in Dallas that only he knew about. That spring, Bryan seemed to take an interest in Jake and began summoning him from time to time to clean his apartment, one of the many chores that pledges were bound to do.
Toward the end of pledgeship, the actives began inviting pledges out to drink and party with them, which often meant using cocaine and pharmaceutical drugs, Clark said. Drug abuse, according to Clark, was hardly an “isolated incident” at the SAE house, despite what the university and the fraternity had said. Officially, pledges were forbidden to take drugs. In practice, illegal drugs were widely used, both by pledges and actives. An off-campus dealer made regular trips to the house to supply the brothers with marijuana. He also sold black-market Xanax, a prescription anxiety medication that has become ubiquitous on college campuses in recent years. The pills, known as bars, sell for $4 to $5 apiece. Combined with alcohol, Xanax produces a pleasant, loopy feeling. Too much of the combination, though, can make a user black out for hours at a time.
A wide variety of other pills were also popular, Clark said, including Valium and Adderall and painkillers like Percocet, Lortab, and OxyContin. Cocaine use was common too. Because the chapter already had a reputation for drug use and because campus police sometimes did unannounced walk-throughs of fraternity houses, students tried to be discreet, going into upstairs bedrooms, each of which had its own bathroom. Passing out from excessive partying was not unusual; on one occasion, Clark recalled, actives had to bust their way into a bathroom where a brother had lost consciousness in the shower, with the water running.
Jake and Clark, both of whom had sometimes taken drugs in high school, began using cocaine regularly. Older members would send them on runs to a bar near campus where a dealer was known to sell cocaine to SMU students. The two pledges, who did not have as much disposable income as most of their fraternity brothers, would usually be given a line or two of coke in exchange for making the trip. If the order was large enough, the pair would sometimes secretly skim a little cocaine for themselves before they made the deliveries.
In the fall of their sophomore year, Clark and Jake moved into the frat house as roommates and began partying more than ever. Jake began abusing a new pharmaceutical drug, Clark recalled, an orange pill that had an effect similar to methadone, the less-addictive heroin substitute used by addicts in recovery. Jake was sleeping during the day and missing a lot of classes. The last weekend before Thanksgiving, the fraternity held a party at a hotel on the beach in Galveston. Clark blacked out on the drive down on Friday afternoon and did not wake up until Saturday morning in his hotel room. He made his way to the hotel bar, but then became so inebriated that he had to stagger back to his room, where he passed out again. When Jake found him there, his face had turned blue and he was barely breathing. Paramedics rushed Clark to the hospital, and that Sunday, Clark’s parents drove down to Dallas to withdraw him from school.
“I had to get out,” Clark said. “I was going to kill myself if I didn’t.” Clark told me a friend had called from SMU recently, reporting that the university police had asked to interview her about Jake’s death. “She said what happened was Jake’s responsibility, not anybody else’s, and I agree with that,” Clark said. Jake had not been naive about drugs, and Clark was not surprised to hear that he had taken such a large dose of fentanyl the night he died. Still, he felt it was unfair to paint Jake as a bad apple. There was a culture of heavy drinking and drug abuse at the SAE house, Clark said, and anybody who spent time there knew it. In fact, Clark was not the only SAE brother to suffer a close call in the months leading up to Jake’s death. A few weeks before he overdosed, Jack Britton, a senior and the chapter’s onetime risk management officer, entered the hospital suffering from kidney failure from drinking and drug abuse. Earlier that year another brother holed up in his apartment for a week, until his parents, unable to contact him, asked a friend to investigate. The friend forced his way inside, where he found the missing brother in a drug-induced stupor.
“Whenever I first got to SMU, I would throw huge shit fits whenever I saw someone using drugs, but I quickly learned all it got me was ridicule,” said Stephen Bechtol, an SAE brother who graduated in 2007. “By third year, I didn’t say anything anymore, unless it was a friend in trouble. And then everybody almost started dying. And then Jake did die.” Several dozen of Jake’s fraternity brothers made the trip to Illinois for his memorial service. “It was really nice to see how much everybody came together and was there for each other,” said Bechtol. At a special chapter meeting held shortly after Jake died, however, it became clear that the meaning of his death was a point of contention among the brothers. When the chapter president announced the zero-tolerance policy for drug use inside the house, Bechtol recalled, another brother raised his hand and asked, “Why don’t you guys just not do drugs at all?”
“Everybody just pounded him, like that was the craziest, dumbest idea ever,” Bechtol said. “It was so disheartening. I wanted to scream, ‘This is bullshit!’”
“Drug use and alcohol abuse was just kind of the culture,” said Britton, who, after getting sober in 2007, now tells his story to youth groups. “Not just at SAE. I can think of four or five other fraternities that were kind of—not priding themselves on taking drugs, but it was part of their culture. It was just known as what they did.” Dealers are drawn to the campus and to the considerable disposable income that not just Greeks but many SMU students have, he said. During the summer after his senior year, Britton, who entered SMU on a prestigious Hunt Leadership Scholarship, was arrested for DWI. His outfit—mint-green pants, a white polo shirt, and boat shoes—stood out in the Dallas County jail, Britton recalled, and an inmate approached and asked if he went to SMU. “He inquired whether I wanted to sell drugs for him there.”
Britton said he often wondered what it would take for SMU administrators to get serious about drug abuse on campus. He and his fellow fraternity brothers would sit around the house at lunchtime, chuckling at the weekly campus police updates in the Daily Campus. “And there’s incident after incident of, you know, ‘Police found baggie and paraphernalia.’ And it’s just like, at some point, don’t these just add up to ‘Look, we have a drug problem’?” Britton said. “You have to imagine R. Gerald Turner putting his head on his pillow and thinking, ‘My God, what do I have as a student body?’”
After Clark got sober, he considered calling SAE’s national offices to let somebody know what was going on at the fraternity house, but he wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do. He felt certain in any case that Jake’s death would bring everything out into the open. But it didn’t, and he couldn’t understand why. At a minimum, he said, SMU should have tried to find the person who provided the fentanyl that killed Jake. “It wasn’t like he was giving him weed or something,” he said. “Fentanyl is a drug that normal people shouldn’t be taking. I mean, he might as well have given him heroin.”
On December 3 I reached Austin Bryan on the phone. After I told him about the text exchange found on Jake’s phone, he agreed to talk to me. Bryan was well-spoken and initially seemed eager to appear helpful. He denied having provided the fentanyl patch to Jake and said he was in New York the weekend that Jake died. The reason Jake texted him about it, he said, was because Jake had found the patch in Bryan’s apartment. “He had told me that he had found some medication in the guest bathroom, and I urged him not to take it,” Bryan said. “He referred to it by some nickname. I didn’t even know what it was, and I said, ‘Jake, I’m worried about you.’ I think at some point I got a text from him saying he had taken this medication.”
Bryan said he couldn’t say who might have left the patch in the bathroom, because he often had friends stay over in his guest room, including many who were having problems with drugs and alcohol. Bryan, who said that he had not used illegal drugs since going through rehab as a teenager, said he had been counseling Jake in the months before his death and that the two had become close friends. “I was very much an advocate of Jake trying to get sober,” Bryan said. “I would never have given him something like that.”
I asked Bryan if he knew anything about the orange pills—the methadone-like drug—that Jake had been taking in the months before he died. Bryan said he had not given them to Jake, but he couldn’t say for certain that they had not come from his apartment as well. “All the people who were staying at my place were trying to get sober,” he said. “So I could see somebody leaving that or taking that.”
Bryan said the last time he saw Jake, he had seemed troubled. “The night before I left [for New York], he came over and we were talking, and I really should have paid more attention to him. I was kind of just packing my bags, and he was talking about how he was depressed. I really regret not giving him maybe ten or fifteen more minutes just to kind of talk with him and just listen to him,” he said.
Bryan did not seem to share his friends’ sense, however, that the environment at the SAE house had become dangerous in the fall of 2006, despite Jake’s death and the close calls suffered by Jack Britton and Clark Scott. “I can assume that people were doing a lot of drugs there. I can’t really say whether or not I have any specific memories of so-and-so doing cocaine,” he said. “I think that when Jake passed away, then people kind of said, ‘All right, we’ve lost a good friend of ours, and we need to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.’ But I don’t see it as a string of three events, where someone should have been more concerned.” Bryan said the SMU police had never contacted him about Jake. “I don’t see why they would have,” he said. “I think it was pretty obvious that I was on their side. I was trying to help the poor guy out.”
When we spoke again a few days later, Bryan said he had thought carefully about our conversation and that he wanted to clarify something. “To me there’s a big difference between feeling bad about my close friend passing away and feeling guilty,” he said. “I feel bad about it, but I don’t feel a sense of guilt. I can make the assumption after having read articles online that what Jake took from my apartment contributed to his death, but I can’t know that for sure.”
When I told Bryan that the SMU police said he had refused to cooperate with the investigation, he continued to maintain that he had not spoken with them, or that if he had, he could not remember having done so, even though the conversation, according to the police, had taken place only a few weeks prior. I asked why he had not come forward with what he knew in the days and weeks after Jake’s body was found, when police were still trying to determine the cause of death. Bryan would not concede that the information he had at the time—that Jake had taken a morph patch the night he died—might have been useful to investigators.
“It sounds to me like you’re going up against kind of a hard situation here,” Bryan said. “The only person who knows exactly what happened is no longer with us. You know?”
Tom and Rhonda Stiles live in a two-story bungalow on a wooded street in an older neighborhood not far from downtown Kansas City. After lunch on a large, sunny screened-in porch, Tom pulled Jake’s cell phone out of his pocket, set it carefully on the table, and began scrolling through what for him had become a familiar set of menus as Rhonda quietly looked on. There were the eighteen messages forwarded to Snellgrove’s e-mail, including the exchanges with Austin Bryan, just as Tom had said. Tom handled the phone, which he normally kept in his personal safe, with care. It was more than a connection to Jake: It had become a kind of talisman against the idea that he and Rhonda had been bad parents, that, blinded by grief, the two of them were unfairly impugning SMU’s reputation.
Rhonda, who has soft blue eyes and a quiet voice, said she felt naive for trusting SMU to do a proper investigation of Jake’s death. “I think a homicide investigation needs to go to the Dallas police,” she said. “That should not be Leon Bennett’s decision to make.” Still, she said, her and Tom’s goal had never been to make anybody pay for what had happened to Jake. “We know Jake made bad decisions,” she said. Reading the police report, in which one of Jake’s friends had said he was using drugs almost every day, had been difficult, but they had come to accept the truth of it. What they could not accept was the idea that Jake was a bad seed, that somehow his death didn’t mean as much—didn’t mean that SMU has a problem that is not being dealt with—because he had brought it on himself.
“You can’t write it off to bad kid, bad family,” Tom said. “Now they want to have their presidential task force and all that, but the problem is the accessibility of drugs, and in this case you don’t go after the source. They were just trying to sweep it under the rug to protect their reputation. And I feel like, whether consciously or unconsciously, they threw Jake—and us—under the bus to do that.”
Rhonda recalled how she had felt when she and Jake first looked at an admissions brochure from SMU. “Everything that comes out of that school is so glossy and so perfect, and we were so excited,” she said. But that was all before. “I don’t think any institution has the right to do to a family what they did to our family. Losing a child is just so . . . you don’t put that into words. And when there are those who are making that harder, that’s almost inhumane.”
What bothers her the most, she said, is the idea that somebody like her son is pledging SAE, or some other fraternity at SMU, today. “We want to know that that environment has changed.”