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