Attorney: death at Murray State fraternity house could have been prevented

PADUCAH, KY — We now know the names of the two fraternities put on probation for violating policy at Murray State University.

Murray State officials wouldn’t comment about the probation when asked in person. The university finally provided that information only after Local 6 filed an open records request.

The documents that were handed over through the request show Lambda Chi Alpha and Pi Kappa Alpha were put on probation on May 7. The probation period ended on Aug. 31 after a hearing with the Greek Standards Board.

As a result of the hearing, according to our documents, both chapters are now responsible for creating an implementation plan based on the university’s new social event policy, and they have to present that plan to the university and other chapter members. Members in both fraternities also have to complete four hours of community service, and Greek Standards Board members are allowed to make surprise appearances at registered social events to make sure the new policy is being followed correctly.

So, what did Lambda Chi Alpha and Pi Kappa Alpha do that led to the chapters being put on probation?

Documents show Lambda Chi Alpha broke policy by hosting an unregistered social event on May 6, which resulted in an irresponsible use of alcohol, underage drinking, and violations of the university code of conduct. Records provided by the Murray Police Department also show a female student reported that she was raped at that party.

Pi Kappa Alpha broke policy by allowing people not on the guest list to attend a party at the fraternity house on April 28, which documents obtained through open records requests say resulted in an irresponsible use of alcohol and underage drinking.

Sources say 19-year-old Zach Wardrip of Indiana was in town visiting a friend and was at that party at Pi Kappa Alpha on April 28. Wardrip was found dead the next morning at Lambda Chi Alpha, his friend’s fraternity.

Last month Local 6 received a copy of the guest list from the party on April 28 at Pi Kappa Alpha. The university blacked-out all the names of students on the list for privacy reasons. Wardrip was a visitor and not protected under that privacy law. For clarification, I reached out to Jill Hunt who is the senior executive coordinator for the president at Murray State.

On Sept. 6, Hunt told me: “We are in the process of double checking each name on the list, and we will respond to your inquiry as soon as the review is complete.”

Two weeks later, the university has yet to acknowledge one way or another if Wardrip was on the list. On Sept. 21, I reached out to Hunt again trying to get some answers. Hunt sent me an email saying “I will check with our attorney and get back to you.” To which I replied, “I’m sorry, I’m confused…you’ve had since September 6 to answer that question. You didn’t talk to the attorney then?” Hunt has yet to reply to that question.

A source with direct knowledge of Wardrip’s plans for that day told me it’s very unlikely his name would have been on that list, because Wardrip went to the party spontaneously without planning ahead of time.

David Oakes, a Paducah attorney hired by Wardrip’s family, says he believes excessive alcohol was a factor in Zach Wardrip’s death.

“The Greek organizations and the people that supervise the Greek organizations at Murray State are either incredibly overly optimistic and naive about alcohol abuse as a problem at Murray State, or are unwilling to take any effective measures to control the problem,” says Oakes, adding that he believes some students see the issue of alcohol abuse as a joke.

“Because it keeps happening,” he says. “I’ve seen videos of kids on fraternity row at Murray State holding up signs saying ‘honk and we’ll drink’ or things like that. That doesn’t suggest to me that they’re taking it seriously.”

Oakes says he believes if the members of Pi Kappa Alpha followed policy, there’s a possibility that Wardrip would still be alive. “Certainly if they followed other parts of what I understand to be policy, as in if you perceive that someone has had too much, you need to take steps to help them get medical help,” he says.

Although Oakes believes excessive alcohol was a factor in Wardrip’s death, the coroner has not released the official cause because the investigation is still open. He says there is potential for a lawsuit in the future.

Local 6 reached out to Murray State University about the situation. Director of Communication Shawn Touney sent this statement:

University faculty, staff, and students were notified of the tragedy on Monday, April 30 in a campus email. In that email, the campus community was made aware of counseling resources that are available, including University Counseling Services and the University’s Employee Assistance Program. The sanctions which were imposed were the result of a social event policy violation. The tragic death of the young man remains under investigation by outside authorities. On behalf of the entire Murray State University community, our hearts go out to the individuals and families affected by this tragic loss of life.

Local 6 also reached out to Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity headquarters for comment. Chief Marketing Officer Brent Phillips sent this statement:

Our prayers and deepest sympathies remain with the family and friends of Zach Wardrip. Epsilon Lambda Chapter at Murray State University has fully cooperated with law enforcement and university officials in their investigation. To this end, the Chapter voluntarily provided security camera footage to investigators that it believes will provide clarity as to the events that transpired the evening of Zach’s untimely passing. Pi Kappa Alpha is committed to the health & safety of its members and guests and provides ongoing education on these issues which impact college students across North America.