If Carson Starkey had waited until after his first quarter at Cal Poly to decide whether to join a fraternity, he’d still be alive, the parents of the freshman said Thursday.
Scott and Julia Starkey recently spoke with The Tribune in their first media interview about their son’s death on Dec. 2, 2008, from an alcohol-related hazing incident.
The Starkeys, of Austin, Texas, said they were proud of their son for branching out to choose Cal Poly rather than join friends at nearby University of Texas.
The Starkeys said they didn’t think he’d join a fraternity.
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“It came as a surprise to us when Carson told us he was joining,” Julia Starkey said. “But we talked about it with him and he said, ‘I want to do this.’ I thought ‘Good, now he’ll have friends to take care of him.’ ”
Julia Starkey said the Cal Poly students closest to her son lived with him in the Yosemite Hall dormitory. The Starkeys believe Carson would have settled in with his dorm friends and classmates if he’d waited a quarter or two, and wouldn’t have sought to join Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
They strongly support Cal Poly’s decision since Carson’s death requiring deferment of the rush period conducted by Greek organizations until the winter.
“Cal Poly has just been great working with us to make changes and support us in what we’ve gone through,” Julia Starkey said.
Julia Starkey was in a sorority and Scott Starkey was in a fraternity at the University of Texas.
Julia jokes “it was a long time ago” but noted they had positive, safe experiences.
Scott and Julia said they talked openly with their son about the risks of sex, drugs and drinking before he left for college.
But alcohol poisoning wasn’t something they knew much about.
They hope other parents will inform themselves and their children about its dangers.
“I just don’t know how drinking has become almost competitive for some young people,” Scott Starkey said. “Now there are drinking games and a culture of pressure that puts lives at risk. College students need to find other outlets to have fun.”
Carson Starkey was given rum, beer, a Sparks alcohol beverage and Everclear, which contains 75 percent alcohol.
He consumed the drinks in a matter of minutes, following direction from fraternity leaders — some of whom encouraged pledges to vomit and keep drinking.
Tests after Carson’s death determined that he had a blood-alcohol level of between 0.39 and 0.44 — five times the legal limit for driving.
The so-called Brown Bag night that led to Carson’s death was a tradition at the Cal Poly SAE chapter, fraternity members said.
“He could have been saved if the fraternity brothers hadn’t been scared of the consequences of taking Carson to the hospital,” Julia Starkey said.
The Starkeys learned of their son’s death after Julia received a midmorning call from the 805 area code on Dec. 2, 2008. She dialed the number back and reached the coroner’s office.
“I immediately went and got Scott and we spoke with (deputy coroner) Steve Crawford,” Julia Starkey said. “I don’t think there was any good way to receive the news.”
The Starkeys have flown to San Luis Obispo nine times for matters relating to their son’s death. They say the community here has been sympathetic and supportive.
And they’ve met frequently with San Luis Obispo Police Department officials as well as prosecutor Craig Van Rooyen.
Four members of SAE were charged criminally; the last two of the cases wrapped up last week.
Zacary Ellis, Haithem Ibrahim, Adam Marszal and Russell Taylor each pleaded no contest to misdemeanor hazing resulting in death.
Ellis was sentenced to 120 days in County Jail and three years of informal probation.
Ibrahim was sentenced to 45 days in County Jail, three years’ informal probation and cooperation in Cal Poly’s anti-hazing education efforts.
Taylor and Marszal each received 30 days in County Jail, three years misdemeanor probation and 40 hours community service or two presentations on hazing and alcohol.
“The most recent plea results in all four defendants admitting their responsibility for the death of Carson Starkey,” Van Rooyen said. “Hazing is a serious problem and, unfortunately, has resulted in the untimely death of a promising young man.”
The Starkeys have sued Sigma Alpha Epsilon, a move they hope will stop the kind of behavior that led to their son’s fatality.
The Starkeys have worked with Cal Poly officials and Texas politicians to create policies that prevent hazing deaths — including a proposal to grant immunity for minors who seek medical attention for a friend in an alcohol-related emergency.
Cal Poly will start a new hazing hotline, or at least create a hazing feature on a current tip line, that students can call anonymously, officials say.
Cal Poly’s website now includes Greek organizations’ disciplinary histories.
“We work closely with all families who may have had a student experience a confirmed hazing incident,” said Cornel Morton, Cal Poly’s vice president for student affairs. “Hazing is unacceptable behavior, and Cal Poly will take action to address any substantiated hazing issue.”
The Starkeys say they have their moments of depression over Carson’s loss. But they’ve continued to strive to make positive change.
“We could sit around and be upset all day, but we’d like to try to do something good and keep other families from going through what we’ve been through,” Julia Starkey said. “There has to be a culture change.”