After more than a year since the death of 19-year-old freshman Kenny Luong, who was fatally injured during a Lambda Phi Epsilon tackle football game in West Park, Irvine, two eyewitnesses have broken their silence about the deadly outcome of an alleged hazing ritual.
Few details about the game – which took place on Aug. 28, 2005 – have been released to the public by the Luong family, the Irvine Police Department or the Orange County District Attorney’s office. UC Irvine’s chapter of Lambda Phi Epsilon declined repeated requests for comment on the incident.
Recently, however, two pledges provided a detailed account of what happened on the day of the football game and the dangerous initiation activities that preceded it.
According to the pledges, the game lasted more than three hours and became more dangerous as time wore on. Since late morning on Aug. 28, the team of 10 Cal Poly pledges was badly outnumbered, pitted against approximately 40 active members and alumni of the UCI chapter of the Lambda Phi Epsilon fraternity.
During the nine weeks leading up to the football game, the Cal Poly students had been pledging the fraternity in an attempt to start a Lambda Phi chapter at their own school. According to Daniel Dai and another pledge who wanted to be identified only as “Lee,” the initiation rituals were physically and mentally exhausting, but the football game was the most gruelling.
“They told us [the game] was a tradition,” Lee said.
Only a handful of the pledges had even played football in their life, Lee recalled, and a few had learned the rules just minutes before the game. Many of the pledges were sleep-deprived from what seemed to be a never-ending stream of activities that were both physically and mentally exhausting.
“They just kept piling things up on us,” Lee said. “They gave us no leeway.”
The pledge team was also significantly smaller and less physically fit than the bigger, more numerous UCI Lambdas. To make matters worse, players wore no helmets or pads, and were allowed access to water only at halftime.
At one point, at least two of the pledges were so badly hurt that they simply lay on the ground, unable to continue playing. Still, UCI Lambda members did not stop play to tend to the injured players or to give them water. The game had become extremely dangerous—soon it would turn deadly.
The pledges were so exhausted that no one noticed after Luong fell to the ground after a hard tackle that he was unconscious.
According to the two pledges, for approximately 10 minutes neither Lambda members nor any of the pledges realized Luong might be seriously injured. At this point in the game, players staying down for 10 minutes or more had become commonplace.
But when Luong started convulsing on the ground and could not be revived, it became clear to some of the players that he was badly hurt. UCI Lambda members quickly carried Luong to the sidelines.
Luong had suffered massive head trauma, causing his brain to swell and push against his skull. His eyes had rolled back into his head. Luong was having a seizure.
According to Lee, for about the next 20 minutes, UCI Lambda members attempted to resuscitate Luong with no success.
Finally, one UCI Lambda member called 9-1-1. Before medical workers arrived, however, the pledges were escorted from the field by UCI Lambda members and were not allowed to see Luong, who was left in the care of a few Lambdas awaiting the ambulance.
“They were telling us to say that we were playing football and that’s it, and that we weren’t pledging,” Dai said. “They were telling us to say that we were a group called West Coast Karate.”
The pledges were then taken back to the fraternity house, where they remained for about one hour. When news of Luong’s injuries reached the pledges, they left the Lambda house for Western Medical Center, where Luong was being treated.
Help came too late for the 19-year-old freshman, who was pronounced brain-dead on Tuesday of the same week.
Edgar Dormitorio, acting director of student judicial affairs at UCI, said recently that Lambda – placed on “emergency suspension” immediately following the incident – remains on interim suspension pending the conclusion of the district attorney’s investigation. While on suspension, Lambda Phi Epsilon has no organizational status on campus.
But a former pledge to UCI’s Lambda Phi Chapter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Lambda has gone underground and continues to take on new pledge classes. The source went on to say that Lambda is currently initiating new members and that he has witnessed Lambdas wearing their letters on campus, which is prohibited for organizations on suspension.
Lambda members have also continued to hold fraternity-sponsored events, the latest of which took place on Feb. 9 of this year.
The deadly football game that Sunday in Irvine was only one instance of physical and mental abuse the pledges were forced to endure.
Both Dai and Lee recalled that pledges were told to do close-fisted push-ups on gravel and to jump in the air while standing and land on their chests without using their hands to break their fall. According to Dai, at least two pledges, including Luong, split their chins. Luong’s family also mentioned that he sometimes came home with bruised knuckles and a scraped chin.
Although he did not pledge with Dai and the other Cal Poly students, another former pledge, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that he endured similar activities.
With the exception of the football game, however, UCI Lambdas were careful to plan activities that demanded only self-injury.
During frequent trips to Lambda chapters at other California universities – including UC San Diego, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara, and UCLA – the pledges were made to endure intense physical pain or to put their own safety at risk, according to Lee.
He recalled one particularly dangerous task at UC Santa Barbara, where he and the other pledges were forced to drink two one-gallon bottles of water in a single sitting. “We were scared,” he said. “We knew that water poisoning could kill us.”
Because the investigation into Luong’s death is ongoing, the Irvine Police Department has offered few details about the case. When asked recently about the lack of progress in prosecuting Lambda members, Lieutenant Rick Hanfield said that the investigation is continuing.
“This is a serious event,” Hanfield said. “The public expects us to take a look at it.”
His statements echoed earlier statements issued by law enforcement officials made shortly after Luong’s death, including an acknowledgment by Jeff Love of the Irvine Police that “teams were lopsided and that could be some evidence to indicate that it was hazing.”
Forensic experts are only now determining the exact cause of death. Hazing is a misdemeanor in California, but police say that hazing that leads to death could result in felony charges of manslaughter or homicide.
In the early part of the investigation, officers seized computers to check for evidence of any wrongdoing, including any e-mails discussing the Sunday football game, but found nothing incriminating. Investigators may also be struggling to find evidence due to the fact that formal inquiry did not begin until Tuesday, two days after the event occurred.
Dai alleged that during this time, Lambda members met at least once to discuss Luong’s death and the Sunday game.
This is not the first time a Lambda Phi Epsilon chapter has found itself the subject of a criminal investigation. In April of 1999, the San Jose State chapter of Lambda Phi Epsilon was suspended for one year by university officials for hazing during “Hell Week.” In 2003, a member of the same San Jose State chapter was fatally stabbed during a brawl with a rival fraternity. In December of last year, the University of Texas chapter was suspended until 2011 after a pledge was found dead of alcohol poisoning.
Luong’s family has seen little progress in the case over the last year and doubts that any action will be taken on its behalf. The district attorney has told the Luong family on several occasions that the investigation into Luong’s death is still taking place, but progress has been slow and the family is frustrated.
Annie Luong, Luong’s aunt, now handles most of the legal responsibilities of the case because Luong’s mother – a Vietnamese immigrant named Sophie – speaks little English and has fallen ill since her son’s death.
Annie would not discuss the details of the case on advice from counsel, saying only that the family has received little reassurance that the case is moving forward.
“We are still pushing for prosecution,” Annie said. “But whenever we call, they say they are still investigating.”
More than a year later, Dai and others close to Luong have also become pessimistic about the prospect of justice.
“I don’t blame [Lambda],” Dai said at an interview at his home in San Gabriel. “But what they did was they took away somebody’s life and that shouldn’t go unpunished.”
When asked about the chances of indictments against Lambda members, Dai seemed doubtful.
“All Lambda presidents have lawyers,” he said. “They’re prepared for this.”