Animal Heights

Unrecognized frats flourish in Heights as they go unmonitored by UB, national organizations, police

The brothers of the illegal fraternity Sigma Alpha Mu formed a circle around their pledges in the basement of their University Heights home - just off campus.

Then, they ordered the pledges to beat each other up. The pledges complied until one student - who had an underlying medical condition - started to convulse.

A few brothers gathered up the trembling freshman, dumped him on the stairs of Veteran's Affairs Hospital and left. The hospital only treats veterans, but a security guard who spotted the boy called an ambulance.

In his hospital room in Erie County Medical Center, the boy told Erie County Sherriff's deputies what had happened.

The next day - after the student got the news that he had been accepted as a Sigma Alpha Mu brother - he denied the fight had happened. He told the deputies he had been delirious when he had spoken with them. He said he had made up the whole hazing story.

The sheriff's deputies shelved the report and - although the student's father called UB to complain that his son had been hazed - UB could do nothing.

There was no official report. There were no witnesses. Officially, there wasn't even a victim. And on the record, the fraternity the student was allegedly pledging doesn't even exist at UB.

The episode, recounted by a frustrated UB administrator, encapsulates the problem of illegal fraternities at UB. It helps explain why - despite recent national attention given to hazing - these groups have been able to flourish at UB since the late 1990s. No members want to talk about how their groups operate, who's in them or what goes on when the house doors close.

And no one is keeping track of them - not the university, not the police, not the national organizations whose names these groups steal.

Nationally, more than 60 students have died in fraternity-related incidents since 2005, according to a recent study by Bloomberg News. But no one knows how many students across the country are involved in illegal fraternities and sororities. They stay together after national organizations close their chapters. They operate outside the system and protect their members' identities by encircling themselves in a code of silence.

"The culture is such that the students who are pledging are really taught to keep their mouths shut," said Elizabeth Lidano, the director of UB's Judicial Affairs, who has spent years trying to get information about unrecognized groups and punish students who are involved. "They're taught how to lie to us. And they're afraid."

They are afraid of retaliation by their "brothers" and of being labeled sell-outs. They are also afraid UB will punish, suspend or expel them. Even students who dropped out of UB to escape the illegal fraternities are unwilling to talk about them.

In a seven-month investigation, The Spectrum interviewed current and former illegal fraternity members and their friends, alumni of illegal fraternities, members of legal fraternities and sororities, as well as university officials and community members to understand how and why these groups operate and thrive at UB. Often, the code of secrecy impeded our reporting, as did university privacy laws and the noncooperation of Buffalo Police and other authorities, including parents, to discuss this issue openly.

Still, what The Spectrum has uncovered about the five unrecognized fraternities at UB using the names ofSigma Alpha Mu (Sammy), Alpha Tau Omega (ATO), Phi Delta Theta, Kappa Sigma and Delta Sigma Phi - is both dangerous and alarming:

  • Some houses engage in advanced drug-selling operations, which includes selling and storing cocaine, ecstasy and several pounds of marijuana at a time. In September 2012, one fraternity was caught with $64,000 in cash in its house.
  • Underage pledges are regularly forced to drink alcohol excessively and are mistreated, sometimes to the point of hospitalization.
  • Pledges have been forced to strip and then doused with hot sauce and covered in spray paint. In multiple cases, pledges had hot sauce mixed with vinegar and warm water smeared in their eyes.
  • Pledges are forced to stay outside in cold temperatures with little to no clothing and have snowballs thrown at them.
  • Pledges are forced to eat cat food, sleep in dirty, wet basements and are beat up or forced to fight one another.
  • Students are deprived of food and sleep and forced to miss classes. Some pledges have seen their GPA's plummet. Professors have reached out to Judicial Affairs after students appeared disheveled and ill in class.
  • Illegal fraternities are actively recruiting students to UB (particularly from Long Island) with promises of a wild party scene with no oversight.

"Basically they're gangs. No difference," said a current student and former legal fraternity member, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from illegal fraternity members. "Their pledge processes are the kind of events that you see on TV. Hardcore hazing, beating the pledges, embarrassing them in front of the brothers and sometimes sorority girls. There's three to four that I can think of right now at UB, and each one is involved heavily in drugs or at least weed."

Two students in the past three years left UB because they felt they couldn't disaffiliate from an unrecognized group without leaving the university for good, according to Judicial Affairs. Others - including a former president of one of the five illegal fraternities who asked to remain unnamed - left because the university academically dismissed them for failing grades.

Lidano's office has disciplined 70 students in the past four years for acts related to unrecognized groups. All of the charges involved drugs, hazing, disorderly conduct and/or destruction of property.

But Lidano says those are only the cases she knows about. There are many more. Her office is simply not aware of them, despite her continued efforts to find out.

The numbers fluctuate by year, but the illegal groups have about 100-200 members between them. Yet hundreds - possibly thousands - of UB students who are not involved in Greek Life attend parties the illegal fraternities throw in the basements of their University Heights homes. The parties always include alcohol and often drugs, students said.

UB also has three illegal sororities, operating under the names Alpha Epsilon Phi, Delta Delta and Alpha Sigma Alpha. But everyone - students, UB administrators and Judicial Affairs - agree it's the fraternities that cause the problems.

The illegal fraternities rent homes from absentee landlords who rarely check or maintain their properties. Each year illegal fraternities designate one house as their "party house." The groups use national fraternity organization names, like "Sigma Alpha Mu," also known as the Sammies, but do not pay dues to and are not recognized by the national organizations. They have essentially stolen the Greek names and trademarks, which is illegal in the United States and known as trademark infringement.

But the national organizations' offices are thousands of miles away and - despite numerous letters and pleas from Pam Jackson, the assistant director for Fraternity & Sorority Life at UB - no organization has ever taken legal action against these students at UB.

UB's party scene

*Daniel Smith knew the illegal fraternity he wanted to pledge had one of the worst hazing reputations in the country. He had heard the rumors about the grueling last week of pledging, known as "hell week" or "hell period," during which pledgesget drenched in cold water and have snowballs thrown at them one day and get hot sauce poured on their bodies and eyes the next.

To him, it sounded worth it to make the buddies he knew he'd keep forever. Besides, he was 18 and anxious to take risks and live the college life.

In fall 2010, during Smith's first semester of his freshman year, he pledged for 78 days - three weeks longer than recognized Greek organizations' pledge processes. And, unlike legal groups in which students have to complete 12 credits and receive a 3.0 GPA to pledge, pledging an illegal fraternity is immediate.

Six students pledged that semester. Only three - including Smith - made it through.

Like most of the members of illegal fraternities interviewed for this story, he refused to have his real name published and only haltingly agreed to confirm some of the details about his experiences. Smith, who spoke under the agreement that the name of his fraternity wouldn't be published, said he doesn't even tell his closest non-fraternity friends about what he did as a pledge or as part of the fraternity. But he said his friends were always "fascinated" with his rogue group. He liked the mystique his affiliation gave him.

His friends also liked the parties, which were always in a basement in the University Heights.

"The party house is the house we go all out in - setting up the basement, getting a bar, getting all the black lights up," Smith said. "If s*** happens and cops come, that's when we start changing up the party place."

Parties in the Heights happen every weekend. That's partly why students like to live there. The area is walking distance to South Campus and the subway and bus lines. Crime rates are significantly higher than they are on North Campus, but rent is much cheaper and - although the neighborhood has pulled together in recent years - many landlords are neglectful and don't maintain their homes.

Most of UB's 39 recognized fraternities and sororities rent houses in the Heights and Greek letters hang prominently from numerous windows. Illegal groups blend into the Heights effortlessly. Buffalo Police don't have time or vested interest in monitoring students or learning which houses are legal or illegal. University Police don't have jurisdiction in the Heights, despite the fact that more than 3,000 students live there, and university officials say they aren't responsible for students' actions off campus.

"I personally didn't feel any danger of getting in trouble with UB when I pledged," Smith said. "I just felt that everything we did was off campus; it would never be found out."

Members are rarely ever caught being part of an unrecognized group. When they are found hazing or stashing drugs by the Buffalo Police, UB hears of it. But members always deny being part of the group.

In 2009, Buffalo Police caught a pledge trying to escape from hazing in the University Heights. Police then quickly located the group, some of whom were outside in their underwear. The students - all of whom were versed in what to say if found by police - told the same story. They were not engaged in hazing. The students in their underwear were not pledges. They were in their underwear because they had lost a bet.

Jackson, who has been trying to find out who illegal members are for 14 years, got a call about the incident and a list of students involved. The next day, she called the group into her office.

"The whole frat and even the kids who were pledging, they all had to sit in a meeting in front of Pam Jackson," Smith said, who joined the next year. "She was trying to pull out evidence to show we were [an illegal frat] and all 30 of the people there had to sit there and say, 'No we are not ... we are just a group of kids.'"

Joining unrecognized brotherhoods, however, is not just harmless fun:

  • In December 2007, an illegal fraternity hired Buffalo Police officer Monte R. Montalvo to work security for its party in their University Heights home.
  • In November 2008, Buffalo Police arrested four students in ATO from their Northrup Place home. They forced pledges, who were only in their underwear, to cover their bodies in a concoction of hot sauce and spray paint. They were also found with bags of marijuana.
  • In January 2011, two Delta Sigma Phi pledges were spotted in two blue garbage bins, wearing only underwear, on Winspear Avenue in freezing temperatures.
  • In September 2012, four UB students in an illegal fraternity were arrested for operating an alleged drug ring out of their home on West Northrup Place.They, along with three non-students, were found with $64,000 in cash, 9 pounds of marijuana, 8 ounces of ecstasy and a half-ounce of cocaine.
  • Two weeks later, on the same street, five UB students in an illegal fraternity were arrested after Buffalo Police found drugs and money in their home.

Those are only a handful of accounts The Spectrum has attained from police reports and student testimonies. When The Spectrum filed a Freedom of Information request for all Buffalo Police reports regarding student arrests, the department couldn't provide those statistics, according to Spokesman Mike DeGeorge, because it doesn't keep track of students.

Some of the group members interviewed for this story said the hazing is "not that bad" and that it's worth it to belong. Solidarity. Character building. Trust. Bonding via hot sauce.

"Me and my pledge brothers ... we'd only have one bathroom in the party house we were allowed to clean up in. There'd be like three of us in the shower pouring milk on ourselves and rubbing yogurt on us," said Smith, who explained milk and yogurt can ease the burn.

The point was, they were going through it together. And though Smith doesn't go to UB anymore, he says he'll always be a member of that frat and the frat memories will always be part of his college experience.

Illegal fraternities affect Heights community

During Smith's three years at UB, no one at the university suspected what he was doing. His GPA never reached a 2.0, but no one questioned his affiliations or study habits, he said. Sometimes he would fall asleep under the tables in the basement of Lockwood Library because he was so tired from serving his brothers and from the late-night parties.

UB's most outrageous parties - the ones with the most alcohol and drugs - are usually thrown by illegal frats in their designated "party houses." The youngest members of the frats live in the houses - which the brothers equip with black lights and a bar. Often, beer from kegs saturate and ruin the floors.

Parties cost $5, though girls enter free. The money is used to buy the alcohol that fuels the next party.

Members of the legal fraternities and sororities at UB pay national dues, but being part of an illegal group is cheaper. Each member throws in, at most, $400 per year.

"We'd probably start the semester with 6 to 8 grand. We'd put all that toward rush and booze for the rest of the semester," Smith said. "If we ever ran out of money, we'd throw an open party here and there to make money."

Neighbors in the Heights - some of whom have young families - know all about the parties and the party houses, although they don't know which fraternities are legal and which are not.

Jason, who has lived on West Northrup for over 20 years and asked that his last name not be used, has seen police conduct drug raids in several homes rented by students in unrecognized groups. He said last year was one of the craziest party years West Northrup has ever seen. Two of his student neighbors - both alleged to be in unrecognized frats - were found with drugs and cash. One night, he had to pull a few students, who he believes were in an illegal group, out of his lilac tree because they were hiding from rival groups.

"There's houses in the area that have become distribution places for major drug activity, that they're actually selling to the other drug dealers in the city, and this is coming from what appears to be, in some of these, are actually students from the university," said Mickey Vertino, the University Heights Collaborative president. "And I know this through having conversations with law enforcement. I'm aware it's not just the innocent stuff of trying to have a house party. It's organized businesses."

Vertino has been a resident of the University Heights for about 30 years. He was a landlord from 1984 until 2005, renting homes to students. He remembers a distinct change in culture in the late '90s, when fraternities and sororities started getting an "animal-house" mentality.

After the Sammies, were officially kicked off campus in 1995, the brothers lived in his house, 18 Northrup Place. Even though they were officially banned, they kept the parties and the Sammy name. Their parties caused $19,000 in damage to his house, Vertino said.

The students had a camera above a bedroom door and told Vertino it was used for taping themselves having sex with girls.

But even after he evicted them, different members of Sammies rented from him.

The "notorious thing that happens is you get rid of one group, another group comes in that's really the same group just a different person," Vertino said.

The groups are transient - they move from house to house in the Heights. And once they're caught, they'll choose another house and a different landlord from whom to rent.

National organizations vs. UB: Who's responsible?

All of the unrecognized groups at UB were once legal. But when they didn't comply with their parent organizations' rules and regulations, those organizations shut them down.

Or at least that's how it wassupposed to happen.

Six of the groups - five fraternities and one sorority - were shut down between 1997 and 2013, but they never actually stopped functioning as a fraternity or sorority.

The national organizations argue that once they shut down a chapter at UB, that group of students is no longer their responsibility. UB argues that once a group operates illegally, it has no way of monitoring those students' actions.

"At UB, we know that there is a group of men who are operating using our name," said Leland Manders, the executive director of Sigma Alpha Mu. "We can't seem to identify the individuals involved, so we can't take legal action against them, and we would take legal action against them. We can't get the university administration to give us any information about them because they hide behind the privacy rules, or privacy laws of FERPA, and so we're kind of stuck and we're not in a position in hiring private investigators to try to find these guys and serve them with papers."

Jackson, whose job at UB is to manage the recognized fraternities and sororities, also actsas an illegal frat hunter. In Jackson's 14 years at UB, she has worked tirelessly to root out these illegal groups. She says the national chapters have done little but send a letter asking the groups to stop using their names.

"I got in touch with Phi Delta Theta, Sigma Alpha Mu, which is Sammy, Kappa Sigma, Delta Sigma Phi and ATO," she said. "And although they were very, very willing to do something, what they wanted to do was they wanted me to do all of their legwork."

So Jackson has worked on her own. She has made fake Facebook accounts and tried to befriend students so she could learn what they are doing. She's spent hundreds of dollars on color posters warning students about unrecognized groups. She's asked students to spy for her and has gotten her hands on stolen pledge books.

Little has worked.

Students on Facebook found out who she was fairly quickly. Illegal frat members have torn down the posters.In 2012, she replaced one poster nine times within two weeks.

For years, she had students who helped her get information on the groups. There's a file on her computer called the "Fake Files," which has names of students she found were in illegal fraternities in 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2010. She sent those names to national organizations, which then sent cease and desist letters to the individual students involved.

But, since 2010, students aren't helping her get that information anymore. They don't want to take a risk and sell out their friends if nobody's shutting down the groups.

No national organization has ever taken legal action on individual students at UB. In fact, not one organization member of the five illegal frats has ever come to Buffalo to address the issue.

The Spectrum asked each organization what it did beyond writing a letter.

  • Sigma Alpha Mu: "We tried to get the university to help us shut it down and we're not getting cooperation. We're getting a sympathetic ear, but that's about it. 'Wish we could help, sorry.'"
  • ATO: "Our attorneys sent letters and we got responses from all the men saying that, at that time, that they'd either left school, had not been associated with the organization because they didn't appreciate what it was doing and that they would not use the letters anymore or the name."
  • Kappa Sigma: "Surely someone who has received notice to stop would stop."
  • Phi Delta Theta: "We've previously sent cease and desist letters."
  • Delta Sigma Phi: "From the records of 2001, we had people we knew who were part of that group of men who were around when we closed the chapter ... We don't have any records of a follow-up."

When The Spectrum interviewed the executive director of Kappa Sigma, he said his office is investigating the group at UB and he could not share any information because the case was open. The group has been operating illegally in the Heights for 17 years.

"An emailed letter from somebody in Indianapolis is completely pointless," Jackson said. ATO, for example, is headquartered in Indianapolis, Ind. "It almost makes it a joke. 'Stop doing what you're doing, or else.' OK, well here's the first issue, how are you going to know if I stop it? You can't see from Indianapolis."

What can the national organizations do?

When an illegitimate group was using Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT)'s name and operating in the Heights, an official from its national headquarters in Indianapolis, Ind., traveled to UB.

He came to Buffalo and followed Jackson to two of the members' homes on Englewood Avenue in the Heights. He went in their homes and told them how they could become a legitimate chapter.

"Well here's the deal," Jackson recalled him saying. "If you decide that you don't want to become a legitimate chapter, you need to cease doing what you're doing 'cause you cannot use our letters, our word mark, our logo because all of those are nationally trademarked and licensed, and you're in violation of federal trademark and licensing laws. And we're gonna sue you. And we're gonna sue mom and dad because you're their dependent, too.'"

The group shut itself down immediately. A few years later, in 2010, new students "recolonized" and ZBT became a recognized group on campus that still exists today.

Can an aggressive approach like that work by the university? So far, no UB officials have found a way.

Michael J Pietkiewicz, the assistant vice president of Government and Community Relations, lives on University Avenue in the Heights.

His backyard backs up onto Englewood. One of the houses on Englewood, behind his house, is occupied by an illegal fraternity - and it has been for about three years.

Couldn't he just knock on the door, say UB knows the students are part of an illegal group and the university is shutting it down?

First, UB technically has no jurisdiction in the University Heights. It's patrolled only by the Buffalo Police. Secondly, the students would likely deny being part of the group - and the university would have no grounds on which to punish them. Thirdly, some of the men involved in the group - like in many illegal fraternities - are not UB students, according to Pietkiewicz.

This past fall, the group strung a blue canopy across its driveway for Labor Day weekend so police driving down Englewood couldn't look at the backyard and see what was going on. But because Pietkiewicz lives on the other side, he can look from the corner of his backyard and see everything.

The party started on Friday night and continued until Sunday night, when police finally shut it down. It would die down during the day and pick up at night, Pietkiewicz said. The male students were wearing shirts with Greek symbols on them.

"When [police] got back there, the guys with the symbols started taking their shirts off quickly," Pietkiewicz said.

And there went UB's chance of catching the students.

"It's so underground. It's in the city. It's in the houses that it could be quietly happening," Lidano said.

And, often, groups are recruiting students long before they attend their first class.

"I've had two mothers in the last two years tell me their children were being recruited in the summer, from high schools downstate in the Long Island area," Lidano said.

What can UB do?

What would UB do to a student caught in an illegal fraternity?

Students involved can only be charged for the actions they're caught doing - whether they're caught hazing, possessing drugs or committing other illegal activities. But students can't be punished for being in an unrecognized group unless they admit being in one.

Jackson has seen UB expel "very few" students involved in unrecognized groups during her 14 years working at the university. She said if she had any say, 40 to 50 students would have been expelled by now.

Jackson and Lidano said prevention is the only way UB can try to combat unrecognized groups - particularly through an optional, college introductory class for freshmen, freshman orientation, parent newsletters and posters in the Student Union.

The Spectrum asked 920 students which of those approaches warned them of the unrecognized groups. Forty-six percent said they were never warned.

The future of unrecognized groups at UB

Joshua Sheffer of Washington D.C.'s School Hazing Law, a legal firm, is one of the only attorneys in the United States who focuses on hazing issues for victims - particularly in Greek organizations.

But he rarely ever deals with unrecognized groups - they're often functioning under the radar of colleges and organizations across the country.

"A lot of the times, unfortunately, nothing really happens until somebody gets really hurt," he said.

That's what happened at SUNY Geneseo.

In March 2009, 19-year-old sophomore Arman Partamian was found dead in an off-campus house after pledging an unrecognized group and drinking alcohol excessively.

Wendi Kinney, the assistant dean of Students for Fraternal Life & Off Campus Services at SUNY Geneseo, said the school didn't have to shut down the group, called the Pigs, after Partamian's death. It "naturally" fizzled out.

Sheffer, who was involved in the Partamian legal case, says determining who is responsible for unrecognized group members is not easy. He thinks it's both the university and national fraternity's responsibility.

"I think legally, the fraternity doesn't have to do anything because ... the legal steps the national fraternity can take is they're harming our reputation," he said. "As opposed to the university can take the stance of they're harming our students. They are our students, and they're harming other students, and we have to do something about that."

UB has made it clear it is not responsible for students' behavior off campus.

Why don't national organizations follow up after cease and desist letters? According to Sheffer, it may be more effort than it's worth.

"It's expensive, it's a pain and they have decided it's more trouble than it's worth," Sheffer said. "It's going to be very difficult for a national fraternity to be held responsible for the acts of an unchartered, unaffiliated chapter who just happen to use the same name."