Mem­phis heiress takes on NC fra­ter­nity to get an­swers in son’s death

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JOHN HECHINGER

It’s al­most mid­night when Deb­o­rah Tip­ton set­tles down to study the ev­i­dence once again. In her grand Mem­phis home, the scene of el­e­gant din­ner par­ties and fundrais­ers, po­lice re­ports and pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors’ notes cover an an­tique din­ing ta­ble. As if search­ing for a clue from be­yond the grave, she pores over the most painful pages, the ones con­tain­ing text mes­sages from her dead son.

“Get­ting hazed bad now and need Xanax. I didn’t even sleep last night and was shak­ing.”

“I can’t trust any­one right now.”

“What could they do that’s so bad in two hours. They’re just go­ing to yell at us a bunch and maybe make us work out or eat some­thing nasty. They can’t kill us.”

Tip­ton has strug­gled to un- tan­gle the last hours of her son’s life ever since March 26, 2012, the balmy Mon­day when po­lice of­fi­cers gave her the news. Robert, 22 and a ju­nior at High Point Univer­sity, was dead. The au­thor­i­ties would later rule his death an ac­ci­dent, a drug over­dose, an­other ex­am­ple of fra­ter­nity par­ty­ing run amok. Case closed.

To his mother, how­ever, it re­mains very much open. Her sin­gu­lar quest to solve it may test the power of Amer­ica’s col­lege fra­ter­ni­ties, which have beaten back such in­quiries for gen­er­a­tions. Fra­ter­ni­ties own $3 bil­lion in real es­tate and house a quar­ter of a mil­lion stu­dents who tap into an un­ri­valed alumni net­work of pres­i­dents, mem­bers of Congress, cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives and Wall Street in­vestors.

Fac­ing such op­po­si­tion, most might be daunted. Not Deb­o­rah Tip­ton. Heir to a for­tune in rice and cot­ton­seed oil, she has the money and con­nec­tions to fight a for­ever war. For six years, she has poured her sub­stan­tial re­sources into solv­ing the rid­dle of what hap­pened that week­end at her son’s Delta Sigma Phi fra­ter­nity chap­ter. The $1 mil­lion bill for in­ves­ti­ga­tors and lawyers – to date – is no bar­rier.

And Tip­ton says she has found plenty to make her ques­tion the of­fi­cial story. Four years after Robert’s death, her team

got its hands on the full po­lice file. The au­topsy pho­tos showed that he had an­gry pur­ple bruises on his face, around his neck and on his legs and but­tocks, as well as a jagged gash on his head.

A po­lice de­tec­tive had jot­ted down notes. “Bruises?” she scrawled. “How and where did they come from? Talk to Frat Broth­ers.” The de­tec­tive later ac­knowl­edged she never did. High Point Univer­sity had in­sisted on a sub­poena be­fore pro­vid­ing names, she said, but the po­lice depart­ment never sent one.

Tip­ton says the univer­sity is cov­er­ing up the truth, in part be­cause the son of High Point Univer­sity Pres­i­dent Nido Qubein be­longed to the fra­ter­nity. In her view, the po­lice have no in­ter­est in go­ing after one of the com­mu­nity’s most in­flu­en­tial in­sti­tu­tions.

Since 2005, Qubein has raised more than $300 mil­lion for the school, trans­form­ing it from a sleepy Methodist in­sti­tu­tion to a lav­ishly ap­pointed cam­pus of out­door hot tubs and big-screen dorm TVs that draws af­flu­ent stu­dents from across the U.S. Qubein, whose $2.35 mil­lion in an­nual com­pen­sa­tion makes him one of the high­est-paid col­lege pres­i­dents, has do­nated to – and raised tens of mil­lions of dol­lars for – the city of High Point.

The univer­sity said it “strongly re­jected” Deb­o­rah Tip­ton’s ac­cu­sa­tions. Spokes­woman Pam Haynes, de­clin­ing to make Qubein or other of­fi­cials avail­able for in­ter­views, notes that a judge re­moved the univer­sity from a wrong­ful-death law­suit the Tip­ton fam­ily filed. The court ruled that, un­der the law, the school and its ad­min­is­tra­tors did not have a duty to pro­tect Tip­ton, a de­ci­sion that was up­held on ap­peal. “We con­tinue to be sad­dened by the loss of Robert Tip­ton, whose tragic death at an unaf­fil­i­ated, off-cam­pus-hous­ing apart­ment com­plex six years ago was ruled a drug over­dose by the state med­i­cal ex­am­iner,” Haynes says.

The judge also re­moved the na­tional fra­ter­nity, which de­clined to com­ment for this story, from the suit; the re­main­ing de­fen­dants are two fra­ter­nity mem­bers, who deny wrong­do­ing. Walt Jones, the su­per­vis­ing as­sis­tant dis­trict at­tor­ney in High Point, says there is no ev­i­dence of a homi­cide or any rea­son to re­open the case.

Robert’s mother is un­daunted. “What they’re hop­ing is I’ll go away,” she says. “I won’t go away. They didn’t just haze my son. They killed my son.”

Par­ents like Deb­o­rah Tip­ton are fight­ing to pierce the veil of se­crecy that has pro­tected fra­ter­ni­ties for two cen­turies on Amer­i­can col­lege cam­puses. Griev­ing fam­i­lies are push­ing to in­ves­ti­gate deaths once dis­missed as rough­hous­ing gone wrong. They are forc­ing uni­ver­si­ties and leg­is­la­tures to pub­li­cize fra­ter­nity in­frac­tions, rein in their be­hav­ior and toughen the penal­ties after in­juries and deaths. Tip­ton be­longs to a group of 25 fam­i­lies that lost sons at fra­ter­ni­ties. Mem­bers of Par­ents United to Stop Haz­ing hope to bor­row pages from the suc­cess­ful play­book of Moth­ers Against Drunk Driv­ing in the 1980s. For now, few fra­ter­nity ca­su­al­ties ever re­sult in pun­ish­ment or any kind of se­ri­ous reck­on­ing, though the per­mis­sive dy­namic has been shift­ing be­cause of a con­flu­ence of trends: Cell­phones and video cam­eras have cap­tured ev­i­dence that would have pre­vi­ously been im­pos­si­ble to gather, lit­i­ga­tion from fam­i­lies has held fra­ter­ni­ties to ac­count and more zeal­ous pros­e­cu­tions have drawn pub­lic at­ten­tion and out­rage.

Deb­o­rah Tip­ton makes for an un­likely sleuth and cru­sader against Greek life. Now in her 60s, she is a di­vorced former in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tor and fix­ture on the Mem­phis so­cial scene. With her pearls, pink nail pol­ish and Chanel bag, she looks like the debu­tante she once was in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

Greek life has long leav­ened her so­cial cir­cles. Her dad pledged Sigma Al­pha Ep­silon at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia. He and his wife, heir to vast tim­ber and rice hold­ings, so­cial­ized with Wal­mart Inc. founder Sam Wal­ton. At Van­der­bilt Univer­sity in the 1970s, Deb­o­rah Tip­ton joined the soror­ity Kappa Al­pha Theta.

Be­yond that his­tory, Robert was a nat­u­ral for fra­ter­nity life. A high school track star, he was easy-go­ing and out­doorsy and liked noth­ing bet­ter than hunt­ing mal­lards at his fam­ily’s Five Oaks Duck Lodge in Arkansas. With rugged good looks, tousled curly dark-blond hair and open smile, he was pop­u­lar with girls; his phone lit up with flir­ta­tious texts from soror­ity mem­bers.

He chose Delta Sigma Phi, founded in 1899 at City Col­lege of New York, which has more than 100 chap­ters across the U.S. Its motto: “Bet­ter Men. Bet­ter Lives.” But his mother’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors found a darker side to the High Point chap­ter, of­ten called Delta Sig.

In sworn state­ments taken in the Tip­ton fam­ily’s law­suit, High Point Univer­sity chap­ter pledges said they were told to drink whiskey un­til they vom­ited into a kid­die pool lined with garbage bags. One mem­ber re­counted how broth­ers put a hood over his head and beat him, leav­ing him with resid­ual pain in his right shin. At the end of “Hell Week,” where haz­ing reaches its crescendo, older stu­dents would blind­fold each pledge and ask him to lie in a cof­fin packed with ice, ac­cord­ing to a de­po­si­tion.

These rit­u­als con­tra­dicted the univer­sity’s de­scrip­tion of fra­ter­nity life. On its web­site, the school calls Greek stu­dents “out­stand­ing mod­els in the class­room, on the play­ing field and amongst other clubs and or­ga­ni­za­tions on cam­pus.” Deb­o­rah Tip­ton de­scribes her son as in­no­cent and trust­ing. “He did not have a clue of what he was get­ting into,” she says.

On the Satur­day night be­fore Robert’s death, the men of Delta Sig hosted a party. As pledge-class pres­i­dent, Tip­ton had done all he could to make sure it was a suc­cess. He spent more than $1,000 of his own money to buy a fog ma­chine and glow sticks. There was plenty of liquor and drugs. As se­nior and Delta Sig mem­ber Marshall Jef­fer­son re­mem­bered it, guests could tap a Ga­torade bucket filled with a sweet “juice.” The key in­gre­di­ent was Ever­clear grain al­co­hol. From time to time, Jef­fer­son said in a de­po­si­tion, stu­dents would duck into a back room to use cocaine and take pain pills.

Jef­fer­son, who called Robert Tip­ton his best friend, said haz­ing was a part of Greek life. Tip­ton, he said, “knew what he was get­ting into more than any­body. And he wanted to join more than any­thing in the world.”

Dur­ing the party, Jef­fer­son and Tip­ton ex­changed an­gry words. In Jef­fer­son’s telling, Tip­ton was “very ine­bri­ated” and was be­ing too ag­gres­sive in kick­ing un­in­vited men out. “He wasn’t the Rob I knew and loved,” Jef­fer­son said. Tip­ton was

ONE OF THESE DAYS WE ARE GO­ING TO PUT THESE KIDS IN AN AM­BU­LANCE AND THEY ARE NOT GO­ING TO COME BACK. Former se­cu­rity of­fi­cer Walt Tay­lor warned his su­per­vi­sors

also pop­ping the an­tianx­i­ety med­i­ca­tion Klonopin, Jef­fer­son said.

The next night, Tip­ton came by Jef­fer­son’s of­f­cam­pus apart­ment. Jef­fer­son said his friend seemed drunk. Still, he said, Tip­ton drank more. The two also took the opi­oid painkiller oxy­mor­phone, he said, grind­ing a pill into a pow­der and sep­a­rat­ing it into lines that they snorted like cocaine. “We hung out and just talked-you know, girls, ev­ery­thing-and, you know, just had one-onone, brother-on-brother time,” Jef­fer­son said.

As night turned to early morn­ing, Tip­ton sug­gested all was not well. At 1:26 a.m. Mon­day, he sent his pledge broth­ers a cryp­tic group-text mes­sage, al­lud­ing to hav­ing an­tag­o­nized fra­ter­nity mem­bers: “Dear bros, as of re­cent events I feel a lot of u are mad at me for one rea­son or an­other, I’m very sry for losign yal re­spect.”

Tip­ton may have been apol­o­giz­ing for his be­hav­ior at the party. But his texts sug­gest other con­flicts as well. He had be­come close to a soror­ity woman whom an­other Delta Sig was dat­ing. Over spring break, she had va­ca­tioned with the Tip­ton fam­ily in the Cay­man Is­lands. Tip­ton hinted to his younger sis­ter, Mary, that he had be­trayed a fra­ter­nity se­cret to his soror­ity friend. In a text mes­sage, he begged Mary not to tell any­one. Mary, who be­longed to the Delta Delta Delta soror­ity at Van­der­bilt, un­der­stood the clan­des­tine tra­di­tions. “Robert, I would never say any­thing,” she replied. “I get the se­ri­ous­ness of this.”

What­ever the ori­gin of the bad blood be­tween Tip­ton and other fra­ter­nity mem­bers, events took a dark turn. By 11:10 a.m. Mon­day, Tip­ton would be pro­nounced dead at a lo­cal hos­pi­tal.

Jef­fer­son told the po­lice that he and his room­mate had talked a drunk Tip­ton into sleep­ing on the floor of their apart­ment rather than driv­ing back to his dorm. When Jef­fer­son left for class at 9:10 a.m., he said, Tip­ton was on his back, snor­ing loudly. Jef­fer­son re­turned at 10:15 a.m. and saw white foam on the cor­ners of Tip­ton’s mouth. He asked a neigh­bor for help, then called 911. A dis­patcher told him how to ad­min­is­ter chest com­pres­sions.

Deb­o­rah Tip­ton later dis­cov­ered some­thing about the story Jef­fer­son told po­lice: Some of it wasn’t true. Jef­fer­son said his friend had been drunk, but the North Carolina med­i­cal ex­am­iner found no al­co­hol – at all – in his sys­tem. Jef­fer­son said he and his room­mate had been with Tip­ton Sun­day night, but his room­mate hadn’t even been there; he told the po­lice he had slept at his girl­friend’s place.

Un­der ques­tion­ing from Tip­ton’s at­tor­ney, Jef­fer­son ac­knowl­edged that his ac­count to the po­lice had been false. (He and his lawyer didn’t re­spond to mes­sages.) Jef­fer­son said two other peo­ple had been at his apart­ment with him and Tip­ton. One, a High Point ju­nior, told a pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor that he had ar­rived around 3:30 a.m. with a soror­ity mem­ber and that they had left about 4 a.m. In a dep- os­i­tion, the lead po­lice de­tec­tive said nei­ther of them was ques­tioned. (Lt. Cur­tis Cheeks, pub­lic in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer for the High Point Po­lice Depart­ment, won’t com­ment on specifics, say­ing only that of­fi­cers fol­lowed the same process they use in all in­ves­ti­ga­tions.)

Jef­fer­son sug­gested that Tip­ton was tak­ing more anti-anx­i­ety pills than he had been pre­scribed. But the North Carolina med­i­cal ex­am­iner found only a trace of the tran­quil­izer. His re­port blamed Tip­ton’s death on the oxy­mor­phone Jef­fer­son said he and Tip­ton had snorted to­gether, though Jef­fer­son told Tip­ton’s lawyer they shared only one pill.

Two foren­sic ex­perts, one hired by Deb­o­rah Tip­ton and an­other by Delta Sig, found the lev­els of oxy­mor­phone to be too low for an over­dose. “To a rea­son­able de­gree of med­i­cal cer­tainty, Mr. Tip­ton did not die as a re­sult of oxy­mor­phone poisoning as stated in the au­topsy,” said Jan Gor­niak, chief med­i­cal ex­am­iner of Ful­ton County, Georgia, in her re­port for the fra­ter­nity.

Gor­niak pointed in­stead to the bruises, es­pe­cially the in­jury to the head. The North Carolina med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice, which de­clined to com­ment, had failed to in­spect Tip­ton’s brain closely enough to de­ter­mine whether he died of a “sig­nif­i­cant in­jury to the brain,” Gor­niak said. In­ves­ti­ga­tors, she said, should seek out fra­ter­nity broth­ers to de­ter­mine what re­ally hap-

pened that night.

One of those would cer­tainly have been Michael Qubein, the univer­sity pres­i­dent’s son. He was the “new mem­ber ed­u­ca­tor” or “pledge mas­ter,” the stu­dent in charge of ini­ti­at­ing re­cruits.

At High Point, where he stud­ied com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Qubein seemed to have lit­tle to fear from col­lege au­thor­i­ties. Three former se­cu­rity of­fi­cers said their su­per­vi­sors had in­structed them to avoid dis­ci­plin­ing the pres­i­dent’s son or his fra­ter­nity.

“If there’s a prob­lem with Michael Qubein, tell me & I will deal with it,” Jeff Kar­povich, the univer­sity’s di­rec­tor of se­cu­rity, told one of the of­fi­cers, Tony Wil­liams, ac­cord­ing to an af­fi­davit he pro­vided in the law­suit. “I wit­nessed prob­lems with al­co­hol and drugs from Michael Qubein and his friends and there was noth­ing we as se­cu­rity were per­mit­ted to do about it,” Wil­liams said.

Former of­fi­cer Walt Tay­lor said he in­ter­vened when fra­ter­nity mem­bers were beat­ing a young man in front of the fra­ter­nity house. He said he also broke up a fight in­volv­ing Qubein. At a staff meet­ing, he said in his af­fi­davit, he feared fra­ter­nity vi­o­lence could end badly. “One of these days we are go­ing to put these kids in an am­bu­lance and they are not go­ing to come back,” he re­called telling his su­per­vi­sors.

Tay­lor, who said in his state­ment that he re­signed over the univer­sity’s han­dling of Robert’s death, had called a hot­line Deb­o­rah Tip­ton set up to col­lect tips about the case.

Qubein de­nied he re­ceived any spe­cial treat­ment. “I didn’t get away with stuff,” he said at his de­po­si­tion.

Qubein’s be­hav­ior after Tip­ton’s death was odd. He said he had taken Tip­ton’s phone from Jef­fer­son’s apart­ment and then deleted mes­sages and pho­tos; the fam­ily’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors said Qubein deleted at least four ex­changes be­tween him and Tip­ton.

“I was try­ing to pro­tect his fam­ily from the heartache from see­ing what he was do­ing,” Qubein said, re­fer­ring to the drug use. “I knew if some­thing like this had hap­pened to me, I would want some­one else to do that for me be­cause it would save me from em­bar­rass­ment and shame.”

Qubein said he also wor­ried about the fra­ter­nity’s fu­ture if any­one found ev­i­dence of drug use and haz­ing. “I thought the school was go­ing to just try to get us in trou­ble and make a huge – I don’t know. I don’t know. I wasn’t re­ally think­ing.” His at­tor­ney, John Spainhour, while de­clin­ing to com­ment on the de­tails of the case, says: “Michael Qubein is sad­dened by the loss of a very good friend, and he had noth­ing to do with his death.”

In a de­po­si­tion, Gail Tut­tle, se­nior vice pres­i­dent for stu­dent life at High Point, said she heard Qubein had the phone and asked for it so she could re­turn it to Tip­ton’s fam­ily. Two days later, Qubein gave it to Tut­tle. The lead de­tec­tive on the case said the col­lege never handed it over to the po­lice. Tut­tle gave it to Robert’s mother.

Per­haps the most ex­tra­or­di­nary mo­ment came when fam­ily and friends, in­clud­ing fra­ter­nity broth­ers, were at Deb­o­rah Tip­ton’s home in Mem­phis for a re­cep­tion after Robert’s funeral. Qubein left the liv­ing room and walked down a long hall to en­ter Robert Tip­ton’s bed­room. There, Qubein took Tip­ton’s lap­top out of a drawer and signed onto it, us­ing a pass­code pro­vided by a friend.

Qubein searched for doc­u­ments re­lated to Delta Sig and deleted them, he said in his de­po­si­tion. “He had emails about the pledge test and just stuff he had taken notes of,” he said. One of the guests told a fam­ily in­ves­ti­ga­tor that she walked into the room on the way to a bath­room and saw two High Point stu­dents on one of Robert Tip­ton’s twin beds, “in­tensely fo­cused on a lap­top.”

“When they re­al­ized I was in the room, one of the boys put his hand on the top of the lap­top screen and started to close it, as if he did not want me to see what was on the screen,” she said. When she re­turned sev­eral min­utes later, she said, “both boys jumped up, quickly closed the lap­top, put it on the desk and ran out of the room.”

Last Novem­ber, Grant Sperry, a former mil­i­tary in­ves­ti­ga­tor work­ing for Deb­o­rah Tip­ton, shared all these de­tails with the High Point po­lice, lo­cal pros­e­cu­tors and of­fi­cers from the state bu­reau of in­ves­ti­ga­tion: the lies, the bruises, the ev­i­dence de­struc­tion, the foren­sic anal­y­sis, the texts never ex­am­ined, the wit­nesses never in­ter­viewed, the ques­tions never asked. In Fe­bru­ary, a deputy dis­trict at­tor­ney sent Sperry an email, say­ing his pre­sen­ta­tion didn’t pro­vide proof that a crime had been com­mit­ted “be­yond a rea­son­able doubt.”

Sperry, who has con­ducted crim­i­nal foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tions for 40 years, was in­fu­ri­ated. A former U.S. Army spe­cial agent and postal in­spec­tor, he worked on the Ruby Ridge stand-off and FBI shoot­ing, the Waco siege and the an­thrax ter­ror­ism cases. In his view, the au­thor­i­ties set up a Catch-22: re­quir­ing de­fin­i­tive ev­i­dence of a crime be­fore con­duct­ing a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Sperry points out the cu­ri­ous over­sights. If Tip­ton had died of a drug over­dose, why didn’t po­lice ask more ques­tions about where stu­dents had bought the drugs? If drug deal­ers were ped­dling opi­oids on cam­pus, wouldn’t they – and the univer­sity – want to shut that down? “I’ve seen bi­cy­cle thefts get more at­ten­tion than this,” Sperry says.

Jones, the High Point as­sis­tant dis­trict at­tor­ney, says the pre­sen­ta­tion failed to con­vince him or the two State Bu­reau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion of­fi­cers who were present: “There’s sim­ply noth­ing com­pelling there to open up an in­ves­ti­ga­tion.” After the meet­ing, Jones says, he queried the med­i­cal ex­am­iner, who said the level of drugs in the young man’s sys­tem would have been higher than at the time of the au­topsy and did cause his death. Deb­o­rah Tip­ton, he says, just can’t ac­cept that her son had a drug prob­lem. As for the ad­di­tional wit­nesses, he says, “There’s al­ways go­ing to be some­one else you didn’t in­ter­view.”

The wrong­ful-death law­suit sketches out Sperry’s the­ory of the case: On that Sun­day night, Tip­ton was or­dered to Jef­fer­son’s apart­ment be­cause he had dis­closed se­cret rit­u­als to a fe­male soror­ity mem­ber. Jef­fer­son and per­haps oth­ers as­saulted Tip­ton, giv­ing him a head in­jury that led to his death, part of the haz­ing at the fra­ter­nity that was su­per­vised by the pres­i­dent’s son. Both stu­dents deny the ac­cu­sa­tions.

Deb­o­rah Tip­ton is far more in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing crim­i­nal charges. Un­like most states, North Carolina has no statute of lim­i­ta­tions for felonies. She is of­fer­ing a $50,000 re­ward for in­for­ma­tion lead­ing to an ar­rest and con­vic­tion in the case.

Tip­ton says she’ll pe­ti­tion the North Carolina at­tor­ney gen­eral and the gov­er­nor – and be­yond. Un­til then, each night, on her way to bed, she walks by her son’s room, where his clothes still hang undis­turbed in the closet and his high school track tro­phies still top his dresser. “I can’t imag­ine,” she says, “that the state of State of North Carolina doesn’t want to know why this child was left to die.”


Hechinger, a se­nior ed­i­tor at Bloomberg News, is the au­thor of True Gen­tle­men: The Bro­ken Pledge of Amer­ica’s Fra­ter­ni­ties and a former Char­lotte Ob­server re­porter.


Deb­o­rah Tip­ton, at her home in Mem­phis, Tenn., sued the Delta Sigma Phi fra­ter­nity at High Point Univer­sity after son Robert Tip­ton’s death.


Deb­o­rah Tip­ton holds a photo of her son, Robert Tip­ton, and his sis­ter, Mary. Robert, 22, died of a drug over­dose.


Grant Sperry, a former mil­i­tary in­ves­ti­ga­tor who is work­ing for Deb­o­rah Tip­ton.

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