It's 2 a.m. and an underground pledge meeting for the Omega Theta chapter of Omega Psi Phi is underway at a home in Houston's Third Ward. Two University of Houston students are being asked about poetry, the Greek alphabet and the history of the African-American fraternity that can boast basketball legend Michael Jordan, civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson Sr. and comedian Bill Cosby as alumni.
The two pledges blow the quiz. A fraternity member rewards them with lashes across the torso, buttocks and calves with a two-by-six-inch wooden board wrapped in duct tape, an aluminum baseball bat and a TV antenna. One pledge, Jermel Kyle, struggles to remain conscious as he's repeatedly punched in the stomach. Next to him is Lee West III, a 21-year-old University of Houston junior who tries hard not to pass out.
According to West III, who's now 23 and a graduate student at the University of Texas at Dallas, this pummeling in February 2009 was the fourth violent hazing incident that occurred at private residences of Omega Psi Phi fraternity members and alumni. During the first meeting, West III says that a broomstick snapped in two across the backside of his fellow pledge.
Lee West III
Following the fourth and final episode, Byron Bass, West III's roommate at the time, says that Lee had to call him at 4 a.m. for help getting up the stairs of their apartment. "At 6 a.m., I went back into his room and he looked terrible," remembers Bass. "He appeared to be in shock and distraught. Later that day, I had to help him up with his trousers. He was practically crawling around the apartment."
In April 2010, Lee West III, his father, Lee West Jr., and West III's mother, Kathleen Truss (who has since died), sued the four alleged perpetrators, the off-campus Omega Theta chapter and the national fraternity, which is headquartered in Decatur, Georgia. The organization, which will turn 100 years old in November, has more than 700 chapters (including an offshoot at Texas Southern University) in nine countries.
In the past two decades, Omega Psi Phi has been hampered by multiple chapter suspensions, lawsuits and settlements. A high-profile case in 1997 awarded $375,000 to former University of Maryland student Joe Snell after he testified that Omega Psi Phi members had put a heater in front of his face in order to darken his skin because he wasn't "black enough."
Now, West III and his father, a 30-plus-year member of Omega Psi Phi, are seeking justice. Dad says that he didn't file criminal charges because he trusted that he and his fraternity brothers could settle the matter outside of the courts. Instead, West Jr. explains that he was "accused of harming the fraternity through some pre-planned actions." The matter was never investigated by law enforcement.
Terrell Jewett (whom fraternity members deemed too weak to invite back for a fourth meeting) and Kyle are the other two pledges who were present during the alleged late-night beatings. They each told Omega Psi Phi investigators that they were not hazed; Ayesha Mutope-Johnson, who is representing the West family, says she thinks that Jewett and Kyle were intimidated. Jewett and Kyle could not be tracked down for this story.
In a response submitted to the court in the civil suit, the Omega Psi Phi members accused by the Wests — Chike Mordi, Michael Jackson II, Victor Oyeniyi and Kenneth Stinson — denied "each and every allegation." The fraternity, which also denied any hazing took place, has said that any injury to West III, Jewett and Kyle would have been caused "by the negligence of a third party over whom Omega had no supervision or control." (Attempts at reaching the defendants and the fraternity were unsuccessful.)
As West Jr. waits for his family's day in court, he says that many of his old fraternity brothers have either given him a hard time or ignored him. He has struggled between looking after the fraternity that he loves and defending his son.
Lee West Jr., 52, sits on a living room couch inside his spacious home in a tidy subdivision of Grand Prairie. A Bible, a copy of Esquire and magazines about airplanes and flying are organized into various piles on the light-wood coffee table.
West Jr., a lanky and laid-back aerospace engineering tool designer, spends much of his time at home creating blueprints as a successful contract employee. Today, West Jr., who pledged Louisiana State University's Theta Kappa chapter of Omega Psi Phi in 1979, attributes his prosperous life to the lessons he learned as a member of the fraternity.
When Omega Psi Phi was founded at Howard University in Washington D.C. in 1911, the fraternal organization — a member of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, a coalition of nine African-American fraternities and sororities — became the first of its kind at a historically black college. Today, members of the tradition-deep fraternity (nicknamed "Q Dogs," "Ques" and "Sons of Blood and Thunder") often sport the group's royal purple and old gold colors as well as an omega Greek letter that's branded onto their skin.
In the 1980s and 1990s, as more reports of violent hazing surfaced, many fraternity heads publicly banned any and all hazing. As a result, physical and mental intimidation were relegated to the underground, where they're more or less impossible to prevent.
"Although hazing is not a new phenomenon in black frats, and in some cases noted as early as the 1920s, the violent nature has seemed to be exacerbated," says Dr. Rodney Cohen, an assistant dean and director of Yale University's Afro-American Cultural Center. "Many have argued that the change in the 'traditional' pledge process — from the old form of above-ground to underground in the 1990s — has created a more violent form of pledging that's coupled with the pop culture of hip-hop, gangster rap and fatherless homes."
West Jr. did not encounter any overly violent hazing incidents while he was at LSU. That's why he didn't understand when his son called him one night in February 2009 and told him that he had been beaten to the point of nearly passing out.
"He said, 'Dad, I can't do it,' and I said, 'You can't do what?' At that time, I didn't know he had pledged. I had told him, 'If you're thinking about pledging, let me know and I'm going to come down to Houston and speak with the brothers to get some understanding of the process that's going to happen,'" West Jr. says. "Well, he never called me. They just called him and two other guys one night and said to meet them at this address. It took me about 45 minutes to an hour to really get out of him what had happened."
Before Lee graduated from UH in August 2010 with a bachelor's degree in accounting, he wanted to pledge a fraternity but was undecided on which one. Naturally, he gravitated toward Omega, figuring that he could benefit like his dad had 30 years earlier.
At the beginning, the thrashings seemed worth it. Giving up was an alternative, but complicated.
"I didn't want my dad to think that I was a quitter. I also didn't want to let the other guys down," says Lee, who, at one time, considered pledging Alpha Phi Alpha but went with the Omega Theta chapter of Omega Psi Phi because "they seemed like stronger black men who represented manhood."
By Omega Psi Phi standards, an applicant can only be deemed pledge-worthy during a membership selection process that includes submitting multiple essays, letters of recommendation, academic transcripts and the results of a physical exam. In West III's case, he also forked over a nonrefundable application fee of $110.
West Jr. explains that because it often takes three to four weeks for the national office to decide whether an applicant can start the official "on the line" pledge initiation, prospective members may be exposed to the rough stuff during an unofficial, underground process. According to the lawsuit, West III, along with his "line brothers" Jewett and Kyle, was subjected to human brutality.
During the phone conversation with his son, West Jr. urged him to seek medical care. Lee, who was embarrassed by the discoloration on his backside, did so the next day, which was five days after the final underground gathering. Since Dad didn't know all the details, he advised his son to tell medical personnel that he had bruised his left lower back and buttocks in a skateboarding accident. The five-foot-eight, 145-pound West III doesn't even skateboard.
"At the time, I was trying to protect my fraternity and my child," West Jr. says. "I didn't want him to go to the hospital and say that he had been hazed and get the police involved. It was a mistake to do that because everybody just lied anyway."
According to medical records, emergency-room doctors at Memorial Hermann diagnosed West III with internal bleeding. A hysterical West Jr. demanded a meeting with fraternity representatives.
"I figured they'd have enough integrity to tell me, 'Let's sit down, let's remedy this and get to the bottom of why this happened,' but the fraternity never wanted to do that," he says. "They've actively turned their backs on me and my son. I gave them two and a half months to give me answers and all they gave me were excuses."
In April 2010, West Jr. filed a lawsuit in Harris County civil court "in order to rid the fraternity of its rogue members." The attorney representing the defendants, Joseph Callier of Callier & Garza, L.L.P., did not respond to interview requests.
A broomstick fractures in two as West III, Jewett and Kyle are repeatedly pounded at the private town home of Omega Psi Phi member Mordi. He's joined by fellow Q Dogs Jackson II, Oyeniyi and Stinson, who egg on the whooping.
According to court documents, this is the first of four violent hazing incidents that West III suffered through in February 2009. To prepare for the meeting, Stinson asked the three pledges to buy a family pack of Frenchy's chicken, french fries and jalapeños with their own money. West III, Jewett and Kyle were not allowed to eat. Instead, they absorbed blow after blow in the chest with a hard piece of jagged plastic, across the buttocks with a wooden board and in the stomach with closed-fist punches by Mordi, according to the suit filed by the Wests.
At the end of the meeting, West III, Jewett and Kyle are given a sack of dirty blue jeans and whites to wash. One of the fraternity members also hands the three pledges the broken broomstick, and orders them to buy a new one.
After West III, Jewett and Kyle get into the same car and drive away from Mordi's place, the three are pulled over by Houston police, who draw their guns at them. According to the May 12 deposition by West III, the cops, who let the three go after a fruitless search, said that a neighbor had seen "three black guys leaving an unknown house with bags and bolt cutters."
When these and subsequent events were described to Mutope-Johnson, she immediately decided to take the case. "It broke my heart," says the Houston attorney, who specializes in civil rights, employment discrimination and family law suits. "With the [fraternity's] code of silence, people are not telling. They don't want to be embarrassed, humiliated and to be considered snitches or punks."
Jewett and Kyle could not be reached. However, Jewett called Mutope-Johnson in April 2010 and chronicled the third late-night hazing affair.
"It was hot in the house," Jewett says in a transcription provided by Mutope-Johnson. "I had no water [and] I had to do push ups. I passed out. Lee on my right and Jermell on my left held me up."
After Jewett regained consciousness, Omega Psi Phi fraternity member Stinson, then a UH senior and president of Omega Theta, pulled him aside and said, according to Mutope-Johnson's transcript, "As bad as I want you to be an Omega, you can't do it. Don't mess it up for Lee and Jermell. Don't come back. Try again next year."
This was the fourth year that Jewett had pledged Omega Psi Phi. ("I saw people get hit plenty of times," Jewett explained to Mutope-Johnson. "I was willing to put up with that to be a member.") On each occasion, he was not elevated to the authorized process. Mutope-Johnson says that's because fraternity members didn't think Jewett was man enough to take a beating.
Shortly after talking to the attorney, Jewett disappeared, which forced Mutope-Johnson to hire a private investigator. In August, as Jewett walked out of a University of Houston classroom, he was served a subpoena to testify in court.
One of the top fraternity-related scandals in recent memory occurred in November 2006 when Tyler Cross, a University of Texas at Austin freshman who was pledging Sigma Alpha Epsilon, died after falling from a fifth-story balcony of an off-campus apartment. During the trial, witnesses testified that Cross had been forced to drink overwhelming amounts of booze by fraternity members. They also testified he was beaten with bamboo and cattle prods. Cross' parents won a $16.2 million wrongful death settlement from the fraternity in December 2009.
A year before Cross' death, Matthew Carrington, a California State University, Chico student, collapsed during a seizure in the basement of the Chi Tau house during the fraternity's "Hell Week." Carrington, along with another pledge, had been ordered to perform pushups on a raw sewage-covered floor. They were also forced to drink jug after jug of water each time they gave the wrong answers to questions about the frat's history. Hours later, Carrington was pronounced dead from brain swelling due to water intoxication. Four Chi Tau members served jail time after pleading guilty in criminal court to a variety of charges, ranging from involuntary manslaughter to misdemeanor hazing. The fraternity disbanded shortly after Carrington's death.
And in June 2011, the Hillsborough County (Florida) State Attorney's office, following a 10-month investigation, couldn't find an applicable law to prosecute eight Omega Psi Phi members who had supposedly tortured several University of South Florida pledges at an abandoned Tampa strip-mall. Because the chapter didn't file the appropriate forms with the university, the alleged actions did not fall under the state's hazing statute. (Forty-four states, including Texas, have hazing laws.)
Cohen says that even though fraternities all over the country have been nailed by hazing scandals, a turnaround is not impossible. However, he concludes, "It will take bold and aggressive changes that will be painful, lengthy and unpopular. ... I believe it is a will, leadership and cultural problem."
After his son told Omega Theta that he wasn't coming back, West Jr. contacted Willie Hinchen, a former district representative of the fraternity's "Mighty Ninth" District that handles operations in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. Hinchen, who did not return phone calls and emails, immediately stopped Omega Theta from conducting pledging activities. (A representative of the University of Houston's Center for Leadership and Fraternity and Sorority Life says that the Omega Theta chapter remains an off-campus entity that they don't keep tabs on.)
Later, an in-house Omega Psi Phi investigation, which Mutope-Johnson contends was less than thorough and marred by intimidation, took place at the Houston law offices of Wendle Van Smith, who is also a district rep for Omega Psi Phi. Van Smith, along with Omega district counselor Larry Dunklin, individually spoke to the three boys who were allegedly abused. During the interviews, West III said that he had been subject to ill-treatment while Jewett and Kyle denied that hazing took place.
At the end of the meeting, West III says, Van Smith told him, "We're going to take care of this." Mutope-Johnson says that the fraternity not only didn't take care of things, but instituted a "cover-up."
"At first they denied that there was a pledging line at all. Then they admitted to that once I filed the lawsuit because of the detail that was in the lawsuit," the attorney says. "The whole thing is plausible deniability. The fraternity claims to have no clue, never knew about it and the rest of them never did it."
Van Smith, Dunklin and various members of Omega Psi Phi's Ninth District did not answer requests for interviews. However, an April 2009 report co-authored by Van Smith and Dunklin states that Stinson denied knowledge of or involvement in beatings. Mutope-Johnson thinks the investigation should have included conversations with Mordi, Jackson II and Oyeniyi.
Lee West III walks through the door of his father's Grand Prairie house at 7 p.m. and heads to the kitchen, where he looks for his first meal of the day. Earlier in the afternoon, the studious and career-focused 23-year-old — who wears a short-sleeve Izod collared shirt, fitted jeans and fashionable loafers — didn't have time to eat because he studied for and took an exam at UT-Dallas, where he's on track to earn a master's degree in accounting.
Later tonight, he'll head to his room at his older sister's place in Arlington and cram for another test. In December, he'll finish the two-year graduate program in one year so that he can complete his certified public accountant training and start his new job at an accounting firm in summer 2012 in Houston.
Of all the places that he's lived — Compton, California, where he was born; Kent, Washington; and the Arlington area, where he graduated from James Martin High School in 2006 — Houston is his favorite. He's excited to be moving back there next summer, even though thinking about the hazing situations still upsets him.
The civil trial, which was set to begin on September 26 in a Harris County judicial district court, has been pushed back to April 2, 2012. Mutope-Johnson hopes that Jewett, who was a no-show on September 26, comes out of hiding to testify.
In the meantime, West Jr. remains a financial member of the fraternity, paying yearly dues of $275. However, he no longer participates in social functions because he says that Omega Psi Phi members continue to give him the cold shoulder. His anger and sadness continue today, especially because the fraternity will mark its centennial on November 17.
"One thing that pisses me off the most is the mentality that potential members should be beat to become a member," West Jr. says. "The scale to which this has escalated is really high."
Since filing the lawsuit, West Jr. has received several supportive phone calls from fraternity members, though those persons have asked West Jr. to keep those conversations private. A Syracuse University fraternity also reached out to West Jr. and offered his son membership consideration if he happened to transfer to the upstate New York college.
While Dad spoke his mind from the beginning, West III had to be coaxed by his family into going public with the allegations. "It took awhile to speak out because I felt intimidated, but I eventually came around, especially knowing that I may be able to save someone's life," Lee says.
"I sometimes relive the moments and those feelings. It was one of my lowest points because I felt all alone. Honestly, what keeps me going is how it affected my mother." Kathleen Truss, who remained crucial to Lee's upbringing despite a 2003 divorce from West Jr., lost her battle with cancer in 2010.
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Eventually, Lee says that the physical torment became too much to deal with. "I started to feel so much pain and it lasted days and weeks," he explains. "Then I realized that I was getting beat like an animal."
Today, West III says that he's had two and a half years to detach himself from those days of fear, anguish and hospital treatments. "I've built up enough strength to not let it bring me down," he says. However, even though he knows that he made the right decision to quit the fraternity, "It still nags me that I couldn't finish what I started."
Win or lose, West III is looking forward to getting a shot at saving future folks from similar agony that he once thought would make him a better person.
"People may wonder why I would go back a second, third and fourth time. In my mind, it's actually pretty simple. When you want something so badly, you don't think rationally. I thought to myself, 'Okay, I don't enjoy getting beat, but it should be worth it at the end.'"