The Jan. 31 suicide of an 18-year-old University of Cincinnati freshman at the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house is raising concerns about social pressures on new pledges and drug use.
Jacob Saylor was pronounced dead at 9:10 a.m. after hanging himself in a bathroom stall at the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house on Joselin Avenue in University Heights.
Saylor's roommates told police that Saylor had taken mushrooms — containing a hallucinogens such as psilocybin — at 7:30 the night before. They said they last saw him alive at 2:30 a.m. Jan. 31, though others close to Saylor said he paged his girlfriend twice at about 6:30 a.m.
Saylor's friends, family and fraternity brothers now are trying to account for Saylor's last hours.
Police, coroner and toxicology reports had not been released at press time, but the death was ruled a suicide — the last thing friends and family members said they would have expected.
"I never saw Jacob upset about anything, and I least expected this from him," said a friend and fraternity member CityBeat agreed not to name. "I don't think anyone forced him into using the drugs. These are choices he made on his own."
But drugs — which he said Saylor got from another fraternity member — obviously played a major role in his death, he said.
And, he said, the incident clearly illustrates a problem with Greek life that is out of control.
"I want everyone to know that this fraternity and a lot of others are doing lots of drinking and are taking part in illegal drugs," he said.
To be affiliated with the University of Cincinnati — a public institution — fraternaties and sororities have to follow certain rules, which include prohibiting illegal activity.
Nathan Brown, president of Sigma Phi Epsilon's local chapter, said Saylor absolutely did not get the drugs from any of his fraternity brothers. But fraternity spokesmen refused to comment further on the specifics of Saylor's death.
"We are cooperating with the police, but cannot comment," said John Abraham, the fraternity's alumni board president who is acting as the fraternity's official spokesman. "This is a great concern of ours, and it's critical for us to find out as much as we can to prevent a recurrence."
Saylor's death comes at a time when Sigma Phi Epsilon is considering a ban — like other fraternities such as Phi Delta Theta and Sigma Nu have implemented, which will prohibit alcohol on their premises nationwide by July 1, 2000, Abraham said.
"That's being discussed," he said. "These are the kind of behaviors that we want to embrace."
Abraham said that along with the police, the alumni board was investigating the matter. But he said no conclusions would be drawn until police finished investigating.
Saylor's family declined to be interviewed for this story.
According to the Deceased Person Report on file with the police division, fraternity member Daniel Gordon told police that Saylor took mushrooms at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 30 and that he also might have used marijuana.
Gordon also told police that he last saw Saylor alive at 2:30 a.m. Jan. 31 and that Saylor had been complaining of a severe headache before he went to bed, according to the report.
It was another of Saylor's roommates, Jason Bertin, who found the body at 8 a.m., according to the report.
According to Cincinnati Police Communications records, Bertin called 911 at 8:19 a.m.
"There's a person that's committed suicide," Bertin told the 911 operator, according to a copy of the tape. "A person has committed suicide I think. ... He's like he's like hung by a belt."
Gordon and Bertin did not return messages from CityBeat to comment for this story.
Because the incident has been determined to have been a suicide, homicide detective Harry Frisby said police have closed the case although the report still was unavailable at press time. Frisby said he did not yet know the results of toxicology tests.
Karen Krummen, a toxicologist at the Drug and Poison Information Center, said that, in general, psilocybe mushrooms have similar effects to those of LSD because the compound in each is similar.
But because she did not have the details needed to comment on the circumstances surrounding Saylor's death, she stressed that her comments were general.
She said that regular mushrooms also can be laced with LSD and passed off as the psilocybe type.
According to the Deceased Person Report, cough medicine and marijuana residue in a plastic bag also were taken to the coroner's office with Saylor's body.
"There have been suicide reports of people who did it shortly after taking LSD, but it's not common at all," Krummen said. "These types of drugs enhance everything you feel. So if you are in a certain state of mind already, the drug will enhance those feelings."
The atmosphere and people surrounding the person on the drugs will have an impact on emotions and feelings, she said.
"For example, if you are in a negative atmosphere and around people you don't trust, it could bring on feelings of paranoia and anxiousness and cause what is called a bad trip," Krummen said. "On the other hand, if you are in a good atmosphere it is more likely to bring on feelings associated with that. But a bad trip can happen even under good circumstances."
Krummen said that the length of time psilocybe mushrooms or LSD can continue to affect the user depends on each specific person and amount of the drug taken. Psilocybe mushrooms generally have an average time frame of four to six hours, but it might take up to 12 hours for the user to recover from the drug's effects, she said.
The average time frame for LSD is a little longer — six to eight hours — and also could last up to about 12 hours in some cases, she said.
The university has not launched an investigation into Saylor's death, said Greg Hand, university spokesman. Because the fraternity is off-campus and independently chartered, it is not the jurisdiction of the university to investigate unless a complaint is filed, he said.
No complaint had been filed as of Feb. 16, he said.
The university's administration does not have a written policy about rules that apply to student organizations, Hand said. Instead, written policies of the Interfraternity and Panhellenic Council and the criteria for registered student organizations from the Student Activities Board govern fraternities and sororities, Hand said.
"There's a three-way governing with fraternities," he said. "We govern what they have to abide by to be considered an affiliate with the university."
Hand said that includes such allowances as the use of facilities, use of the university's name and recruiting members on campus. Other governing bodies of an off-campus fraternity would be its house and national affiliate, he said.
According to the Interfraternity and Panhellenic Council's Greek Risk Management Policy, "The possession, sale and/or use of any illegal drugs or controlled substances at any chapter house, sponsored event or at any event that an observer would associate with the chapter, is strictly prohibited."
Abraham said that each member of the fraternity was required to sign a membership agreement, which included rules about drinking and illegal drug use.
"It is made very clear that disciplinary action and/or dismissal will take place if our standards are not met," he said. "It is a very clear written policy."
Alcohol is allowed on the premises of the fraternity if it belongs to a member that is of legal drinking age, Abraham said.
Abraham said the fraternity hosted an alcohol awareness and risk management presentation at the university on Feb. 8.
A fraternity member who CityBeat agreed not to name said Greek life put a lot of pressure on its members to drink alcohol and party. Saylor was the youngest member living in the Sigma Phi Epsilon house, he said.
"Especially being a new pledge, you want to be liked by them," he said. "Although it's your choice, and they don't push so hard once you have said no, it makes things very uncomfortable. It's hard."
He also said there was a lot of pressure to join the fraternity.
"They don't give you enough time to think about it, they just push," he said.
He said that Saylor was doing very well in school, talked about how much he loved his mom and had a close relationship with his family. Federal law prohibits the university from releasing Saylor's grade point average to the media, Hand said. Saylor was a pre-science major in UC's University College.
"It's unfortunate a crisis like this had to happen to open my eyes," his fellow fraternity member said.
Fraternity president Brown said he could not discuss these and other allegations further because Saylor's family had requested that the fraternity not comment on the incident.
"I'm not trying to hide anything from you," he said.
Abraham said that one fraternity member — who told CityBeat that he opposed the fraternity's use of alcohol and drugs — had resigned from the fraternity in the aftermath of Saylor's death.
"I'm sure there are going to be other people that should resign," Abraham said. "We have certain standards of behavior, and if people can't conform to those standards, then I would hope they would see their way to resign." ©