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 untangle 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 in North Carolina, 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. In 2010, the police department named him an honorary colonel.
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, to date, 25 families that lost sons at fraternities in recent years. 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: Cell phones 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, herself 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 all 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, a wood-paneled redoubt overlooking 6,000 acres of flooded timber and rice fields in Arkansas. With his 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 of the fraternity, 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 natural 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 also popping the anti-anxiety medication Klonopin, Jefferson said.
The next night, Tipton came by Jefferson’s off-campus 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-on-one, 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 deposition, the lead police detective said neither of them was questioned. (Lieutenant 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 happened 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.
Another former officer, Walt Taylor, said he once 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. At one point, Qubein left the living room and walked down a long, narrow 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 another 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.”
In November 2017, 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, in fact, Tipton had died of a drug overdose, why didn’t the police ask more questions about where students had bought the drugs? If drug dealers were peddling opioids on campus, wouldn’t they — not to mention 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. As of September 2018,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 North Carolina doesn’t want to know why this child was left to die.”
John Hechinger, a senior editor at Bloomberg News, is the author of True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities.