Frathouse to big house: UVA students jailed for 'prank'
Four members of the University of Virginia chapter of Chi Phi fraternity have been sentenced to four days in jail in what even the prosecutor doesn't deny may have been just a prank, a long standing tradition of grabbing a fraternity brother, driving him out of town, and kicking him out of the car.
Having been arrested in September for felony counts of abduction, Jordan Davis, Gabriel Russ-Tierney, Joseph Uzetegui, and Chase Winslow, reached a plea deal with prosecutors and each pled guilty to one count of disorderly conduct on a recent Thursday afternoon.
"We thought we needed to make sure there was a conviction and a punishment," says Charlottesville Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Claude Worrell, "that would make University students think twice before grabbing someone and taking them against their will."
The sight of four University of Virginia second-years–- each wearing the blue blazer, necktie, and khaki pants that constitute the traditional uniform of a UVA fraternity brother–- laughing and smiling, seemed more typical of a football Saturday on Grounds. Instead, they were flanked by a man wearing the grey-and-black jumpsuit of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, and a uniformed deputy sheriff, sitting in Charlottesville General District Court on March 26.
"This has gone on for decades," says the students' attorney, Bud Treakle, whose clients let him do the talking. "You grab a fraternity brother, drive him somewhere, dump him, and drive off."
So, after having been unsuccessful in their first attempt several days earlier, the four pledges grabbed their would-be brother–- second-year student and Chi Phi rush chair Ian Dominguez–- from the fraternity house one day in April 2008.
All four were pledging Chi Phi and put the elder fraternity member in the backseat of a car, and drove him away from Grounds and out of town along Route 240, and kicked him out of the car outside Crozet Pizza. They supposedly called it a "roll."
Everything had gone according to plan–- until two groups of bystanders saw what had happened and thought it anything but a harmless prank. Some citizens were walking out of nearby Three Notch'd Grill and approached Dominguez.
"One group of people went up to the alleged victim," says Treakle, "who told them he had been abducted."
Treakle tells the Hook that, in an effort to protect his pledges from a criminal investigation, Dominguez told responding police he had been abducted by unknown captors from a city sidewalk instead of hauled away from the fraternity house by four frat brothers-in-training. Once Albemarle and then Charlottesville police began investigating, it may have gotten too late to tell another story.
Perhaps unbeknownst to Dominguez, another group driving by in a car had followed the four pledges back to Grounds and called in their license plate number to Albemarle County Police.
"It is my understanding that two or three days later, the alleged victim told police that it was his four pledges, and that the whole thing was a prank," says Treakle.
Dominguez did not return the Hook's calls for comment to verify Treakle's claim.
The Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney's office vigorously pursued the case, obtained a felony charge, and on September 4, 2008, just after the start of fall semester, had the four arrested for felony abduction–- a crime punishable by up to 10 years in jail.
"My personal feeling," says Treakle, "is that it could have been resolved a long time ago, and they could have done some community service, but the Commonwealth insists on sending a message."
Treakle says that his clients decided to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct, rather than plead not guilty to felony abduction and risk a conviction.
Prosecutor Worrell says Treakle is correct in ascertaining that his office wishes to send a message with this prosecution.
"Whether or not it was intended as a prank," says Worrell, "they took somebody against his will, and it was a dangerous undertaking and a criminal act. University students thinking of doing this again need to know that."
Worrell warns the next frat brothers that try to pull off a "roll" in the future will face a different fate.
"This is the last time we approach this kind of case this way," says Worrell. "Next time, if the facts and circumstances warrant it, they will be prosecuted for felonies."
The four students will serve their time starting Friday, April 17.
–updated April 6 at 11:27am. The original post stated that the four students had been indicted on the felony charge– which entails a grand jury– rather than charged by the Charlottesville magistrate. The error has been corrected.