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- July 01, 1991
- Vol. 35
- No. 25
When Cops Came to Frat Row
At the University of Virginia, Drug Busts and Tough Prison Sentences Bring Crime and Punishment to the Greeks
He was not alone. In March, law enforcement agents raided three University of Virginia fraternity houses—DU, Tau Kappa Epsilon and Phi Epsilon Pi—and arrested Schwaab and 11 others for selling drugs to undercover agents. The students, authorities say, were part of a not particularly secret drug culture in the frat houses along stately Rugby Road. "You had to be blind and naive not to know what was going on in those fraternities," says Charlottesville Police Chief John deKoven Bowen. Indeed, there was so much drug activity at Tau Kappa Epsilon that some students jokingly altered its traditional nickname, Teke, to Toke.
The raids caused a series of aftershocks that continue to reverberate across the elegantly languid campus, designed by the school's founder, Thomas Jefferson, 172 years ago. First, federal authorities announced they had seized the three fraternity houses—worth $1.3 million—under a tough law that allows the government to confiscate property used in drug trafficking. (Students were permitted to stay in the houses until the end of the semester.)
Then on June 3, as federal agents boarded up the empty fraternity houses with plywood, there was another bombshell. Federal Judge James Michael sent the first of the student defendants, Ernest Pryor, 19, a third-year mechanical engineering major from Goochland, Va., to prison for 13 months with no possibility of parole. Pryor was charged with two counts of selling small amounts of pot. But Judge Michael said he had little leeway under federally mandated sentencing guidelines, even though he was dealing with a young, first-time defendant. "It tears at the court's conscience in a case such as this," the judge said. "But Congress has spoken. I have no choice."
The judge, himself a University of Virginia graduate, did recommend that Pryor be sent to a minimum security prison in West Virginia where he might be able to continue college classes. That was apparently little comfort to Schwaab, of Fairfax Station, Va., who agreed to plead guilty last week to one of five counts against him. Before his plea, Schwaab appeared frightened. His mother leaned over the courtroom railing to give him a reassuring hug. His fears are understandable. He faces at least one year in prison, but could get up to 10 years and a $500,000 fine. He will be sentenced Sept. 17.
The raids were the result of a six-month investigation that began after Charlottesville's black leaders complained that police had not pursued drug abuse in the white neighborhoods with the same zeal they had among blacks. Bowen sent a letter to each of the school's 34 fraternities warning them that drug dealing would not be tolerated, but it became clear that the letter was being ignored, and he brought in the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. Together, local police and the DEA worked with several student informants and sent undercover agents into the fraternity houses.
One of the undercover agents, Charlottesville police officer Mike Deeds, 23, was so young he had to be recruited from the police academy. Armed with an I.D. card from nearby James Madison University and a newly grown beard, Deeds went from fraternity house to fraternity house to hang out and buy drugs. He didn't need to be a supersleuth to succeed. "Pretty much every room had some usage, and people around the campus knew what was going on," he says.
At times the scene seemed like an exercise in time travel, a throwback to the '60s, like late-night smokers in Schwaab's first-floor bedroom. "There were two bags of marijuana sitting out in the open, and a bong [water pipe] was being passed around, with people taking turns smoking out of it," said one undercover report. "The door was open to the room, and people were coming and going freely. The hallway contained a strong odor of marijuana."
If the students were nervous about the police, they didn't show it. "Many a night a police officer would ride by [one of the houses], and they'd be in there smoking dope, and they'd laugh," says Mike Deeds. "They believed they were untouchable."
The raids brought mixed reaction on and off campus. The university administration, Virginia's Gov. Douglas Wilder and the Washington Post all backed the busts. And blacks were delighted. "The raid was past due," says former Charlottesville NAACP president Drewary Brown. "I hate to think of anybody's son or daughter getting arrested, but if it was my child downtown here, they'd have gotten him long ago."
Students took a different view, arguing that drinking is far more common than drug use. "Doing drugs was never a public activity," says Rachel Chamberlain, a third-year student from Allendale, N.J. "It was 12 people out of 12,000. It's not like everyone does drugs."
Others maintain the cops busted the wrong houses. "They didn't get everyone," says Kristen Davis, 20, a third-year English and premed student from Annandale, Va. "There's cocaine at other fraternities. They just missed it, for whatever reason." Chief Bowen readily admits that some dealers got away. "We know there was a lot more distribution up there than what we got," he says, adding that, for the moment, "I doubt if you could get any drugs at those fraternity houses. It'd be like squeezing blood out of a rock."
Some students and parents were also angry at the prospect of more harsh sentences for the sale of relatively small drug amounts. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ray Fitzgerald Jr. disagrees. "The quantities purchased by the officers were designedly small," he says. "Their objective was to buy some from a lot of people rather than buy a ton from any one person....What was interesting was how easy it was to get it from so many people in those locations."
Federal officials readily admit they hope that the harsh sentences and seizure of property will send a message, one that will be heeded on campuses all over America. "There are no safe havens," says U.S. Attorney E. Montgomery Tucker, "no safe places to conduct drug trafficking."
SARAH SKOLNIK and MARILYN BALAMACI in Charlottesville
- Sarah Skolnik,
- Marilyn Balamaci.
November 25, 2015
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