Dying to Fit in
11/01/2004 at 01:00 AM EST
Lynn "Gordie" Bailey Jr. wanted to belong. A freshman at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the 18-year-old from Dallas felt lost on the huge campus and missed the close-knit circle of prep school pals he called his "band of brothers." But nearly a month into his first semester, he told his parents he had forged new friendships in the Chi Psi fraternity. "He told me, 'Mom, these are my kind of kids,'" says his mother, Leslie Lanahan. "He was looking for a group of guys he could trust—that he could have fun with."
Instead, that brotherhood betrayed him. After he and 26 other pledges were encouraged to drink 10 bottles of whiskey and wine at a Sept. 16 initiation celebration, Bailey collapsed in the Chi Psi house. As punishment for passing out with his shoes on, frat members, as was the custom, wrote on his body with felt-tipped markers. What they wrote, says Bailey's father, Lynn Sr., was a slew of obscenities and racial slurs. It wasn't until the following morning that a student, unable to rouse Bailey, called 911. "Is he breathing?" the operator asked. "I don't know," replied the caller. "Dude, wake up."
Then, according to a report in The Denver Post (which authorities would not confirm), at least one fraternity member tried to scrub the writing off Bailey before an ambulance arrived. It was too late on all counts: Medics couldn't revive Bailey, and the epithets remained stained in his skin when his body was turned over to the coroner, who later pronounced him dead from acute alcohol poisoning. "They [wrote] awful things that didn't have anything to do with Gordie," says Lanahan. "Why didn't someone get him help?"
No felony charges or lawsuits have yet been filed, though an investigation is ongoing. In the meantime, Bailey's death—one of four related to alcohol abuse since the start of the school year and the second at a Colorado college within two weeks—has raised disturbing questions about liquor on campus. "Kids have it thrown at them," says Henry Wechsler, director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Schools must decide whether they want to be Club Med or institutions of higher learning."
Despite several well-publicized tragedies, alcohol abuse—particularly on fraternity row—shows no sign of decline. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1,400 college students die each year from alcohol-related causes. And, says Wechsler, 44 percent admit to drinking heavily (defined as at least five drinks for men, four for women, in a single sitting). Since Bailey's death, CU student affairs vice chancellor Ron Stump says the school "is taking a harder look at the Greek system" and is continuing to promote its online alcohol-education course, required of all freshmen as of this year. They are also, says Stump, contemplating handing out Lance Armstrong-style "Live Strong" bracelets to students as a "visible symbol of the behavior we want on campus."
The incident at Chi Psi has shaken up some students at CU, recently rated America's No. 1 party school by The Princeton Review. "We are shocked by his death," says senior Tommy George, president of the Pi Kappa Phi chapter. "All of us need to take a look at what role [drinking] is playing. Brotherhood doesn't come in a bottle."
At the university's urging, the local Chi Psi house has been shuttered, at least temporarily. "I think it's fairly clear this chapter violated [national policies against serving alcohol]," says Donald Beeson, Chi Psi's risk management administrator. "It's difficult. We are headquartered in Tennessee. We depend on local undergraduates to police themselves."
They were clearly unable to do so the night Bailey died. New pledges were brought to a bonfire in the Arapaho National Forest, blindfolded and served four bottles of Ten High bourbon whiskey and six bottles of Carlo Rossi wine before they could return to the fraternity. Having done his part, Bailey returned to the house, drunk and sick. According to the coroner's report, the 6-ft., 230-lb. athlete had drunk enough to raise his blood-alcohol level to .328—over four times the legal limit to drive. "I don't think these kids ever meant to hurt Gordie," says his mother. "But it's an incredibly stupid thing, like loading a gun and passing it around."
Now, loved ones are grappling with the senseless death of a gregarious young man who captained the football team and starred in plays at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. Back then, friends say, Bailey drank beer socially but didn't have a reputation for partying. "He was like the sun to everyone who knew him," says high school friend Serena Keith, 18. "A great big puppy dog."
In his memory, Bailey's family plans to start a foundation to educate students—and their parents—about the dangers of alcohol consumption. At her son's funeral, recalls Leslie Lanahan, "two or three parents gave me hugs and said, 'This could have happened to any of our kids.'"
Allison Adato. Vickie Bane in Boulder, Diane Herbst in New York City and Michael Haederle in Albuquerque