WATKINSVILLE, Ga. - Four former members of the now-defunct University of Georgia chapter of Alpha Tau Omega fraternity have pleaded guilty to charges that they contributed to the death of a fellow fraternity brother in a March car crash.
David Penn, Scott Lakas, Robert Dailey and Stephen McNally entered pleas in Oconee County Superior Court on Thursday in the death of Ben Grantham, a 20-year-old sophomore from St. Simons. Mr. Grantham died after he was thrown from the cargo hold of a sports utility vehicle when it left the road and hit a tree during a fraternity "road trip."
Mr. Grantham, who was a willing participant in the prank, was blindfolded and handcuffed before he was loaded into the car. Mr. Penn lost control of the car while speeding, as other fraternity members pursued him.
In a negotiated plea agreement, 21-year-old Mr. Penn, of Marietta, pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and was sentenced as a first-time offender to five years of probation and 175 hours of community service. A charge of felony involuntary manslaughter was dismissed.
The other three men, who were passengers in the car, each pleaded guilty to charges of misdemeanor-grade involuntary manslaughter and were each sentenced to a year probation and 100 hours of community service. Charges of felony vehicular homicide were dismissed against Mr. Lakas of Lawrenceville, Mr. Dailey of Dalton, and Mr. McNally of Richmond, Va.
The sentences, handed down by Judge Steve Jones, came after the recommendation of District Attorney Harry Gordon.
Mr. Gordon said he had maintained close contact with Mr. Grantham's parents and they were satisfied with the plea agreements.
"His mother has expressed to us that they have complete confidence in what we are doing and agree with what we're doing," Mr. Gordon said.
Assistant District Attorney Eric Eberhardt said Mr. Grantham's parents did not want to see the men get jail time in the case.
"The victim's family never suggested at any point that incarceration was the solution," Mr. Eberhardt said. "They felt it would do more harm than healing. We know they were close friends, (but) there must be punishment for what took place."
Mr. Penn was not drinking at the time of the accident, and a drug screen showed no sign of any illegal drugs in his system, defense attorney Ed Tolley said. Authorities have estimated Mr. Penn was driving along the dirt road three miles south of Watkinsville at speeds of anywhere from 45 to 90 mph at the time of the wreck.
Mr. Eberhardt said Georgia's hazing laws did not apply in the case because Mr. Grantham was not a pledge.
"The young men who were involved in this sad incident thought that it would be fun to grab this young man and do what is known as a `road trip,"' Mr. Eberhardt said. "It was not done with any criminal intent."
Mr. Eberhardt said Mr. Grantham knew he would be involved in the prank, and when his fraternity brothers approached him, he was laughing.
"He said, `OK, I knew you were coming. Take me wherever you're going - let's get it over with."'
Long a tradition of some fraternities, a typical road trip involves blindfolding a member or pledge and dropping him off at a remote location, where the person is forced to find his way back. Mr. Grantham's road trip was initiated by pledges, but other fraternity members caught wind of the prank and tried to thwart it, leading to a chase and the fatal wreck.
All four men were accompanied in court by their parents. Only one, Mr. McNally, chose to speak when asked by Judge Jones if he had anything to say.
"I just regret that anything like this ever happened," Mr. McNally said. "I never thought that it would, and my heart goes out to his family."
Judge Jones told the defendants they should use their time to honor their friend's memory.
"I think the best thing you can do is use your life to do things to honor Mr. Grantham's life," he said.
Thursday's pleas marked the final chapter in a tragedy that brought renewed pressure on the University of Georgia's oft-beleaguered Greek system. After the accident, the ATO chapter at the university voted to dissolve its charter, Mr. Penn was suspended from the university for a year, and 11 other students have faced sanctions in university conduct court.
"I just regret that anything like this ever happened. I never thought that it would, and my heart goes out to his family."- Stephen McNally, who was sentenced to a year of probation and 100 hours of community service in the death of Ben Grantham