Nearly six months after Tucker Hipps—a Sigma Phi Epsilon pledge at Clemson University—was found floating under a bridge in a lake near campus after being reported missing by his frat brothers, the circumstances of his death remain cloudy. But in a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit filed yesterday, his parents allege Hipps died after a fight with his brothers over McDonald's breakfast.
These are the agreed upon facts regarding what happened the morning that Hipps died. At 5:30 a.m., the Sig Ep pledges were taken on a run that crossed a lake adjacent to campus using Highway 93. At some point during the run, Hipps began to lag. Soon after that, Hipps somehow went over the bridge, causing blunt force trauma, and his death. The rest of the group continued on, Hipps never returned, and later in the day police found his body.
But in their lawsuit—which names brothers and run organizers Thomas King, Campbell Starr and Sameul Carney as defendants, along with the Sig Ep chapter, the Sig Ep national organization, and Clemson University—Hipps' parents make it clear that their version of the rest of the story differs greatly from the picture painted by Hipps' brothers after his death.
Back in September, a local police spokesman relayed this version of the frat's story:
Oconee County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Jimmy Watt said Hipps was on a voluntary pledge run with about 30 other pledges and brothers of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity when he began to fall behind the group.
What happened next is not known because Watt said no one saw Hipps fall into Lake Hartwell from the Highway 93 bridge that crosses over the Seneca River portion of the lake.
Here, it's easy to see the frat immediately wiping its hands of any knowledge of what happened to Hipps. The frat, by this account, lost track of Hipps, nobody saw him go over the bridge, and only hours later did they suspect something might be wrong.
If that all sounds a little too convenient, the Hipps family lawsuit (which you can read in full here) argues that it is. According to the suit—which, per the Hipps' attorney, was pieced together with information from "other students and sources"—at least several Sig Ep brothers saw Hipps go over the bridge, and at least one searched for him immediately after. Further, the suit says the cause was an argument over, or perhaps punishment for, Hipps declining to purchase a grand breakfast for the frat from McDonald's.
Hipps' parents allege that Hipps, as pledge class president, was required to buy breakfast for the frat from McDonald's. But they say Hipps told his brothers that he couldn't afford it, upon which he was told to figure it out somehow. Evidently, Hipps either chose not to or was not able to procure the breakfast.
Later, during the run, according to the suit, King—one of the named defendants—received a phone call from a Sig Ep brother who was angry that Hipps had not provided breakfast. King, the suit says, then confronted Hipps:
So far this is all pretty straightforward, but next the parents' story gets a little tricky:
According to Hipps' parents, King approached Hipps about the breakfast, which caused a "confrontation." "Subsequently" Hipps then "went over the railing." The immediate next part of the suit then notes that Sig Ep had a "long tradition" of making pledges jump off the bridge and swim to shore.
The suggestion here is not exactly clear. Did Hipps go over the bridge during his "confrontation" with King? Was he forced to jump from the bridge as punishment for not buying breakfast? They state that that Hipps' went over face first, consistent with his autopsy which revealed abrasions and trauma to his chest, hands, and wrists. If he had jumped on his own, would he have not gone legs first? Was he thrown over?
One implication would basically be manslaughter—that Hipps was accidentally killed during a fight with a frat brother. Hipps' parents, and their attorneys, are careful not to accuse King, or the other two defendants, of that, but they also are very careful not to rule it out. They note that Sig Ep was known for making pledges jump into the water, but they explicitly don't state that Hipps himself jumped.
Regardless, this account of what happened on the bridge goes to great lengths to refute the frat's story that they lost track of Hipps and never saw him go into the water. Where Sig Ep has insinuated that Hipps fell behind the entire group to the point that his whereabouts became unknown, his parents say that King was tasked with running behind all of the pledges.
The theory that at least one, if not several, Sig Ep brothers were present on the bridge when Hipps went over appears to be backed up by a 911 call released by police back in September. In that call, a brother named Cam seemed to pause and omit details when telling the emergency operator about the circumstances of Hipps' disappearance.
Further, Hipps' parents allege in the suit that the Sig Ep brothers have tried to obfuscate the investigation. First, his parents say that a fellow pledge lied to Hipps' girlfriend about him having been seen on campus in order to give the frat some time to figure its story out:
Hipps' parents also say that one brother deleted the entirety of a group text, that King attempted to delete all of his phone calls from the days before and after Hipps' death, and that Starr—one of other named defendants—deleted his calls and changed his phone number during the investigation.
The suit may result in no material victory for the Hipps family—one figures that various teams of high-priced Southern law-yurs will do their damnedest to get their clients removed as defendants, and the suit dropped altogether. Maybe filing the suit is meant to be more of a kick in the ass to the local investigators, who have kept details close to their vests as they conduct their criminal investigation.
In a statement released with the suit, the Hipps' attorney said the following:
"Tucker Hipps's death was a senseless and avoidable tragedy. The culture of hazing and inappropriate conduct by social fraternities must be stopped. Universities and fraternities must make change from within to protect their own. Cynthia and Gary Hipps have filed these lawsuits in the hopes that change will happen and that no other parent will feel the pain that they have been forced to endure. Tucker lost his life, but we must not let it be in vain."
UPDATE (3:40 p.m.): A tipster points out that Sam Carney, one of the three defendants named in the lawsuit, is the son of Delaware representative John Carney. Carney was the state's lieutenant governor for eight years, and has been in the House since 2011.