A blindfolded Nolan M. Burch walked from Kappa Sigma fraternity house the night of Nov. 12 with 19 other fraternity pledges to a nearby apartment building in Morgantown, W.Va.
There, Burch, 18, and the other pledges were each handed a bottle of liquor by a so-called “Big” – a senior member or alumnus of Kappa Sigma. It was all part of an initiation ceremony known as Big Brother, Little Brother that Burch had eagerly anticipated.
And Morgantown police now say that Burch, a freshman from Amherst, drank an extreme amount of liquor, very rapidly. It was so much, so fast, that medical tests showed he had a blood-alcohol content of 0.49 percent.
“It’s the highest BAC level that I’ve ever dealt with as a policeman. I’ve never seen one higher than that,” said Police Chief Ed Preston. “It suggests liquor was chugged, as someone would chug a beer or a bottle of soda pop.”
The astonishing level of intoxication was among the findings forwarded by police Tuesday to the Monongalia County Prosecutor’s Office, which will review what criminal charges, if any, would be pressed in the case.
“I would assume there will be some charges,” said Preston, who declined to elaborate. Police found no evidence that Burch was physically forced to drink hard alcohol, although Preston said there was “peer pressure involved.” He also said that what happened that evening, in his opinion, was hazing.
Following the initiation, a drunken Burch was taken back to the fraternity house, where he was laid on a table. Then, at 11:50 p.m., another fraternity member noticed that Burch’s face had turned blue. Unable to wake Burch and finding no pulse, fraternity members began CPR and called 911. When a police officer arrived, he found Burch on the floor and continued the CPR until an ambulance arrived.
Starting with the blindfolded walk, the events unfolded over the course of less than two hours, Preston said.
Preston said one other Kappa Sigma fraternity pledge also had to be taken to Ruby Memorial Hospital that same night for alcohol-related reasons. The other pledge recovered. Burch died less than 36 hours later.
The university released a statement Tuesday saying that Burch’s death and the new details released by the police were sad and tragic. The statement also said that a ban on Greek activities at West Virginia University remains in effect, except for events such as chapter meetings, philanthropic activities and educational programming.
“Alcohol abuse is an issue with which universities nationwide are grappling. West Virginia University remains committed to transforming the culture on its campus. Led by our student leadership, the university continues to work toward a meaningful change that will create a positive impact on our campus and local communities,” the statement said.
A medical examiner’s report detailing the cause of death has yet to be completed.
Such a high blood-alcohol content no doubt resulted from drinking a huge amount of hard liquor in a relatively short time, said Kenneth E. Leonard, director of the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions and research professor of psychiatry.
Chugging an entire 750-milliliter bottle of liquor would generate a blood-alcohol content of 0.45 to 0.50 percent in most people, although it could vary by weight.
“It’s very difficult to get to that level with anything other than liquor,” Leonard said. “If you drink that much alcohol, unless you’re found very quickly, there will be tragic consequences.”
For most people, a blood-alcohol content of 0.30 percent or higher is “getting into a really dangerous area,” he said, “with potential loss of life.”