The misdemeanor hazing charges filed against an Amherst man in connection with the death of a fellow West Virginia University student two years ago will be dismissed if he stays out of criminal trouble for two years.
Richard W. Schwartz, 22, is required to perform 100 hours of community service, avoid any illegal drugs and take an alcohol-awareness course as part of an arrangement to avoid trial on charges related to the death of Nolan M. Burch, also of Amherst.
“He feels very badly about what happened, of course. But he’s not responsible for this boy dying,” said Robert G. McCoid, a West Virginia attorney who represented Schwartz.
Burch “certainly was not hazed or pressured into drinking,” he added, and Schwartz did not make any admission of wrongful conduct as part of the diversion-and-dismissal arrangement.
Schwartz was accused of handing Burch a bottle of liquor during a ceremony known as “Big/Little” that paired pledges with full-fledged members. Schwartz and another upperclassman, Jordon Hankins of Robbinsville, N.J., were charged with hazing and conspiracy to commit hazing. Hankins was accused of being the “Grand Master” of the fraternity rite that involved Burch and 19 other pledges, who were blindfolded and escorted from a fraternity house to a nearby apartment building, where they were handed liquor bottles, authorities said.
After the initiation, a drunken Burch was taken back to the fraternity house, where he was laid on a table.
A fraternity member, unable to wake Burch shortly before midnight, called 911 and began performing CPR.
Police found Burch on the floor. He died less than 36 hours later in J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, W.Va.
Hankins agreed to a similar pretrial diversion.
The hazing and conspiracy to commit hazing charges against both defendants will be dismissed June 30, 2018, pending successful completion of the diversion program.
The defendants and the Monongalia County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office agreed to the deal back in June, and Monongalia Circuit Court Judge Susan B. Tucker did not oppose it.
The Burch family declined to be interviewed about the disposition of the criminal charges against Schwartz and Hankins.
But in a statement on behalf of the family, attorney Terrence M. Connors said the parents, TJ and Kim Burch, never wanted to see the young men go to jail.
“The focus has always been to raise public awareness regarding the unchecked culture of fraternity hazing that has claimed the lives of Nolan and dozens of other students around the country.
That is the goal of the civil litigation,” Connors said.
Schwartz ended up leaving West Virginia University and enrolling at another college to pursue a degree, McCoid said.
In Amherst, Schwartz and Burch lived only a few blocks away from each other, off of Maple Road near Hopkins Road.
They did not know each other well prior to Burch’s pledging the fraternity, but McCoid described Schwartz and Burch as “friendly” while they were at West Virginia together.
Schwartz gave Burch a ride home from Morgantown during a fall break in 2014.
Burch’s parents filed a wrongful-death suit in 2015, accusing the fraternity of pressuring their son “to drink excessive amounts of alcohol in order to be accepted for admission into Kappa Sigma.”
In addition to the fraternity, the suit also named as defendants the university, Hankins and Schwartz and the owners of the apartment building where the drinking occurred.
The Burches, through Connors, argued in court papers that the university was negligent because it allowed Kappa Sigma to operate as a student organization despite knowing that it promoted hazing, excessive drinking and underage drinking. The lawsuit also contends that the university did not investigate allegations of fraternity misconduct. The case is still in its discovery phase.