Victim of hazing saw no way out
Pledge Marcus Jones thought the fraternity members were his friends. He was mistaken.
By Rodney Thrash, Times staff writer
Published September 2, 2007
DECATUR, Ga. - Marcus Jones has never talked about what happened in the abandoned warehouse.
Over four nights in late February 2006, he and 25 other fraternity pledges at Florida A&M University blindfolded themselves with sanitary pads and stockings as members slapped, punched and whipped them with wooden canes thick as bats.
Marcus, then 19, became the face of a landmark Florida hazing case that brought the conviction and imprisonment of two fraternity brothers, a university-imposed suspension of three others who pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and, now, a civil suit against them and the national, regional and local chapters of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc.
The FAMU case played out before a national audience, the first test of the state's new antihazing law. Court TV carried the trial. Fox News interviewed Jones' father. Some black Greeks labeled Marcus a snitch. But all along, it was his dad who did the talking.
For the last year and a half, accounts of those four nights came from Marcus' father, Web sites, reams of police reports and court documents. Now, the face of that historic case has a voice. He wants to let people know why he felt he couldn't back out.
"Once you get so far into it, they'll badmouth you, talk about you, spread rumors about you throughout the campus. It's a point of no return."
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Marcus entered FAMU in the fall of 2004. He and his father wandered the sprawling campus, lost. They came across two impeccably dressed men who they would later learn were Torey Alston, president of the school's Kappa chapter, and Jason Harris. They answered "yes, sir" and "no, sir." Mark Jones, Marcus' father, was impressed. He asked them to look after Marcus.
Alston and Harris did. They invited Marcus to the frat house and Kappa-sponsored parties. They gave him rides to Wal-Mart. They joined him for lunch.
The organization seemed to produce leaders. The first black mayor of a major U.S. city was a Kappa. So was the first black billionaire and founder of Black Entertainment Television. On FAMU's campus, Kappas were president of the student senate, the pharmaceutical society and other high-profile organizations.
Marcus didn't have to look far for examples of great Kappas. His dad, an Army master sergeant, was one. If his dad was part of this, Marcus figured fraternal life must be a good thing.
By the end of his freshman year, Marcus decided he wanted to be a Nupe, as Kappas are called. He had no idea the price of membership would be so high.
"We were all friends," he said. "I thought that's what a fraternity was about: treating each other like brothers."
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In the African-American tradition, Greek life is premium. It extends more than white fraternities and sororities beyond the college years. Membership in one of the nine black Greek-letter organizations means instant access to a network of 1.5-million.
Sometimes, membership exacts a brutal cost. Though the groups officially banned hazing after the 1989 death of an Atlanta college student, the policy is hard to enforce. Even with additional layers of accountability - alums of the organizations, usually graduate advisers, are supposed to be present for all membership intake proceedings - hazing permeates Greek life.
Members sign waivers saying they won't haze but do it anyway. Prospects sign agreements saying they'll report hazing and yet they willingly subject themselves to physical abuse and other forms of humiliation and keep it secret.
"You have insecure 18- to 21-year-olds who are trying to prove their manhood, how tough they are," said Lawrence C. Ross Jr., author of The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first black fraternity.
For Marcus, the tests began at the end of his freshman year, months before he stepped foot in the abandoned warehouse.
"Members of the fraternity started approaching me saying, 'This is what you need to do.' "
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They demanded loyalty and gifts. Marcus spent $1,500 in four months. One member, whose job it was to clean a local car dealership, collected his paycheck even as Marcus and other pledges did the man's work for him. Another asked Marcus for the shoes off his feet. Marcus refused. Fraternity brothers cursed and scolded him.
Marcus called Alston, the chapter president.
"What am I supposed to do?" Marcus asked.
"We all went through it," Alston said. "It's just a process."
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Pledging didn't officially start until Feb. 26, 2006, but the beatings began Feb. 23 at a Kappa's house. All 26 pledges wore the same uniform: white T-shirts, blue jeans and black hoodies. They couldn't look at any Kappas and were required to keep their heads down.
Inside the house, the dean of pledges, a 6-foot tall, 245-pound man the group all recognized as Michael Morton, told them to stand. One by one, he slapped them and ordered them to sit.
"Now," Morton said, "you all are my sons."
Marcus thought Morton's pop was a scare tactic, that it wouldn't happen again.
But during the first and second nights, the Kappas snatched Marcus by his T-shirt, slapped him until his eye was black and whispered in his ear:
"Are you gonna tell your dad?"
"Your dad better not find out!"
"If your dad finds out, we'll find you and we'll kill you!"
They ordered him to "get in the cut," which meant bend over, protect the testicles and prepare to get whipped. Kappas struck him four to six times each. They paddled him again, along with the rest of the pledges. Canes broke and were taped together to make even thicker ones.
On the third and fourth nights, they wound up at the warehouse. The beatings continued.
Before the paddling began on the fourth night, the Kappas inspected the pledges' injuries and marked an X on the side that was bruised most. Marcus didn't get any X's marked on his back even though he had some of the most severe injuries.
"That's probably the worst pain I've ever felt," he said. "Like a whole bunch of needles poking you in the butt."
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Marcus has difficulty explaining why he submitted himself to the beatings. As a pledge, he said, you're not yourself. In a sense, you're brainwashed.
"They kept feeding us that same story: 'It's nothing. Nobody's trying to hurt you. This is how you get into the fraternity.' "
Marcus said he felt there was no turning back. He'd paid his $2,100 membership fee and wanted a return on his investment. And the Kappas threatened the pledges. If one person quit, they would dismiss the pledges and keep their money.
"You're talking about thousands of dollars just because of you. What are you supposed to do? I had friends on that line."
Throughout the pledge process, Marcus leaned on his dad for advice. Mark Jones heard hesitancy and pain in his son's voice, which concerned him. Unbeknownst to Marcus, his father called the regional director in charge of Kappa chapters in Florida. The graduate adviser to FAMU's Kappas called an emergency meeting with the pledges on March 2. An attorney was present. Each pledge was given a questionnaire:
Have you ever been hazed as a KAY fraternity member?
The pledges, Marcus included, checked "NO."
Still, the regional director deactivated FAMU's Kappa chapter on March 3, pending an investigation. Later that month, the chapter was suspended until 2013. It was the last day of classes before spring break.
Marcus couldn't wait to get home.
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His buttocks hurt so much that he stacked sweatshirts and pillows in the driver's seat of his Infiniti I30. The whole trip, he sped.
When he got home, he walked past his mom without speaking and collapsed on his bed. Carolyn Jones called her husband. Mark Jones looked in the driver's seat of Marcus' car and saw blood. He went to Marcus' bedroom. He told him to drop his pants. Marcus' backside looked like something out of a cartoon. "Like an alien growing out of him," Mark Jones said. "The buttocks was so swollen I didn't even pay attention to his legs or his eyes."
His parents rushed him to the emergency room. The doctor took one look at Marcus' injuries and asked: "What kind of animals would do this?"
Mark Jones picked up the phone. Somebody had to pay.
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Monday, students started a new school year at FAMU. The friends Marcus has left are talking about graduation in the spring and the rest of their lives.
Marcus can't relate. Except for the trials, he hasn't returned to Tallahassee or, for that matter, any college campus.
His injuries forced him to withdraw from FAMU and forfeit his academic scholarship. Even if he had been well, Marcus said he couldn't have returned to school. He's afraid. The network of Kappas is vast - 200,000 members with 700 undergraduate and alumni chapters, in every state, the United Kingdom, Germany, Korea, Japan, the West Indies and South Africa.
In many ways, Marcus, the man, has reverted to Marcus, the boy. The man had a job at Parisian department store, an apartment, his own money, a vibrant social life and dreams of working for the Environmental Protection Agency. The boy lives at home, gets an allowance from Mom and Dad, plays with a pet rabbit, barely leaves the house and isn't sure what his future holds. He sees a psychologist, who is teaching him that the friends who abandoned him were never really his friends. He takes online courses through the University of South Florida. He just received enough credits to become a college junior.
On Aug. 21, Marcus filed a civil lawsuit against the national, regional and local Kappa chapters as well as the five men - Morton, 24, of Lauderdale Lakes; Harris, 26, of Jacksonville; Brian Bowman, 24, of Oakland, Calif.; Cory Gray, 23, of Montgomery, Ala.; and Marcus Hughes, 22, of Fort Lauderdale - who he said hazed him. "I haven't heard an apology from none of them," Marcus said. "I just want the truth to come out."
Chuck Hobbs, a Tallahassee lawyer who represented four of the five frat brothers in the criminal trial, said should the civil case go to trial, he would lay the blame squarely at Marcus' feet.
"He willingly submitted to going to these clandestine meetings in what we now know was him being struck over the course of four nights," said Hobbs, a Kappa. "He's going to have to answer to, 'If you knew that you were not supposed to go and if you signed documents promising not to go, why did you go?' "
Baloney, said Ross, the fraternity and sorority expert. "The great majority of the responsibility lies on those of us who have been given the gift of being members of our organizations and therefore, have pledged by raising our hand, that we're going to follow the rules and bylaws of the organization."
On Saturday, Marcus turns 21. He's not sure how - or if - he'll celebrate. "Watch," he said, "that'll be the night something happens."
Tucked in a corner of the family's living room, face down, was a painting Marcus hoped to give his dad. In the picture, a young man looks in the mirror, his father's image in the reflection. He holds his hand in the shape of a backward 6, the Kappa hand sign. The little boy wears a crimson-colored T-shirt that reads: KAPPA.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at (727) 893-8352 or firstname.lastname@example.org.