When University Hospital staff approached a car in the early morning hours of Oct. 20, they found 18-year-old Daniel Santulli inside.
He was pale, his lips were blue. He wasn’t breathing. His heart had stopped.
Santulli’s blood-alcohol content at that time was an astonishing 0.486, more than six times the legal limit to drive. Hospital staff resuscitated Santulli with CPR but placed him on a ventilator.
That late-night arrival in a fraternity brother’s car was the aftermath of a “pledge father reveal” party at the Phi Gamma Delta house, where Santulli was a pledge.
He wouldn’t recover. According to a lawsuit filed by Santulli’s parents in Boone County Circuit Court, he remains “unresponsive, unaware of his surroundings, unable to communicate and (with) a significant injury to his brain” more than 100 days after the incident.
The family, from Eden Prairie, Minn., is represented by David Bianchi, an attorney who specializes in hazing litigation. Bianchi called the incident “the worst injury of any fraternity pledge” he’s seen in 30 years of work in the field.
The national Phi Gamma Delta organization, commonly known as Fiji, is a defendant in the suit, as is what appears to be the entire MU chapter’s executive board, which includes current students. The national fraternity and university both suspended the local chapter almost immediately following the October incident.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with Danny and the Santulli family during this difficult time,” wrote Ron Caudill, the fraternity’s national executive director, in a statement. “We have received the civil complaint and are reviewing it … We expect all chapters and members to follow the law and abide by the fraternity’s policies, which prohibit hazing and the provision of alcohol to minors.”
‘Not isolated events’
In what the lawsuit alleges to be a tradition, Santulli and the rest of his pledge class stood blindfolded in a room at the Fiji house before they met the older fraternity member who was to be their “pledge father.” After the reveal, the pledges received an assignment from their newly-unveiled superiors: drink a bottle of hard liquor.
Santulli’s pledge father, a defendant in the suit, handed him a bottle of Tito’s vodka. The Missourian is not naming individual defendants because they have not been charged with a crime.
Some pledges had their assigned bottles taped to their hands for added pressure.
Other substances were rife at the event, too: marijuana and cocaine were also “available,” according to the lawsuit.
Such an event doesn’t happen in a vacuum, Bianchi argues.
“These are not isolated, one-off events,” he said. “These are part of a pattern of unsafe and dangerous behavior that represents the traditions of the fraternity.”
A similar situation, in which a pledge member is presented with a “family bottle” of hard alcohol to consume, occurred in 2017 and resulted in the death of Andrew Coffey, a Florida State University student.
That incident led to jail time for fraternity members, a settlement between Coffey’s family and the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity and an anti-hazing law passed in Florida.
MU’s Fiji chapter has also violated university regulations on several occasions. Since 2017, Phi Gamma Delta has six documented violations of alcohol distribution policies and two hazing violations, according to MU’s records.
“None of this was new,” the lawsuit states.
Alleged hazing of Fiji pledges had worn on Santulli before the night of the pledge father reveal party.
Earlier in the pledge process, Santulli had made another visit to the hospital, requiring stitches and crutches for a cut to his foot — the result of an order to climb inside a trash can containing glass shards.
As a result, his grades were in a poor state, as was his mental health. Two days before the reveal party, Santulli broke down crying in front of his sister, who also attends MU, “for the first time in his life,” according to the lawsuit.
“He said he was exhausted, that he could not take it anymore,” the lawsuit reads.
In an ensuing conversation, Santulli’s parents encouraged him to quit the chapter, but he declined, wanting to avoid the humiliation.
Now, the family is “totally devastated,” Bianchi said.
“It’s impossible to overstate how horrific this has been for the family,” he said.
The action they’ve taken has brought its own kind of heartache: When Santulli’s parents filed their lawsuit, they did so on his 19th birthday.
And while requiring “around the clock care,” Santulli himself remains entirely unaware.