Family skeptical about integrity of San Diego State investigation into student’s death
San Diego —
San Diego State freshman Dylan Hernandez was determined to do well on a midterm exam in early November, telling one of his sisters he planned to stay sober at a fraternity party the night before the test.
It did not turn out that way.
In the kind of tragedy that has been plaguing American universities, Hernandez ended up drinking to the point where his blood alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit, according to a newly obtained university police report.
The document says the 19-year-old Hernandez, who was pledging, left the party with a Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brother who guided him to his dorm. The teen later fell at least six feet from his top bunk, fractured his skull and died.
The incident unfolded on Nov. 6 and 7 and has raised serious questions at the college about underage drinking, hazing, the possible destruction of evidence, and what additional safeguards the school could have taken.
Family members also have concerns about the integrity of the department’s investigation.
The bulk of the investigation was completed less than three weeks after Dylan’s death, according to a copy of the report provided to the San Diego Union-Tribune by George Kindley, the attorney representing the Hernandez family.
Kindley says the family was puzzled by the report because the investigation did not appear to be complete. Under the report’s recommendations, police said “case suspended pending additional evidence or information.”
The report also suggests that campus police did not interview anybody from the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, including about a dozen specific members who likely attended and had videos or images from the party.
One video shared with the Union-Tribune shows a young man getting spanked with a paddle. Another shows a man who had been slapped on the back so hard or so often that he had hand-shaped welts on his back. Yet another shows a man who appears to be passed out on the floor, facedown in vomit.
The department also chose not to pursue search warrants to review cellphone records and social media records of students, despite possessing chat messages between suspected fraternity members instructing one another to delete possibly incriminating material and to stay quiet. “Remember silence is golden,” one member wrote.
“The university and the police department made a promise that they were going to investigate the drinking and the hazing that they knew happened that night,” said 22-year-old Julia Hernandez, one of Dylan’s two sisters.
“When my dad spoke to them recently they said they have not interviewed anyone [who was] at the party, they have not gone to the [fraternity] house, they have not retained any information from the fraternity or its members, so, in our eyes, the investigation isn’t complete.”
The report’s initial conclusion on Nov. 27 was that there was not enough evidence to pursue criminal charges, including felony hazing. Neither the university police department nor the District Attorney’s Office would answer specific questions about the case since the investigation is ongoing.
On Friday, police issued a public statement that says, in part, “As this is an ongoing investigation, detectives will continue to examine all aspects and details of the case. … Further updates about the case will be provided as the investigation progresses.” They also asked anyone with information about the incident to contact campus police.
By the time Hernandez headed home from the fraternity party at about midnight, his blood alcohol level was about 0.23%, nearly triple the legal driving limit of 0.08, according to a blood test and the college’s police report. This estimate assumed Hernandez had stopped drinking about 11:30 p.m. and was based in part on the rate alcohol generally dissipates from the body.
He was guided back to his dorm at Tenochca Residence Hall by his newly appointed fraternity mentor who then handed Hernandez off to a young woman he knew, according to the report. With her help, the teen made his way to his room and into bed.
According to his roommate, Hernandez fell out of his top bunk about 4:30 a.m. on Nov. 7. The roommate told police he and Hernandez laughed about it, but that Hernandez complained at the time of a headache. The roommate heard Hernandez mentioning his headache again around 7 a.m.
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Around 8 a.m., the roommate sent a Snapchat message to the young woman who helped Hernandez to his room the night before saying that Hernandez was making a “weird snoring sound.” When she went to check on him about 8:45 a.m. she found him foaming at the mouth.
Hernandez was rushed to the hospital. According to his autopsy, the teen fractured his skull when he fell from his bed, suffering a brain bleed that ultimately led to his death.
He was pronounced brain dead on Nov. 8 at about 3:30 p.m.
In addition to their concerns about what may have happened at the fraternity party, family members feel strongly that Hernandez’s bed was not outfitted with the proper safety features.
“Dylan died from blunt force trauma,” Julia Hernandez said. “These bunk beds are dangerously high. If he was on a normal bed or a bunk bed that had higher railings … he would probably still be with us today.”
According to the campus police report, one investigator noted that the teen’s safety railing “only extended about 3 to 4 inches” above the mattress. The investigator said if Hernandez had been lying on top of his blankets instead of under them, it would have been “relatively easy to roll over the rail.”
Members of Hernandez’s fraternity soon learned he had been hospitalized, according to messages from the teen’s phone. In a Snapchat group titled “Phi Gam or Die Fam,” fraternity members encouraged one another to delete messages and videos that may contain incriminating evidence. Investigators wrote in the report that they used contact information from Hernandez’s phone and a list of fraternity members from Phi Gamma to identify a dozen people in the chat.
Investigators used information gleaned from the videos, messages and interviews with family members and Hernandez’s dorm mates to identify more than a dozen students who likely attended or had knowledge of what happened at the party, including any possible hazing, underage drinking or drug use.
The department didn’t seek search warrants for Snapchat and phone records they knew existed, although they did prepare to do so. The department sent several letters to cellphone carriers and social media companies asking that they preserve certain records, but they stopped short of requesting them, according to the report.
“After consultation with the district attorney’s office, we determined we did not have sufficient evidence, at least at this time, to establish probable cause to obtain a warrant,” the police report read.
A spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office declined comment because of the open investigation. University officials also declined further comment.
The university issued a statement Friday saying, “To support the integrity of the University Police investigation, the report has not been released to the president, other members of the campus administration or to members of our team within Strategic Communications and Public Affairs.”
In the wake of Hernandez’s death, San Diego State President Adela de la Torre created two task forces, one which will explore the use and misuse of alcohol by students, and the other looking at student health and safety. Both committees are scheduled to issue reports and recommendations this year.
Robbins and Winkley write for the San Diego Union-Tribune