Mom on son’s hazing death: Feels like ‘cat clawing at heart’
There are times when Mary Deng thinks her only child is still alive, that he’s going to come home, that he didn’t die more than four years ago in a brutal fraternity hazing ritual.
Then reality intrudes.
“I feel like there’s a cat clawing and scratching at my heart, hurting me persistently and relentlessly,” Deng wrote. “I wake up and I pray for deliverance.”
The grieving mom wrote of her anguish in a statement that will be delivered Monday at the sentencing of four men charged in her son’s 2013 death in the Pocono Mountains. The fraternity itself, convicted of involuntary manslaughter following a trial, will also be sentenced.
A grand jury said fraternity members at Baruch College, a campus of the City University of New York, physically abused freshman pledge Chun “Michael” Deng, and then tried to cover it up as the 19-year-old lay dying in their rented house in the Poconos. Police charged 37 people with crimes ranging from aggravated assault to hazing to third-degree murder.
The four defendants to be sentenced Monday, Kenny Kwan, Charles Lai, Raymond Lam and Sheldon Wong, all of the New York City borough of Queens, pleaded guilty to felony manslaughter and hindering apprehension charges. They face 22 to 36 months in prison under standard sentencing guidelines, but could get less time if the judge imposes a sentence at the lower end of the range.
“Whatever I’m going to argue at sentencing does not mitigate the loss suffered by the Deng family,” said Jim Swetz, the attorney for Lai, 27. “Michael Deng should not have lost his life. This was totally unnecessary. But we have to emphasize one thing: Nobody intended for that young man to die.”
Deng was blindfolded, forced to wear a heavy backpack and then repeatedly tackled during a hazing ritual known as glass ceiling. He fell unconscious and was carried inside the house while fraternity members changed Deng’s clothes, did a Google search of his symptoms and hid banners and other fraternity memorabilia in an attempted cover-up, prosecutors said. Three fraternity members eventually took Deng to the hospital, where he died a day later.
In the wake of Deng’s death, Baruch banned Pi Delta Psi and suspended pledging activities for all fraternities and sororities in the college’s tiny Greek community. The moratorium remains in place.
“Sadly, deaths and injuries as a result of hazing remain a national problem, and the ramifications are frequently devastating. Our thoughts continue to be with Michael Deng’s family as justice is served for those who were involved,” said Baruch President Mitchel B. Wallerstein.
Prosecutors are seeking the maximum penalty against the national fraternity, including a fine of more than $110,000 and a 20-year ban from Pennsylvania. Prosecutors also want the fraternity to notify every college where it has a chapter around the country of its conviction and sentence.
Pi Delta Psi has engaged in “illegal hazing ... throughout its history,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo.
The fraternity plans to appeal its conviction. Its attorney, Wes Niemoczynski, said the district attorney’s office is seeking to destroy Pi Delta Psi.
“They’re asking for a death penalty,” he said.
Founded as an Asian-American cultural fraternity in 1994, Pi Delta Psi has 25 chapters in 11 states — including one at Penn State University — and Washington, D.C. The fraternity has said its Baruch College chapter performed an unsanctioned ritual.
The Deng family has sued dozens of criminal defendants, including the fraternity, for civil damages. Three of the cases have settled.
Even with the passage of time, Mary Deng has been unable to process her son’s death, said the family’s attorney, Douglas Fierberg.
“She’s made appointments at doctor’s offices to check to see if Mike’s death is real,” he said. “She essentially lives somewhere between dream and reality.”