It was one in the morning on November 8. Whitney Lynch, a University of Colorado freshman from San Antonio, was chatting with her roommate in their dorm room on the third floor of Smith Hall when they heard what Lynch calls "a clatter of giggles." She went to the door and tried to look through the peephole, but it had been taped over. So she opened the door, saw toilet paper strewn on the floor, then spotted three girls in pajamas taping toilet paper to the door of a room across the hall. The single belonged to former Delta Delta Delta pledge Lili Armstrong, age eighteen, who the week before had withdrawn her application for membership in the national sorority.
As Lynch stepped out into the hall, the girls ran. "A few minutes later, my roommate and I saw two of them hiding in the stairwell," she says. "I thought it was just going to be a harmless college prank, so I told them to come back and go about their business."
And go about it they did. The three pajama-party vandals, one of whom was wearing her shoulder-length brown hair in pigtails, proceeded to tape toilet paper horizontally across the entrance to Armstrong's room until the door was completely covered. They then used masking tape to put a large X over the toilet paper, securing the barrier. One of them wrote on the tape, from the top left to bottom right, "if you can't stand the heat get out!" Another wrote, from bottom left to top right, "Thought you could use the condoms." And they taped eight wrapped condoms next to Armstrong's door, four in the shape of an "F," four in the shape of a "U."
"I thought they probably stood for 'Fuck you,'" says Lynch.
As a finishing touch, they taped three hand-lettered messages on notebook paper to the door. The first read, "CONDEMED CAUTION: Home of the Bitch!" The second was a simple "I HATE YOU!" The third affirmed, "Me TOO ASSHole!"
The three girls then signed their handiwork: Kari, Kelly and Karen.
Those were fake names, but by that point, any subterfuge was pointless. The giggles and the sound of tape-stripping late at night had drawn the attention of multiple witnesses, including Ashley Bubb, a freshman from Ohio, who heard the commotion and came out of her room to investigate.
"I started talking to them to see what was going on, and they told me Lili had ratted out their sorority and they were getting her back," Bubb says.
All of the witnesses immediately recognized two of the girls as Smith Hall residents who'd recently pledged Tri Delta: Kristin Russell, the one with the pigtails, and Staci Dratler, a blonde. The third vandal has yet to be identified. "She had light-brown hair -- kinda puffy, like it had been straightened," says Bubb. "A triangle-shaped face and a pointy chin."
Sarah Langston, another dorm resident from Texas, came out of her room at one-thirty to use the bathroom and discovered the crime in progress.
"They told me to just go away and carry on with my business. I went ahead and used the restroom, and then I went down to get a better look at Lili's door," she says. "I recognized Staci and Kristin as being members of Delta Delta Delta. The third girl talked like she was a member, too. They all three said they were doing this to Lili's door because she dropped out of the sorority and also told on the sorority for having alcohol at a party. They were putting all the blame on Lili for the sorority being sanctioned and put on probation, and they said they were going to come back every week and do something to Lili until the sorority was no longer in trouble."
Brilliant strategy, but ineffective. Vandalizing Armstrong's door only added to the trouble that Delta Delta Delta was already in, a mess that no amount of toilet paper could clean up.
There are certain actions that happened over this weekend that I regret and am truly sorry for. Because of my irrational thinking and quick judgment you were a victim to. I am not sure as to what you were told about what happened that night but I will tell you what I was thinking. Earlier that day I had been informed (wrongly) by someone it was you who wrote the letter. When I was talking to Staci we decided to try and have some what was suppose to be harmless fun. My thought process was that I went through a lot because of this letter and that the owner should encounter a little difficulty. -- from a letter of apology to Lili Armstrong written by Kristin Russell
It started with the pledge party.
On Friday, October 29, two nights before the Hill was the site of yet another Halloween riot, a rented bus stopped at the CU campus, where some forty Delta Delta Delta pledges waited to be whisked to an off-campus initiation sleepover. It was an official sorority function, and their attendance was required.
That week, every Tri Delta member and pledge had completed AlcoholEdu, a three-hour online alcohol-education course designed to curtail high-risk drinking. As of this year, the national office of Delta Delta Delta requires that all members and prospective members take the course. "Tri Delta wants its members to have factual information about the effects of alcohol so they are able to make informed decisions when placed in a situation where alcohol may be present," says Michelle Popp Shimberg, national president of Delta Delta Delta. "Helping young women make better decisions about the use of alcohol is an important way we can contribute to a better college environment and community."
At the sleepover, CU's Tri Delta pledges and members all made informed decisions about alcohol. They were informed that it was available, and most of them decided to drink it.
The bus transported the pledges to a private home in Littleton owned by the parents of Keira O'Dell, the Tri Delta officer in charge of new-member education. Also in attendance was the president of Delta Delta Delta's Boulder chapter. Soon after the pledges arrived at the O'Dell home, she distributed several plastic jugs of vodka and eight boxes of wine, describing the alcohol as "a special treat to get them loosened up."
The month before, another CU freshman, Lynn Gordie Bailey Jr., had died of alcohol poisoning after a night of binge drinking that was part of a Chi Psi fraternity initiation rite. Bailey's death made national news, as did the alcohol overdose earlier in September of Colorado State University sophomore Samantha Spady, found long dead in the "boom-boom room," a second-floor bedroom in the back of the Sigma Pi frat house in Fort Collins.
This fall became a time of tough talk about underage drinking on Colorado's college campuses. Following Spady's death, Colorado State University president Larry Penley asked Jane Norton, Colorado's lieutenant governor, to lead a task force on binge and underage drinking by college students, especially those in the Greek system. The lieutenant governor's Alcohol Task Force held a series of public hearings this fall and is scheduled to release a report containing specific suggestions on February 1. Those suggestions will include implanting computer chips in beer kegs sold in college towns, so that if a keg is discovered at a party where there are underage drinkers, it can be traced back to its purchaser, according to Norton's spokeswoman, Amber O'Connor. While no University of Colorado officials are on the task force, she adds, "they've been in the audience, and when the recommendations are complete, we'll be sharing them with all the universities in Colorado, as well as many nationwide."
In his September 28 "State of the Campus Address" to CU-Boulder faculty and staff, Chancellor Richard Byyny declared: "We are determined to do everything we can to prevent another tragedy such as those that recently occurred both at CSU and CU. We must do more, and our students must do more, to address issues related to alcohol abuse, underage drinking, and our relationship with the Greek system."
Byyny then announced a series of "immediate actions related to Greek life" that would be part of a "concerted attack" on alcohol abuse.
First he called for the national office of Chi Psi to revoke the Boulder chapter's charter, which it did. Byyny also announced that "we have initiated discussions with fraternity and sorority leaders to assess all aspects of Greek life. In particular, we plan to articulate a set of expectations for local chapters, addressing such issues as abuse of alcohol and drugs, membership recruitment of freshman students, hazing and personal safety at social events." He also demanded that rush week be delayed until second semester, if not sophomore year, to give students more time to adjust to campus life.
One month after Byyny's proclamations, Tri Delta held its pledge-class sleepover.
There, according to investigative reports, Keira O'Dell gave a presentation on how CU sororities and fraternities conspire to circumvent no-drinking house rules. She then offered suggestions for "how to get wasted before getting on the bus" for the November 13 Delta Delta Delta formal in Denver. She, the sorority president and another Tri Delta officer then encouraged the pledges to get their drink on.
AlcoholEdu defines "heavy episodic drinking" as four or more shots of alcohol, beers or glasses of wine consumed at one occasion by a young woman, five by a young man. The pledges drank so much at the sleepover that over the course of the night, a number of girls vomited and several passed out. Party attendees told investigators that O'Dell's parents and the Tri Delta officers monitored the unconscious pledges to make sure they kept breathing.
The website of Delta Delta Delta's national office claims that AlcholEdu has been proven to "increase the number of students who abstain from alcohol by 35 percent." The sobriety ratio among the recent AlcoholEdu graduates at the sleepover was quite a bit lower, but a few of the pledges abstained. One of them was Lili Armstrong, who later told police that she pretended to go to sleep early in the evening in order to escape the pressure to drink.
After the sleepover, Armstrong wrote a letter to the Boulder chapter of Delta Delta Delta, withdrawing her application for membership.
The sorority sisters were not pleased.
I can remember rush group when we were together and you were such a nice girl. And I was happy to be in a sorority with you. It was sad when you decided that this just wasn't for you because I enjoyed having you be my sister. I respected your decision that you did not want to be apart of this group and I hoped I came across like that. I did want to continue to talk to you because of the bond we had shared up into that point. But now I know that this is asking to much because of the magnitude that I have hurt you. -- from Kristin Russell's apology letter
An anonymous letter dated November 1 and titled "When Will They Ever Learn?" was mailed to Chancellor Byyny, CU president Elizabeth Hoffman, Boulder police chief Mark Beckner, the CU police department and CU's Panhellenic Council, the student organization that regulates the activities of Boulder's fraternities and sororities, whose membership totals about 3,000 every year, or roughly 15 percent of the student population.
"Dear Sirs/Madams," it began. "We are two families of daughters at CU who have pledged Tri-Delta Sorority." The letter went on to detail the drinking that had occurred at the October 29 sleepover and the alcohol poisoning suffered by several attendees. "We are OUTRAGED at this grievous error in judgment and illegal alcohol provisions to minors. Has no one learned anything from Gordie's death????
"We take responsibility for our own daughters' actions and do hold them both accountable for the decisions to drink. One of our daughters became very ill and had to be taken to our family physician. We are asking you to protect other girls whose parents are unaware of the danger these girls were forced into and could easily be again. Our daughters believe they were hazed into some of this drinking by the sorority officers due to peer pressure of the event -- being dropped off at a house without available exit transportation and no idea where they were.
"We are unable to sign this letter as we would like because our daughters have given us recent examples of serious physical and verbal retaliation of other CU students when such matters are reported with signatures. We deeply regret the anonymous nature of this report but our daughters are frightened and convinced they would be forced to leave CU if their names are known. We refuse to let a sorority change the academic decisions our daughters have made!!
"Please impose public sanctions so that these and other sorority members know there are serious consequences to endangering the lives of our daughters and other pledges. We are sure no one wants to see another young CU student die at the hands of fraternity or sorority members and, last Friday, it so easily could have ended deadly for one of our girls."
The letter was signed "Outraged, Concerned, and Begging for Assistance, Parents of CU Tri-Delta pledges."
University of Colorado officials forwarded the letter to the national office of Delta Delta Delta, which dispatched two investigators to the Boulder campus. They questioned dozens of Tri Delta pledges and members.
"The investigators determined there had been numerous violations of policy at the new-member retreat -- principally, that alcohol had been served to underage new members," says Tri Delta General Counsel Vince Slusher.
The national office immediately placed the Boulder chapter on probation for the remainder of the 2004-2005 academic year. "During the probation period, they're prevented from having social events, and they're required to step up the amount of community service the chapter provides on a regular basis," says Slusher.
If the Boulder chapter violates Tri Delta alcohol policies again during the probation period, its charter will be suspended or revoked. "If there aren't any more violations," Slusher adds, "at the end of the period our executive board will review the progress made by the chapter and make a determination whether to continue the probation."
Delta Delta Delta has 136 chapters and more than 200,000 student members nationwide, and the national office is cracking down on alcohol violations across the country. "We realize underage drinking and high-risk drinking are serious issues, and we are taking them seriously," Slusher says. (The national office declined to release the name of the Boulder chapter's president.)
Earlier this year, the national office suspended the charter of the Stanford University Tri Delta chapter after four underage pledges were hazed by sorority officers into drinking a shot of beer every minute for an hour -- more than a six-pack -- at a "power hour" hosted by Stanford football players. All four of the pledges vomited repeatedly, and one of them accused the football players of sexually assaulting her while the other three were in a bathroom throwing up.
When the Tri Delta investigators arrived in Boulder with a copy of the "When Will They Ever Learn?" letter in hand, the rumor quickly spread through the sorority that its authors were Armstrong and her mother, a community-services program coordinator with the Longmont Police Department.
Armstrong told police that wasn't the case, and an investigative report notes that "Dratler and Russell's actions were motivated by the mistaken belief that Armstrong was responsible for the Delta Delta Delta sorority being placed on probation by that national organization."
Whoever wrote the letter, the retaliation its authors had feared was soon a reality for Lili Armstrong, and it didn't stop with the defacing of her dorm-room door.
I know right now you've got to be very angry with me, and I fully understand you have every right to be. But I just wanted to apologize for all the stress, worry, and hurt that I have put you through. Every since I met you when you were sitting outside Smith, waiting for "the girl in the purple shirt" to come and take us to the first sorority meeting, I have always thought you were so nice. During rush week I thought we had the greatest group and we always had a few good laughs. I was upset when I heard you dropped from our sorority as well, it's unfortunate that ours just wasn't the right one for you, but there are more out there, so if you find yourself wanting to stay in the Greek system I hope that you find the right house for yourself. -- from Staci Dratler's apology letter
Lili Armstrong woke up shortly after seven the morning of November 8. She opened her door, only to find her exit blocked by masking tape and toilet paper. According to a police report, she tore open the bottom half of the barrier, entered the hallway and read the "several derogatory comments that had been placed on the barrier."
Armstrong went back into her room. She called her mother, she called university police, and then she lay down on her floor and cried.
"In the morning, I came out of my room to find Lili crying," says Whitney Lynch. "I sat with her until the officer arrived, then I went to class."
The campus cop photographed Armstrong's door, bagged the condoms as evidence and took Armstrong's statement.
"Lili told me she had pledged to the Tri Delta Sorority and had been accepted," the officer wrote. "As part of the initiation program, attended a new member education sleepover in Littleton on October 29. Lili told me that eight boxes of wine were at the sleepover. Lili told me she does not drink alcoholic beverages; pretended to fall asleep in order not to drink. She then decided not to proceed with her membership application and wrote a letter to the sorority advising them of her decision. She had spoken with other Tri Delta pledges who live in Smith Hall about her decision. They had heard about her withdrawing and the reasons why and said the 'situation with her' had gone to the Tri Delta National Office. She was visibly upset at the harassment."
Lynch and Armstrong went to lunch together that day. "I came back around a quarter to one," says Lynch. "I was in my room with my roommate when Staci and Kristin came in, and they were all worried about the sorority getting in more trouble for what they'd done the night before. They were all afraid that Lili would see them near the scene of the crime, so as soon as the coast was clear, they took off."
That night, the members and pledges of Delta Delta Delta held a meeting to discuss the ramifications of being placed on probation. The meeting began around 7 p.m. Armstrong was in her dorm room, working on her computer. At 7:44, an instant message from "Heatho" popped up on her screen.
It read, "Watch your back bitch!"
Armstrong again called the cops, and Officer Brian Rush arrived at her dorm room four minutes later.
"Armstrong told me that she had been informed by two residents of her floor, Jesse Robbins and Jade Cunningham, that the sorority was facing sanctions as a result of Armstrong's mother reporting alcohol consumption to National Chapter," Rush wrote in his report. "Robbins and Cunningham are members are Tri Delta and said they had spoken with Kristin Russell and asked Russell if she had heard what happened to Armstrong's door. They said Russell acted 'strange' when asked if she'd heard."
Rush began interviewing residents of Smith Hall, and in less than an hour had five witnesses who identified Staci Dratler and Kristin Russell as two of the vandals.
At 8:49 p.m., while Rush was back in Armstrong's room, re-interviewing her, a second threatening instant message, again signed by "Heatho," appeared on her screen.
It read: "Be careful when you walk late at night, you never know who might be behind you!"
Rush went down to the floor below and stopped at Staci Dratler's room. He asked her if she had any idea why he was there, and Dratler said she did. "Dratler admitted her role, specifically writing 'If you can't stand the heat get out,'" Rush wrote in his report. "Dratler said she wrote other things as well. She said that Armstrong is her friend and that's what friends do, is call each other names like that. Dratler said words don't mean anything these days."
I want you to know I would never do anything to hurt you in any way, and my intentions when toilet papering your door were harmless. You must know being a teenager yourself that kids toilet paper each other all the time, except normally we do houses. Unfortunately in the midst of all the commotion somethings were done that regretfully cannot be taken back, and I sooooo wish they could be. If I had a watch that could take me back in time I nevre would have done what I did. Lili, I know it is hard but I just pray that you can forgive me, although, I probably don't deserve it. You're the sweetest girl and I am just soooo sorry for all that I've done. I truly am sorry once again, and like I said I know I can't say it enough, but I will say it 700 times or more until you can forgive me. -- from Staci Dratler's apology letter
After extracting Dratler's confession, Rush went to Kristin Russell's room on the same floor. Like her fellow pledge, Russell immediately admitted putting toilet paper and condoms on Armstrong's door and writing "not nice things," including "I HATE YOU!"
"Russell explained she was mad at Armstrong about an incident at the sorority," Rush reported. "Russell stated that it got blown all out of proportion and, as a result, a lot of people got in trouble. Russell said she was sitting at her computer the night before and received an IM message from Dratler asking her if she wanted to go with her to put stuff on Armstrong's door. Russell refused to give the name of the third girl."
That night, Rush issued both Dratler and Russell a criminal summons for misdemeanor harassment, "with intent to harass, annoy and alarm, unlawfully in a public place directing obscene language at said victim."
After the Delta Delta Delta national office was informed of the charges, sorority officials strongly suggested that Dratler and Russell write letters of apology and ordered all Tri Delta members and pledges to leave Armstrong alone.
Since then, Armstrong has reported no further threats or incidences of vandalism.
In mid-November, several University of Colorado students announced the formation of a group dedicated to combating the "culture of excess" at the nation's once-top-rated party school. When they'd gone home for fall break, one student said, they'd had to defend why they were going to CU.
That same week, Dratler and Russell, whose fingerprints had shown up on the condoms taken into evidence from Armstrong's door, pleaded guilty to the charges against them in exchange for a deferred sentence. That means that if they stay out of trouble for a year, they'll be in the clear, just like the Boulder chapter of Delta Delta Delta.
"I will respect the dignity of all persons; therefore I will not physically, mentally, or psychologically abuse or haze any human being;
"I will respect the property of others; therefore, I will neither abuse nor tolerate the abuse of property;
"I will neither misuse nor support the misuse of alcohol."
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"I will challenge all my members to abide by these expectations and will confront all those who violate them."
That would make four strikes against Dratler, Russell and CU's Delta Delta Delta.
But then, words don't mean anything these days.