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Crime News

'Dying To Belong' Explores A Fictional Hazing Death. These Are Real Cases Of The Tragic Phenomenon

In Lifetime's “Dying To Belong,” freshmen Olivia and Riley, played by Favour Onwuka and Jenika Rose, discover deadly secrets while trying to join a sorority and while their story is fictional it mirrors real cases.

By Gina Tron
Dying To Belong Lifetime

While Lifetime’s made for television movie “Dying to Belong” is fictional, it mirrors many real and shocking cases of hazing where people really did die while trying to belong.

In “Dying To Belong,” journalism major Olivia, played by Favour Onwuka, befriends shy freshman Riley, played by Jenika Rose, and together they decide to try out for sorority Pi Gamma Beta. Then they begin to uncover scandalous secrets and endure cruel episodes of hazing while pledging, which ultimately results in one of their deaths. The film is a remake of a 1997 television film of the same name, starring Hilary Swank.

At the newest film’s finale, a graphic explains that “from 1959 to 2019, there was at least one hazing death reported every single year and thirty hazing-related deaths in the last decade alone."

It claims that 95 percent of hazing survivors do not report the hazing to officials. 2020 marked the first year in 60 that there were no hazing deaths reported, according to the TV movie. It says that two hazing deaths have been reported so far in 2021.

Here are some real life cases that mirror the hazing depicted in “Dying to Belong.”

Pi Delta Psi death

Baruch College freshman Chun Hsien “Michael” Deng died while trying to belong to the fraternity Pi Delta Psi in 2013.

During the pledging process, the 19-year-old was blindfolded, made to wear a weighted backpack, tackled and pushed by frat members until he fell unconscious. The following day, he was pronounced dead.

Four of his would-be fraternity brothers were initially charged with murder but by 2018, their charges were reduced to voluntary manslaughter and hindering apprehension. Kenny Kwan, Charles Lai, Raymond Lam and Sheldon Wong all ultimately received up to two years behind bars.

A judge also banned Pi Delta Psi from operating in the state of Pennsylvania for 10 years and to pay more than $110,000 in fines. Pi Delta Psi said in a statement that its members “feel shame and dishonor that fraternity brothers could be so callous and inhumane.”

Beta Theta Pi death

Timothy Piazza died while trying to belong to Penn State University’s Beta Theta Pi chapter in 2017.

The 19-year-old suffered several brain injuries from falling down a flight of stairs following a binge-drinking episode. He was forced to drink excessive amounts to join the fraternity. An ambulance wasn't called to assist Piazza until 12 hours after the fall. 

Ryan Burke pled guilty to four counts of hazing and five counts involving unlawful acts related to alcoholic beverages in Pennsylvania in 2018. He was sentenced to probation. Burke was accused of participating in forcing the pledge to drink from a bottle of vodka.

Alpha Kappa Alpha suicide

The mother of Northwestern University student athlete Jordan Hankins blamed the school’s Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority for her daughter's 2017 suicide. Felicia Hankins claimed in a lawsuit that the hazing rituals of the sisterhood caused her 19-year-old daughter to take her own life in her dorm room.

She filed a 50-page complaint in the Northern District of Illinois court in 2019, accusing the sorority and some of its members of “extreme, outrageous and unlawful" activities that led to her daughter’s death. Sleep deprivation and financial exploitation were part of the group’s initiation process, according to the complaint. A court concluded that some of the individual sorority members who hazed Jordan were responsible for not protecting her.

Phi Delta Theta death

Phi Delta Theta pledge Maxwell Gruver died in 2017 at Louisiana State University after being forced to consume massive amounts of alcohol. The 18-year-old freshman died with a blood alcohol level of .495, which is more than six times the legal intoxication level in most states, NBC News reported.

Gruver and other pledges were also doused in mustard and hot sauce before being forced to undergo a series of trivia games. If they answered incorrectly they'd be ordered to drink. Gruver was forced to drink while attempting to recite the Greek alphabet. Matthew Alexander Naquin ordered him to drink hard liquor each time he made an error. Naquin was sentenced to five years behind bars in 2019 after pleading guilty to negligent homicide, ABC News reported in 2019. Sean-Paul Gott and Ryan Isto were sentenced to 30 days in jail on hazing charges