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Death of California college student investigated as possible fraternity hazing incident

New York Daily News logo New York Daily News 9/19/2018
a man smiling for the camera © Family Handout

Detectives are investigating the death of a fraternity pledge in California after a late-night hike, and are looking into whether hazing played a role in his “suspicious” death.

Tyler Hilliard, 20, died Sunday after joining his fellow Alpha Phi Alpha brothers on a trip up Mount Rubidoux Saturday night, according to local reports.

The University of California – Riverside student allegedly collapsed after complaining of shortness of breath, and his fellow fraternity members called for medical aid around 9 p.m., mom Myeasha Kimble-Hilliard told the Los Angeles Times.

He was reportedly taken to the hospital alert and speaking with staff, but his health quickly worsened, and he died shortly after being transferred to intensive care.

Though local police have yet to point the finger at hazing, Kimble-Hilliard believes it likely played a role in her son’s death.

She said she found messages in Tyler’s phone that indicated he’d been forced to eat an entire onion covered in hot sauce, drink excessive amounts of water and was paddled with a piece of cactus.

“I’m not saying that his death was a direct result of hazing. I don’t know that for sure,” she said. “But I believe something happened that led up to his death.”

Kimble-Hilliard also noted that Tyler had referred to the Mt. Rubidoux hike as “gold paddle day” in text messages.

Riverside Police Officer Ryan Railsback said that Hilliard’s death is being treated as suspicious, but authorities aren’t totally sure hazing was involved.

“Our detectives are having to backtrack, what exactly they were doing up on the mountain, who they were with, what type of activities they may or may not have been involved with,” he said. “Was it hazing? We don’t know at this time.”

Alpha Phi Alpha has a storied history as the oldest Greek-letter fraternity established for black men, and boasts notable members such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Duke Ellington.

Kimble-Hilliard said her son was excited to add his name to a roster comprised of such accomplished figures.

“He did his research. He felt that this was a good fit for him because this organization appeared to be involved in community service,” she told ABC News.

The fraternity – which suspended all activities at the UC Riverside chapter - released a statement following Hilliard’s death doubling down on its commitment to an organization free of hazing.

“Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. does not condone and strictly prohibits any illegal acts, including hazing in any form, whether physical or mental, as a term or condition of membership in the organization,” the statement read. “Any member found violating the fraternity’s anti-hazing policy will be immediately suspended with a recommendation for expulsion.”

Still, Hilliard’s mother hinted that Saturday’s incident wasn’t the first time possible hazing may have affected her son.

She said he was hospitalized for chest pains after being forced to eat the onion, but was later released.

"He was kind, he was sweet ... he had a bright future ahead of him," she told ABC. "He was loving to everyone he came across... he was just a good person, a good son. He never gave his father and I any problems whatsoever."

An autopsy is reportedly pending.

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