Police investigating death of Bloomsburg student who died in September
Editor’s note: This article, written by Susan Snyder, was originally published by The Philadelphia Inquirer on Dec. 9. Snyder and the editors at The Philadelphia Inquirer have given permission for BUnow to republish the article.
Bloomsburg, Pa., police are investigating the September death of a college student from the Philadelphia area who died hours after he left his dormitory to attend a fraternity party.
Justin P. King, 18, of Gilbertsville, Montgomery County, had been at Bloomsburg University for only three weeks when his body was found on a walking trail near campus on the morning of Sept. 14. Columbia County Coroner Jeremy Reese ruled his death accidental, saying he died from blunt force trauma injuries to the head after falling down an embankment and over a rocky ledge near campus in the dark of night.
But questions have swirled on and off the northeast Pennsylvania campus about what happened to King before he died. A special investigator from the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, of which Bloomsburg University is a part, also has been looking into the case.
King’s mother, Carol, has questions, too, and is awaiting the results of the police investigation, first reported by BUnow, a student news site. She declined to comment further.
Bloomsburg Police Chief Bill Gelgot termed the case a “death investigation.” He said alcohol was involved and police are looking into where the alcohol came from. He declined to comment on whether police were probing a connection to Greek organizations.
Last week, the university announced a crackdown on Greek life, instituting new rules and placing all 25 fraternity and sorority chapters on probation for the next 18 months. The university made no mention of King’s death and said it had been considering such changes for months.
BUnow reported last week that two Greek chapters — it didn’t specify whether they were fraternities or sororities — may have “some awareness of or possible involvement” in King’s case.
King had an invitation to a fraternity party the night of his death, according to multiple sources, who were unwilling to identify the fraternity; a fraternity rush card was found in his room after his death. (Students interested in joining a Greek organization typically attend events as part of the rush process.) Several students who lived in the same residence hall asked King if they could accompany him that night, but he told them he had to go alone because he was the only one with an invitation, according to a parent of another Bloomsburg student with knowledge of the situation.
He left the dorm about 10:30 that night, said the parent, who requested anonymity to protect the identity of her child. Police still have King’s cell phone.
The parent also said the investigator for the state system had questioned members of a fraternity. The parent declined to name the fraternity.
“The state system does not typically comment on matters involving an internal university investigation,” said system spokesperson Dave Pidgeon. “However, we can say that we provide support to our universities as appropriate.”
Under the Greek life crackdown, Bloomsburg unveiled rules that include “zero tolerance” for hazing, and new requirements that chapters create and submit a risk management policy and a recruitment plan for approval. They also will be required to have a chapter adviser who is an alumna or alumnus and a faculty adviser.
“They’ll have an 18-month period to put all that in place,” said university spokesperson Tom McGuire. Chapters that don’t comply will be suspended until they do, he said.
More than 700 of the university’s 8,500 students are involved in Greek life.
McGuire said the university had been looking at improvements to the Greek system for months, and over the summer hired a new director of fraternity and sorority life, who has been evaluating the system. The review comes as other universities around the country have grappled with hazing and alcohol-related deaths involving Greek life organizations.
Over the last five years, according to the university’s website, several chapters have committed hazing and alcohol infractions, including at least two cases that resulted in hospitalizations. In 2016, as part of a hazing activity, a new member drank a gallon of white vinegar, followed by darker vinegar. The student suffered “severe damage to his esophagus, had a perforated stomach, and was in intensive care,” the website said.
Last year, it was reported that a new member “was hazed using calisthenics, racial slurs, lineups,” and that in at least one case, the hazing caused a member to develop an infection that led to hospitalization.
Underscoring its importance, the Greek life office will report directly to Bloomsburg president Bashar Hanna, McGuire said.
King’s was the first of four student deaths to occur at Bloomsburg this semester, more than school officials said they could remember ever happening in one semester. None of the deaths are connected, McGuire noted.
On Oct. 4, student Curtis L. Melville III, 19, of Limerick, died in a motor vehicle accident. A week and a half later, Nicholas Medveckus, 18, of Pennsburg, was found dead in his dorm; he died of an unexpected illness, according to his obituary. And Michael Somerville, 21, of Bloomsburg, died by suicide on Oct. 29. He was the son of former Bloomsburg administrator Dione Somerville, who was one of two school officials removed from their positions earlier in October. Somerville’s office had overseen Greek life. She declined to comment.
McGuire declined to comment on the reasons for the administrators’ departure.
The deaths, which occurred in about a six-week time frame, shook the campus, which held a memorial service last month for the students.
“It’s tragic,” McGuire said. “It’s a young life cut short. That was a toll on the campus, for sure.”
King was an avid baseball player and graduate of Boyertown High School.
“Justin gave everything his all, and was always there with a smile,” his obituary said.