Jury to probe death of student Frostburg freshman, 20, died after drinking too much alcohol

February 07, 1997|By Debbie M. Price | Debbie M. Price,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Kevin McQuaid contributed to this article.

FROSTBURG -- Sometime between 2 a.m. and 11 p.m. on Nov. 9, Frostburg State University freshman John Eric Stinner died.

He had drunk enough the previous evening at an off-campus party to raise his blood-alcohol level to 0.34 percent -- more than three times the legal measure of intoxication, according to a medical examiner's report. He was 20 years old.

Allegany County State's Attorney Lawrence Kelly is expected to take the case to a grand jury today. Meanwhile, Stinner's death has heightened awareness of a perennial concern for university administrators -- drinking by underage students.

Kelly said manslaughter charges may be among those he seeks against whoever is responsible for serving Stinner alcohol. "I have no reason to believe that anyone intentionally sought his death," Kelly said. "It was negligence, gross carelessness, reckless endangerment."

According to various reports, Stinner attended a party off campus in a house where members of a local fraternity lived. The fraternity was not affiliated with a national organization and not regulated by the college, school officials have said.

Stinner is believed to have drunk heavily at the party. His friends told authorities that when they returned him to his room late in the evening of Nov. 8, he was unconscious but breathing.

Stinner's roommate, returning from an out-of-town football game 11 p.m. the next night, found his body sprawled on the floor of their dorm room.

Stinner's mother, Diane, said her son, who was on the school track team, normally returned home to Glassport, Pa., on weekends, but on Nov. 8 he stayed in Frostburg because of bad weather.

"It's been so hard," she said. "I don't know if a mother ever gets over this."

Underage drinking on college campuses is hardly a new phenomenon. At Frostburg, the problem is particularly acute, officials acknowledge, because the small mountain town offers few recreational alternatives for young people. Beyond the movie theater and the shopping mall, there is little to do, but go to parties at houses off campus where the beer and liquor flow freely.

"What really bothers me is that it appears that upperclassmen who are old enough to drink are [running] businesses selling to those who are not," says Kelly. "Nobody cards. All they want to know is if you have $3. If you have $3, you're in."

In a 1994 survey at Frostburg, 90 percent of the students queried said they drink alcohol, including about 70 percent of the students under age 21, according to Spencer Deakin, director of counseling at Frostburg. Nationwide, between 85 percent and 93 percent of college students admitted to drinking.

Rules on alcohol

University policy prohibits alcohol on campus in common areas and in the dorm rooms of students under 21. However, the school does allow students over 21 to keep and consume alcohol in their rooms.

Frostburg police have increased their enforcement of alcohol violations in recent years, from 25 citations issued in 1992 to 258 civil citations issued last year, according to police Chief William Evans.

"The university and local police give more citations than virtually anyone in the state, and I know we don't have greater alcohol abuse," said Frostburg President Catherine Gira. "I know many campuses look the other way."

Even so, police and university officials acknowledge that they cannot stop all drinking by underage students, particularly when it occurs off campus.

Several houses near campus have gained reputations as "party houses," where between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., students can obtain beer -- often for a "donation" -- no questions asked, authorities say. After 11 p.m., the parties are shut down, and the hosts, who are of legal age, go drinking in local bars, authorities say.

When parties get loud, police are called. But as Evans notes, experienced hosts have learned to keep quiet.

A fraternity party

Such was the case last Friday night on Ormand Street. Except for the cars parked helter-skelter and the faint pulse of a heavy bass, the party would have been easy to miss.

A banner hanging out a first-floor window of the three-story house proclaimed an unregistered fraternity's "rush," as groups of young men and women entered through the cellar doors.

Inside the unfinished basement, dozens of people were jammed shoulder to shoulder. It was so crowded that partygoers could scarcely raise their arms to drink the beer poured from kegs and danced standing in place. Inches overhead on the low basement ceiling, strobe lights pulsed red and blue.

Upstairs, the scene was much the same -- kitchen packed with young drinkers, floors swimming in spilled beer and couples locked in hazy embraces.

A 23-year-old who identified himself as the fraternity president acknowledged that money had been collected from partygoers. The beer was purchased, he said, from a liquor store where he works.

On Friday night, he said people serving beer checked identification and collected $3 before giving people cups for beer.

On Monday, the fraternity president called The Sun to clarify his answers. Money was not collected for beer but as a "donation" to pay for a disc jockey, he said.

He said in the second interview that neither he nor the fraternity was host of the party, which he said was thrown by "just some guys who happen to be brothers and live in the house." The fraternity was not involved in the party Stinner attended in November, he said.

Liquor laws prohibit selling alcohol without a license or local business permits. It is also against the law to collect a cover charge without a permit.

Evans said that during 1996, the police cited residents of the Ormand Street house nine times, including three violations issued for underage drinking.

"If only kids would stop and think," Diane Stinner said. "But will they? They said in the paper after John's death that the parties were 'more quiet,' but that means they still had parties. It didn't stop. I don't think it every will."

Pub Date: 2/07/97

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