The family of Adam Oakes returned to a third-floor courtroom in downtown Richmond on Thursday to witness a plea hearing for another former member of the Delta Chi fraternity in connection to the death of their son.
Jason Mulgrew, the Virginia Commonwealth University chapter president, pleaded no contest to a charge of misdemeanor hazing that led to Oakes’ death in February 2021. Richmond Circuit Judge Claire Cardwell found him guilty.
In accordance with a plea agreement, Mulgrew was sentenced to no jail time, 12 months’ probation, a meeting with the Oakes family known as restorative justice, 150 hours of community service and participation in 10 anti-hazing seminars.
Mulgrew, 22, said he thinks about Oakes every day, and he looks forward to working to prevent hazing.
“I am so, so sorry for your loss,” he told the Oakes family.
Oakes was a 19-year-old freshman at VCU when he died of alcohol poisoning following a Delta Chi “big-little” party. Oakes didn’t have sufficient grades to officially join the fraternity, so Delta Chi welcomed him and two others as “underground” members.
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As chapter president, Mulgrew “specifically organized and managed” the party where Oakes died, prosecutor Mike Hollomon said, alongside fraternity member Christian Rohrbach, who pleaded guilty to hazing last week.
The fraternity members instructed Oakes to chug his Jack Daniels and cola, and Mulgrew told the pledges he expected them to “get f---ed up,” Hollomon said. Oakes had a blood alcohol content above 0.40, five times higher than the legal driving limit.
Had the case gone to trial, the defense would have presented conflicting evidence, defense attorney Wes Witmeyer said. But Witmeyer didn’t explain what kind of evidence, and he declined to comment following the hearing.
Speaking in court, Mulgrew called the evening of Oakes’ death a “dreadful night.” Mulgrew is required to participate in 10 anti-hazing seminars led by the Oakes family’s foundation, Live Like Adam.
The seminars can last up to eight hours each, and his statements there can be recorded for educational purposes. The recently passed “Adam’s Law” requires student organizations to participate in anti-hazing training.
“What the foundation is doing is incredible,” Mulgrew said.
By pleading no contest, Mulgrew declined to fight the charges against him, choosing a path that has the same effect as pleading guilty without actually doing so.
For the purposes of the plea agreement, the prosecution doesn’t typically care if a defendant pleads guilty or no contest because the two pleas have the same effect, Hollomon said.
Mulgrew is the third former member of the Delta Chi fraternity to be found guilty of hazing. Andrew White, Oakes’ big brother in the fraternity, and Rohrbach, described in court as the pledge master, pleaded guilty.
None received jail time. Because hazing is a misdemeanor, a person convicted in Virginia will serve no more than one year in prison. The Oakes family helped introduce a bill that would upgrade hazing to a felony punishable by no more than 10 years in prison, but the measure has faced opposition in the Senate.
The cases of the other eight defendants have not been resolved. At least three have requested trials.
Oakes’ father, Eric Oakes, has said he’s more concerned with saving the lives of students than imprisoning the members of Delta Chi. In a statement written by the Oakes family and read in court, the family said it hopes Mulgrew will educate others. The family doesn’t forgive him yet, but forgiveness can be earned, they said.
“Adam deserved better friends than you,” the family said. “Obviously brotherhood has a very different meaning to us than it does to you and the brothers of Delta Chi.”
Had Mulgrew followed fraternity rules and not allowed Oakes to pledge, Oakes would still be alive, his mother, Linda Oakes, said in a statement.
“Our 19-year-old son should have never been there in the first place,” she said.
Eric Oakes said he and his wife have lived “miserable and meaningless” lives since their son’s death. He said his son was good at giving advice and sharing an honest opinion. Had someone called 911, he could have lived, Eric Oakes said. Now, they keep the door to his bedroom shut.