Thomas Fields-Meyer
October 14, 2002 12:00 PM

When Patricia Strong-Fargas heard the knock on the door of her Los Angeles home, she expected to see her daughter Kristin High. The 22-year-old college senior had been coming home late almost every night for the past month; she was, she told her mother, undergoing the initiation rites for Alpha Kappa Alpha, the prestigious African-American sorority she had hoped to join. But when Strong-Fargas, 50, opened the door, she found two police officers—and suddenly she had an awful premonition. “I said, ‘Is Kristin dead?’ They said, ‘Yes, ma’am,'” she recalls. “That started the roller coaster.”

Just hours before, in the late evening of Sept. 9, High—who was engaged to Holman Arthurs, the father of her 2-year-old son—had joined three other pledges and at least three alleged sorority members at a beach in the L.A. suburb of Playa del Rey. Police say High and another pledge, Kenitha Saafir, 24, drowned around 11:20 p.m. after being overwhelmed by fierce riptides and 10-ft. waves. But High’s family says it was more than a tragic accident. They have filed a $100 million suit against the sorority, charging that its members had bound and blindfolded the girls in the sort of dangerous ritual that for years has plagued fraternities and sororities nationwide. (The LAPD is continuing to investigate the incident, as is AKA’s national organization.) “Kristin would not have entered the water for the fun of it—she was anemic and got cold easily,” says Strong-Fargas. “This was hazing.”

While that has yet to be determined, High was certainly the sort of achievement-oriented young woman AKA would want to attract. The oldest African-American sorority, it has more than 900 chapters and boasts a stable of alumnae including such luminaries as writer Toni Morrison, poet Maya Angelou, civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks and actress Phylicia Rashad. “These organizations are supposed to help people, and that’s what Kristin was all about,” says Arthurs, 25. High, a talented public speaker, had started a chapter of the NAACP at California State University, Los Angeles, where she was studying business. She had planned to become a civil rights attorney and saw the sorority as a way to make social and professional connections. “She was extremely ambitious,” says her mother. “She said, ‘Mom, when I become an attorney, I’m going to buy you a mansion.’ I said, ‘I’m fine. Just buy yourself one.'” Saafir, who was married, had also shown great promise, running her own photography business and planning to do graduate work in fine art. “Kenitha thought the sorority would be a great way to meet people,” says her husband, Karim, 26, a graphic artist. “Being in AKA opens doors for you.”

The sorority, like most other campus Greek organizations, has strict anti-hazing policies, and AKA national officials deny that the women were engaged in sanctioned sorority activities. In fact, they say, the sorority has no chapter at Cal State L.A. A spokeswoman for the university—a commuter school without campus Greek houses—confirms that it has not recognized an AKA chapter since 1989. But whatever it was they were joining, High and Saafir endured a strenuous series of pledge activities. Strong-Fargas says High—who worked as an office manager and teacher at the private elementary school Strong-Fargas runs—was often sleep deprived and frequently returned home as late as 3 a.m. Members of the sorority would summon her at all hours to come perform tasks like braiding their hair. “She was losing weight,” says her mother. “Her mind wasn’t clear.”

Arthurs, who had planned to marry High in May, also grew concerned and says he confronted her in late August. “I asked her point-blank, ‘Are they making you do anything dangerous?'” he recalls. “She said, ‘I’d never do anything to endanger my life. I love you guys too much.'”

At first, the outing to Playa del Rey seemed anything but dangerous. “I thought they were church members there to hold a prayer meeting,” says David Linton, 39, who looked out his apartment window sometime after 10 p.m. that night and saw the women. “It certainly didn’t look like there would be any trouble.”

The families’ lawsuit alleges that when the women arrived at the beach, the members forced the pledges to perform exhausting calisthenics, then blindfolded them and tied their hands—common practices in Greek-letter-organization rites of passage—and led them into the ocean. (Arthurs says another pledge mentioned the blindfolds, but the family offers no evidence of the hand restraints.) Around 10:15, police patrolling the beach noticed the women and saw nothing amiss. A little more than an hour later they received a 911 call. When police arrived, they spotted two bodies; officers dove into the surf, not pausing to take off their boots or guns. But they were too late.

Police found no evidence of blindfolds or hand restraints and say that the five witnesses—all involved with the initiation—said that when they realized Saafir was missing in the water, High rushed to help her and was herself overcome by the unusually rough surf. (Autopsies showed no signs of drugs or alcohol.) “They said they went into the surf to cool off after exercising,” says LAPD spokesman Sgt. John Pasquariello. “Our investigation has not pointed to anything other than accidental drowning.”

High’s family plans to expand its suit to include the police, who they say should not have allowed the women on the beach (which has a posted 10 p.m. curfew) and need to be more skeptical of the AKA members’ stories. “The police are acting like they’ve never heard lies before,” argues Arthurs. “It’s laughable.”

Karim Saafir, who is still contemplating legal action, says it’s painful to imagine his wife’s last moments. “She must have been terrified,” he says. “She couldn’t swim.” Strong-Fargas, whose grandson Skyler is too young to understand that his mother will never come back, says she is determined to find the truth and prevent others from suffering a similar fate. “I’ve had to put my grieving on the back burner,” says Strong-Fargas, “until I learn what happened that night.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Susan Christian Goulding in Los Angeles

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