The only child of Chinese immigrants, Michael Deng was a hard-working student with a bright future ahead of him when he went off to Baruch College in 2013.
But that future was cut tragically short in December of that year, when the 19-year-old died during a trip to Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains with the Baruch College chapter of the Pi Delta Psi fraternity. On Monday, 37 fraternity members were charged in connection with his death, including five with murder. It’s a small solace for Michael’s grieving parents, who are still trying to figure out what happened to their son nearly two years later.
“He was absolutely beloved,” Deng family attorney, Douglas Fierberg, tells PEOPLE.
A good student who loved handball and bowling, Michael never got into trouble. When he went off to college for the first time, his family was thrilled. “Many, if not all, of his parents’ hopes rested on his shoulders,” Fierberg says.
Just a few months later, however, they received that devastating call: Their son was dead. According to details released by police on Monday, Michael died in an alleged brutal hazing ritual. On that trip to Pennsylvania, he and other pledges were allegedly blindfolded and forced to carry bags filled with sand while fraternity brothers tackled them repeatedly.
Michael was allegedly “subjected to repeated blunt force trauma which was applied to three different organ systems of the body to include the head, torso and thighs,” police said in a statement. Ultimately, he fell and hit his head, blacking out. But instead of seeking immediate medical attention, the fraternity members allegedly contacted the fraternity national president, Andy Meng, who allegedly advised them to hide all Pi Delta Psi-related paraphernalia before calling authorities.
“He instructed them to begin destroying evidence that would link Michael’s condition and death to the fraternity,” Fierberg says, adding that there are text messages and cell phone records to support this claim. Meng is one of the 37 who face charges in the incident.
In the end, two hours went by before Michael saw a doctor, police said. By that time, he had already suffered major brain trauma. That delay, police said Monday, “significantly contributed” to his death.
Officials were immediately suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Michael’s death back in 2013, but it took time to build a case against the fraternity members. Michael’s parents, meanwhile, struggled to understand why no one was being held accountable for their son’s death.
“To speak with them today and any day since his death, there’s just been incredible sadness and confusion over what the process is in obtaining justice for Michael’s death,” Fierberg says.
Earlier this year, the family ended up filing their own civil lawsuit against the college and the fraternity, but “there is a relief in knowing that the police and prosecutors were doing their jobs,” Fierberg says.
He hopes that the criminal charges will send a strong message against hazing. “Hazing is a crime,” says Fierberg. “And even though you are college students, even though you have a future ahead of you, you can face charges that include murder.”
Worst of all, Fierberg says, is the knowledge that Michael could have been saved.
“Had they provided Michael help, he would have lived.”
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