The death of Armando Villa, a 19-year-old Cal State University, Northridge student who collapsed and died while hiking barefoot in the Angeles National Forest, was the result of fraternity hazing and the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity has agreed to disband its chapter on the campus, university President Dianne Harrison announced.
“Hazing is stupid, senseless, dangerous and against the law in California,” Harrison said. “It is a vestige of a toxic way of thinking in which it was somehow OK to degrade, humiliate and potentially harm others. It has no place on this or any university campus, in any student club or organization and it will not be tolerated.”
As Harrison read the prepared statement, members of Villa’s family hugged each other and cried. “It’s been very difficult for our family, ” said Maria Casteñeda, Villa’s aunt.
Family members were overwhelmed to finally hear of the action to be taken.
“Armando’s mother is having such a hard time, she has so much distress she hasn’t been able to return to work,” Casteñeda said.
The announcement to disband the CSUN chapter is a “first step,” Casteñeda said, but added, “We still need more answers.”
Casteñeda initially heard there would be an announcement made from a reporter who called her. As soon as they confirmed the information, friends and family rushed to the campus on Friday afternoon, Sept. 5. They wore black t-shirts with Villa’s image and in bold lettering wore the message — “Stop Hazing.”
Harrison’s announcement that Villa was the victim of “hazing” was what Villa’s family has maintained from the very beginning. They’ve held demonstrations in front of the CSUN sculpture on Nordhoff Street at the university entrance.
There was concern that campus officials had first attempted to distance themselves from the tragedy by indicating that the incident had occurred off campus.
“It is clear from the report that members of Pi Kappa Phi, without knowledge of the university, engaged in hazing in violation of the CSU Student Conduct Code and CSUN’s Code of Ethics for University Recognized Student Clubs and Organizations,” Harrison said.
Members of the Villa family told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol that neither the adult advisors of Pi Kappa Phi or other members of the fraternity have offered their condolences or provided information to Villa’s family. They want to know the details of what happened on July 1, when Villa died in the Angeles Forest where he was found barefoot and blistered without water or a cellphone.
It has been particularly painful for them to imagine what he went through with no means to get help.
“Our whole family has been affected,” said Christopher Casteñeda, Villa’s 20-year-old cousin.
“We grew up together and there were three of us [male cousins] that were about the same age, and we did everything together. This is the longest I’ve ever gone without seeing him. He was my cousin, but was more like my brother,” Christopher said.
“Our family is very close and we did everything together. He was such a positive, kind person that everyone who met him, even if it was just for an hour, has all said the same thing — and have cried about this.”
Family members said they found messages on Villa’s phone that expressed his concern about the hazing that he and others were being subjected to and said that he noted his desire to put an end to it. “He still wanted to join the fraternity, because he said that when he got in, he wanted to change it and stop the hazing,” Christopher said.
Villa’s family has sought both legal representation and an independent investigation in the hazing that they described ended the life of a young man that had so much promise.
“There was so much he wanted to do and so much that he wanted to accomplish in his career with plans to be a radiologist,” Christopher said.
A criminal investigation into Villa’s death is continuing, and CSUN President Dianne Harrison said decisions about “individual student culpability and discipline” will be made following that probe.
“This is a separate process, and students may face penalties that could be as serious as expulsion from the university,” Harrison said.
Harrison said an independent investigator hired by the university completed his report earlier this week, and she said the findings were “deeply disturbing.”
Harrison said university officials immediately contacted Pi Kappa Phi officials after receiving the report and gave them the option of voluntarily disbanding the chapter or facing a formal hearing at which the university would seek to force its closure. The students in the fraternity opted to surrender their charter at the university on Sept. 4, an action that was approved by the fraternity’s national board of directors.
“Like others in the community, I have been frustrated that answers into what occurred have taken as long as they have,” Harrison said. “While I wanted the investigation to be completed sooner, we wanted one that was comprehensive and followed university protocol.”
“I want to express my deepest condolences to the family of Armando Villa,” Harrison said. “As a mother of a son, I can only imagine their grief and anguish. It is unimaginable that their son’s death occurred while participating in a fraternity activity.”
Family members told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol that they are determined to see this through and fulfill Villa’s desire to put an end to fraternity hazing everywhere.
“His death just can’t be in vain,” Christopher said. “He brought a lot of light to people; we knew he would change the world, but not this way.”