CHICO It is the Friday night before final exams week at California State University, Chico, and Riley's Bar & Grill is packed with partying students hoisting individual quart-size pitchers of mixed drinks or beer.
At this same bar five weeks earlier, a fraternity pledge celebrating his 21st birthday at the second of two stops at campus-area pubs downed 10 shots of liquor in 75 minutes and threw up into a trash can.
Mason Sumnicht was in good academic standing at Chico State, a member of the Ski and Snowboard Club and on pace to graduate. Before his birthday fest, friends say, he wasn't considered much of a drinker. But on Nov. 15, 12 days after frat buddies took him to an apartment to recover, and eventually called 911, Sumnicht died at the hospital from alcohol poisoning.
As its legendary drinking culture parties on, as students fill the bar where a classmate downed his last fatal shots, Chico State grapples with its troubling ranking and paradox as one of the top three academic institutions in the California State University system and its most notorious party school.
The university is planning a summit early next year to address the excess drinking that has plagued this college town. Here, the historic campus of 1887 red-brick buildings melds into neighborhood party houses and downtown bars offering hard-boozing "power hours" and cheap drink specials for students.
Nationally, nearly 6,000 college students are treated at hospitals each year for excessive drinking and 1,700 die from alcohol consumption, alcohol-related car crashes and other accidents resulting from drinking.
But the tragedy has Chico state officials worried that their campus community suffers from a reputation for drinking that extends back to and beyond a nearly 25-year-old designation by Playboy magazine as the top party school in America.
In a 2011 survey of 1,836 incoming Chico State freshmen, 35 percent reported they had participated in binge drinking before arriving on campus far more than national survey results of 22 percent.
Given last month's tragedy and two other recent drinking-related deaths in Chico involving students from other colleges, university officials worry that the survey data suggest Chico State attracts students as much for its allure of booze and parties as for its renowned programs in business, engineering, journalism and recording arts.
"That's the $64,000 question," said university president Paul Zingg, as he watched a college basketball game on campus, while extolling the team's high grade-point average, the hardworking nature of Chico State's 16,400 students and their high rate of community volunteerism.
"Why do students come to Chico State, and how are we going to deal with the fact that 35 percent of our incoming freshman are predisposed to binge drinking?" Zingg said. "That's a problem."
The drinking culture
Drinking has been an issue in Chico as far back as the 1920s, when townspeople first complained about young people imbibing at Chico's Pioneer Days, an alcohol-filled festival that ended in 1987.
Within a one-mile walk of the Chico State campus are 52 bars and booze-serving restaurants.
Mondays bring $1 shooter specials at the Hub. Tuesday is buck-a-drink "Progressive Night" at the University Bar. Wednesday is $1.49 tallboy night at Madison Bear Garden. Thursdays feature the 9 to 10 p.m. power hour at Riley's with 50-cent well drinks and 25-cent price hikes every 15 minutes to inspire students' rapid thirst.
"We work hard and play hard, absolutely," said Nate Fawcett, 25, a senior business major from Los Angeles. He and and friends were stepping out of the campus area Bella's Sports Pub, which features a 10 a.m. Bloody Mary Bar on college sports Saturdays.
Fawcett says he chose Chico State for its business school, "one of the top 10 in the nation and very competitive," and not its party appeal. But he says "there is a party school mentality that people come in with and I think they realize at some point that they are on their own and they have to be responsible."
Upon acceptance to Chico State as a foreign exchange student from Brazil, mechanical engineering major Matheus Torneli checked out Chico on YouTube. Links immediately popped up for "Chico State parties," including videos of happily drunk students on Halloween and Cesar Chavez Day events.
"I thought, 'Yeah, I'm going to the right place,' " said Torneli, a B-plus student due to graduate this spring.
A survey of incoming freshmen suggests it's unfair to characterize the majority of Chico students as heavy drinkers.
Fifty percent of the freshmen, who are required to take an alcohol education and safety course before beginning classes, are nondrinkers and 17 percent are light drinkers, compared with national averages of 64 and 14 percent.
In 2011, 39 percent of Chico freshmen reported they participated in binge drinking by the middle of their first college semester down from 45 percent in 2008.
Jessica Henriques, 20, a political science major who arrived on campus two years ago from Gridley, said she was surprised at how much she was pushed to drink.
"It was a bit extreme. Honestly, I felt a lot of pressure," said Henriques, a sorority member.
She carried a red plastic cup of water at off-campus parties, she said, "so people would say, 'She's drinking. She's fine.'
"To me it was definitely shocking to see how much drinking was going on within the student population," Henriques said.
A shot at change
Zingg said the extent of drinking in the college town is no longer tolerable.
At the start of the spring semester, the university president plans to assemble a campus forum with students, faculty, police, medical professionals and bar owners to discuss remedies for the drinking culture.
Zingg said Chico State is considering scheduling more classes on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons to discourage weekend drinking. He also said he would like to see bar owners get rid of cheap drink specials that flourish during the week.
"We need them to help us defeat the alcohol culture," Zingg said.
None of several campus area bar owners and managers contacted by The Bee, including at the Madison Bear Garden, where Sumnicht started drinking over dinner with friends Nov. 3, and Riley's, where he had his last shot, agreed to interviews or returned calls.
Alcohol was flowing the weekend before finals at Riley's, a bar with beer-can-covered walls and multiple TV screens.
At several tables, Chico marketing majors in special semester-end "pub crawl" T-shirts were downing quarts. At the corner of the bar, Scott Wallace, 25, a recent graduate in psychology who stayed to take a master's course, raised his $5 tall pitcher of vodka, soda and cranberry juice.
"The good thing is you can get drunk for almost free," Wallace said.
He said he didn't need to drink beyond his one pitcher "and maybe a beer later" but said many other students would likely order more. "Some people say, 'I'm just going to keep drinking and go with it,' " Wallace said.
Chico Police Sgt. Scott Franssen said authorities are investigating reports unconfirmed that fraternity members and other friends may have egged on Sumnicht in a bid to drink 21 shots on his 21st birthday. The state Department of Alcohol Beverage Control is looking into whether bar employees could have served him after knowing he was drunk.
Two months before Sumnicht's death, 22-year-old Shaun Summa, who was to start classes at the Butte College fire academy, was found dead from drinking at a house a block from the Chico State campus. Authorities said he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.34 and had choked on his vomit.
On Sept. 2, 20-year-old Brett Olson, reported to be drinking while riding an inner tube during Chico's annual Labor Day Weekend Float on the Sacramento River, drifted off unnoticed. He was found dead seven days later with cocaine and a 0.28 blood-alcohol level in his system, authorities said.
After Sumnicht's death, Zingg angrily addressed more than 500 members of Chico State's 1,600-strong fraternity and sorority population. He indefinitely suspended all Greek activities, ripping the organizations for backsliding on conduct standards that were imposed after a student, Matthew Carrington, 21, died of water poisoning in a 2005 hazing ritual.
That incident, on top of a 2000 fraternity house drinking death of an 18-year-old freshman, Adrian Heideman, prompted Zingg to demand that fraternity and sorority members adhere to standards for academic performance and social responsibility.
Although the latest death didn't involve an official fraternity function, Zingg excoriated members of the fraternity Sumnicht was pledging Sigma Pi for allowing a frat brother to put himself in danger from drinking. "You don't get a pass for calling 911," he told the campus assembly.
But his speech seemed to change neither the drinking culture nor its risk.
On Dec. 8, an intoxicated Chico State student, Brandon Fisher, 21, of Valley Springs wandered into a street after bar-hopping in a semester-ending pub crawl, Zingg said. Police said Fisher was struck and critically injured by the pickup truck of a Butte College student, Matthew Lambert, 20. Lambert was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.