A Chico State University fraternity faces federal criminal charges that its members cut 32 trees in a Lassen National Forest campground during an initiation ceremony for new pledges.
A complaint filed Tuesday in the Redding office of U.S. District Court charges Pi Kappa Alpha, Chico State chapter, and its president, Evan Jossey, with 32 violations of cutting or damaging federal timber, illegal possession of a firearm and conspiracy.
The charges stem from a fraternity event over the April 21 weekend at an informal U.S. Forest Service campsite on Deer Creek near Butte Meadows. About 80 people were gathered in what the federal investigating officer called a fraternity initiation ceremony.
John Elam, who had been camping nearby, reported to Tehama County sheriff’s officials that he saw and heard trees being cut down and people shooting firearms. He had previously met Jossey, who introduced himself and said the fraternity would be holding “the final states of initiation” over the weekend.
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Elam’s April 28 report to the Tehama County Sheriff’s Office noted “large volumes of litter” as well as felled trees.
In an interview with a Tehama County sheriff’s deputy, Jossey acknowledged the fraternity retreat but “denied cutting down trees or shooting any firearms or seeing any members cut down any trees or shoot firearms,” according to an affidavit filed by the Forest Service investigator.
The officer noted that he visited the campsite May 5 and found 32 fresh trees that had been chopped down with a bladed object, such as an ax or hatchet. Fifteen other trees sustained chop marks but were still standing.
The trees are mixed conifer species that include Douglas fir, white fir and cedar, said Nancy Barrera, a Lassen National Forest spokeswoman.
While walking the site, the investigating officer wrote that he collected several pieces of evidence, including a Chico State construction program T-shirt and three black blindfolds.
In the “immediate vicinity” of two of the blindfolds were red and white candle drippings as well as a felled cedar tree, according to the affidavit.
The university has temporarily suspended the fraternity pending the outcome of the case, said Sean Murphy, a university public affairs coordinator.
“Regardless of who perpetrated the vandalism, the act in and of itself is completely unacceptable. We believe an affront like this is an affront against us all,” Murphy said.
A man who answered the telephone at the fraternity house in Chico, identifying himself only as James, said fraternity officers were “no longer communicating with the press.” In a statement released previously, the Pi Kappa Alpha International Fraternity said it was “severely disappointed to learn of the allegations levied against the Lambda Psi Chapter and has subsequently placed the Chapter on Administrative suspension pending the outcome of the federal investigation.”
The university has taken no action against individual students.
Barrera said she expects additional charges to be filed as the investigation continues. Pi Kappa Alpha and Jossey are scheduled to appear in court on June 26, in Redding.