The 5 a.m. knock on the front door annoyed Kathleen Wiant.

She figured the Dublin police officers outside her door were there because the garage door had been left open again.

One of the two officers asked if she could go wake up her husband but wouldn’t say why.

Kathleen noticed a third man not in a uniform.

“Who is he?” Kathleen asked.

“The chaplain,” the officer replied.

In that moment, Kathleen was certain that one of her five children was dead.

"Which of my children is it?” she asked, but the officer wouldn’t say.

Kathleen rushed to get Wade out of bed, and the couple learned that it was their middle child, 18-year-old Collin, who had died.

The Ohio University freshman was found on the floor of 45 Mill St. in Athens, an address the Wiants immediately recognized. They said it was the annex house of Sigma Pi, the fraternity Collin was pledging.

His body was found surrounded by drug paraphernalia. A coroner later determined that he died of asphyxiation due to nitrous oxide. Months later, the university expelled Sigma Pi’s Epsilon chapter from Ohio University for multiple hazing violations.

But on that morning last November, all Kathleen and Wade Wiant knew was that Collin was gone.

They asked the same questions over and over, but the officers had no answers. So Kathleen and Wade thanked them for coming and embarked on the longest day of their lives.

Together they told 17-year-old Aidan and 14-year-old Ava the news while the children were still in their beds. They called friends to come over and help make funeral arrangements. They wished the day would end but worried about what tomorrow would bring.

In February, the Wiants filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in Athens County Common Pleas Court against the Epsilon chapter and Sigma Pi International, saying that Collin was hazed by fraternity members to the point of death.

“There’s a purpose in all of this,” Kathleen said. “You want to make a change in his life. He wanted to change the world. So this is our chance to do that.”

Middle child

Collin Wiant had a full head of strawberry-blond curls, blue eyes and skin so fair that he seemed to glow for the first few days of summer.

His parents never quite knew what they would get with Collin.

“He was marching to the beat of a different drummer, and he was comfortable with that,” Kathleen said.

He was fiercely loyal, didn’t know a stranger, and loved Kobe Bryant and volunteering with the Miracle League of Central Ohio.

Collin would take long late-night drives with his little sister, Ava, and introduce her to R&B and oldies.

“It was such weird music for an 18-year-old to like, but it was the kind of music that made people feel good,” Ava said. “That was just like Collin.”

His best friend was his younger brother, Aidan. They were less than two years apart, shared a room for 16 years and always sat next to each other at the dinner table.

Weekends often were reserved for his brothers, Austin and Aidan. The three would run to Kroger for snacks and frozen pizzas, then stay up late playing video games in the basement, otherwise known as “Man Land.”

“All five of my kids were always very close, but that brotherhood they had was special,” Kathleen said.

Seeking brotherhood

Collin held brotherhood in high regard, so it wasn’t a total shock when he decided to rush a fraternity.

Both Kathleen and Wade were involved in Greek life during their time at Ohio University. Wade joined Pi Kappa Alpha (better known as PIKE), and Kathleen rushed Alpha Gamma Delta. They never pushed the Greek system on their children, but it wasn’t discouraged.

It wasn’t long before Collin accepted a bid from Sigma Pi, and he was elected pledge-class president shortly after.

At first, Wade said, Collin texted regular updates about how classes and pledging were going. Then the texts started coming less frequently.

“I would text, ‘Hey, bud. Haven’t heard from you in a couple of days. What’s going on?’” Wade said. “And he would say, ‘Dad, can I call you tomorrow? I’m Ubering.’”

Upperclassmen would give Collin their keys and make him drive them around to the bars, a task that struck Wade as responsible.

What Collin didn’t tell his parents was that his duties also included pulling all-nighters studying to take exams for active members, playing football at 45 Mill St. without protective gear, and being forced to drink a gallon of alcohol in an hour, according to the lawsuit and Ohio University’s internal investigation of Sigma Pi.

In early October, Collin was one of two pledges to be invited on a weekend trip with other fraternity members to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Collin was thrilled, Kathleen said, because he felt that he was more than a pledge — that he was really one of the brothers.

On that trip, the lawsuit alleges, Collin was subjected to physical abuse from Sigma Pi members. He was pelted with eggs, beaten with a belt and punched repeatedly by the active members, the suit says.

The weeks of pledging were taking a toll on Collin’s mental and physical health. He told his parents he hadn’t slept in almost two days.

No letters

While Kathleen and Wade were visiting Athens in October, Collin said he needed to go to 45 Mill St. for a meeting. Wade, who thought they were going to see a band together, asked why.

“We both said to him, ‘Collin, you know this isn’t everything, right? We’re here to see you,’” Wade said. “He just said, ‘It’s important. I have to do it.’”

So Kathleen and Wade walked with Collin to the house.

The stately white house at 45 Mill St. has four large pillars fronting a spacious front porch, which looks out over a relatively large lawn in tightly packed Athens. But the parents saw only a big red flag.

“Collin, why does the house not have any letters?” they asked.

Kathleen and Wade knew that displaying one’s Greek letters outside the house was a point of pride, but it also signified that the fraternity was operating as it should. Collin didn’t know.

The Wiants trusted their son, and the last thing they wanted was to squash his first real sense of independence.

Nevertheless, they expressed their concerns to Collin the next morning at breakfast. It wasn’t just the letters. None of Collin’s fraternity brothers made an effort to meet his parents that weekend. He had to attend late-night meetings. He looked exhausted.

Collin assured his parents that pledging would last only a few more weeks. He had aspirations to become the fraternity’s president one day, Wade said, and change how they did things.

The weekend before he died, Collin came home to visit. Wade took him to see his parents, and Collin slept hard for hours.

The next day, Wade drove Collin to the bus station. Collin got on the bus, and Wade started to walk back to the car, but stopped. Something told him he needed to watch.

“I don’t know what compelled me to do it,” Wade said, tearing up. “But I said, ‘I love you,’ and I just waved. I don’t know if he saw me, but I just waved.”

Wanting change

The Athens Police Department is investigating Wiant’s death. Tom Pyle, the Athens police chief, said any charges could range from misdemeanors, including hazing, to felony manslaughter.

“We are trying to determine how this young man died, and that includes if hazing was involved,” Pyle said. “We are trying to determine if criminal culpability should be assigned to people as part of this.”

Taylor Tackett, assistant dean of students and director of community standards and student responsibility at OU, said the university has taken several steps to combat hazing, including using a task force in 2014 to revamp its student code of conduct policy.

“We don’t accept this kind of behavior, and we don’t find it to be OK at all,” Tackett said. “So we take any allegations exceptionally seriously, and we look into those to make our community whole again.”

Tackett said a federal privacy law prevents him from commenting on Wiant’s case.

“I think there is a huge impact anytime a student dies,” Tackett said.

Sigma Pi chapters have been at the center of other incidents involving hazing and deaths involving students in the past year.

Last month, the University of Buffalo suspended all Greek activities after an 18-year-old student died in a Sigma Pi fraternity house. In November, the national fraternity suspended its University of Colorado-Boulder chapter after several women reported they had been drugged at the fraternity house near campus.

The Dispatch made repeated attempts to reach Sigma Pi officials after its OU chapter was expelled and for this story, but messages were not returned.

The organization made national headlines in 2016 when photos surfaced from its chapter at Hofstra University in New York that depicted pledges vomiting on each other. The photos published in several news reports showed pledges locked in cages and a swastika made out of duct tape on a wall.

Sigma Pi revoked the charter of the Hofstra chapter after the incidents became public.

Seeing the end of corporate sponsorships of fraternities and sororities that engage in hazing is one of the changes that Kathleen and Wade want in the Greek system.

Wade said he was disappointed to discover the Nationwide corporate logo on Sigma Pi’s national website. Wade said he couldn’t understand why such a respected company would continue endorsing an organization that has so much trouble in its chapters.

Nationwide, the insurance and financial services company headquartered in Columbus, has been one of the national Greek organization’s “featured partners,” along with several other national companies.

But when contacted by The Dispatch about its partnership with the national fraternity, Nationwide officials issued a statement saying they were planning to end the association with Sigma Pi.

“Our thoughts and prayers are extended to any of the families involved in these incidents,” Nationwide spokesman Eric Hardgrove said. “Nationwide has had an affinity marketing partnership with Sigma Pi, through which we retained the ability to market our products and services to their alumni. However, in light of these events, Nationwide is taking steps to end our relationship with Sigma Pi.”

Another change the Wiants want is more alumni accountability. Alumni, Kathleen said, built up and support a Greek system that allows hazing. Today’s students, while still accountable for their actions, are just living in the framework that was built for them.

“They won’t be accountable until they’re held accountable,” Kathleen said of alumni. “Nothing will change.”

 

Dispatch Reporter Lucas Sullivan contributed to this story.

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