Journalist Discusses Questions In Death Investigation Of High Point University Student
It’s been over six years since the body of 22-year old Robert Tipton, a junior at High Point University, was found in the private off-campus apartment of a fraternity brother. Tipton had bruises on his face, neck, and legs – and a gash on his head. The state medical examiner ruled Tipton’s death a drug overdose. But his injuries, and other factors, left many questions about his death that still linger today.
Tipton’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit that initially named High Point University, the national Delta Sigma Phi fraternity and two members of the chapter where Robert Tipton served as pledge-class president.
John Hechinger, a former Charlotte Observer reporter and currently senior editor at Bloomberg News, has looked into this case extensively. He’s reported on a number of apparent inconsistencies and troubling details surrounding Tipton’s death. Hechinger spoke with “All Things Considered” host Mark Rumsey.
The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Mark Rumsey: To what extent did police and prosecutors investigate Robert Tipton’s death?
John Hechinger: Well, from the beginning it seems the police were convinced that this was a drug overdose. There was an oxymorphone pill found at the scene — it’s a powerful opiate.
A police detective in the deposition in the wrongful death case acknowledges that there was bruising. She has notes that she mentioned she should talk to fraternity brothers, but she acknowledges that she didn’t talk to fraternity brothers and she didn’t look at some possible avenues of inquiry — such as the texts on Robert’s cellphone — which could have offered leads and other people to talk to. So, there are leads that definitely could’ve been followed and weren’t.
Rumsey: From your reporting, what are some of the major uncertainties? You mentioned text messages – what stands out to you as sort of “unfinished business” in this investigation?
Hechinger: One of the episodes that’s really striking is that after Robert Tipton’s body was taken to the hospital, one of his fraternity brothers took his phone, went through his phone and deleted texts with material about what happened at the fraternity. [The fraternity brother] then eventually turned it over to High Point University, which didn’t give it to the police. So, that was a whole line of inquiry that wasn’t followed.
And then perhaps even more striking – after Robert Tipton’s funeral in Memphis – a couple of fraternity brothers went into his bedroom and took a laptop out of a drawer and flipped through it. [They] deleted all kinds of information about the fraternity — about pledging. This is evidence that was destroyed and that the police never looked at.
Rumsey: Those actions with the laptop in particular – how can we know exactly what happened there in that home?
Hechinger: Well, because this lawsuit was pursued over more than six years, there are depositions. One of the members acknowledges that he went into the room and that he destroyed the evidence. Also, there was a witness who gave a statement and talks about seeing two members in the room, looking at the laptop and then closing it and running out when she looked at them.
Rumsey: And among the fraternity brothers involved here, another fascinating twist is the fact that the son of High Point University president Nido Qubein — his son is Michael – he was also a member of this Delta Sig fraternity at the time of Robert Tipton’s death. Was he involved in these actions involving either the text messages or the laptop, or both?
Hechinger: He says he was the one who removed the text messages from his phone and also deleted information from the laptop. He was also the pledge master, so, [he was] the one who oversaw the initiation of pledges like Robert Tipton. He was definitely someone who one would think the police would be interested in questioning.
Rumsey: Your reporting seems to at least raise the issue of possible favoritism or overlooking of things by investigators in this case because of that connection – the fraternity member who [is] the son of the university president. What can you say about that?
Hechinger: Well, three former security officers at High Point gave affidavits in support of the lawsuit. And what they said is that they were basically told, “Stay away from the fraternity – stay away from Michael Qubein. If there’s anything that happens, it should be brought to the supervisor,” and that there should be a hands-off kind of policy.
And there’s even a really chilling statement where one of the officers said that, “We really need to look at the behavior of this fraternity because at some point somebody’s gonna be taken off in an ambulance and not come back.”
Rumsey: What has High Point University said about this case?
Hechinger: They deny [in court papers] that there was any kind of special treatment or that this wasn’t looked into. They also say that this was a tragic accident and that they feel terrible about what happened. But they also aren’t discussing this since it’s still the subject of litigation.
Rumsey: And there is the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Robert Tipton’s family. I understand several of the defendants in that, including High Point University, were dropped – the judge took them out.
Hechinger: That’s right. The judge ruled that as a matter of law, the university didn’t have what’s called a ‘duty of care’ for a fraternity member in a situation off campus. And the same thing with the fraternity itself. So the only two defendants who are left are the two fraternity brothers – former fraternity brothers.
Rumsey: And have police or prosecutors in High Point shown any interest in reopening this case?
Hechinger: Well, Deborah Tipton’s lead investigator met with police, prosecutors and [State Bureau of Investigation] agents late last year and presented a lot of information – a lot of what we discussed today. Afterward, they said there just wasn’t enough information to reopen the case, and I spoke to an assistant district attorney who said he felt very comfortable that enough had been done.
John Hechinger is a senior editor at Bloomberg News and the author of the book, True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities.
WFAE reached out to High Point University and the Guilford County District Attorney’s Office for their response to Hechinger’s article. Chief Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann said the story “omits a great deal of factual information,” but he declined to elaborate.
A spokeswoman for High Point University said the school remains saddened by Robert Tipton’s death, but strongly rejects accusations made by his mother. The university’s statement also notes that a state medical examiner ruled Tipton’s death a drug overdose.