By Ashley Gebb [email@example.com @ashleygebb on Twitter]
The horror of it all came rushing back in a 30-second TV teaser.
The pain. The anguish. The heartbreak. Debbie Smith can only imagine what it will be like to relive that fateful February day for an entire hour two weeks from now, when she gathers with family and friends to watch the story of her son's death re-created for television.
Nine and a half years later, sometimes she still forgets that her first-born son is gone.
"You just sort of block it out because it's too painful," she said. "When I let myself fall into that, my heart literally quivers inside. It shakes it hurts so bad."
Matthew Carrington's story is one of three featured during a Lifetime Movie Network series called "Campus Nightmares" that starts airing tonight. The weekly one-hour shows re-create individual tragedies, with the Chico State University segment slated to run Aug. 13.
As difficult as it will be to watch, Smith knows the show's production is important to the fight she has been championing for years.
"If we don't keep talking about it, then nothing will ever change," she said, noting she recently met a young woman who asked 'What's hazing?'"
In spring semester of 2005, Carrington, a 21-year-old student from Pleasant Hill supported a friend by agreeing to pledge Chi Tau, a rogue fraternity not recognized by the university. During the first week of February, also known as "Hell Week," they underwent hazing that included sleeping in frigid, concrete holes and exercising in sewage.
On Feb. 2, the two pledges were forced to drink water from five-gallon jugs and do calisthenics with fans blowing on them. Around 4 a.m., Carrington collapsed in the fraternity basement but no one called 9-1-1 for more than an hour. He was later pronounced dead at Enloe Medical Center.
The cause of death — hyponatremia. Also known as water intoxication, it caused swelling of his brain, seizures and heart failure.
Four fraternity brothers involved in the hazing pleaded guilty in Butte County Superior Court to involuntary manslaughter. In September 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Matt's Law, which allows for felony prosecutions when serious injuries or deaths result from hazing.
Since then, his mother has worked continuously to educate about the perils of hazing.
"Just because you didn't know about it doesn't mean it's not happening," Smith said. "It just means that you don't know about it. The thing about hazing is it's a big secret ... Until somebody gets injured or killed they don't know it's going on."
Today's seniors at Chico State were not even students when Matt died. Incoming freshman likely have no idea who he is. Chi Tau is gone from the Chico landscape, the former fraternity house now a religious center, the dark dank basement where Carrington was last conscious entirely renovated into a new, brighter use.
Smith doesn't want her son erased from the memory of Chico — or any other community where hazing takes place.
"When you can keep things in the open and the fear of dying — he was only 21, they were just kids in there —maybe we'll learn we are not immortal," Smith said. "Maybe we'll learn we could die, and how horrific it would be."
Stacy Waters, supervising producer with the Indigo Films, said the purpose of the TV series is to look at crimes unique to the college experience. The other two episodes include a stalking case at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and a double-murder in a freshman dorm at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
"When most people think of hazing they think of pranks and hijinks and something you go though and bond through," Waters said. "But it can be dangerous."
Filming the Carrington episode relied on interviews with his parents, childhood friends, his brother, law enforcement, Jerry Lim — one of the men convicted of his hazing, and Mike Quintana, the friend who was pledging with him.
Viewers will see a re-creation of the event itself, as well as the interviews. The show does its best to be as accurate as possible, Waters said.
"These aren't shows where you have to add anything to make it dramatic. It's almost a show where you have to pull back because it's difficult to watch," she said.
As someone who lost a close friend to a hazing incident in high school, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey has always felt a connection to the Carrington case. And as its criminal prosecutor, he still feels strongly about the death.
"It sent an important message that hazing is not 'boys will be boys' but a very dangerous power trip by people that results in tragedies," he said. "It's important to make sure that we stamp out hazing."
Similar to when the Carrington story was featured in Playboy magazine in 2006 and Ramsey was asked to participate, he said he sees the potential for this show to reach hazing's target audience and hopefully prevent another death.
"Matt was an extraordinarily bright and affable young man that didn't deserve this," he said. "The young men that were responsible for taking his life, in some sense we try not to demonize them. It's just a system they fell into that felt it was OK to haze your fellow brother."
Smith continues to remember her son as kind and generous, protective over his friends, and caring about others. A transfer student, he only lived in Chico a few months but he loved the university and looked forward to graduation and job prospects.
She's hopeful for the power of social media in continuing to spread Carrington's story and can only imagine what would have happened if such outlets were prevalent at the time of his death. With all the work dedicated toward hazing awareness and Matt's Law, she still marvels when new hazing cases come forward.
"It's just like a knife in your heart again and again," she said. "It's like, why, why, why?"