In September of 2014, 19-year-old Tucker Hipps was a sophomore who was pledging the Beta Chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon known as SigEp at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. On Monday, September 22, 2014, the fraternity was participating in a pre-dawn pledge run that ended in Tucker’s death. At the time, Tucker was studying political science & chose SigEp because he had plans to go to law school after graduation & felt it would help with internship opportunities. He had been elected the fraternity’s “pledge class president” & was serving as the liaison between the pledges that were hoping to become members. Because Tucker was an only child, he was looking to be around others & felt that the frat life would provide him with a brotherhood.
Tucker was born on June 5, 1995 to parents Cindy & Gary Hipps. The couple hadn’t planned to have children; Cindy was 35 when Tucker was born & they felt that he changed their lives in a way they never expected. He was passionate about many things in life, including Palmetto Boys State where he was a senior counselor; this is a program that teaches young men to learn about the American system of government & politics by participating in a mock governmental system. He loved helping others, especially those who were less fortunate. Despite being a college student with little money, Tucker was the kind of person who would take a homeless person to lunch. Cindy remembers Tucker’s contagious smile & bright eyes. Tucker loved everyone & those who knew him felt he was their best friend. He had a girlfriend named Katie, he was athletic, participating in soccer, baseball, football & basketball. Tucker attended Rocks Springs Baptist Church in Easley, South Carolina & was very involved in the youth groups.
Cindy & Gary checked in with Tucker, calling him the day before he died, of course not knowing it would be the last time they would hear his voice; he told them he was very busy, playing in a soccer tournament on campus & they ended the call by saying, “I love you.” Cindy carries these words in her heart
In the first three weeks of the fall of 2014 semester, Clemson authorities were investigating complaints that had been voiced about violations by Sigma Phi Epsilon as well as other fraternities. These fraternities were at risk for suspension for violations involving “hazing & sexual misconduct.”
The early morning run on September 22nd was a hazing ritual & had been banned by the national Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity & violated Clemson’s hazing policy. SigEp had sent emails to the Clemson authorities, hoping to get permission to hold the run on the morning of September 22nd; when the university didn’t respond to their request, they took this as approval & went ahead with the event. A text was sent to the twenty-seven pledges, instructing them to wear dark clothing so they “wouldn’t be spotted.” As pledge class president, it was Tucker’s job to pick up 30 McDonalds biscuits, 30 hashbrowns & two gallons of chocolate milk. He was to bring these items to the fraternity hall before the run started but didn’t have the money to do so which caused an argument with Tucker & member, Thomas King.
Tucker & the other pledges started the run across the Highway 93 Bridge at 5:30 am that morning. Before 7 am, it was discovered that Tucker was missing when he didn’t report to the fraternity breakfast despite his phone & keys being left where the brothers instructed pledges to leave them before the run. The pledges began to look for Tucker at this point but didn’t report him missing. At approximately 1:45 pm, a brother, Campbell Starr, made a 911 call; during the 4 minute & 45 second call, Campbell specified twice that he didn’t want a police report or a missing-persons report taken, saying, “We don’t want to file a report; we just want to see if you can help us out.” He told the dispatcher that they retraced their steps looking for Tucker but there was no sign of him. When she asked for the missing person’s name, Starr was clearly hesitant to provide it but did tell the dispatcher.
At approximately 3:30 pm, Tucker’s body was found floating in Lake Hartwell after one of the brothers led campus police to this location. His blue athletic shoes were visible & much of his body was submerged under water. At 5:15 pm his body was recovered in the shallow waters, less than ten feet from the shore. An autopsy later found he had died from blunt force trauma consistent with a head injury from a downward headfirst falling injury from rocks in the shallow water below; he had injuries to his arms & legs as well. A toxicology report showed that he had not been drinking or ingesting drugs at the time of his death though he would have likely been in no shape to run as he got very little sleep the night before since the frat brothers had called him multiple times during the night & he got up very early for the run.
Police launched a death investigation, speaking to those present on the morning of Tucker’s death; there was a lack of information about what happened. They all told the story of meeting at the frat house, going out for a run, coming back & noticing Tucker wasn’t there for breakfast. They all said they hadn’t seen him fall into the water. This left Tucker’s parents wondering if they would ever learn the truth of how Tucker fell to his death. Court records indicate that Tucker’s family found that some of the SigEp brothers were deceptive & not forthcoming with police; members had deleted text messages & some tried to delete cell phone records in the days & hours after Tucker died. Campbell Starr changed his phone number though his attorney later claimed that the only reason he did was because he was being harassed by the media.
A witness did finally come forward with some information after the investigation had been at a standstill for eleven months. CIndy Hipps feels that helped answer some questions, connect some dots but she feels there are still some dots missing & she hopes to one day know the whole truth.
The sheriff’s department thoroughly investigated & interviewed the alleged witnesses & no criminal charges resulted from any of the witness’ statements.
A wrongful death lawsuit was filed in April of 2015 in Pickens County Court, seeking more than $25 million in damages from a list of defendants believed to be responsible for Tucker’s death. Included was Clemson University, the South Carolina Beta Chapter of of Sigma Phi Epsilon, Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity, Inc & three members of Clemson’s SigEp chapter who arranged the pre-dawn run that morning: Thomas King, Campbell T Starr & Samuel Carney, who was the son of Delaware governor, John Carney. The lawsuit claimed that King ran behind the group to ensure that no one fell behind. It indicates he received a phone call from another frat member that was angry that breakfast hadn’t been provided as instructed & that King confronted Tucker on the bridge about the lack of breakfast.
The Hipps family believes that the university, the fraternity & the three members are to blame for Tucker’s death & tried to cover it up after the fact. The suit also felt that Clemson should have responded to emails asking for permission to hold the run, telling them it was not allowed. South Carolina tort law protects Clemson University’s financial liability so they would not be required to pay the $25 million.
Tucker Hipps’ lawyer filed an amended version of the suit, saying they had a witness who could corroborate a claim that King, Starr & Carney forced Tucker to climb onto the narrow railing along the bridge & walk some distance on top of the railing which caused Tucker to fall, head first to his death to the water below. It came to light that a tradition existed that pressured or forced pledges to jump off the bridge & swim to shore.
According to court documents, witness, 73-year-old Edwin Griffin, said that he saw several kids on the bridge as he drove over, one was on the railing; he wasn’t quite sure of what time of day this happened. Court documents indicate that Griffin wasn’t cooperating & missing his scheduled deposition dates though did eventually give a deposition.The witness described the students as laughing & having a good time; this indicated there was no force or hazing involved. The witness claimed that he drove over the bridge to go to a gym at Clemson though according to records with the sheriff’s department, he didn’t actually go to the gym that day. He described the students wearing orange though in actuality, they wore dark clothing. During the interview with the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office, the witness appeared to be coaching himself on the video while he was alone in the interview room. County officials dismissed the new witness due to questions of credibility.
It was said that Tucker slipped from the railing & caught the railing under his arms; he tried to climb back onto the bridge unassisted, lost his grip & fell headfirst into the water below, striking his head on rocks in the shallow water.
Carney’s attorney claimed that he didn’t see or have anything to do with Tucker ending up in the water below which is basically what the other two claimed as well.
King, Starr & Carney then returned to campus with the other pledges, providing no help to figure out what had happened to Tucker. The lawsuit alleges that King used the flashlight of his cellphone to shine into the dark waters below, looking for Tucker. He then called Starr but it’s unknown what was said during the conversation. The frat brothers then ran over the bridge & back to campus while King stayed & continued to shine his flashlight down toward the water.
King later gave a lecture to the fraternity, saying it would be disappointing if a member fell behind since they should act as a unit & that the morning run was not hazing. More than seven hours passed before Starr notified police that Tucker was missing. When Katie, Tucker’s girlfriend texted one of the members & asked where Tucker was, they lied & told her he had been seen in the library. This frat brother then sent a group text to the others to let them know of the lie that would help “buy them time.”
Cindy Hipps’ lawyer, Jennifer Burnett feels that, “What happens is that fraternities ask people to do small and meaningless things… clean up or buy beer.. things that seem fairly innocuous in nature. Then the fraternity asks you to do something that puts somebody at risk, and you can’t say no.” In July of 2017, all parties settled on the lawsuit with the Hipps family; some details of the settlement were kept confidential.
Clemson had several incidents leading up to Tucker’s death within its fraternities & planned to suspend fraternity activities starting at 5:30 pm on the day that Tucker died. According to records obtained from the university, there was conversation of stalling this due to concern for media attention. But after Tucker’s death, all functions were suspended, not only because of what happened to Tucker, but because of the additional previous troubling incidents. According to Cindy, had she or Tucker’s dad, Gary known of these incidents, they would have stopped him from pledging. They were already concerned when Tucker wanted to pledge, but had been swayed by the university’s orientation that highlighted the positives of being part of a fraternity. She felt better after hearing about the improvements in time management skills, higher grade point averages & convinced Gary to allow Tucker to pledge. In her wildest dreams, she didn’t imagine that her son would be harmed during the process.
The settlement with Clemson stipulated a payment of $250,000 & the endowment of a $50,000 scholarship in Tucker’s name for a Palmetto Boys State attendee to study at Clemson.The university also dedicated a pew in Tucker Hipps’ name in Cadden Chapel on campus & a plaque was placed in Tucker’s memory. The chapel is named for a Clemson student who died in a car accident in 2015. The SigEp local chapter was removed from campus on a five-year suspension that expired in December of 2019 & the Virginia-based national organization agreed to educate both current & future members about the incident. Most of the money from the settlement would be used to pay the Hipps family’s lawyers.
After the settlements were approved, Cindy & Gary made a statement, “We lost our only son, Tucker, in a senseless way. No student should ever go to college & be expected to participate in dangerous activities. No student should ever experience hazing. If your son or daughter is joining an organization & you have concerns, please be diligent. Please contact the college or university. Please talk to your children. Please take advantage of the information which is now public about these organizations through the Tucker Hipps Transparency Act by looking at the school’s website.”
Because of what happened to Tucker, the South Carolina Legislature passed the Tucker Hipps Transparency Act in 2016 requiring universities to publicize code of conduct violations by student organizations. Cindy & Gary Hipps were determined that something positive would come out of such a tragic situation & have worked to raise awareness about the dangers of hazing; they travel around to different universities to speak with fraternities about their son. Cindy & Gary hope that changes will happen so that no other parent will have to feel what they’ve been forced to live through.They also established the Tucker Hipps Memorial Foundation to keep his legacy alive.
After Tucker’s death, the university implemented changes to it’s Greek system by adding new staff members to add leadership & health & wellness programming & to increase council advising support, increase new member education on hazing, alcohol, sexual misconduct, adding fraternity & sorority life certified peer educators to implement peer-led wellness programs. A 2017 article indicated that the 2016-2017 academic year saw a significant decrease in violations of the Student Code of Conduct by frat members.
Cindy is hopeful that someone who was there the morning that Tucker died will come forward to reveal everything that they know; she’s hoping their conscience will prevent them from going to the grave with that information. She says she forgives the boys involved in her heart because she refuses to live as an angry person. A $50,000 reward was offered to anyone willing to provide information & was later increased to $100,000. Since the increase, investigators only received a few tips, but no substantial leads came as a result.
Cindy & Gary miss Tucker terribly; he is still the first thing they think about when they wake up & the last thing before they go to sleep. Each year on September 22nd, family & friends of Tucker gather at the cross that stands at the bridge where Tucker fell to his death to honor his memory.
Those who want to come forward with anonymous tips can call the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office directly at 864-638-4111.
- Palmetto Boys State
- Tucker W Hipps Memorial Foundation
- The Tiger: A mother’s search for closure
- CNN: New clues in death of Clemson fraternity pledge Tucker Hipps
- USA Today: Family of Clemson frat member who died in fall files suit
- WYFF4: Tucker Hipps’ family looking for ‘truth’ in son’s death, ready to forgive
- Independent Mail: Family of Tucker Hipps settles lawsuits filed in his death
- WYFF4: Witness in Tucker Hipps’ case shows up for deposition, victim’s mother says
- You Tube: 911 call for Tucker Hipps
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