Adam Jeffrey Oakes had his whole life in front of him when he decided that Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond was where he wanted to go to college. It was close to his home in Potomac Falls, Virginia, near where his grandfather, who had been dealing with stage 4 lung cancer, lived. There was a bus he could take back and forth from VCU to see his grandfather—just a two-hour ride, so he could be there quickly if anything happened.
As a freshman, he was invited on February 23, 2021, to pledge to Delta Chi fraternity, where famous astronauts, actors, politicians, musicians, and business leaders had all been members in chapters across the country. Former FBI director William Sessions was a Delta Chi brother. About 7 percent of VCU’s 20,000 students were either in a sorority or fraternity.
Oakes was 19 years old, looking for camaraderie as he got ready for life on a big school campus. Maybe he’d find some networking opportunities for future career development and have a little harmless fun. Delta Chi was supposed to provide all that.
But on February 26, 2021, the only child of Eric and Linda Oakes died—accidentally, according to the medical examiner—during an event at Delta Chi over the course of an evening that began at 8 p.m. He died from alcohol poisoning after he was told to chug 40 ounces of Jack Daniel’s whiskey. His blood-alcohol level was later determined to be .419—beyond the level of surgical anesthesia, and a point where breathing turns shallow and coma can kick in.
Adam threw up, collapsed on the floor. The other frat brothers who saw him that night left him, the 5-foot-11, 350-pound drunk pledge, to lie there.
He was pronounced dead at the scene the next day.
At VCU today, the once-prestigious Delta Chi chapter is gone forever from the campus, expelled in June 2021 because of Adam Oakes’ death, which happened while 11 members did not intervene. Adam’s father, Eric Oakes, says that the medical examiner told him if anyone had called 911 that night, his son would still be alive. “They could have intervened and pumped his stomach or gotten the massive amounts of alcohol out of his system,” Oakes says. (When asked by Northern Virginia, the medical examiner declined to share medical information with people outside the family.)
All 11 witnesses who did nothing that night were charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor offense for criminal hazing in Adam’s death, as required by Virginia law. No one was charged with homicide. The witnesses’ misdemeanor charges, which could have meant 12 months in jail and $2,500 fines each, instead resulted in orders to do community service. The students were required to make presentations at other schools about the evils of hazing, talk about what happened to Adam, and work directly with the Oakes family to explain to people that what they did was wrong. Case closed.
But not for Eric Oakes. As he sees it, there has been no real justice for his son or his family. “I lost so much that night,” Oakes says, sobbing quietly. “My only child, a best friend. I sent him off to VCU to go to school and get a higher education. And they sent him back in a body bag.”
Eric recalls when he and Adam drove into Richmond in the summer of 2020 on their way back from an annual family trip to Virginia Beach. It was the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. There had been protests and riots in the city from May through August that summer, and in that moment, Eric sensed the fear that had gripped the city. “We were real concerned with the city of Richmond at the time,” Oakes says. “There were the George Floyd protests and everything going on.”
He asked Adam if any of the street scenes they were driving through bothered him. “He said, ‘No, not at all.’ I’m like, ‘But there are boarded-up windows and slogans spray-painted on walls.’ ‘No, no. The kids look after you, Dad.’ That’s what he said. ‘The kids will look after you. They look after each other,’ he said.”
What Eric Oakes didn’t know about Delta Chi was that in 2018, the fraternity received a four-year suspension for a pattern of misbehavior, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. A lawyer specializing in such hazing cases challenged that suspension and got the fraternity reinstated in 2020, calling the suspension “in essence a death penalty” for the fraternity.
Nothing about that history was posted on the VCU Delta Chi website. All Adam knew was that joining the fraternity could be a good thing for his move into higher education. And he knew that, as in every fraternity, becoming a member involved a certain orientation process, a “rush.” Those pledge processes—drinking parties, for the most part—could sometimes devolve into a brutal, bullying test of a pledge’s commitment to the fraternity. It almost always involved copious amounts of alcohol.
The nature of hazing has changed over the years, according to Hank Nuwer, a journalist who tracks hazing deaths in the U.S. There are anti-hazing laws in 44 states, which is a positive change. But there is a darker side, too.
Nuwer’s website has page after page of hazing deaths reported each year, documenting cover-ups by colleges, settlements, fines paid by individual chapters as punishments, and judgments or prosecutors dismissing obvious hazing incidents as simply pranks gone wrong. Hazing today has taken on a more vicious, more hateful tone, in part due to YouTube videos about people playing sometimes dangerous pranks on each other, says Nuwer. “Pledging used to be about a kind of camaraderie. So there were limitations on it,” he says. “Now, it’s cheap entertainment.”
VCU doesn’t acknowledge what happened with Oakes as hazing, he says. “It was a big brother–little brother bottle exchange,” Nuwer says of the hazing incident. “They rationalize it as Adam getting a gift—the bottle of liquor.” VCU did not respond to request for comment.
As the year 2021 dragged on and Eric Oakes saw the charges leveled against the 11 frat brothers in late September, his outrage grew: No one was found guilty of murdering his son. Yes, the school was getting rid of this particular fraternity, but what about the other fraternities and sororities on campus? Was there proper oversight of them?
So, with help from his niece, Courtney White, who is currently working on a Ph.D. thesis about hazing, Oakes went to work to honor his son’s memory. Maybe they could rewrite the state’s hazing law, perhaps make it a felony when someone dies from hazing. Oakes wanted real change and needed well-placed legal assistance to go the distance.
Help found him. Virginia State Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-33) heard about Adam and contacted Eric to offer her condolences. That lit a fire under Eric. With Boysko’s help, Eric and White began work on a bill. Boysko and Oakes’ state delegate, Kathleen Murphy, worked collaboratively, going back and forth with Oakes and White to hammer out details. “We had our attorneys here working with us to make sure that the legislation that we came up with fit within the parameters of our schools and universities,” says Boysko.
Boysko says they started off with the idea of a comprehensive bill (later split up into two bills) that would deal with the education piece and the criminal piece all at the same time. They wanted felony charges—manslaughter—for any hazing deaths. “Then we thought, well, you know, the criminal piece is going to be much more difficult for us to get implemented. So let’s split them in two and focus on updating the education piece with the universities first, and then we can do the criminal side on the second bill. And so that was how we ended up with two bills,” Boysko says. The education bill became known as Adam’s Law.
One of the reasons that Adam’s family really wanted an education bill was because, when they looked online, they had no way of knowing that the Delta Chi fraternity had some very serious incidents in the past, Boysko says. “And if we have a 10-year record requirement that says you have to show 10 years of any sorts of incidents, that could save somebody’s life,” she says.
Another piece of the education bill was to give people the strength to stand up and say something when something’s going wrong. “We have an immunity piece in [the bill] as well, that would say that if a bystander sees what’s happening, even if they’re drinking or doing something that they could get in trouble for, if they reach out and say something, they will be immune from any sort of disciplinary action,” Boysko says.
Adam’s Law was passed by members of both the Virginia House and Senate on March 7, 2022. It was signed into law by Gov. Glenn Youngkin on April 11 and will go into effect on July 1.
Many kids don’t even realize that they’re being hazed, says Boysko, which is something addressed in Adam’s Law. “That’s one of the pieces around the education thing—identify what hazing is,” she says. “If you’re being asked to do something that you didn’t feel comfortable with, you have the ability to say no, and they should respect that. We don’t even give people that kind of permission in our society to stand up for themselves. It’s considered a rite of passage to be forced to do things that you don’t want to do.”
The goal of the bill is to try to change the culture. “I think the schools and the sororities and fraternities at the national level recognize that this has gotten out of control and that they need to do something to change it,” Boysko says. “And they want these laws. The schools were completely supportive, and fraternities and sororities were, as well.”
The other bill, which deals with the criminal side of hazing, is currently in conference because the House version and the Senate version are drastically different, says Boysko. “I do not have confidence that we are going to find common ground because the Senate version asks for a full immunity for calling for help,” she says. “The second piece is really a big one, and that calls for whether [a tragedy like Adam’s] would be considered a felony [manslaughter] or a Class 1 misdemeanor. The House wants the felony; the Senate version does not. I think many of us feel that it would be better to come back another year and work on it again.”
During his testimony in front of Virginia lawmakers, Oakes laid his soul bare: “As I wrote this testimony, I was overwhelmed, covered in tears because of the deep sadness of not having our only child, Adam, with us any longer. Adam was our whole world. Trying to imagine a world without your children is painfully desolate. The feeling of not protecting your child coupled with having no purpose is overwhelming.”
While Adam’s Law outlined steps to educate students and faculty about fraternity life, Oakes says that it didn’t go far enough. “I’m really disappointed that the state Senate is not supportive of making hazing a felony,” Oakes says. “In the state of Virginia, if my son was an animal, those 11 young men would be indicted under Tommie’s Law, which is a felony. [The law is named for a dog who died after being tied to a pole and set on fire.] The hazing law is a misdemeanor in Virginia. And I said something to them, like, now’s the time to get it right.
“We just watched the 11 others walk, you know?”
Boysko, who has two daughters, one who belonged to a sorority in college, says she isn’t interested in putting people in prison. “This was something that’s completely preventable,” she says of Adam’s death. “If someone knows they have years in prison in front of them for doing that—and they usually enter into this deliberately—it’s not like an accident that you’re going to force somebody to drink a gallon of whiskey,” she says. “And these are young men and women who typically know what they’re doing and are willing to put other people in harm’s way.”
The hope is Adam’s Law will help bring more common sense to the various state laws against hazing, according to Nuwer. “Too many police still look at hazing as a non-crime,” he says. “Even in this case, there isn’t going to be jail time for the first defendant in this trial. He was convicted of hazing, but then he got no jail time. He’s going to be speaking at schools, which I really object to. It’s not like he’s speaking out of his own free will. And it’s not like he has any particular knowledge of the subject. So I think it’s a terrible, terrible, a terrible court decision.”
Meanwhile, Eric Oakes is looking for some way to live with his only child’s untimely and preventable death. He started a nonprofit with White, the Love Like Adam Foundation, that will provide education about transitioning from high school to college and the dangers students can face on college campuses.
White described her cousin Adam as having an amazing heart, a kind spirit, and “the absolute best bear hug,” with a bright future and dreams of his own. “At the core of all of this is, my cousin was a sweet kid, an innocent kid, who didn’t have any brothers or sisters and was looking for brotherhood in Delta Chi,” she says. “And that was the last thing that he ended up finding.”