By Lenea Austin – The L.A. Sentinel
and Final Call Staff
LOS ANGELES – The family of Kristin High, one of two California State Los Angeles students who died in early September, has filed a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, charging that the organization was responsible for her death at Dockweiler State Beach.
The suit, filed Sept. 23 in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleges sorority members led the 22-year-old senior and mother of a two-year-old to her death the night of Sept. 9. Ms. High, blindfolded and wearing sweatpants and tennis shoes, was led into water at the beach, the suit charges. She died in the surf. The suit said the act was likely part of a pledging ritual. Senior Kenitha Saafir, 24, also died in the surf, which had waves that crested at 10 feet, according to some reports. Police say there is no evidence that hazing took place. Both of the victims were pulled from the water by police officers who administered CPR but were unable to revive the young women. The county coroner’s office verified the cause of death.
“While there has been public speculation that the incident involved Alpha Kappa Alpha, I want to remind you that we have no chapter of AKA at California State University Los Angeles. You may recall we suspended the local chapter more than two years ago over minor pledging infractions,” said Linda M. White, Supreme Basileus of Alpha Kappa Alpha, in a letter dated Sept. 25 and posted on the sorority website.
“If any individuals involved in the incident purported to represent AKA, they did so without the approval or knowledge of our organization. In fact, we are trying to determine whether the individuals involved have ever been members of AKA,” said Ms. White, in the letter. Still the sorority head asked members and supporters to join her in “expressing our deepest sympathies to the families of the young women. Please know that our prayers and thoughts are with them during this very difficult time.”
Patricia Strong-Vargas–the grieving mother of Ms. High–struggles today with knowing that the victims could be alive.
“I tried to talk to all of them Ã‰ and stop it,” said a teary-eyed Ms. Vargas of her unsuccessful attempt to end the unusual, grueling late-night activities.
“Now it’s too late,” she said.
The families said that complaints the women made during sorority initiations–about tiredness, physical abuse, as well as their thoughts about quitting–led them to believe that hazing occurred the night the young women died.
The bodies were pulled from Dockweiler Beach Sept. 9 just before 11:30 p.m. They were participating in the late-night activities when high tides apparently had overcome them.
Now family members are asking five other women, among them sorority members and pledgees, to reveal the truth about what happened that night.
Members gave three conflicting reports of the incident to the High family. One was that the women were exercising on the beach and using the water to rinse themselves, while still fully clothed. The waves overtook them, said Holman Arthurs, Ms. High’s fiancÅ½e and the father of their two-year-old son, Skyler.
Mr. Arthurs fears a cover-up about what really happened at the beach.
“We believe Kristin’s car was one of the cars they used to go to the beach Ã‰ They didn’t return the car until 12 hours after we asked for it,” Mr. Arthurs said. Several items, including her pledge book, were missing, said family members.
“Why do they bother to come over here (High’s family home) if they are not going to tell the truth?” Mr. Arthurs said, angrily. “Their story wasn’t viable Ã‰ Black people don’t go swimming at midnight in the ocean.”
He said Ms. High had acute anemia and always covered up because she was cold-blooded.
“Someone should be held responsible for this,” said Ms. Saafir’s husband of one year, Karim. “They should have never put anybody in a bad situation. Water is so uncontrollable, and how dark was it at night?
“They should not have been out there unless two of them were trained lifeguards. For them not to even look at weather reports was irresponsible,” he added.
Ms. Strong-Fargas said her daughter would come home between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. almost every night.
“They had been keeping her out at all hours of the night. She was always drained and her weight loss was extremely noticeable. She wasn’t the daughter I was used to seeing,” she said.
“I told her that she had to stop and she said, ‘I am tired, I want it to end, too.’ ” Ms. Strong-Fargas said.
Mr. Karim said his wife questioned going through with her goal of being a member of the sorority because she felt she had already established a life for herself–something her older sisters outside of the sorority were still trying to do.
Ms. Saafir, who transferred to Cal State after attending Kings River Community College in Reedley, Calif., was a full-time tax specialist with the IRS and only needed courses to obtain a degree in photography.
“She wanted to be a teacher,” Mr. Karim said. “She wanted to teach young African American students about art, so that when they began taking art classes as (young adults) they would already know the basics.”
Joining a sorority was just something his young wife always wanted to do, he said. So, according to Mr. Karim, when she expressed that she may not go through with pledging AKA because the women “were not the type of people she wanted to be around,” he encouraged her to continue.
“I told her once when it was over, she wouldn’t have to be friends with them. She had other friends who were AKAs,” he said.
But Kenitha Saafir had other reasons for wanting to quit pledging. Mr. Karim had been ill for a month and is currently undergoing steroid treatments for swelling in his brain.
“She was worried about me. But she had a hard time because I was sick,” he said. “I know (how she felt) because she kept a journal. Her whole life is documented,” he said.
Ms. Strong-Fargas said Ms. High also kept a journal on her computer.
While neither family disclosed what the women had written, they said the entries give some insight into their pledging experiences.
“Kristin did not tell me everything because she knew I would blow the whistle on her. Ninety-five percent of the women in our family are either Delta or AKA Ã‰ so I know how things are supposed to be,” Ms. Strong-Vargas said.
Mr. Arthurs admits that he knew a lot about what was going on and said that it put a strain on their relationship.
But he knew that the “driving force for Kristen was that she knew she would be part of the big picture,” he said. “She wanted to be a part of an organization that stood for something.”
The Cal State Los Angeles chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha is an unofficial group not recognized by the campus or the sorority’s headquarters.
Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., founded in 1908 at Howard University in Washington, D.C., seemed to be the right organization for Ms. High, family members said. It emphasizes community service in areas such as education, economic empowerment and political action–all arenas in which she had worked.
Ms. High was majoring in business administration with an emphasis in entrepreneurship. She worked part-time as an office manager and teacher at Ruby’s Christian Academy. She was also Cal State Los Angeles’ NAACP chapter president and served on the organization’s National Youth Work Committee.
Ultimately, Ms. High wanted to become a civil rights attorney, Mr. Arthurs said.
“The plan was she would be the civil rights attorney and I would be the entertainment lawyer. She would help out the small man and I’d go after the big man,” he remembered. “We were going to be the new-age Huxtables.
“She wanted to fight and champion for those who couldn’t fight and champion for themselves,” he added.
Ms. Strong-Fargas said, “Knowing my daughter, Kristin, she would have put an end to this (hazing).”
“I don’t want to see this happen to anyone else’s mother,” added Ms. Strong-Fargas, who is forming an organization to be called “Mother’s Against Hazing.”
“All we are seeking is the truth,” said Sam High, Kristin High’s father. “As a father I would like to know what happened to my daughter. I don’t know how she left this world,” he said.
According to one report, Mr. Karim is seeking to informally resolve the matter with the sorority.