Crime & Courts

Lawsuit: Tucker Hipps was made to walk bridge railing

A witness says fraternity pledge Tucker Hipps was forced to walk a narrow railing along the bridge from which he fell to his death last September near Clemson University, according to new filings in his family’s civil suit.

An amendment made to one of the two $25 million lawsuits the Hipps family filed against Clemson University, the Sigma Phi Epsilon National Fraternity and three of the fraternity’s brothers quotes a new witness account not yet made public.

The unnamed witness says Hipps was forced to walk the narrow railing of the S.C. 93 bridge spanning Lake Hartwell near Clemson’s campus, then fell and couldn’t hold onto the bridge’s side, the suit alleges.

The information is the first in several months that potentially lends some insight into how the pledge class president for the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity died while on a fraternity-sponsored early morning run.

Jimmy Watt, an Oconee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said officials who have been investigating the case already have spoken with the witness but would not say who it is or elaborate on what the witness said.

The sheriff’s office and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division “have spoken to this individual on more than one occasion,” Watt said. “It is still an active and ongoing investigation.”

Cindy Tucker Hipps, Tucker Hipps’ mother, also would not identify the witness but said she believes the person who came forward is brave for doing so.

“If you know something, you should come forward and say something,” Hipps said in an interview with The State on Thursday. “What else do we have to do but to get to the bottom of this? ...

Attempts to reach the Sigma Phi Epsilon National Fraternity Council with regard to the newly released allegations Thursday were unsuccessful.

According to the lawsuit, three of the fraternity’s brothers, identified as defendants Thomas King, Samuel Carney and Campbell Starr, “forced Tucker to get onto the narrow railing along the bridge and walk some distance of the bridge on top of the railing.”

The lawsuits alleged one of the three fraternity brothers became angry at Hipps for not providing a McDonalds’ breakfast for 27 pledges during an early morning pledge run Sept. 22, 2014. It states that defendant Thomas King was involved in a “confrontation” with Hipps on the bridge.

The suits initially included few details of how Tucker went over the edge.

After Hipps went over the railing, King shone “the flashlight on his cellphone into the dark waters below looking for” Hipps, the lawsuits said.

An autopsy, which officials kept secret until alleged details were released in the lawsuits, concluded he had died of “blunt force trauma” consistent with a “downward headfirst falling injury,” the lawsuits said.

A toxicology report found Hipps had not been drinking or ingesting drugs, the lawsuits said.

A statement by the family released after the lawsuits were filed called Hipps’ death a “senseless and avoidable tragedy. The culture of hazing and inappropriate conduct by social fraternities must be stopped. Universities and fraternities must make change from within to protect their own.”

Hipps’ parents said they filed the lawsuits “in the hopes that change will happen and that no other parent will feel the pain they have been forced to endure. Tucker lost his life, but we must not let it be vain.”

Clemson suspended the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity for five years but has made little additional information available about exactly how Hipps died. It has said the run was not sanctioned by the university.

Clemson University and members of Hipps’ fraternity responded to the suits in part by asking a judge to dismiss them, The Anderson Independent Mail reported in June.

King, of North Carolina, along with Starr, of Greenville, and Carney, of Delaware, organized the run, according to the suits.

Carney’s attorneys asked a judge to dismiss the case, citing South Carolina law that does not allow parents to sue for the loss of an adult child. The attorneys also say the lawsuits do not show Carney, whose father is a Delaware congressman, caused Hipps’ death, The Anderson Independent Mail reported.

In an interview with The State newspaper in April, Cindy and Gary Hipps said filing the two lawsuits is not about seeking monetary compensation for their only child’s death but about finding the truth.

“I feel like if we ever do get to the truth that it would offer a whole lot of relief, but we are never going to be happy,” Cindy Hipps said. “There is never going to be any contentment in finding out the truth, it will only be a relief.”

The State staff reporter John Monk contributed to this report.