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Four plead guilty in Baruch fraternity hazing death

STROUDSBURG, Pa. (Reuters) - Four former New York fraternity brothers pleaded guilty on Monday in the 2013 hazing death of a Baruch College student in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, a case that raised fresh concerns about initiation rituals that can turn deadly.

FILE PHOTO: The house where Chun Hsien Deng died after a hazing ritual during a fraternity retreat in 2013 is pictured in Blakeslee, Pennsylvania, September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo

Sheldon Wong, 24, Charles Lai, 26, Kenny Kwan, 28, and Raymond Lam, 23, entered guilty pleas to charges of being accomplices to voluntary manslaughter and hindering apprehension in the December 2013 death of Chun “Michael” Deng, 19, a “pledge” seeking membership of their fraternity.

The defendants, who appeared on Monday in Monroe County Court of Common Pleas in Stroudsburg, had faced more serious charges of third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.

The four, residents of the borough of Queens in New York City, were members of Pi Delta Psi, an Asian-American cultural fraternity at Baruch in Manhattan.

Judge Margherita Patti-Worthington could sentence them to up to 27 years in prison at a Dec. 9 hearing, but state guidelines call for a sentence of 22 to 36 months.

Deng, also of Queens, died of head injuries during a ritual known as “the glass ceiling.” Along with other pledges, he was forced to walk blindfolded, carrying a 30 pound (14 kg) backpack, through a line of fraternity members, who shoved them and threw them to the snow-covered ground, police said.

Deng’s death and others like it have led to sharp criticism of the so-called Greek system in U.S. universities, in which prospective members often must endure brutal rituals to gain admission into fraternities and sororities. At Pennsylvania State University in February, student Timothy Piazza died after an alcohol-fueled pledging ordeal.

In the Deng case, prosecutor Kimberly Metzger said the third-degree murder charges were dropped because there was no legal malice involved in the actions that led to the student’s death.

“It was a good result,” she said. “It’s a guilty plea. We still have a long way to go.”

Fraternity brothers were accused of waiting several hours to take Deng to a hospital while they organized a cover-up, prosecutors said.

Thirty-three other fraternity members who were arrested in the case and the fraternity itself are expected to go on trial in November. Metzger said it was too soon to say if the four who entered pleas today would be witnesses against the others.

The “glass ceiling” ritual took place at a rented home in the Pocono Mountain region of Pennsylvania, about 100 miles (155 km) west of Baruch.

Deng, a nationally competitive handball player from Queens, was the only child of his China-born parents.

In the Penn State case, Piazza’s father said his son “was treated like road kill” by members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, who are accused of waiting more than 12 hours before calling for help as he lay dying.

“This wasn’t boys being boys. This was criminal activity,” Jim Piazza said in an interview broadcast on CNN on Monday.

Reporting by David DeKok in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Editing by Frank McGurty, Alistair Bell and Chris Reese