RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Since the death of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) freshman Adam Oakes in 2021 due to alcohol poisoning at a fraternity event, anti-hazing legislation known as “Adam’s Law” has passed in Virginia, hazing prevention training has been established and now a documentary about the incident is being released.
Oakes’ death shattered the hearts of his family, but it also sparked a fire and tested their resilience to take action. Their goal from the beginning has been to create change on college campuses, so hazing never takes another life.
The documentary, called “Death Of A Pledge: The Adam Oakes Story,” remembers the night as it happened, through the eyes of his family — and the former fraternity members who were convicted of his death.
“I had the opportunity of initially interviewing the boys for use in educational programs — which is now this film — as part of the restorative justice program as part of their criminal sentence,” documentary director Daniel Catullo said in an interview with 8News. “After hearing it from their mouths, exactly what happened, I realized we had something that was pretty powerful, and people needed to see it.”
The fraternity brothers in the documentary retold the chilling night in Oakes’ hazing-related death — in their own words.
Quotes from Death Of A Pledge: The Adam Oakes Story:
“I would always tell the guys, ‘If anyone gets a bid, it needs to be him [Adam].’ On the way to my house, I stopped by the liquor store and bought a regular bottle of Jack Daniels — and then I bought a bigger one.”
“In the group chat, the guys were like ‘Oh my God. Adam’s dead.’ I was thinking they were f****** with me.”
“My mom is calling me. She’s hysterical, crying. She said police came to the house and that they surrounded the house and said I needed to go to jail.”
“Whenever I see his picture, especially the one where he is smiling, I think about his family and all the pain that I have caused them. And that there is nothing I can do.”
“There was no other alternative. I was guilty. I provided him the bottle.”
Andrew White, Adam Oakes’ big brother
“They wait up in a bedroom to be brought down, one by one, on a staircase to meet their big brother — which is the big-little ceremony. All the brothers lined at the bottom of the staircase, and then one brother on the staircase announcing, ‘And next up is… Adam Oakes.‘”
Christian Rohrback, VCU Delta Chi Pledge Master
“Adam was very, very outgoing. Very, very funny. Always had that smile on his face at all times.”
“I was excited to be with him in a fraternity and grow with him. I think we would have been friends for a very long time. This is a way to turn something absolutely horrible and tragic into something positive that we can actually build on — and prevent from ever happening again.”
Jason Mulgrew, VCU Delta Chi President
“His alcohol level at the time of death was probably in excess of a .40 — he didn’t have a chance.
Alison Martin, Prosecutor
Adam Oakes drank a bottle of Jack Daniels the night of the incident — referred to as a handle, the large bottle was 1.75 liters of whiskey, or about 39 shots. He was pronounced dead the following morning.
“Just knowing that your only child, the one that you cared for, the one that you prayed for — for many years… was gone,” Eric Oakes, Adam’s father, said. “Something could happen. It could be a stupid Facebook memory that pops up, but I start crying uncontrollably for hours. It is horrible. Going to bed at night, crying yourself to sleep. Waking up in the morning wishing you could hold your child one more time and not being able to.”
Courtney White, Oakes’ cousin, fought tirelessly to bring legislation to the forefront of the 2022 Virginia General Assembly to bring justice for Adam and other college students who lost their lives in hazing incidents — and prevent any other family from going through the same pain.
On April 11, 2022, Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed Adam’s Law. It went into effect July 1, 2022.
However, HB993 Felony Hazing was squashed in conference when the Virginia House and Senate could not come to an agreement.
“Every time they [Oakes’ parents] get down, that’s what I have to remind them of,” White said. “Even when we are long gone, Adam’s Law will still be here. So he will still be here. Then they perk up a little bit. Because it is true. There will always be a law that is in his name for kids.”
CLICK TO WATCH: Death Of A Pledge – The Adam Oakes Story
“Having someone relatively close to the age of the audience they are talking to, having the boys that were actually involved in this incident and having them talk to kids relatively their age that are their peers – saying, ‘I made a horrible mistake and I have to live with it.’ Hearing the story from their lips is much different from hearing it from a parent,” director Catullo said. “Now they could say, ‘hey, that could be me.’“
Catullo said the Oakes family is hoping to begin teaching students as young as middle school about the dangers of hazing.
“If someone was to teach a course on how to be effective in the wake of tragedy, it is the Oakes family. They are just a force of nature,” Catullo said. “If we could start working with kids at 13 or 14, maybe their behavior patterns will change before they’re in college.”
Catullo is working on a film called Protect The House and said it is “a massive five-year project that dives deep into the Greek life system to try to figure out why so many kids are dying and whether it is too broken to be fixed.” He said he has interviewed over 200 people and recorded over 450 hours of footage; including university presidents, victims, politicians and law enforcement.
The Oakes family has been conducting a national speaking tour to educate students and adults about the dangers of hazing at multiple colleges and universities.
The Oakes family has also established the Love Like Adam Foundation, a nonprofit established in Adam Oakes’ honor with a vision to “support, educate and equip graduating seniors and their families with the transition from high school to higher education.”
The family just returned from conducting a hazing prevention training at Virginia Tech. This month they will visit Longwood University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Ferrum College. In March, they will take on local high schools in Loudoun County.
“To any kid who is watching this, this really could be you,” Christian Rohrbach, VCU Delta Chi Pledge Master, said. “This could have been me. This could have been your best friend. This could be some guy in your class that you don’t know that well. It could be anybody. Nobody is safe from the dangers of excessive drinking or hazing.”