It was nearly a year ago that the body of Tucker Hipps, a 19-year-old student at Clemson University in South Carolina who was pledging the fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon, was found floating in a lake. But the specifics of the circumstances that led to his death have remained unclear until this week, when new court documents based on the testimony of an unidentified witness were filed, offering new clues, local media reported Thursday.
The new documents alleged that in a hazing episode on Sept. 22, 2014, Hipps was forced to walk along the railing of a bridge and ultimately fell to his death, the Columbia newspaper the State reported. Hipps slipped "and caught the railing under his arms …. tried to climb back onto the bridge unassisted … lost his grip on the bridge and fell head-first into the water below, striking his head on the rocks in the shallow water,” the witness recounted, the Independent Mail of Anderson reported.
No one tried to rescue Hipps, according to the new witness. It wasn't until three hours after his fall that frat brothers began looking for him, and only seven hours after the event were campus police called. These details, previously unknown, filled in the gaps of what had been a mere sketch of what happened the morning of Hipps' death.
Earlier in 2015, Cindy and Gary Hipps, the student's parents, filed two $25 million lawsuits against the university, the national fraternity and three Sigma Phi Epsilon brothers. Those lawsuits laid out that Hipps died after he and one of the defendants, Thomas King, were caught in a "confrontation" on a bridge spanning the Seneca River. Hipps had failed to bring breakfast from McDonald's for more than two dozen pledges for an early morning pledge run -- a practice that violated the university's hazing policy and that was also banned by the national fraternity. But the original details did not clarify exactly how Hipps died.
— The State Newspaper (@thestate) August 13, 2015
According to his parents' lawsuits, an autopsy indicated Hipps died of "blunt force trauma" that could have resulted from a head-first fall and that he had no drugs or alcohol in his system. It failed to explain how, exactly, he fell. The lawsuits also asserted that the fraternity brothers tried to cover up their involvement in Hipps' death by deleting text messages and other evidence from their phones.
Now, the new information could provide momentum to the criminal investigation into Hipps' death, which had been stymied for months.
“It does answer some questions,” Cindy Hipps, Hipps' mother, said of the new evidence, the Independent Mail reported. “[It] connects some of the dots. There’s still some dots missing. …We want the whole truth.”