RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Homicide detectives have opened an investigation into the death of a University of California, Riverside student whose family claims he is the victim of extreme hazing.
Tyler Hilliard, 20, was set to start his third year at the university next week. But the business major, who was pledging the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, died Sunday after an outing with his pledge class.
"I couldn't ask for a better kid," his mom, Myeasha Kimble-Hilliard, told PIX11 sister station KTLA. "He had a bright future ahead of him."
Hilliard was rushed to the hospital around 9 p.m. Saturday from Mount Rubidoux, where the fraternity was hosting a gathering of some sort.
Kimble-Hilliard said the version of events the pledge master gave her after she confronted him in the emergency room doesn't add up.
"He said that they were about to go for a hike at Mount Rubidoux - they had not started hiking yet - and that Tyler was feeling short of breath," she said. "Shortly after that he collapsed, and (the pledge master) called 911."
The family claims Hilliard's heart stopped seven times over the next few hours before he was pronounced dead.
Texts later uncovered on Hilliard's phone indicate the Mount Rubidoux trip involved a hazing ritual, according to his cousin Robyn Fountain. She said she discovered messages referring to it as a "gold paddle day."
"So, I don't know," Fountain said. "I assume that means that they were going to be beaten in the wilderness."
Other messages made reference to other meetups earlier in the week during which the family suspects hazing also occurred, she added.
Riverside police agree that the circumstances surrounding Hilliard's death are strange.
"It's a little bit suspicious, a 20-year-old young man, college student passing away like this," Officer Ryan Railsback said.
Now, the family wants answers from the fraternity.
"Their organization is hazing and they need to be aware of it," Kimble-Hilliard said. "And they need to put a stop to it."
The organization's local chapter did not respond to a request for comment from KTLA. But on its national website, Alpha Phi Alpha says it actively fights and strictly prohibits hazing. It also says pledging has been abolished as a necessary step to gain membership into the group.
The fraternity is historically African-American and boasts several civil rights leaders among its former members, including Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens.
UC Riverside issued a statement, saying it was cooperating in the investigation and was offering grief counseling services to the campus community.
"The UC Riverside community grieves the loss of our student Tyler Hilliard. We've shared our condolences and offer of support with Tyler's family and have made counseling services available to students, faculty, or staff who knew him. UCR Student Affairs and UCPD are collaborating with the Riverside Police Department to determine the circumstances regarding Tyler's passing."