The Charleston Police Department’s 704-page case file on Michael Schmidt and his accomplices opens with a moment from Kappa Alpha Order “Kidnap Night.” The incident report comes hours before Mikey’s fraternity initiation, on the last night of “Hell Week.” On Kidnap Night, the pledges had the freedom to punish whichever College of Charleston Kappa Alpha had hazed them the worst that semester. Mikey’s year, the KA pledges voted to abduct the son of a for-profit-college CEO. When Mikey arrived at the $885,000 home the CEO had purchased for his boy, Mikey’s pledge brothers had already gotten drunk and bought kidnapping supplies. After some planning, a team of freshmen ran toward their target’s room. Other KAs slept at friends’ houses during Kidnap Night, but the CEO’s son apparently didn’t think he’d be a victim. The tallest pledge helped pin him down, and the others began to wrap him in duct tape. They bound his hands together and his legs and kept wrapping the young heir until he was buried in tape. They dragged him outside and handed his Audi A4 keys to Mikey, who was the only pledge sober enough to drive.
When they put the CEO’s son in the back of his Audi, he started to scream. According to Mikey, while he swerved around a pedestrian, he heard one of his pledge brothers punch their captive in the face. The plan was to leave him in the dunes on Sullivan’s Island, but after Mikey turned on Ashley Avenue without signaling, he saw police lights behind him. Mikey pulled over, and when the policeman heard muffled cries of “Help! Help!” he called for backup. A few minutes later, a sergeant and an officer walked toward the Audi. Through the back passenger door, they saw three boys in street clothes and a fourth who’d been duct-taped and gagged. As the Charleston PD incident report describes, the officers “advised the driver/offender (Michael Lawson Schmidt W/M) to keep [his] hands where the [patrolman] could see them. The offender abruptly stated ‘Sir, this is just a joke.’”
I learned about Mikey Schmidt after a press conference held three years later, during the 2016 College of Charleston summer break. Standing under a photo of $100 bills, Charleston’s police chief, Greg Mullen, announced one of the largest drug busts in the city’s history, a six-month collaboration between local police, state law enforcement, the DEA, the FBI, and the US Postal Service. Chief Mullen pointed to a row of tables to show what they’d seized: five pounds of marijuana, a pound and a half of cocaine, seven firearms, a Tac-D grenade launcher, $214,000 in cash, and forty-three thousand pills worth $150,000. During his speech, he mentioned that the case was related to the murder of Patrick Moffly on the first Friday of that year’s C of C spring break, but when a reporter asked about the link, Mullen refused to discuss it. Instead, he added that the college ring had sold everything from MDMA to LSD to Xanax, which “seems to be a drug of choice right now.”
Chief Mullen then switched the TV display from piles of money to rows of mug shots. Up on the screen, the suspects’ frowns hid their dimples. They looked like guys who put in time at the gym, and maybe at the beach, and definitely at the putting green. Two of them belonged to Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and three were KAs. Next to the pictures, the Charleston PD listed their names and ages:
Because Michael Schmidt was the lead name on the press release, I started asking people about him. One source told me he had a wealthy grandfather and excellent hair. Another told me he’d been 5'0 until 12th grade, when he’d hit puberty and grown seven inches. Many treated me to their imitation of the “Mikey voice,” a Georgia-bred and weed-infused accent that one friend called a “squirrelly whisper.” A few also sent me his photo that showed his wavy flow shaved to a nub from Wateree River Correctional, where he is currently serving a 10-year sentence without parole. (The others involved did a combination of jail time, suspended sentences, and probation.)
Mikey left for Charleston a rowdy kid. Before college, he hadn’t been afraid to drink before class or leave campus in his 1990s Mercedes to smoke outside Chick-fil-A. He’d dated the cutest girl at the Mount Vernon School, even though his voice was still about as high as hers. ??(A high school friend explained: “He just had mad game. He had this little swag to him, and the hottest girls always wanted guys that don’t give a fuck.”) One time he showed a younger kid on the JV basketball team $10,000 in cash that he’d made from selling weed. Still, Mikey wanted to level-up his social life at C of C. In college, his stepfather couldn’t ground him for downloading Ludacris’s “Move Bitch” on iTunes. Instead, he could smoke a blunt without putting a towel under his door and try to join a good fraternity.
After his mom dropped him off in Charleston, Mikey left his dorm to tour the school’s annual Student Activities Information Fair. Hundreds of kids gathered in the school’s Cistern Yard, where ivy grew on the walls and moss hung from the live oaks. Walking near a buried Civil War cannonball, Mikey approached rows of picnic tables belonging to student clubs and organizations. He wasn’t going to play Quidditch or join the Chucktown Trippintones a cappella singers, but he knew which tables he wanted to find. He hadn’t decided what he wanted to major in, but before he’d even left high school, he’d planned on joining one of the best fraternities at C of C.
The college’s Greek organizations set up booths outside the Stern Student Center, next to the other clubs. First he ran into two upper-middle-tier fraternity options, Kappa Sigma and Sigma Nu. Kappa Sig was known for its big pledge classes and wild compound on Spring Street, and Sig Nu thrived with its Phish vibe. Mikey put his phone number on the Kappa Sig spreadsheet, but he didn’t like Widespread Panic, so he passed Sigma Nu. He also walked by the irrelevant Sigma Chis, who were playing with their dog. Then he looked for the tables belonging to the top chapters.
By consensus, the two best frats at C of C were Pi Kappa Alpha (Pike) and Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE). Mikey heard that Pike recruited northerners from towns like Greenwich, Connecticut and felt like a New England boarding school without the nerds. These boys seemed older than Mikey, in part because the boarding school kids had lived away from home before, and in part because some of them seemed to already know about cocaine. Entire tristate-area friend groups came to Charleston for the southern coastal lifestyle and the two-hour flight home to LaGuardia, and Pi Kappa Alpha had a pipeline of Connecticut recruits to choose from.
Mikey was proud to come from Georgia, and he didn’t want to join a clique of kids from Fairfield County. Instead, he wanted to rush Sigma Alpha Epsilon. He’d heard about C of C SAE before he’d left home. The chapter recruited boys from old southeastern families, but it also attracted tristate kids who liked a mix of northern and southern rhythms. A Charleston SAE might drive a F250, but he’d prefer EDM to country and salmon-colored pants to Wranglers. A boy in a mid-tier fraternity called them “fuck boys with less morality,” but a Tri Delt sister from Connecticut summed up the elite sororities’ view: “SAEs are good-looking douchebags. Honestly, I think of taller guys.” Even the haters talked about their lake house parties, bar tabs, day parties, bottle-service nights, house parties, and boat charters.
Before he reached the SAE table, Mikey saw a booth for another fraternity he recognized. He’d heard about the C of C Kappa Alpha Order from older kids in the Atlanta suburbs, and his new roommate had talked about KA too. Sitting behind the KA table was a boy in khaki shorts and a fire engine red t-shirt. He wore a backpack on his shoulders, and he was eating a footlong Subway sandwich. He reached out his hand and introduced himself as Rob. His blond hair curled above his ears, and he had gold Kappa Alpha lettering on his chest. From the way Rob’s eyes looked at the footlong sub, Mikey believed Rob was very high. Rob was sitting with a friend who was making fun of him for eating Subway. Mikey asked them if they smoked, and Rob said, “Yeah, we burn.” They talked for a minute, and then Rob looked up and said, “I live across the street. Wanna hit my bong?” (Robert Liljeberg didn’t respond to interview requests.)
No one I met in Charleston ever accused Kappa Alpha of being the best fraternity at C of C. While the SAEs had a historical marker next to their house, the KAs didn’t have a house. The same Tri Delt sister who called the SAEs tall and handsome described the KAs as “random.” “Where the obnoxiously good-looking frats would be like, ‘Oh, we’re hot shit, we’re gonna have all these hot girls at our parties,’” she told me, “the KAs would just be like, ‘Oh, we have a keg.’” A Kappa Sig called Kappa Alpha “steady middle tier,” and an SAE told me that “they weren’t on my radar.” When Mikey arrived, their chapter GPA hovered around the national 2.8 minimum, and their community service hours remained near zero. Their budget allowed only a simple social calendar. One older KA said, “We just got fucking hammered off bourbon and Natty Lights all the time.”
If the Kappa Alphas were known for anything, it was being southern. They recruited boys from Atlanta, Memphis, Fort Worth, and around South Carolina. Many of them liked to hunt and ride ATVs. For a good KA, there was no shame in wearing whitewashed Wranglers and throwing in a cheek of Red Man, and, unlike the SAEs, they weren’t afraid to like country music. Since its founding at what became Washington and Lee University in 1865, the Kappa Alpha Order national organization has seen itself as “southern in its loves.” Before the end of the century, Kappa Alpha voted to ban expansion north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and although the policy has been reversed, they still consider Robert E Lee their “spiritual founder.”
Mikey didn’t think much about the Civil War, but he fit in with the C of C KAs. During their golf events he hit it 260 yards off the tee, and during their “Boats N’ Hoes” rush party he chugged a bag of boxed wine. The older guys liked that he smoked weed and dealt a little too, and they loved that he had a fake ID operation in Atlanta. At the end of rush week, Rob and the for-profit college CEO’s son invited him to their house on Montagu Street, where Mikey walked by the beer pong table under the dining room chandelier. They all sat on the red couch and played Super Smash Bros., and Rob kept things casual. “Yo, you got a bid, if you want it.”
As a Kappa Alpha pledge, Mikey reported to active members’ apartments every morning to cook and clean. After that he delivered the brothers’ lunch and ran things around town as a courier. He also had to wear a uniform at all times: a necktie and Velcro shoes from Walmart. (One of his pledge brothers had to wear a Disney Princess backpack all day, and another had to store his backpack in the freezer each night.) He submitted his schedule to the pledge master, and he remained on call for errands if he wasn’t in class. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights he also worked as a “pledge driver,” chauffeuring brothers to and from house parties and King Street from nine p.m. to two a.m. By themselves, none of the tasks felt that bad, but combined they became a full-time job. In certain parts of the South, prospective employers understood that fraternity boys’ GPAs would dip during their pledge term, because most guys had little time for homework and others didn’t make it to class.
Mikey had no problem missing school. One of his first college lectures was an introductory government class, and on the first day he watched the professor wheel in a bike from the Cistern Yard. The man wore purple socks with Godzillas on them, and when he took the podium he started complaining about Charleston’s lack of protected bike lanes. When Mikey looked down and saw his “GOATS” pledge class GroupMe light up, he left the lecture and never came back. He later told an older guy, “The professor was a weirdo bike-riding hippie. How the fuck was he going to teach me anything?” Missing class left Mikey more time for KA errands, and it also gave him time to rest and hydrate before “lineups.”
On lineup nights, the KA actives summoned the underclassmen to off-campus apartment living rooms, where the older boys moved the sofas and laid out plastic for vomit. Pledges showed up in white T-shirts ahead of time, knowing that lineups are the kind of event where “if you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, you’re fucked.” Then they’d stand in a circle wearing blindfolds and answer questions about things like the Greek alphabet. When Mikey’s pledge brothers answered wrong they might have to drink a cup of “pledge juice”—cat food, dip spit, etc.—or do other things that might make them throw up. They might also lie blindfolded on the floor, getting doused with unknown substances that tasted like flour, or smelled like Glade air freshener, or felt like urine. In 2015, the brothers duct-taped forty-ounce bottles of malt liquor to the pledges’ hands and made them chug (“Edward 40 Hands.”) That same term, they made two pledge brothers shotgun Four Lokos and box each other. One boy who didn’t smoke weed was deemed the “weed hazing pledge” and forced to swallow edibles. Mikey, who did smoke weed, had to wear a gas mask with a bong attached to his mouth, which the brothers filled with tobacco until his head spun. Another night he laid his elbows and toes on top of bottle caps, watching them bleed until the brothers told him he could get up.
This rhythm continued all semester. Mikey and his pledge brothers settled into the poor person cosplay of working like “the help,” and their alcohol tolerance continued to climb. In late autumn, they entered Hell Week. At many fraternities, this entailed living in a fraternity basement for seven days. Because the C of C KAs didn’t have a house, Mikey arrived at the CEO’s son’s house on Montagu Street, turned in his phone, and got his instructions. When he wasn’t in class, he belonged to the Kappa Alpha Order. He wasn’t allowed to leave the house for any reason, and he wasn’t going to play Smash while he was there. When he and the other pledges got home from school, they did older boys’ homework and scrubbed their floors. One active made them write five-thousand-word essays on meaningless topics, but mostly the boys sat around, not allowed to nap or shower, passing the time before Hell Week lineups.
During Mikey’s term, his older friend Rob kept away from the worst hazing, a move that always earns love from younger kids. Even so, new faces showed up to take his place. It’s common during Hell Week to meet an active fraternity member who doesn’t go to social outings or chapter meetings but who seems to pay $500 a semester so he can make kids eat cat food. The Hell Week–lovers can get aggressive, and even though an active told Mikey that “if an older brother puts his hands on you, you are allowed to put your hands back on him,” Mikey couldn’t fight back when they forced him to sleep in the dirt underneath a brother’s house for two nights. The weather got down to the forties during late fall in Charleston, and Mikey woke up both mornings feeling sick. By the time he started an overnight road trip to the KA chapters at Wofford, Clemson, the University of South Carolina, and the University of Georgia, he had a fever. After Mikey jumped into a pool at one KA house and made sandpit snow angels at another, his temperature reached 103 degrees. When he got back to Charleston covered in sand, he still couldn’t shower.
After midnight on the second-to-last night of Hell Week, the actives told Mikey’s pledge class to wear their Velcro shoes. After they tied blindfolds around their eyes, the underclassmen got into cars with running engines. The boys sat with their eyes closed for fifteen or twenty minutes on a drive that felt smooth. Then the ride started to throw their bodies around, and when the doors opened the pledges got out. The brothers led them through what felt like marsh up to their shins, and then to what they knew was sand. They heard waves, and the active members told the pledges to take off their blindfolds and run into the ocean. They sprinted toward the Atlantic and jumped into cold water, and when they got out the brothers’ headlights were gone. As was tradition, the C of C KA pledges had to walk four hours from the far tip of Sullivan’s Island to downtown Charleston. Most years, some boys fell asleep on the walk. Mikey’s year, though, a Sullivan’s Island police car pulled up to investigate the two dozen kids walking at two a.m. in wet Velcro shoes. They told him, “We’re a running club, sir,” and he called them taxis home.
In response to a request for comment on the C of C KA pledging experiences my sources described, an attorney for the KA national organization “denounce[d], in the strongest terms, the conduct, and/or actions” that they recounted. The attorney also denied the allegations in their entirety, stating that they “do not reflect Kappa Alpha Order, the [C of C] Chapter alumni as a whole, or any of its members.” He said that the alleged conduct would violate KA’s bylaws prohibiting drunkenness, hazing, crimes, or “ungentlemanly conduct,” and that the national office “has neither records, documents, nor institutional memory” of any of the incidents. He added that “records pertaining to this chapter and others from more than five years ago have been discarded.”
By most accounts, the KAs didn’t have the worst Hell Week at the College of Charleston. That distinction belonged to the best chapters like SAE. Their hazing was different from the KAs in small ways, like meeting at six o’clock every morning instead of nine thirty, and in its totalizing nature. “We got rocked,” one SAE told me. “I mean, it’s deep. Like, I saw kids cry. Saw kids break down.” I heard a few stories about the C of C Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledgeship, and I tried to find someone who could confirm or deny them. Eventually I talked to another SAE who told me about a conversation he had a few years after graduation, when he’d hosted a bachelor party for his best friend from the fraternity. At the end of the night, eight guys sat around a fire, drinking and telling their favorite stories about the groom. The high school crew told fun anecdotes, and then it was the SAE’s turn. “I told a story that was really dark,” he told me. “Something that [the groom] did to me in my fraternity that was, like, horrible. Everybody was like, ‘What the fuck. Why is that the story you’re telling us?’”
I obviously asked what that story was. He started by generally describing SAE Hell Week, which he said involved getting tased and running fifteen miles to take a picture with a random woman at a Waffle House. During one lineup, the future groom, who was a year older than his future groomsman, pulled his friend aside and told him, “Things are gonna get really, really fucked for y’all right now. It’s gonna get really bad. But I want you to know that you can put your life in my hands, and I won’t let anything go beyond the pale, no matter what.” Near the end of that night, a few older SAEs asked the pledges for a hazing volunteer. The future groomsman raised his hand, and the future groom looked at him and shook his head. But the freshman kept his hand up, and the sophomore led his friend to the backyard, put a towel over his face, and waterboarded him. “One of my bigger fears is drowning,” he told me. “It’s scary, you know. That’s a really real thing. But I’m a very good swimmer. I held my breath.” The future groom poured water on the rag for thirty seconds, ninety seconds less than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed claimed to have endured at a CIA black site. (SAE didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Around the fire pit at the bachelor party, the groom’s buddies asked the SAE why he’d just told them that story. He answered, “Look, y’all have only had good experiences with [the groom]. You’ve never had what I’ve had with him, and you never will!”
In its official bylaws, the Kappa Alpha Order requires its chapters to perform its secret initiation ceremony in a house of worship. National headquarters distributes a letter signed by their executive director, Larry Stanton Wiese, for chapter presidents to give to potential church hosts. “Our members are commonly referred to as an Order of Christian Knights,” it says. “Since the initiation ceremony is very religious in its basic essence, a place of worship is needed.” The day after Kidnap Night, the College of Charleston KAs met in a 160-year-old church on Ashley Avenue. The pledges put on robes, and the active members blindfolded them, which meant the boys couldn’t see the stained glass around them or the hammer beam ceiling above their heads. After that, they heard the older kids recite a text that mixed Calvinist theology, three degrees of Masonic ritual, Confederate militarism, medieval romance, and what one brother called “esoteric sciences.” Mikey felt a dull sword on his shoulders and tasted some wine from a special cup. Then the actives said his name and a few other things, and he went from a pledge to a brother.
At other schools, Kappa Alpha chapters had spent weeks rehearsing the ceremony and memorizing the text. They’d kept their crown and sword in a locked room and played the official Kappa Alpha CD of lute music during the ritual. But for the kind of chapter that did Hell Week, the church initiation was sometimes just a way to keep the executives at KA headquarters off their backs. The national organization makes every chapter reenact its official ritual, but different groups treat the ceremony with different levels of seriousness. “It was some Medieval Times bullshit,” a recent KA chapter president told me. “[During the ritual], I took the CD they gave me and swapped it out with the music from Halo.” At the end of Mikey’s chapel ceremony, the brothers drove the new initiates to America Street, a heavily policed and marginalized strip of East Charleston, and told them to walk home again. The two dozen boys headed down the cracked asphalt, looking at overgrown lawns and boarded-up row houses. Without loosening their ties, Mikey and a few other KAs walked up to a group of Haitian immigrants and said, “Hey, y’all got some weed?”
From AMONG THE BROS, by Max Marshall. Published by HarperCollins.