An eleventh-hour announcement from the U.S. Department of Justice and Orange County Sheriff’s Office right at the end of 2020 dropped a bomb on the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. It reverberated across the country.

Twenty-one people were indicted for moving serious weight in a small college town with fewer than 60,000 residents. They’re accused of selling over a thousand pounds of marijuana, a few hundred pounds of cocaine, and other narcotics at the university. Three UNC-Chapel Hill fraternities—Beta Theta Pi, Phi Gamma Delta, and Kappa Sigma—were name-dropped by the department as the site of drug sales, and frat brothers were implicated, too.

Investigators found that the cocaine was being shipped through USPS from California to the state, while marijuana was being driven in. Cash from the drug sales was also shipped through the postal service, according to law enforcement. Another $1.3 million was sent through money orders and mobile apps. The Justice Department doesn’t know how much money was circulated in all because of the drug ring (thanks to the use of paper money), but it was cited to be well over $1.5 million.

The four people said to be involved in fraternities were allegedly pretty sloppy: Photos and drug prices were sent through iMessage and a similar platform called GroupMe. Money was sent over Venmo and Paypal.

“This is not a situation where you have single users—where you have a 19-year-old sipping a beer, where you have someone taking a puff of a joint on the back porch of a frat house,” U.S. Attorney Matthew G.T. Martin said at the December 17 press conference. “These are 21 hardened drug dealers.”

The so-called “hardened drug dealers” are fairly young: 27-year-old Francisco Javier Ochoa Jr., the ring’s accused primary supplier, is one of the oldest people involved in the case. Over half of those indicted were 22 to 24. (More than half were Triangle residents, while only two lived outside North Carolina.)

The youngest of the indicted, David Bayha, was set to graduate from the university in 2021, according to his LinkedIn and Facebook accounts. Despite this, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz says no current students from the school were involved, only former ones.

“No one is above the law, including college students and fraternity members at elite universities,” U.S. Attorney Martin said in a statement. “This serious drug trafficking is destructive and reckless, and many lives have been ruined. This investigation reveals that the fraternity culture at these universities is dangerous. University administrators and national chapters cannot turn a blind eye to the impact on these students and the environment on their respective college campuses.”

The day after the press conference, Guskiewicz announced the school would suspend the three fraternities named in the investigation. The school’s Phi Gamma Delta chapter was also suspended by its national organization. Suspension, according to the Interfraternity Council’s constitution, means that the three fraternities are in “poor standing.” 

It’s unclear what that means in terms of punishment; in 2013, Chi Phi was suspended at UNC Chapel-Hill after a student pledging the organization died with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit. Members were allowed to continue living at the house, but any fraternity-related activities (such as mixers, parties, or meetings) were stalled until the investigation was finalized. Chi Phi is still recognized by the university, and recruits pledge classes.

Removing these fraternities from campus may seem like a logical next step, but it’s not a simple one. In 2019, the school stripped Sigma Alpha Epsilon of university recognition, meaning it no longer received support or funding from the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life and lost the “privileges” of creating fraternity intramural teams and reserving spaces on campus. Their national organization did not release a statement at the time regarding the closure of its Tar Heel chapter.

For UNC-Chapel Hill to remove a fraternity from campus, they’d also have to get past a network of wealthy and notable alumni. 

Hugh McColl, former CEO of Bank of America, was in Beta. Former N.C. governor Mike Easley was in Phi Gamma Delta, as was UNC building namesake Zebulon Vance (legendary UNC basketball coach Dean Smith was also a brother, but through the fraternity’s Kansas chapter). While Kappa Sigma does not list any notable UNC alumni on its website, U.S. Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.) was in its chapter at Wake Forest University.

The uncovering of the Chapel Hill drug ring also raises questions about drug abuse in the area: While public awareness of the opioid crisis has risen in recent years, cocaine use has slowly increased thanks to its heightened production and availability, according to a 2018 report from the Department of Justice. The same report says North Carolina has seen gang members working in unison with Mexican cartels.

UNC-Chapel Hill offers drug counseling to its students through the Carolina Recovery Program, a weekly group meeting currently held online. Narcotics Anonymous separately offers local programs. The county health department partners with other organizations to offer multiple avenues to addiction recovery. UNC Health has an inpatient substance abuse program. 

The Carolina Recovery Program did not respond to questions regarding specific new or existing addiction outreach efforts within fraternities or in the general student population. UNC Media Relations could not be reached for comment.

UNC and Chapel Hill police were in the midst of grappling with Silent Sam protests while a slow burn drug investigation continued just a block away, on Cameron Avenue. When asked about any increase in patrolling since the massive drug indictment, the Chapel Hill Police Department deferred to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. The county office deferred to the U.S. Department of Justice. A U.S. Department of Justice representative could not comment on any future steps that would be taken.

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