A Clemson University student who fell to his death from a bridge near campus died of head injuries, but authorities said Tuesday there was no evidence to suggest that fraternity hazing played a role in his death.
Rumors swirled on social media after the body of 19-year-old Tucker Hipps, a sophomore fraternity pledge from Piedmont, was found Monday afternoon in the waters below the Seneca River Bridge.
“There has been speculation and innuendo, especially on social media, regarding whether hazing played a part in the death of Tucker Hipps,” Oconee County Sheriff Mike Crenshaw said. “So far, there has been no indication in the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office investigation that hazing played a part .”
Hipps was participating in a early morning group activity run at the lake with his Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, said Clemson University spokesman John Gouch.
Hipps didn’t return from the run and wasn’t at breakfast, so fraternity brothers began looking for him, Gouch said. Members of the fraternity contacted the Clemson University Police Department at 1:45 p.m. Monday to report him missing.
Hipps’ body was found by a Clemson police officer at about 3:30 p.m. and removed from the water at about 5:15 p.m., according to the sheriff’s office.
Fraternity members told investigators they were running Monday morning when Hipps started “having some issues” and fell behind as they crossed a bridge where his body was found later in the water, Oconee sheriff’s spokesman Jimmy Watt said.
“From what we have been told he was running with some of his fraternity brothers and for some reason or another he wasn’t able to keep up,” Watt said. “They got to breakfast and he wasn’t there. Apparently they went to check on him and couldn’t find him.”
Investigators have interviewed about 20 members of Sigma Phi Epsilon who Hipps was running with, Watt said, leading the Sheriff’s Office to believe hazing wasn’t involved.
Oconee County Coroner Karl Addis said Hipps died from a head injury consistent with an unsupported fall. He said the injury was consistent with falling from a distance of about 20 to 23 feet from the S.C. 93 bridge, which spans Lake Hartwell from Oconee to Pickens counties.
Hipps’ body was found in about 4 to 5 feet of water with riprap at the bottom, about 9 feet from the closest shoreline.
Addis said there had been no ruling on the circumstances of Hipps’ death. His office was awaiting a law enforcement investigation and toxicology analysis from SLED.
The sheriff asked that anyone who might have been driving in the area between 5:30 and 6 a.m. call the sheriff’s office if they saw anything unusual.
In the wake of the hazing rumors, the presidents of the 24 member fraternities of the Clemson Interfraternity Council voted Tuesday morning to suspend all new member, or pledge, activities, according to John Chapman, the council’s vice president.
Chapman said in an emailed statement that fraternities will have the option of allowing study hall hours for new members throughout the week.
Officials with the national office of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity had asked the Clemson chapter to suspend all scheduled programming in the wake of Hipps’ death.
“The Fraternity is aware of allegations being made through social media that the death was in some way linked to hazing,” Rob Jepson, a spokesman for tSigma Phi Epsilon, wrote in a release. “SigEp has a zero tolerance policy regarding hazing and is currently investigating these claims.”
A representative from the fraternity’s national office arrived in Clemson on Monday evening to work with the university to ensure that members of the chapter receive the support and counseling needed during this time, according to Jepson.
Hipps was a transfer student. After graduating from Wren High School in 2013, he attended the Upstate’s Tri-County Technical College for a year.
He was remembered Tuesday by friends as a natural leader and someone who was enjoyable to be around.
Max Fleming, a current senior at Wren High, said Hipps was the senior counselor of the “Santee Streaks,” an organized group, or “city,” of men at the most recent encampment at the youth government camp Palmetto Boys’ State.
“Tucker was the most down-to-earth person I have ever met,” Fleming said. “He was always a great leader and always leading by example.”
Fleming said there was an air of quietness surrounding the students and faculty at the school on Tuesday.
“It’s really an emotional time for our high school and the community,” Fleming said “There are very few people who don’t know who he is. He was always willing to get to know people and talk to people.
“He was a really good student in the classroom. All of the teachers are quiet today, not just the students,” Fleming said.
Fleming said many students were wearing orange as well as their Palmetto Boys State and Girls State shirts on Tuesday in remembrance of Hipps.
Students at Clemson, the University of South Carolina, Florida State and the University of Georgia also wore orange Tuesday to show support, according to posts on social media.
Palmetto Boys State director Stephen Lewis said Hipps had attended the statewide high school summer leadership program and that he embodied the organization’s core values.
“He was a man of honor, integrity and courage,” Lewis said. “His boys loved him. Kids who didn’t even know him have been posting on Facebook that we have lost a brother, because he was in the Boys State family.”
Lewis said Hipps reached the status of senior counselor within the organization – first starting as a citizen, then moving on to junior counselor and then was given a red senior counselor shirt.
Lewis said some of the Palmetto Boys State faculty members planned to wear the red senior counselor shirts at the candlelight vigil held at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Bowman Field on Clemson’s campus.
The vigil wasn’t an official university-sponsored event, but president James Clements presided over it with the dignity of a pastor, asking the students to pray for Hipps’ parents in the loss of their only child and telling them it’s OK to seek help from counselors if they need it.
“This is the kind of respect the Clemson family is all about,” he said as students huddled in the cool night air.
Tuesday night, too, around 200 USC students gathered on the State House steps in Columbia for a candlelight vigil.
Friends who spoke described Hipps as a brother to them – a devoted Christian, a loving boyfriend, a stranger to no one, with an infectious smile and a contagiously optimistic personality.
“We needed to show Clemson that we were here for them. It was a ‘two schools, one state' kind of thing,” said Gianna Lanz, a USC sophomore who was a friend and classmate of Hipps’ at Wren High. “It’s compassion that we have for each other as student bodies because, when tragedy strikes, we’re there for each other.”
Lanz, who knew Hipps for about six years, organized the vigil in her friend’s memory and as a show of love and support to his parents.
“He was just so comforting to be around,” she said. “If you were around him for more than a second you instantly had a smile on your face.”
Many students wore orange shirts or the red or navy blue Palmetto Boys State T-shirts. Members of Sigma Phi Epsilon pinned orange ribbons to their shirts.
Whit Campbell, a USC senior, became friends with Hipps at Boys State a few years ago, getting close to him this past summer as he mentored Hipps. He was working on a project in the library at USC Monday afternoon when another friend from Boys State called to tell him the news about Hipps.
“Time stops, and all you can think about is that person and their effect on you,” Campbell said. “He brought out the good in people.”
Campbell and Lanz alike remembered Hipp as an outgoing spirit and uplifting friend.
“It’s crazy to see that he’s gone and he’s not coming back,” Lanz said. “You want more and more Tucker. He was addicting.”
The Oconee County Sheriff’s Office is continuing to investigate the incident.
Staff writers Aaron Ransdell and Sarah Ellis and the Greenville News contributed.