On Feb. 27, Austin Rice, 21, was sentenced to two years’ probation for furnishing alcohol to Matthew Ellis as part of a fraternity tradition in November of 2017.
Ellis was found unresponsive in an apartment at the Millennium Apartments Complex on November 13, 2017, at little after 11 AM. The cause of death was determined to have been alcohol poisoning.
Rice was charged with furnishing alcohol to a minor after Matthew Ellis was discovered deceased in Rice’s apartment following a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity event. At the event, Rice had furnished a bottle of bourbon to Ellis as part of Ellis’ induction into the fraternity.
At the time of the offense, Austin Rice and Matthew Ellis were both 19-year-old students at Texas State University in San Marcos. Rice pled “no contest” to the charge in December, and the case was reset for sentencing.
During today’s hearing, Rice described the event as a “Big-Little” party during which fraternity members revealed the current members who would serve as the “Big” to the “Littles,” i.e., new pledges.
As part of this tradition, the “Big” would provide to the “Little” a bottle of liquor as a gift, with different “families” in the fraternity having special brands as their traditional “family bottle.”
Rice described taking the bottle away from Matthew before leaving the party and driving him back to Rice’s apartment, where Matthew later died as a result of “ethanol toxicity,” or alcohol poisoning.
Ellis’s father, Paul Ellis, testified at the hearing that Matthew was a shining light in the lives of his family and his community and that he hoped that some good might come from Matthew’s death in the prevention of another family having to endure the same loss.
Assistant District Attorney Jeffrey Weatherford urged the judge to assess one year in jail, the maximum sentence for furnishing alcohol to a minor.
Weatherford argued that the sentence must send a message to counteract the strong underage drinking culture that exists in the fraternity community. Rice’s attorney, Richard Ursha, urged the court to defer adjudication and grant Rice a small fine.
After a brief recess, County Court at Law Judge Robert Updegrove announced that he would grant Rice a suspended sentence, placing him on probation for two years, and assessing a $500 fine, court costs and community service.
Judge Updegrove also ordered Rice to cooperate with an investigation to determine who sold the alcohol to Rice. He did not assess any jail time.