On anniversary of his death, Adam Oakes' family continues to push for accountability

Posted at 6:27 PM, Feb 27, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- On the two-year anniversary of his death, the family of Adam Oakes and Virginia Commonwealth University unveiled a memorial plaque and bench in his honor Monday.

The memorial sits in VCU's Student Commons building outside the Fraternity and Sorority Life office.

The unveiling was just one part of a day full of emotions and tears as the family remembered the 19-year-old freshman's gentle nature and contagious laugh.

"I only wish you all had the opportunity to meet, love, and get to know him while he was still here. He was a good kid with his whole future ahead," said Oakes' cousin Courtney White. "The grown man he was meant to be and to have his life so abruptly and senselessly taken was gut-wrenching. Unconditional love becomes an indescribable pain. A huge hole develops in your heart and in your life where he shouldn't be and you feel helpless to the grief that consumes you."

Oakes was an underground pledge at the Delta Chi fraternity and was hazed during a "big little" night and made to drink a large amount of alcohol. He would die of acute alcohol poisoning.

"Our family lost everything that night because our entire world revolved around Adam. He's our only child and the only word to describe the way Linda and I feel is lost," said Oakes' father, Eric. "We wake up to the gloomy world that no longer has our sunshine. Every day is gray and overcast. We also lost our faith that day -- not only in God but in the goodness of people."

But while the family was filled with sadness from Oakes' death, they also were filled with a sense of purpose to ensure no other family has to experience what they have.

"We're going to use every means at our disposal and share with everyone that will listen to what happened to Adam that night," said Eric Oakes.

The family created the Love Like Adam Foundation which works to share Oakes' story and hold anti-hazing seminars at campuses around Virginia. They have also worked to pass legislation in the General Assembly to require training in universities.

Other anti-hazing advocates at the event, called on VCU and universities and colleges across the country to take the issue seriously.

"To the president, administrators, and faculty who are here -- guys, under your watch there's a hazing culture that lived and thrived and killed Adam Oakes. That's something that you guys need to, kind of, hold. That's on you," said Gary DeVercelly, whose son, Gary, Jr., died in a similar incident in 2007. "Adam was not the first pledge to be hazed the way that he was hazed. He was not an anomaly. It wasn't something that just happened to Adam…To the administration here, and to parents, to faculty, to anybody involved. I've got to say if you just make a few cosmetic changes, i you don't understand that you have a serious problem -- it's going to happen again."

DeVercelly added they had a chance to make meaningful change and urged them to follow the blueprint at his son's university, Rider.

For his part, VCU's president's said what happened to Adam could not happen to another student.

"Virginia Commonwealth University will be a model for safe fraternity and sorority culture. Today is a very vital part of that conversation. It is an important part of that conversation," said Dr. Michael Rao. "We expect fraternities and sororities to understand that hazing is against the law and it will not be tolerated. We want students to recognize hazing, to be able to identify it, and to be empowered to say, 'No.'"

The family and school also released a new anti-hazing video sharing Oakes' story and the family's message.

Following the memorial unveiling, several screenings and Q&A's were held for students.

Next Steps Legally and Legislatively

11 of the fraternity members were charged in Oakes' death. While charges were dropped against some, others pled guilty or no contest in their cases. While none received jail time, part of their plea deals included taking part in Love Like Adam presentations and restorative justice sessions with the family.

The family's commitment to forgiveness was praised at the memorial.

"The Oakes family made me a better prosecutor because they encouraged me to look at this case through the lens of forgiveness and grace that Adam would have wanted," said Assistant Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Alison Martin, who handled the cases. "When I was pressing for jail time, Eric Oakes called me with an alternative proposal. One that included restorative justice and community education instead. Since the time that we've resolved this matter, we've seen the fruits of the seeds that Adam himself sewed through his kindness, his goodwill and his belief in the goodness of others."

Meanwhile, the family and VCU reached a settlement in a civil suit on the matter. A civil suit against the fraternity is still pending.

As for the next legislative steps, Oakes' family said in 2024 they are hoping to finish up legislation that would require anti-hazing training as early as middle school and to take another attempt at raising the penalty for hazing resulting in death from a misdemeanor to a felony, something that failed in 2022.



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