In June of 2016, the police chief in Charleston, South Carolina, held a press conference. Eight men between the ages of 19 and 25 had been arrested in one of the largest drug busts in the city’s history. The arrests came as a result of an investigation into the murder of Patrick Moffly, a 23-year-old former student and son of a luxury real estate developer who had been shot in the chest a few months prior. Authorities had confiscated not only drugs but seven firearms, a grenade launcher and over $200,000 in cash from a small stash house the young men rented.
Watching this on television was Max Marshall, an investigative journalist. He was intrigued. The suspects looked familiar – not because he knew them personally, but because of their swoopy haircuts.
They looked like the young men who played lacrosse at his former prep school in Dallas, guys who drove big SUVs and threw parties that girls wanted to go to.
The press conference set Marshall – an alum of the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity at Columbia University – on a path to writing Among the Bros: A Fraternity Crime Story, a book that focuses on Mikey Schmidt, one of the men arrested that day, and Rob Liljeberg, his closest friend and ally. The pair met in the Kappa Alpha fraternity at the College of Charleston and were kindred spirits, bonding over their love of weed and Super Smash Bros. Schmidt was making money selling fake IDs, while Liljeberg was dealing weed to others in the fraternity. Seeing an opening, they teamed up to sell harder drugs to other students in Charleston and began recruiting other members of Kappa Alpha to deal.
Soon enough, the members of this mid-tier fraternity were at the center of a multimillion-dollar drug ring, made all the more noxious by their school’s notoriety for excess drinking and drug use. Yet, for years, they skirted legal repercussions.
They weren’t the only ones. When members of the college’s more elite Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity completely destroyed cabins in Tugaloo state park over a weekend of drug- and alcohol-fueled debauchery, they faced only a minor charge. The young men went as far as they wanted, knowing they would have a soft place to land – and that they were still the most viable candidates for high-paying corporate jobs upon graduating.
“I do think, in a way, this book is about the consequence of a life without consequences,” Marshall told me when we spoke over Zoom in early November.
Among the Bros has been pitched as a salacious true crime thriller about young men running wild. But Marshall uses the drug ring to show how the fraternity ethos shapes elite societies as a whole, beyond the College of Charleston: with impunity.
For years, I believed I had a firm grasp on what is known as “Greek life”, with its white guys in pastel shorts and polo shirts. They were characters in classic American comedies like Old School and Animal House, but I knew that in real life frat boy culture and parties were a hotbed of sexual assault and racism.
But Marshall shows how being asked to join a fraternity means having a safe place to behave badly between high school and the job that frat puts you on the fast track towards. In his book, he quotes a Cornell Greek life website: “While only 2% of America’s population is involved in fraternities, 80% of Fortune 500 executives, 76% of US senators and congressmen, 85% of supreme court justices, and all but two presidents since 1825 have been fraternity men.”
In that vein, the former fraternity members Marshall interviewed for Among the Bros said their experience selling drugs in college was good prep for their careers: “They’d say things like, ‘I learned supply chain economics, salesmanship, delegation and marketing.’” As a reader, it’s hard to not feel pangs of anger at how for some (“some” being young white men), recklessness could be a stepping stone to a six-figure salary.
Among the Bros is also full of tales of the secretive hazing rituals during Hell Week at various colleges, in which pledges endure brutal tests of endurance before being initiated into a fraternity. A friend of Marshall’s who attended Duke said pledges had to drink a kiddie pool of their own vomit and then the “softest kid” was instructed to self-haze. “Everyone assumed the boy would just put a cigar out on his own leg, but instead he took a bottle of beer, smashed it over his own head, and carved his fraternity’s initials into his forearm with a shard of glass,” Marshall writes.
In another anecdote from the book, a former pledge from the College of Charleston’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter is asked to tell a story about the groom – his fraternity brother – at a bachelor party. While the groom’s high school friends share funny memories, the pledge reveals that the groom waterboarded him during Hell Week. He justifies his story by telling the other groomsmen: “Y’all have only had good experiences with [the groom]. You’ve never had what I’ve had with him, and you never will.”
It’s hard to wrap your mind around men having fond memories of brutal treatment, but Marshall explained that it was not so simple as looking back on one event of hazing and condemning the entire system: “It’s almost a rational choice of thinking, ‘This was my entry into an oil and gas or real estate job. This is how I got into private equity or politics. And there’s always going to be a group of people who are always going to look out for me whenever I need a favor.’”
And for those in the bubble, there’s an attitude that the more intense the hazing experience was, the better story you might have, the more other men will respect you.
Above all, Marshall’s book explores coming of age in a world that will not hold you accountable, even by law enforcement. “When you can get away with anything, it does lead to an arrested development. If you drive drunk and don’t go get a DUI, how do you learn not to drive drunk? If you commit a much worse crime and don’t get punished, how do you learn not to?” he said.
The availability of Xanax plays an outsized role in the life of frat students, quickly becoming the drug of choice as a hangover cure. When Marshall asked students at the College of Charleston about their experiences with Xanax, many described how amazing taking Xanax felt on a Sunday morning after four or five nights of partying. The Sunday morning Xanax habit soon transferred into taking Xanax with alcohol on nights out. “When two Xanax bars and six Keystone Lights enter the central nervous system, the pathways that turn short-term memories into long-term memories get severed, leaving no way of storing what’s happening for the morning,” Marshall writes in Among the Bros.
In the book, Marshall explains that Xanax fell under a category of drugs you were not warned about by adults or when learning about drugs in high school. “I didn’t expect to see Xanax as a sort of party drug when I went to school,” Marshall told me. He especially didn’t anticipate Xanax being the party drug of choice for students, “I started to see friends dealing [Xanax] and dropping out of school because they were developing dependencies.”
For the most part, the young men in Among the Bros who were arrested in the drug bust have not faced life-altering consequences. Through police cooperation, some walked away free from charges, while others received suspended sentences and got off with only probation. Schmidt, the only young man who agreed to speak with Marshall on the record, faced a 10-year sentence with no parole, while the rest of the young men were able to graduate on probation. “They are for the most part living in their home towns and just sort of climbing the corporate ladder,” Marshall said of the men involved in the drug ring.
All the men involved in Kappa Alpha’s drug ring were white – in fact, they were often described by their fellow students at the College of Charleston and law enforcement as looking like normal white boys. They were protected by wealthy parents, the best lawyers, and a “boys will be boys” culture. They were emboldened to test the boundaries of their privilege, and they came out with barely a scratch.
It would be hard to read Among the Bros and not hope fraternity culture faces a reckoning – but Marshall’s storytelling does not intend to cast judgment or even offer solutions to the larger problems within fraternity culture. “I hope people that take the time to read this book also see that it’s not a finger-waggy exposé where I feel like I’m above it all,” he explained. “I just wanted to hold a mirror up to it, as cliche as that is.”