UTPA student severely injured, Facebook whirlwind ensues
AJ Chapa, dressed in a gray shirt and tight jeans, joined three other dancing men on top of a long, wooden picnic table at a Phi Kappa Theta fraternity party early Sunday morning.
The table had been used for games of beer pong and Chapa appeared to be unsteady on his feet as he climbed up, according to a video shown to The Pan American by a source who wishes to remain anonymous.
And then, according to accounts of those who attended the party, he fell off, head first.
The source said that after Chapa dipped low for a dance move, “he went to get back up but he like, pushed himself up too hard, thinking there was more table and there wasn’t because he was already at the edge.”
Rudie Lynn Bustamante, the 21-year-old president of the Choral Intensity Show Choir, corroborated the story.
“It was almost as if he just walked off the table,” she said. “He probably didn’t know where he was.”
Below the table was a concrete patio, which the source said Chapa hit without attempting to break his fall.
“I had never seen anything like that, you could even hear the bang on the ground from how hard he hit his head,” Bustamante said.
Chapa was transported to McAllen Medical Center via ambulance and later flown to University Hospital San Antonio for surgery. He sustained several severe fractures to his head, according to his mother, Monica Hamilton.
Meanwhile, a Facebook group called Help AJ Chapa formed and started circulating a message stating that Chapa was beaten at the party for being openly gay.
“One of the stories being spread is that he fell off a table,” the description of the group said at one point. “It has now been confirmed that this is NOT true and he was beaten severely.”
The group spread rapidly, collecting over 500 likes and several comments by the end of the day Monday.
Hamilton, her cousin Dominique Garcia and AJ’s long-time friend Stephanie Casas all expressed belief that something more insidious led to the injuries.
“(His injuries) just don’t go with the little story that he fell off a bar or whatever,” Hamilton said Monday.
Monday night, however, Hamilton said she and her family were unaware of the Facebook group. The group’s message had gathered speed and many were commenting, incensed, at the mention of a “hate crime” at a UTPA frat party. George Dean, director of local online magazine Ouch My Ego, posted a link to the magazine’s Paypal account, saying people could contribute monetary donations to help Chapa’s family with medical bills.
When she was reached Tuesday morning, Hamilton said she disapproved of people she felt were trying to use Chapa’s injuries as a call to action.
“There is a group of people that want to use my son for their own cause and to make him a martyr,” she said. “If he fell, I can accept that, but how did he sustain those injuries?”
Later that day, UTPA President Robert Nelsen visited the regular Tuesday noon meeting of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Alliance to assure them the administration was aware of the uproar about Chapa’s injuries.
That afternoon, the President’s Office released a statement asking students not to rush to judgment about the incident, and containing quotes from Chapa’s father.
“I would like to state that at no time did we communicate that this incident was a hate crime or that we had confirmed that his injuries were due to an altercation,” the father wrote.
At Moonbeans Coffee in McAllen Tuesday night, members of the Facebook group met to discuss further action and Hamilton sent her cousin as an envoy. Various fundraisers were discussed at the meeting, according to Garcia.
“(What happened at the party) is all rumors. The only person that knows is AJ, but his mentality right now is back like it was in his childhood.” she said. “The mom and dad are divorced…AJ’s mom is not going to let this go.”
Shortly after, the Facebook group was set to secret and then deleted. Dean received a request for a refund from one of the 17 people which donated money.
“The family made it known that they didn’t want any fundraiser efforts going on without them being involved and I didn’t want people to think it was not going to the family,” Dean said of the $277 that was raised. “I refunded everyone so they could choose to donate through, I guess, more proper channels.”
Hidalgo County Sheriff Guadalupe “Lupe” Trevino said Wednesday that while the case is still under investigation and while there is a preliminary conclusion that Chapa fell off a table, the matter will not be resolved until they speak with the 21-year-old philosophy major himself.
But according to Hamilton, Chapa fades in and out of consciousness and doesn’t remember the details of the incident.
“He just remembers sitting down with a beer,” she said.
Norma Gonzalez, Lea Victoria Juarez and Michelle Garcia also contributed to this report.