Just after 10 a.m. on Dec. 16, 2012, while the sun peered out from behind scattered clouds, a 15-day search for missing ASU student Jack Culolias culminated when volunteer search and rescue teams located his body in Tempe Town Lake.
After more than two weeks of uncertainty and torment, his stepmother Renae Culolias, along with his family and friends, finally received a bit of closure far more bitter than it was sweet.
“They found him on the 16th day, and it was heartbreaking,” Renae said. “This shouldn’t have happened. His life was way too short.”
Jack came into Renae’s life when he was 9 years old. She remembers their first encounter clearly.
“The very first day I met him, he was playing jokes on me: the handshake with the buzzer and the gun that said bang,” she said. “He was always the jokester, very extroverted, and he had so much energy.”
She vividly recalled his close relationship with his father, George Culolias as well as his twin brother, Alex, and his older brother, Nick.
She said the boys loved going paintballing and playing laser tag together, and they savored the times when they went to Disneyland with their father.
Nick said he fondly recollects the days when he and his brothers were little boys building forts at the park, fighting imaginary battles and even engaging in occasional but unavoidable brotherly skirmishes.
“Sometimes we’d fight like brothers do, but overall I loved him and always had his back,” he said. “I tried to look out for him no matter what.”
Nick said he has rich, reverberant memories of when he would go on wakeboarding trips to Lake Havasu with his father and his brothers .
The three brothers found solace on the lake, Nick said, learning and practicing wakeboard tricks together while nursing a healthy sibling rivalry and always trying to one-up one another by seeing who could jump higher or spin faster.
“Those trips are one thing that I will always remember,” he said.
Dante Jaramillo, Jack’s best friend, said he met Jack when the two were in third grade and that their relationship quickly blossomed.
Frequent surfing trips brought the two boys close together, and Dante endearingly reminisced about their friendship and their time spent surfing together at Jack’s favorite surf spot, Blackies, a stretch of beach near the pier in Newport Beach, Calif.
“I remember so many times when we were out on the water just talking about random stuff and about life,” he said. “We knew each other so well, and we had each other’s backs.”
Jack Leaves Home
Jack’s father George died from lung cancer on July 11, 2012, just a few months before Jack left his hometown of Brea, Calif., to attend ASU.
Jaramillo said Jack was looking to flee from the sadness of his father’s passing and that he saw ASU as a party school and the perfect place to leave his worries behind.
“He and his father had one of the strongest relationships I had ever witnessed,” Jaramillo said. “And when (George) passed, he took it very hard, like any son would.”
He said he supported Jack’s decision to go to ASU but, much like Jack’s family, was a bit worried when he found out that Jack had decided to join a fraternity.
“I wasn’t too familiar with the kind of stuff fraternities do,” he said, “but from the stories Jack told me and pictures he showed me, they go hard.”
Jaramillo said Jack, like many college freshman, wanted to find a group of people with whom he could fit in, and he did so by pledging the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
He believes fraternity members pushed Jack to his limits, which resulted in his untimely death.
“Like the pastor at his memorial said, he died trying to fit in,” he said, “and it kills me to think that was what led to his demise.”
Jaramillo said he wonders how close Jack and his fraternity brothers really were, and why one of them didn’t go with Jack when he was thrown out of the bar.
“When I think about it, it gets me heated,” he said. “Were the group of guys he was with really his brothers? Did they really have his back? Or was it … all talk?”
Renae said she was concerned because she knew Jack was at a vulnerable time in his life, and she believes the fraternity contributed to his underage drinking.
She said Jack told her that he and his pledge brothers had experienced brutal hazing rituals in the weeks prior to his disappearance.
“They took them up to the mountain, and they had them spend the weekend there in the freezing cold,” she said. “They stuffed them in ice water for a couple of hours twice, and they made them drink this terribly large mixture of alcohol until they passed out. And when they didn’t do what they were supposed to, they made them eat cat food.”
Jaramillo said Jack was sworn to secrecy by the fraternity, which adhered to a code of silence regarding the activities during its hazing and partying.
He said he saw Jack a week before he disappeared, and Jack nervously showed him some shocking photos of fraternity events.
Renae said fraternities around the U.S. need to look at their policies and be more accountable and responsible for their negative and sometimes illegal actions.
“People can play dumb, but there is hazing whether they want to admit it or not,” she said. “It’s all about how much these kids can drink, and then they end up in the hospital or dead. It happens, and it’s sad.”
Brandon Weghorst, a spokesman for Sigma Alpha Epsilon, said in an email that the fraternity and its leadership offer its sympathies to Jack’s family and friends.
“We are saddened at the loss of such a young life, and our thoughts and prayers are with everyone who knew Jack,” he said.
Weghorst said the fraternity is committed to providing its members with “an environment that ensures their safety and well-being as part of a beneficial experience in our organization.”
Film sophomore Zach Kimble said in an email that he met Jack at an SAE rush event and spent countless hours with him as they pledged the fraternity.
He said he remembers Jack always smiling and being strong, even in the wake of his father’s passing. He also said Jack was always wearing his signature red Vans, even at formal events, a habit that he and his pledge brothers joked about.
“Every one of us considers Jack a brother of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and he always will be,” he said. “Our fraternity is based on a creed written by John Walter Wayland called ‘The True Gentleman,’ and Jack Culolias exemplified that.”
Where is Jack?
On Friday, Nov. 30, Jack went to the Tempe Marketplace bar Cadillac Ranch for an SAE event, said Tempe Police spokesman Sgt. Mike Pooley.
Pooley said Jack was escorted out of the bar by security around 11 p.m.
“That’s the last anybody (saw) of him,” he said.
Pooley said Jack’s biological mother, Grace, called ASU Police at about 5 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 2, and asked them to do a welfare check on Jack because she hadn’t heard from him for several days.
“She also (said) that Jack was worried about the fraternity hazing that was supposed to be going on that following week during ‘Hell Week,’” Pooley said.
He said ASU Police began looking for Jack and began contacting fraternity members to determine if it was a fraternity prank after they were unable to find him at his dorm.
Renae said campus police weren’t doing enough to find Jack. When she and Grace arrived in Arizona on Monday, Dec. 3, they demanded that Tempe Police get involved.
“I don’t blame anyone, but I don’t know how serious (ASU Police) took it at first,” she said.
That same day, Tempe Police contacted ASU Police and asked what was going on with the investigation and how they could help, Pooley said.
He said ASU Police told him they were investigating it and would handle it because they still believed it was fraternity-related.
On Tuesday, Dec. 4, Pooley said Tempe Police met with ASU Police, and both decided that it would be better if Tempe officers took over the investigation.
That afternoon, ASU Police received a call from Grace, who said she had located one of Jack’s red Vans from the area of the lakeside just north of Tempe Marketplace.
Tempe Police, the Tempe Fire Dive Team and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office, along with their K-9 units and a robot equipped with sonar and cameras, searched the lake Dec. 4 through Dec. 6 but did not locate Jack, Pooley said.
After calling off the search late afternoon on Thursday, Dec. 6, Tempe Police received a phone call from someone in a helicopter who flew over the lake and claimed they had seen a silhouette of a body, Pooley said.
This call prompted officials to begin a second search Thursday evening, he said.
The search continued on the morning of Friday, Dec. 7, but nothing was found and police ended the lake search that evening, Pooley said.
On Wednesday, Dec. 12, Renae contacted FindMe, a volunteer group of ex-law enforcement officials and psychics who conduct missing persons searches.
Ex-DEA agent Kelly Snyder, the founder of FindMe, said he enlists more than 120 psychics from all over the world and has had much success finding missing persons this way.
“I give his name, a photo and the last place he was seen, then the psychic members of our organization tell me where he is,” Snyder said.
He said about 60 of the 120 psychics responded when he asked them to help him find Jack.
Of the 60, about 35 told Snyder that Jack was deceased and in water, while many of them provided GPS coordinates, some coming within a quarter-mile of Jack’s location.
Dwayne Brock, a psychic in the FindMe network, said he was driving over the Mill Avenue Bridge the night after Jack disappeared when he felt something strange.
“I was sitting in traffic on the bridge, and I got sick as a dog,” he said. “I mean, all of the sudden, I just felt like I was drowning. I couldn’t breathe, and I was being smothered.”
He said his spirit guide came to him and told him Jack was in the water to the left of him behind Tempe Marketplace.
Later, Brock said he communicated with Jack’s spirit.
“He was telling me that he was in the water and that he wanted to go home,” he said. “I was getting a vision of him being there in the water behind Tempe Marketplace and feeling his spirit and his energy.”
Snyder gathered the information from his psychic team and then enlisted the help of Arizona Search Track and Rescue, a nonprofit organization of dog trainers and handlers.
The two groups went to the location that the psychics provided, and by late afternoon on Saturday, Dec. 15, one of the dogs, Jet, had alerted to his handler that he had Jack’s scent.
Kristi Smith, a dog trainer and one of the founders of AZSTaR, said the organization has an impeccable record when searching an area where a missing person is located.
“Nobody has ever come into an area that we have searched and found a missing person after us,” she said. “If the body is there, we’re going to find it.”
FindMe and AZSTaR were also responsible for locating the body of Willie Jigba, a 24-year-old Tempe man who went missing two years ago and who was also found in Tempe Town Lake despite law enforcement officials saying there was no evidence that Jigba was in the lake.
She said if police would have utilized her group as well as the FindMe network, Culolias’s family could have had closure weeks before he was found on Dec. 16.
Pooley said police had searched the area where Jack was found, and investigators believe rain water from a storm on Dec. 14 and 15 contributed to a rise in the lake water, which dislodged Jack’s body.
“We believe he was down there the entire time, but he must have been caught on branches or something down there,” he said. “So he did finally float up to the surface, and when I got there in the morning … you could actually see Jack floating in the water from the parking lot of the Tempe Marketplace.”
However, Smith said the body was never floating on the top of the water and was still completely submerged when FindMe and AZSTaR found it.
Snyder also said that police should enlist the help of his group, but many times do not because their egos get in the way and they do not believe psychics can help.
“My goal is to prove to not only the public and the police, but to all of humanity that this sh-t really does work,” he said.
Pooley said Jack’s toxicology report is not yet complete and the cause of death remains uncertain, but police suspect no foul play in his passing.
Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control spokeswoman Lee Hill said Cadillac Ranch remains under investigation for illegally serving alcohol to a person under 21.
However, she said Cadillac Ranch has been very proactive in the past in not allowing underage people to be served at their bar, even going as far as training their staff to detect fake identification.
She said for any bar to prove they are not responsible for serving alcohol to an underage person, it must demonstrate and document that they have verified the person is using a legal ID.
This includes keeping a log of all IDs checked and writing down the license number and date of birth as well as having the presenter of the ID’s signature.
“It’s a really good practice and policy, but not all places do it,” she said. “But my goodness, I would definitely suggest it. Just because of the proliferation of fake IDs and the quality of fake IDs.”
ASU Greek life coordinator Lara Klinkner said in an email that ASU is deeply saddened by Jack’s death. She said the University is offering counseling to students, faculty, staff, family and friends who have been affected.
“As the University joins his family and friends in mourning his loss, our thoughts are with the Culolias family and Jack’s many friends during this difficult time,” she said.
Nick said thinking about his brother’s death makes getting out of bed in the morning a difficult task, but he is trying to take life day by day.
“I know that eventually I’m going to be OK,” he said. “I know time heals all, but it just seems so unreal right now.”
Renae said she believes Jack’s death was just meant to be and that life has its trials and tribulations to teach people and make them stronger.
She said Jack is somewhere with his father, and her faith and spirituality remain strong.
She said she will miss Jack’s unwavering smile and his phone calls to her making sure that she is all right.
“He was the one who always came and hugged me or told me he loved me,” she said. “He was such a caring and compassionate person, and we had a wonderful relationship.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @npmendoza
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Willie Jigba as an ASU student, based on information provided by Kristi Smith. Jigba did not attend the University, and the article has been updated to reflect the correct information.