Questions about Sewanee’s Greek Life Director’s past reached the Mountain in August, as reports circulated that he had been accused of faking social media accounts and enticing fraternities at Louisiana State University to violate that institution’s alcohol policies and state drinking laws.
Sewanee’s Greek Life Director, Donald Abels, denied wrongdoing, insisting in interviews with The Purple that a lengthy LSU police report and its allegations about his tenure at LSU are “false.” He declined to detail what happened during his time as assistant director of Greek life at LSU, saying he has a lawyer for a defamation lawsuit against parties he would not name. He said that he left LSU in good standing to join Sewanee’s staff for career advancement.
LSU Detective John Meliet, who led LSU’s police investigation, told The Purple, “Everything I wrote in my report is accurate.” Citing LSU policy, the detective declined further comment.
Meliet’s 12-page investigative report ended with a description of August 2019 interviews in which Meliet and another LSU detective “confronted Abels with details of how they had subpoenaed email account records to identify they were created by an iPhone with the name ‘Donald’s-iPhone,’ which was associated with Donald Abels.” Despite that evidence, the police report stated Abels “continued to deny any involvement in the IFC scam. Abels was unable to provide any reasonable explanation as to how his phone was utilized.”
“No further action is being taken at this time as Detectives have concluded that the Assistant Director of Greek Life (Donald Abels) initiated a scheme (catfishing) to entrap fraternities in inappropriate behavior with recruits. …We have concluded that no criminal laws were broken and have referred this matter for internal investigation.”
Copies of LSU’s police report began circulating in the Sewanee community in late August after Student Life officials ruled that the University’s oldest sorority, Theta Kappa Phi, should be suspended for serious hazing violations. The LSU police report raised concerns among some Sewanee students, alumni, and Greek advisors that the University’s administrators had hired Abels and others to eliminate Greek life on the Mountain. Some students, alumni, and parents of TKP members questioned whether the University had properly vetted Abels before bringing him to the Mountain.
Abels left LSU in August 2021, and his hiring at Sewanee was announced a month later. Abels told The Purple that he did not inform Sewanee administrators about the LSU “catfishing” investigation during his hiring process. “There was nothing to share,” Abels said. “I can’t speak to what the reference checks said, though, cause I’m not privy to that.”
On Aug. 30, after an alumni supporter of TKP launched a change.org petition criticizing the sorority’s treatment and questioning Abels’ hiring, Sewanee’s Dean of Students Erica Howard and Vice Provost of Student Success Lisa Stephenson released a joint statement to Sewanee’s student body defending Abels. “A thorough review of the allegations raised in the communications to the University has been conducted and found the allegations to be unfounded,” Stephenson and Howard stated. “The former institution confirmed that Mr. Abels left in good standing.”
Contacted by The Purple, Stephenson said that she was unclear on Sewanee’s policy on speaking to news media about another employee and needed to reach out to Human Resources. In a follow-up exchange, Stephenson said that she could only refer to the statement that she and Howard released and declined further comment. Asked to discuss his conversations with Stephenson, Abels said, “I’m not comfortable doing that.”
The Purple’s calls to LSU administrators were not returned. On Saturday, after a week of negotiations for an interview, Abels provided The Purple with an email he had forwarded to Dean Howard that included comments from LSU’s Executive Director of Human Resources. In that August 26 email,which Abels partially redacted before offering it to The Purple, the LSU official wrote to Abels: “I just talked to her and let her know we did not find any findings against you or the fictitious mother and student.” Abels said the Sewanee employee referred to in the email is HR official Jessica Welch.
That sentence in the email was followed by a line and a half of blacked-out words. Abels said he redacted that part of the LSU email before sending it to The Purple because it referenced the police report and names he did not want made public. The LSU HR official’s email to Abels continued, “And you left in good standing and are eligible to return here if you wanted to…She seemed to be satisfied with that and happy to hear we had thoroughly investigated it and found you not responsible.”
The LSU official could not be reached for comment on Saturday. Abels said he contacted LSU and asked for the HR email after a conversation with Sewanee’s HR department on August 26. “They needed to confirm some stuff,” he told The Purple. He then forwarded the LSU HR official’s email to Howard, Sewanee’s dean of students, “just to make her aware after Sewanee talked to LSU.”
When asked if he would sign a release to allow The Purple to access his LSU personnel file and any internal investigative reports, Abels said, “I can’t answer that right now.”
The LSU police report and a related series of emails and social media exchanges lay out how allegations of catfishing came to light at the Baton Rouge campus. In July 2019, the documents indicate, a student claiming to be “Crew Brooks” was enrolled in LSU’s Interfraternity Council computer database as a rushee or potential new member (PNM).
In several social media accounts, the LSU police records and associated emails indicate, “Crew Brooks” contacted members of different organizations pretending to be interested in rushing with them. In a Snapchat message to a Pi Kappa Alpha (PIKE) member about an upcoming event at a New Orleans bar, “Crew Brooks” asked if he would need a fake ID for alcohol. The fraternity member responded that they would provide alcohol at the event.
Screenshots of that Snapchat conversation were sent to Abels from “Jenny Brooks,” who claimed to be the concerned mother of “Crew Brooks.” The “Jenny Brooks” email demanded that LSU’s Greek Life officials explain why their son is “being asked to rush over the summer with alcohol.” Abels forwarded that “Jenny Brooks” email to a colleague, adding the comment: “Let the fun begin.”
Several LSU fraternity leaders and leaders of the University’s Interfraternity Council became suspicious of “Crew Brooks” and went to LSU police in mid-August 2019, the LSU police report indicated. The fraternity representatives advised detectives that they did not register “Brooks” in the IFC rush system and had determined that the student ID provided in LSU’s University-managed Greek recruitment computer system was also fake.
Suspecting that someone had hacked LSU’s Greek recruitment database, the fraternity members and advisors told police that it appeared someone was using the system to obtain phone numbers and names of fraternity leaders in an attempt to get them to send messages about providing fake IDs and alcohol to an under-aged student.
A fraternity advisor at LSU told The Purple that five Greek organizations began comparing notes after all were accused of the same alcohol violations at the same bar in New Orleans. Two names later determined to be fake kept coming up in the allegations, and one fraternity faced a conduct hearing that included the complaints involving “Crew Brooks,” his mother and the second fake student name, “Crew Parks.”
After LSU fraternity representatives began trying to figure out what had happened and discovered the second fake name, the police report stated, and all of the social media accounts using the “Crew Brooks,” ‘Jenny Brooks” and “Crew Parks” names were deleted.
The LSU fraternity advisor said charges related to “Brooks” were subsequently dropped.
The LSU detectives confirmed that the “Brooks” information was added to the LSU IFC database by someone with internal access at the university. “It appears that the person pretending to be “Crew Brooks” had modified the intellectual property of IFC and ICS to obtain information pertaining to fraternities on campus and possibly entrap them in criminal or policy violations,” their police report stated. The detectives obtained screen shots of the messages and subpoenaed information about the “Jenny Brooks” account.
The Purple traced the photos used in “Crew Brooks” social media accounts, confirming that they were high school photos posted on Facebook by a current student at the University of Mississippi. Abels was director of Greek life at Ole Miss for two years before moving to LSU as assistant director of Greek life there. The University of Mississippi student, who asked not to be identified, said they have no affiliation with LSU. That student added that they had no knowledge of the “Brooks” social media accounts and were surprised and concerned that their photos had been hacked and used.
The LSU police report indicated detectives interviewed Abels twice in August 2019. In his first interview, Abels told detectives that all administrators had access to the fraternity system. He also denied moving “Crew Brooks” from student to prospective-fraternity-member or PNM status. He acknowledged that he and one LSU student were the only people in his office who gave students prospective status in the computer system, and he suggested that “Crew Brooks” had been given that status by mistake.
When the detectives confronted Abels about creating a fake “Crew Brooks” student persona, the police report stated, Abels said he wasn’t involved. Though he denied having any email contact with “Jenny Brooks,” the police report noted, detectives obtained an email thread between “Jenny Brooks” and Abels. When asked about that, the police report indicated, Abels told detectives that the “Jenny Brooks” email had come to IFC in general, and he used the “Jenny Brooks” information to instruct a fraternity chapter president not to have events involving rushees and alcohol.
The detectives asked Abels how “Jenny Brooks” would have known how to make a complaint to LSU’s IFC. Abels responded that when people participating in rush sign up on LSU’s IFC website, their parents get an email with that information. Confronted that “Jenny Brooks’ “ email was not attached to “Crew Brooks’ ” PNM profile, the police report stated, Abels told detectives that a parent could have found instructions for filing complaints against fraternities on LSU’s IFC website.
The LSU detectives added that they recorded their interview with Abels with a body camera. They wrote: ”Furthermore, Detectives would like to note that Abels was visibly nervous (shaking, heavy swallowing) during the interview and had trouble opening emails which were needed to assist in the investigation.”
The LSU police investigative report included detailed information from the alumni advisor to LSU’s Pi Kappa Alpha chapter, which was investigating “Jenny Brooks’ ” allegations. That advisor told the LSU detectives that he shut down all PIKE’s rush events after being notified about the “Jenny Brooks” emailed complaint. The PIKE advisor told the detectives that he began hearing from other fraternities that someone named “Crew Parks” or “Crew Brooks” was also contacting their members through SnapChat – which LSU students said was not a normal way for PNM’s to communicate with fraternity members. The PIKE advisor told police that he also learned that “Crew Brooks/Parks” had presented himself as a fraternity member to PNM’s who received early bids, information that only someone who had access to the ICS page would know.
After tracing the “Jenny Brooks” email to Abels’ iPhone, the detectives conducted a second interview with Abels. Their police report stated that Abels continued to deny any involvement with creating either of the fake email accounts.
After Abels left LSU, the advisor for another LSU fraternity, Dixon McMakin, filed a lawsuit against LSU in March 2022, seeking access to any records of any internal review that followed the police investigation. McMakin said a state district judge ultimately denied his request for the records, citing employee privacy rights.
McMakin said they began trying to find out what had happened in the catfishing case in June 2021, a couple months before Abels left LSU, and ultimately filed the lawsuit to try to determine how the allegations had been handled by the university. Both McMakin and the detective who led the LSU police investigation, John Meliet, said they did not know what happened after the police report went to LSU’s administration. Since Abels left Louisiana for Sewanee, McMakin said, there has been high turnover in LSU’s Division of Student Affairs office–which includes its Greek life staff.
“You should question the manner in which Donald was hired and the steps he has taken to not be an advocate for Greek life,” McMakin said. “I would also ask if there’s any point in the application process when they question if you were ever under investigation by your previous employer.”
In emails and phone calls with The Purple, Abels denied involvement in the LSU catfishing incidents. He also cited the email he provided Saturday afternoon from LSU’s HR executive as evidence that he had been cleared of wrongdoing. Despite questions from some quarters at Sewanee about the LSU police report and other records being circulated in recent weeks, Abels said, he’s been encouraged by positive responses he has received on the Mountain.
“I have tremendous support from students and others throughout this, so that’s very affirming. At the end of the day, I think my record speaks for itself–um, that sounds bad, my reputation speaks for itself.”
Sarah Jane Kemmer (C’23) and chair of Sewanee’s Honor Council declined to comment on the matter, citing the investigation as a “student-life issue.”
Michael Payne (C ’76), former president and current member of the Greek Alumni Council, said “If the facts are correct, he should not have been hired. Such a nature warrants a dismissal, but I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.”