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Oneonta police probe death of student from Dix Hills

Daniel William Michaels, 18, a SUNY freshman, is the twin brother of a child killed by a falling tree branch in 2004.

Oneonta police are investigating the death of SUNY Oneonta college freshman Daniel William Michaels, a June graduate of Half Hollow Hills High School East, including reports that he attended a party at a fraternity that is not sanctioned by the university.

Michaels, 18, of Dix Hills, who was studying business economics, died early Saturday morning, SUNY Oneonta President Nancy Kleniewski said in a statement.

“We offer the condolences of the SUNY Oneonta community to Daniel’s parents and family,” Kleniewski wrote in an email to the campus community. “The college will provide whatever assistance we can to help them during this difficult time.”

Michaels’ twin brother, Justin, died at age 4 in 2004 when the rotting branch of a cherry tree fell and struck him on the head as he and other children waited at a bus stop at Park Shore Country Day Camp and School in Dix Hills.

The Michaels family declined to comment this week.

Police Chief Douglas W. Brenner said the case is under investigation and “appears to be an issue with substances, with substance abuse.” He said a quick screening “did show alcohol, but not at a very high level.”

Otsego County coroner Terry Knapp said that provisional autopsy results determined that an amphetamine, benzodiazepine, some THC and “very little alcohol” were found in Michaels’ system. Complete results of toxicology tests will be back in eight to 10 weeks, he said.

Officers responded to a call at 12:05 a.m. Saturday, reporting an unconscious man at 34 Academy St. in Oneonta, Brenner said. Two members of an unrecognized fraternity known as Alpha Pi lived in the “local college rental house,” Brenner said. When police arrived, the man — whom Brenner identified as Michaels — had been taken to Oneonta’s A.O. Fox Hospital in a private vehicle.

Brenner said police have heard that earlier in the night, Michaels attended a party for that organization.

“We’re just trying to see exactly where the welcome party was, what his participation was . . . what substances did he take there, and did he take those knowingly or was he given them without his knowledge.”

Brenner said his department has encountered problems with the so-called “unrecognized” fraternities, calling them “rogue” because they fall outside of the jurisdiction of colleges and national organizations.

“We’ve had a lot of problems in the past; they’ve been fighting with each other in the past. They throw big parties. . . . They have no oversight over keeping their letters or their house. . . . They’re difficult to keep track of.”

Hal Legg, a spokesman for SUNY Oneonta, wrote in a statement, “We would much rather see unrecognized groups gain recognition than continue to operate independently.”

His statement noted that the campus often reaches out to students thought to be members of unrecognized groups to meet with the school’s Greek life adviser, but that officials had not heard of the organization before the police investigation into Michaels’ death.

“In our view, such a group is merely a handful of acquaintances who decide to refer to themselves collectively by a Greek-letter name. It’s not a fraternity by any definition we would use.”

The Half Hollow Hills school district, in a statement Monday, expressed “sincerest condolences to Daniel’s family and friends.” District staff is available “to meet the needs of our students as they grieve,” the statement said.

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