'The Night Of The Taming'

Tales of hazing and beatings at a military academy

By his account, Chander Matta suffered the freshman year from hell. In his diary entries for 1988, the former Norwich University cadet described constant hazings and beatings by a secret society called The Night Riders. At his initiation-which he called "The Night of the Taming"-Matta recalled stumbling through underground tunnels and drinking beer laced with his own blood. "I don't like this school because of what it's done to me," he wrote. "I'm just living proof that there is terror."

He dropped out during his first year and then, last Memorial Day weekend, murdered three prostitutes in Arlington, Va. "The terror" at Norwich, his attorneys argued, pushed him into madness. A jury rejected that claim and convicted Matta of the murders. But the end of his trial in March was just the beginning of trouble for Norwich, a 172-year-old private military college in rustic Northfield, Vt. While the school and even Matta's former roommate insist his tale is a fabrication, others have come forward with stories of hazing and harassment. Two "rooks," as freshmen are known, were reportedly forced to perform a lewd dance in front of a 15-year-old girl. A dropout said he fled school and walked home 17 miles in the middle of the night after upperclassmen assaulted him. Another cadet claimed he collapsed and vomited after six hours of torment and punishing exercises. "It would be easy to say these allegations are false," says school president W. Russell Todd, a retired two star Army general. "But if there's enough smoke, maybe there are some sparks somewhere, if not fire."

There were more than sparks last month when 500 cadets almost half the student population-gathered on the campus parade ground and tossed chairs, TV sets and even refrigerators into a giant bonfire to protest against the school's leadership. And last week the faculty voted "no confidence" in the president. Todd offered to resign in the hope, he said, "that the venom would come out of the wound," but trustees rejected it.

The trustees are investigating both the hazing practices and The Night Riders. According to campus legend, the black-robed and hooded Night Riders are known. only to one another. The 1926 yearbook says the secret society was founded in 1819 "for the purpose of chastising erring rooks." The Night Riders disbanded last month, according to trustee Robert Lappin. They were, he says, only "a kind of support group for concerned students"; the rampaging Riders of Matta's diary were a "myth." But with a 30 percent freshman dropout rate, student and faculty rebellions and the specter of the prostitute murders, it is a myth Norwich can no longer afford.