Nov. 12: Mankato campus shaken by 3rd death in 2 months

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN and CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 3, 2008 - 9:45 AM

An accident that left one dead and one hurt is the latest tragedy to strike the Mankato university.

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At the student union at Minnesota State University, Mankato, members of Rissa Amen-Reif’s sorority paid tribute to her. “Rissa was not only an incredible sister, but a great friend,” said chapter president Beth Thomas.

MANKATO -- A bouquet of flowers sat propped against a tree adorned with brown and pink ribbons Monday evening at the site where Minnesota State University, Mankato, senior Rissa J. Amen-Reif was killed early Sunday.

Nearby, two stick figures were spray-painted on the street where she and fellow student Corinne L. Overstake, 21, were found after they were struck by a car driven by a 17-year-old Mankato boy. The friends had left a sorority gathering.

Few details about the 12:47 a.m. accident have been disclosed, but the campus of 14,500 students has been visited by death three times in the past two months, and grief overshadowed all else. Several hundred MSU students -- and Amen-Reif's parents -- gathered in the university's student union Monday evening to remember Amen-Reif.

There were hugs and tears as students filed in, many wearing ribbons with the colors of the girls' sorority, Gamma Phi Beta. Amen-Reif, a sociology and corrections major from Eden Prairie, was remembered for her big smile and love of laughter.

Pictures of Amen-Reif and Overstake were projected onto screens in the ballroom.

"Rissa was not only an incredible sister, but a great friend," said sorority chapter president Beth Thomas. "Rissa will be missed not only by Gamma Phi Beta and the Greek community, but also the world around her."

Mankato police did not return calls Monday about the accident that sent Overstake to the hospital with broken bones in her lower back and pelvis. Authorities are still trying to piece together how the girls made the 2.5-mile trip from a sorority event at the local VFW to the crash site, where traffic lights and stop signs are nonexistent.

A memorial for Amen-Reif on the social networking website Facebook.com said she was leaving her sorority formal when she and a friend walked in the opposite direction from downtown, their destination. Amen-Reif realized she was lost and called a friend to pick her up, the site said.

As she attempted to cross the street, Amen-Reif fell and her friend tried to help her up, the Facebook message said. That's when both were hit by a car authorities said was traveling at the posted speed limit of 40 miles per hour.

"I don't know how many times things like this have happened to all of us," the Facebook posting said. "Little accidents. It's so hard to see this turn into such a devastating tragedy. Rissa touched so many lives and her death will affect us all."

Overstake, a junior psychology major from Loretto, Minn., was listed in fair condition Monday night at Immanuel St. Joseph's Hospital in Mankato. Her family released a short statement through a hospital spokesperson.

"We are extremely grateful for the outpouring of support and prayers we have received during this difficult time," the statement said. "Corinne is a very strong and resilient woman and her focus and character are truly remarkable."

Minnesota State's provost and vice president for academic affairs, Scott R. Olson, and Vice President for Student Affairs Pat Swatfager-Haney visited Overstake Sunday. Olson said she was alert and concerned that he relay information to her professors.

"She had clearly been through a lot of trauma," Olson said. "But what surprised me was how engaged she was."

Amen-Reif's family declined to comment.

State Patrol Sgt. Jacalyn Sticha said the driver was cooperative. There are no early indications that drugs, alcohol or carelessness were factors in his driving, she said. The driver, who is not being named because he is a minor, voluntarily gave a blood sample for toxicology tests.

Test results from a blood sample taken from Amen-Reif won't be available for at least a week, Sticha said. Sticha would not say if preliminary evidence indicates that Amen-Reif had been drinking.

University spokesman Michael Cooper said the sorority event was registered with campus officials, but he did not know whether the paperwork indicated whether alcohol would be served. An individual who answered the phone at the Morson-Ario VFW Post said the organization had no comment.

While it's unclear whether alcohol played a role in Sunday's accident, third-year student Laura Pinilla said drinking is very much a part of the school's social scene.

"If you don't drink on the weekends, there's not much to do," she said.

University administrators are concerned about students' well-being after three deaths in such a short time.

Former prenursing student Amanda Jax died of acute alcohol poisoning after celebrating her 21st birthday Oct. 29. She had planned to return to the university in the spring.

In the other death, MSU freshman Catherine Delwiche was struck by a vehicle and killed in early October while training for a cross-country meet. Her teammate, Laura Palmer, suffered minor injuries. That case has been forwarded to the Blue Earth County attorney's office for review, and Sticha would not comment on it.

"Absolutely there is a cumulative effect because these are young people who were loved and who were bright young people with so much promise," Olson said. "These three are so devastating because they were all so well known on campus.

"It's a week where we ought to be giving thanks ... Our thoughts are about how fragile we are. Young people, they just never expect this to touch them. They never expect death among someone their own age and here we have three this fall. It's been a shock. The mood is somber."

Chris Frederick, the university's student body president, wore a ribbon in honor of the women and said Amen-Reif had been involved in the Campus Kitchen program that packages and delivers food to those in need.

"The campus is definitely going through a time of mourning," he said.

jshelman@startribune.com • 612-673-7478 cxiong@startribune.com • 612-673-4391

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