ISU student death a 'tragic accident,' police say, calling for extra caution when alcohol and cold weather mix

Isabella Rosario
Ames Tribune

An autopsy shows an Iowa State University student found unresponsive last month in freezing temperatures died of hypothermia and acute alcohol intoxication, Ames Police said in a Wednesday morning release.

Olivia Chutich, 21, was found unconscious at 9:49 a.m. on Jan. 22 in the parking lot of Delta Delta Delta sorority, 302 Ash Ave., and later pronounced dead. Police at the time said she was last seen late the night before, and believed she had been lying in the parking lot for several hours before she was found. 

Temperatures on Jan. 22 dipped as low as 8 degrees in Ames, which was three degrees colder than normal for that day of the year, according to the National Weather Service. At 11:59 p.m. the day prior, the recorded temperature was 20 degrees. 

Olivia Chutich, a junior in communications studies at Iowa State, with her dog, Winston. Chutich was found dead in the Delta Delta Delta parking lot on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 in Ames.

Previously:21-year-old Iowa State student found dead at sorority is identified; no foul play suspected

'Strong and full of life':Family, classmates mourn Iowa State student who was found dead at sorority house

Chutich was the daughter of Allina Health CEO Dr. Penny Wheeler and Minnesota State Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chutich. 

Born in Guatemala and adopted as an infant, Chutich's mothers wrote in her obituary, "We weren't perfect parents, and she wasn't a perfect child, but we were a perfect match." 

"Olivia was the light of our lives," the parents said in a statement.

Sharron Evans, ISU associate vice president of student affairs and dean of students, said in a statement Wednesday, "I want to extend my sympathies to Olivia’s family and friends during this difficult time," adding that "the health and wellness of our students are always a priority."

Students and members of Chutich's sorority are getting support and resources from the Division of Student Affairs and Sorority and Fraternity Engagement, Evans said. She encouraged students to use the university's alcohol education programs, which are designed to help reduce risk.

A junior in communication studies, Chutich died three days before spring semester started. Her sorority chapter members are "heartbroken," a post on the ISU Tri Delta Instagram page said. Academic adviser Sabrina Shields-Cook said Chutich "always had a smile on her face and an anecdote to share in class." 

The Delta Delta Delta sorority house at 302 Ash Avenue in Ames, Iowa is pictured on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.

Police: 'This is a very tragic accident'

Ames police Cmdr. Jason Tuttle said local police respond to fatalities where alcohol and cold weather are involved once every few years.

"If you're going to go out, go out with a plan," Tuttle said. That includes arranging a ride home before leaving and making sure friends are safely in their homes at the end of the night, he said.

Tuttle suggested services like Uber, Lyft, taxis and CyRide. The CyRide Moonlight Express offers a free ride on Friday and Saturday nights from 10:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. during the fall and spring semesters. Funded by Iowa State and the city of Ames, the bus operates anywhere within city limits.

Alcohol consumption causes blood vessels to dilate, particularly the capillaries just underneath the skin. This increase of blood brought to the skin's surface gives people a false sense of warmth, heightening the risk of hypothermia, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

"If you have alcohol in your system, you may feel warmer than what you are and it wouldn't take too long to probably get disoriented in that type of weather," Tuttle said.

Tuttle also highlighted awareness campaigns like Party Like A Cyclone, a collaboration between Iowa State and the city of Ames that aims to reduce alcohol-related risks.

"(The police department wants) to have that message going out because the students live in our jurisdiction," Tuttle said. "This is a very tragic accident."

Substance use can increase vulnerability in the cold

Across the country, cold weather has proved deadly for other college students, particularly when paired with substances.   

The Centers for Disease Control reported in 2013 about 1,300 people die each year due to exposure to “excessive natural cold.” 

Chutich is not the only student to have died from hypothermia in Ames. 

An autopsy revealed Iowa State student Jon Lacina died of hypothermia in 2010. He was found outside the Dairy Pavilion's boiler room, suspected to have fallen down the snow-covered steps and into the door and breaking the glass causing cuts to his person. 

Lacina had been missing since that January and was found in April, ending a monthslong search for the student. Alcohol was not reported as being a contributing factor in that case. 

University of Iowa student Gerald Belz died of hypothermia in 2019 during the polar vortex. Police said evidence showed Belz had recently used THC. 

That same year, University of Vermont student Conner Gage died from exposure to sub-zero temperatures, which was exacerbated by acute intoxication. In Michigan, Grand Valley State University freshman Taylor DeRosa was found dead at the end of last year, with an autopsy finding hypothermia to be the cause of death and alcohol being a contributing factor. 

Safety resources for Iowa State University students

Transportation

  • Cyride Moonlight Express offers a free, safe ride when regular fixed-route service ends on Friday and Saturday nights from 10:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. (phones shut off at 2:30 am) when ISU is in session during the fall and spring semesters. To arrange for a ride on Moonlight Express, call (515) 292-1100 after 10:15 p.m. on the night you would like to travel. 

Substance use

Tribune reporters Danielle Gehr and Phillip Sitter contributed reporting to this article.

Isabella Rosario is a public safety reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at irosario@gannett.com or on Twitter at @irosarioc.