A student at the University of Illinois fell off a balcony and died Friday during “Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day,” an annual campustown event marked by its daylong drinking and rowdy celebrations, officials say.
The death of Jonathan Morales, 23, of Franklin Park, Illinois, is suspected to be an accident after he toppled over the balcony railing from his fourth-floor apartment and fell to the concrete courtyard in the interior of the apartment complex, Champaign police Sgt. Dennis Baltzell tells PEOPLE.
“He was on that balcony messing around somehow and accidentally went over,” Baltzell says.
Results from an autopsy, including a toxicology report, will take weeks but Baltzell said that Morales had been in his apartment with his roommate and friends who had come to town for the event, known commonly as “Unofficial,” and that Morales “had been drinking.”
Morales’s death was the third fatality during Unofficial, according to Robin Kaler, university spokeswoman. One woman died in 2006 after the motorcycle she was on crashed, and a man was killed in 2011 after two vehicles hit him, she said.
Unofficial was launched about 21 years ago by a Champaign bar owner after noticing he was losing business on St. Patrick’s Day because the holiday often falls during spring break, Kaler said. Instead, Unofficial takes place before students leave for break and “is typically celebrated by donning green clothing and regalia and consuming large quantities of alcohol with friends at a bar or private party, often starting early in the morning,” according to a history of the day.
“That’s the sole purpose of Unofficial: excessive drinking,” Kaler tells PEOPLE.
The “fake holiday,” she said, has become a “destination event,” attracting students from other Illinois campuses as well as those from around the nation, as determined by data compiled from police and hospital reports.
In the past, some students showed up to class drunk or tried to smuggle alcohol into classrooms, she said.
The university, police and city have tried reining in the revelry with a variety of measures the day of or in the weeks before Unofficial, including police officers going door-to-door talking to students about responsible drinking, raising the age at which patrons can enter bars to 21 that day from 18 or 19 the rest of the year, limiting packaged alcohol sales, banning guests in the dorms that weekend and sending letters to parents asking them to speak to their children about their behavior.
“We would like very much for it to never happen again,” Kaler says of Unofficial. “It’s a danger to our students …We lost a young man. That’s absolutely tragic.”
Robert Jones, the university’s chancellor, also lamented the loss of Morales. “We must find a way to work together as a community to end this event and avoid more senseless tragedy,” he said.
Morales was a junior studying communication at the Champaign-Urbana campus of the state’s flagship university, Kaler said.
One of his instructors described him as a “bright spot” in her business communications class.
“When you teach at 9 a.m. three times a week, it’s tough to have students who are consistently present, awake, and ready to jump in,” said Kate Ditewig-Morris. “Jon Morales was one of those students.”
Morales, she said, was “always engaged, smiling, and respectful to me and the other students in class. Slightly older than the others, Jon was establishing himself as a solid anchor among the others… I shall miss him very, very much.”
A GoFundMe page has been started to help Morales’ family with funeral expenses.
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