Rice sentenced to 2 years probation for furnishing alcohol
Judge Robert Updegrove has handed down a sentence for Austin Rice, the man who provided Texas State University student Matthew Ellis with a bottle of alcohol the night before Ellis was found dead.
Hays County District Attorney Wes Mau said that Updegrove assessed a sentence of two years of probation. The judge made the decision about two hours after testimony ended in Rice’s sentencing. Rice pleaded guilty to providing alcohol to a minor – a Class A misdemeanor – after Ellis’ death following an off-campus fraternity event in November 2017. Assistant District Attorney Jeffrey Weatherford asked Updegrove to sentence Rice to one year in jail, the maximum sentence for the crime, given the tragedy that followed. Rice’s attorney, Richard Ursha, asked Updegrove for deferred adjudication, noting that Rice has expressed remorse, did not intend for Ellis to die, and is going to school, working and performing community service.
Updegrove also assessed a $500 fine plus court costs, and community service. He also ordered Rice to cooperate in an investigation to determine who sold him the alcohol he gave to Ellis.
‘It was horrific’
The first witness on the stand was Paul Ellis, Matthew Ellis’ father, who drove in from Houston for the sentencing. About a dozen friends and family members were in the courtroom supporting Ellis, who choked up several times on the stand as he spoke about his youngest son and what it has been like since Matthew’s death.
“Matt, he was just .. a shining light” he said. “He was genuine. You knew him, and what you saw was what you got.”
Paul Ellis described Matthew as being “full of love” and well-liked in the community. Like his older brother, Will, Matthew became interested in tennis, Paul Ellis said. Eventually he went to community college and on to Texas State.
“He was a self starter,” Paul Ellis said, noting that Matthew Ellis had planned to get a job in sales and marketing after graduating. He also said the Ellis family was aware of Matthew’s plan to join a fraternity.
The day that he found out that Matthew had died, Paul Ellis said, “I was working from home that day. It was just like any other day. And I got a sharp rap on the door.”
When he went to the front door, he saw a constable’s car parked outside, and the constable served him a death notice.
“He strongly advised me to pull myself together and go pick up my wife so she could be informed,” Paul Ellis said. “So I went to pick her up and begged her not to ask until we got home.”
When he told his wife, he said, “It was horrific.”
The Ellises have been in counseling to help cope with Matthew’s death, Paul Ellis said. He noted that there were more than 1,100 people at Matthew’s funeral, and that more than $10,000 has been given in Matthew’s name to a fund to help young people go on mission and ministry trips.
Paul Ellis said that the family is still “trying to just get through this, understand it, bear the loss.”
He continued, “It would be easier for me to come up here with a lost limb than to come up here and describe … what it was like losing a child.”
‘We were best friends’
The defense called Rice to the stand and asked him to describe his friendship with Matthew Ellis and the night that he gave Matthew the bottle of alcohol. In soft-spoken testimony, Rice said that he was 19 years old at the time of the incident.
Rice said he and Matthew were best friends, and Matthew had pledged the fraternity where Rice was a member. At a “Big/Little” party, where fraternity members and new members are paired up like big and little brothers, Rice found out that Matthew Ellis was his little.
“I gave him the bottle, which is a tradition,” he explained.
Rice’s testimony offered a glimpse into fraternity life. He said that at the Big/Little event, all the “bigs” give their “littles” bottles of alcohol based on the “family” they belong to. The families are named after different types of alcohol, such as the “Jager family” and the family Rice and Matthew Ellis belonged to: the “Wild Turkey-Rare Breed” family. The night that he gave Matthew Ellis a bottle of Wild Turkey, Rice said, 40-45 students were given bottles.
Later that night, Rice testified, he took the bottle away from Matthew Ellis, and they went to Taco Bell. Matthew said he didn’t want anything but water. They went back to Rice’s apartment, where Matthew spent the night on the couch. Rice said he hadn’t had anything to drink that night and was taking care of Matthew. When questioned about it, Rice also said he never forced Matthew Ellis to drink that night.
“I went to bed and woke up, and that’s when everything happened,” Rice said.
When he found Matthew Ellis unresponsive the next morning, Rice and another fraternity member -- Hunter Hurst, who also testified on Wednesday -- performed CPR on him until medics arrived.
“We were best friends,” Rice said of Matthew. “We talked every day, we texted every day. Like Mr. Ellis said, he was just a light in a dark room. He always put a smile on everybody’s face and he was my best friend.”
When his attorney asked if he was sad that Matthew is gone, Rice responded, “Yes, sir.”