Case of missing Georgia Tech student a mystery

Was it a case of too much booze and not enough sense? Was he mugged? Did he fall off a train?

In the days since James Hubert was found along railroad tracks in Atlanta, the mystery of what happened to the Georgia Tech senior has only deepened. If anyone knows exactly what happened to the 24-year-old aerospace engineer last Friday, they’re not saying.

The story has all the ingredients of a serial TV mystery: a bloody and beaten student; a misbehaving fraternity at one of the nation’s elite universities; a mother eager to share details of her son’s plight on social media; a police department that’s reticent, even by cop standards; a transit agency refuting one of Hubert’s claims.

The riddle has captivated Tech, which is readying for homecoming weekend.

“It’s the news story on campus,” said Shane Lawford, a third year biomedical science major from Houston.

Hubert had attended a sorority formal Friday, Oct. 16, in Atlanta's west Midtown. He never made it home. Using an iPhone locator app, friends found him two days later in a ditch alongside the railroad tracks near Atlanta's Kirkwood neighborhood. He was some seven miles away from the party site.

The spot where his friends found Hubert is a flat tract, close to DeKalb Avenue. It features a series of tracks that arc in long, silver curves toward downtown Atlanta and Decatur. They carry freight trains. Nearby are MARTA tracks, where electric trains rocket past every 10 minutes or so.

The rail beds are dotted with windblown trash, lined with chunks of gravel the size of hotel soap bars, ringed by small hardwoods just changing colors. It would be impossible for an engineer on a passing train not to notice a person lying on those rocks.

That’s where Atlanta police, alerted by student searchers, came on Monday. Hubert was in rough shape — unconscious, with a touch of hypothermia, his face swollen and bloody. An ambulance took him to Grady Memorial Hospital, where he remained Friday afternoon.

He’s said nothing publicly. His mother, Diane Hubert, has filled that gap.

On Facebook, Diane Hubert said her son suffered from left-side paralysis, blood on the brain, broken ribs, a broken scapula, a punctured lung and four fractured vertebrae. He underwent spine surgery Wednesday, she wrote, and made it through with "flying colors."

Her son left the sorority formal alone, Diane Hubert wrote in another post. He was taking MARTA home when he was “jumped, beaten up, robbed and left for dead,” she wrote.

Not so fast, said MARTA. It released a statement that may put investigators on a different track:

“Mr. James Hubert was not on the MARTA system at the time in question.”

But that’s the story the Atlanta cops got.

'Pretty weird'

Diane Hubert did not respond to several requests for comment from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Earlier this week, she did talk to area TV stations, saying her son would be OK. He needed rest.

Until Thursday afternoon, when she removed most comments and photos from her Facebook page, Diane Hubert had provided a running update on her son’s condition. One photo showed her son holding up his fist, thumb pointing at the ceiling — a reassuring sign that he was on the rebound.

There’s also that “selfie” that’s flashed on computer screens across America — a beaming Diane Hubert, standing at the hospital bedside with her battered and dazed-looking son.

Dylan Chiodo, in his second year at Tech where he is studying aerospace engineering, saw that photo and could only stare at it.

“That,” he said, “was pretty weird.”

The story is weird, said Andrew Wang, a second-year student majoring in business. He discounts theories that Hubert was “train-surfing,” riding atop a box car on an eastbound freight.

“He was beat up,” said Wang, of Alpharetta. “I don’t think he got that falling off a train.”

Is that correct? Police haven’t said.

Have they talked to Hubert yet?

Earlier this week, Hubert apparently was able to speak with Georgia Tech President George Peterson. On Facebook, his mom reported that Hubert took the chance to lobby Peterson to reconsider a sanction handed down to his fraternity earlier this month.

“The college is not cooperating with the fraternity and it really upsets me,” she wrote. “POLITICS of the school I guess.”

That brings us to an interesting subtext.

Hubert is vice president of Phi Delta Theta. A black student earlier this year accused members of yelling racial epithets at her from the fraternity house. Tech last month suspended the frat from all social activities until August 2016. That’s led to speculation that someone beat up Hubert because he’s in the fraternity.

The fraternity has disputed the school’s findings. Local and national fraternity officials conducted their own investigation of the woman’s claims and found no wrongdoing.

Sanction aside, the fraternity is not a model of decorum. An AJC review of student disciplinary records shows it came off disciplinary probation in May after an intoxicated recruit set fire to a sofa outside the fraternity house — at least the second incident at the fraternity involving fire. In August 2012 it was put on probation for roughly five months; members, according to allegations, etched a threatening message in wet concrete outside a rival fraternity house.

Whatever happened to Hubert has not helped his fraternity’s image, said Aaron Rogers. He’s a second-year student from Chicago, studying mechanical engineering, and wants to be a U.S. Marine Corps pilot.

“It’s kind of unfortunate that his fraternity’s had these allegations against them, and then this happened,” he said. “It’s been a rough couple of months for them.”

For investigators, things may be just as rough. The tale of what did, or did not, happen on an October Friday night may never be fully told.