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Florida A&M band member's death ruled a homicide

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 7:29 PM EST, Fri December 16, 2011
Some band members have said Robert Champion may have died after a rite of passage involving a beating aboard a bus.
Some band members have said Robert Champion may have died after a rite of passage involving a beating aboard a bus.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The chairman of FAMU's trustees calls the homicide ruling "upsetting," not surprising
  • NEW: FAMU's president says he and governor had a "great conversation" Friday
  • The governor still thinks FAMU's president should be suspended, a spokesman says
  • Robert Champion died of hemorrhagic shock after hazing, a medical examiner rules

(CNN) -- The death of Robert Champion Jr., the 26-year-old Florida A&M University student and drum major who died last month after a suspected hazing incident, has been ruled a homicide, according to a medical examiner.

The Friday afternoon announcement came just as Florida Gov. Rick Scott wrapped up a meeting with James Ammons, the university's president, whose suspension he recommended amid an investigation into various issues at the university -- including Champion's death.

Orange County officials said in a statement that Champion died November 19 because of "hemorrhagic shock" -- the result of excessive internal bleeding -- "due to soft tissue hemorrhage, due to blunt force trauma sustained during a hazing incident." He died in Orlando, where his band had been playing.

No one has been charged in Champion's death. The Orange County Sheriff's Office released a statement Friday indicating that its detectives "have followed all appropriate protocols as if investigating a homicide" and suggesting that more action will be forthcoming.

"In the coming days and weeks, investigators will be working with the State Attorney's office to identify the charges that are applicable," the sheriff's office said, noting that "the vast majority" of witnesses to the incident have been interviewed.

Associate Medical Examiner Sara Irrgang performed the autopsy on Champion, overseen by Chief Medical Examiner Jan Garavaglia. According to a release from their office summarizing the autopsy findings, Champion was "previously healthy (when he) collapsed and died within an hour of a hazing incident during which he suffered multiple blunt trauma blows to his body."

He complained that he was thirsty and tired immediately after the incident and, minutes later, lost his eyesight and suffered a cardiac arrest.

"These symptoms are consistent with hypotension or shock," the statement noted.

Read the autopsy report (PDF)

Once in the hospital, Champion wasn't bleeding externally though there were indications -- such as "extremely low" hemoglobin and hematocrit levels -- of internal bleeding, according to the medical examiner.

The autopsy conducted after his death found "extensive contusions of his chest, arms, shoulder and back," as well as "evidence of crushing of areas of subcutaneous fat" -- which is the fatty tissue directly under a person's skin. Champion didn't have any bone fractures or injuries to his internal organs.

The medical examiner didn't find any evidence of "natural disease except for a slightly enlarged heart," nor did toxicology tests reveal signs of drugs or alcohol.

Some band members have said Champion died after taking part in a rite of passage called "crossing Bus C." One member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained that students "walk from the front of the bus to the back of the bus backward while the bus is full of other band members, and you get beaten until you get to the back."

Four students were expelled from the school, and another 30 were dismissed from the band after Champion's death, Ammons wrote in a letter to the board of trustees last month.

The young man's father, Robert Champion Sr., said, "We are pleased to find out what caused our son's death."

"Now, we need to move forward, so this doesn't have to happen to any other kid," the father said in a statement.

Solomon L. Badger III, the chairman of FAMU's board of trustees, called the homicide ruling "extremely upsetting," albeit expected.

"We will continue to cooperate with all agencies looking into the matter and are committed to creating a safe environment for the entire FAMU community and ensuring that this never happens again at FAMU," Badger said in a statement.

Controversy has swirled around the Tallahassee university since Champion's death, including three arrests tied to the alleged hazing of a freshman band member a few weeks earlier.

And Jerry Bailey, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said Wednesday that investigators looking into Champion's death have turned up evidence "that there were financial irregularities having to do with the band and several other components of the university." This suspected fraud is not directly related to Champion's death.

These issues prompted Scott on Thursday to recommend to the chairman of Florida A&M's trustees that they suspend Ammons until state investigations of the university and its leadership are complete.

The pair agreed Thursday night to meet, said Brian Burgess, a spokesman for the governor. They did so late Friday afternoon at the state capitol in Tallahassee, conversing for about twice as long as the 20 minutes originally scheduled.

"The purpose was for the governor to listen and hear (Ammons') thoughts," said Lane Wright, another spokesman in Scott's office.

"The governor has not changed his position on the call for Ammons' suspension. We want to make sure that these investigations are thorough, independent and impartial."

Ammons said afterward that the two had a "great conversation," and both "have the best interests of Florida A&M University at heart."

"The governor made a recommendation, and as governor, he can make a recommendation," the university president said. "At the end of the day, it is up to the board of trustees. I will be right along with (their) decision."

School trustees have placed band director Julian White on administrative leave, in addition to reprimanding Ammons. Badger, the board's chairman, said Thursday that a decision on how the university goes "forward" -- including the president's fate -- will come Monday.

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