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Witnesses: FAMU drum major beaten with drum mallets in hazing gauntlet

By Mallory Simon, CNN
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Fri May 25, 2012
Florida A&M University student and band member Robert Champion, 26, died November 19.
Florida A&M University student and band member Robert Champion, 26, died November 19.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Witnesses paint violent blow-by-blow account of Robert Champion's hazing
  • Two other band members also went through "cross over" ritual on band's Bus C
  • Drum major said he was having trouble breathing, passed out after initiation
  • Champion died after hazing incident; medical examiner ruled death a homicide

(CNN) -- Florida A&M drum major Robert Champion walked into the darkness of Bus C in a parking lot in Orlando, Florida, last fall in the hope of gaining respect from his fellow band members.

On November 19, Champion and the rest of the band were in Orlando for the Florida Classic football game, the last game of the football season. It would be Champion's last chance of the year to endure the "cross over," the name for the process of being fully initiated into the band.

According to witnesses, Champion first endured a pummeling with fists and bass drum mallets as he sat in what the band describes as the "hot seat." The drum major then would have to "cross over," making his way through a gauntlet of punches, drumsticks and mallets toward the back of the bus.

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The bus rocked back and forth violently as other band members lined the aisle, witnesses said, with some grabbing onto his body, trying to keep him from reaching the back of the bus, a signal that he'd made it through.

Champion eventually would make it to the point where he could touch his hand to the back wall, but he would never make it back to his hotel. Champion, 26, died last year because of "hemorrhagic shock due to soft tissue hemorrhage, due to blunt force trauma," the Orange County medical examiner said.

More than 2,000 pages of police interviews with witnesses and defendants who were aboard the bus on the day of Champion's death paint the first full blow-by-blow account of what happened on the night they say Champion and two others were hazed.

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Champion's roommate Keon Hollis told police that the initiation process went against everything that the drum major believed in. Champion didn't want to go through with it, but decided he had to in order to earn respect, Hollis told police.

"If you want to be somebody you have to do it," band member Ryan Dean said.

Hollis had taken a shot of alcohol before heading down to the bus that night with Champion.

Lissette Sanchez, one of the female band members, was first to run through the gantlet. She had also earlier endured a beating in the "hot seat," a ritual which band members said usually happened three times on different occasions before you could "cross over."

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"You're bent over and they just like play cadences on your back," band member Evan Calhoun told police about the "hot seat."

Others described the "hot seat" beatings as more intense on other occasions. They said a band member would sit, head between his or her knees, be covered with a blanket to make it impossible to see, and then be beaten with drumsticks or bass drum mallets for a few minutes.

Upperclassmen in charge of organizing the ritual are normally packed into the back of the bus, making that the most brutal part of the gantlet, band members said. The older members instructed others not to hit Sanchez near the kidneys during the gantlet, because she suffered from medical problems.

Sanchez said she was "basically unconscious" after the routine. As she sat in the back of the bus recovering, it was time for Keon Hollis to face the group.

"It was a lot of people. It was really dark on the bus," Hollis told police. "It had to be at least maybe like 15 people."

Hollis began the process, as others had, by taking off his shirt in preparation for the ritual. He said that as he struggled to get past the band members, he was slapped with open hands, beaten with straps and a comb, and kicked. He then stayed at the back of the bus, trying to regain his composure and breathing after being winded.

When he walked back to the front of the bus, before vomiting in the parking lot, his fellow band members hollered and clapped in celebration -- a signal that he had truly completed the initiation.

Then, it was time for Champion, who as a drum major was subject to a bit more pummeling, some fellow band members said. Since drum majors were considered to be the police of the band, it wasn't surprising if someone snuck in a shot while they had a chance.

Band member Benjamin McNamee said that Champion was prepped before his run, hit in the chest before he ran the gantlet. One band member described Champion as looking anxious right before the initiation.

Harold Finley said right before Champion made his way through the crowd, someone shouted to "send the n****r through."

As he made his way past each member, he was hit and punched. Some people tried to help push him through, while at least one girl tried to hold him back, the way a linebacker would, to make the gantlet more difficult, band members said. At least one person tried to climb over several seats to get another shot at him.

"When that person gets to you, I mean, you can choose to do whatever you want," Finley said.

Band member Ryan Dean said he was trying to shout words of encouragement as the drum major made his way through punches.

"I was just yelling, 'Go! Come on, man, you can do it,'" he said.

At one point Champion fell down into one of the seats. One band member was "holding into the rails and kind of just jumping up and down" while Champion was lying in that seat, according to the documents.

Someone also grabbed him in a bear hug before Champion pushed through and made his way to about two feet from the end of the bus.

"I see people are kicking him," band member Jonathan Boyce told police. "So I grab him to try and keep everybody off of him. I put my body around his body."

When Champion finished the ritual, Boyce sat him down on the floor of the bus. He asked for some water, and Boyce gave him a Gatorade.

He seemed fine at that moment, right after the ritual, Boyce said. After all three members had passed the initiation, many of the band members got off the bus and headed back toward the hotel.

That's when Champion started to panic, Boyce said.

"He was having trouble breathing ... and like he couldn't see but his eyes were open," Boyce said.

Champion passed out and Boyce said he checked for a pulse. The drum major still had a pulse and was still breathing, so Boyce went upstairs to get someone else to help.

Soon after he left, Boyce got a call that Champion was no longer breathing.

Band member Marcus Fabre told police that around that time, he heard that after senior band members found out Champion was not moving, they panicked.

"The upperclassmen that initiated the hazing went around the hotel asking for alcohol to rub down (Champion's) body - take off fingerprints," he said he was told.

A few band members began doing CPR on the drum major.

"They was calling his name and (Champion) wasn't saying anything," band member Darryl Cearnel said.

As Cearnel did CPR, others went into the hotel to look for an automated electronic defibrillator.

"He started vomiting when I was giving chest compressions," Cearnel said.

Paramedics showed up soon after, took over compressions and rushed Champion to the hospital.

Many of the students said that late that night they began receiving calls or texts that Champion had died. They frantically struggled to figure out exactly what had happened.

Almost all of the band members said they never had any intention of injuring Champion or swore they hadn't directly taken part in the beating.

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Four students were expelled from the school, and another 30 were dismissed from the band soon after Champion's death.

A law enforcement investigation resulted in charges being brought against 13 people. Eleven individuals each face one count of third-degree felony hazing resulting in death. Each is also accused of two counts of first-degree misdemeanor hazing. State law provides a prison term of up to six years for those facing the more serious charges.

Two people each face a single count of misdemeanor first-degree hazing. Sentences in such cases typically call for up to a year in jail.

FAMU said it has taken steps to eradicate the problem, and after Champion died the university's board of trustees approved an anti-hazing plan that includes an independent panel of experts to investigate hazing allegations.

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