NEW: Witnesses claim Robert Champion was forced to walk shirtless while he was beaten on the bus
NEW: Champion seemed fine, then said he had trouble breathing, one witness says
Champion's parents say their son advocated against hazing
Robert Champion died of "shock due to soft tissue hemorrhage, due to blunt force trauma"
A Florida A&M University drum major who died after enduring a school hazing ritual aboard a bus decided to go through with the rite in order to earn respect, band members said in court documents released Wednesday.
“It’s like a respect thing,” said defendant Jonathan Boyce, who noted that Robert Champion “was wanting to do it all season.”
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 a picture of a darkened bus where three band members, including Champion, were hazed.
Multiple witnesses say that Champion was forced to walk, shirtless, from the front of the bus to the back while being beaten with drum sticks, bass drum mallets, punches and kicks.
Champion is thought to have died after taking part in a rite of passage called “Crossing Bus C,” in which students “walk from the front of the bus to the back of the bus backward while the bus is full of other band members.”
“You get beaten until you get to the back,” one band member said on the condition of anonymity.
But Champion’s parents said Wednesday that their son had advocated against hazing.
“It doesn’t sound like my son at all,” Pam Champion told reporters at a news conference in Atlanta. “He was a stickler for the rules.”
Boyce and other defendants are only trying to “save themselves,” she said, by claiming that Champion wanted to participate in the ritual.
“It certainly wasn’t (just) hazing,” she added, describing the incident as a “brutal assault.”
As for the future of FAMU’s Marching 100, Pam Champion said, “Until you clean house, you can’t … consider putting that band back on the field.”
After the incident, Boyce said he asked Champion if he was alright.
Initially, he said “yeah I’m OK,” according to Boyce. But later, he said Champion began panicking.
“He was having trouble breathing,” noted Boyce, who carried the drum major shortly before he lost consciousness. “He couldn’t see, but his eyes were like wide open.”
Boyce’s attorney could not be immediately reached for comment and CNN cannot independently verify his account.
Band member Harold Finley, who has been charged in connection with Champion’s death, and Evan Calhoun, then a second-year percussion student who has not been charged, noted that the hazing ritual wasn’t obligatory.
“If you want to be there, you’re there; if you’re not, you’re not,” Calhoun said in the deposition. “Nobody forces you.”
Band member Kerian Cox, who was a percussion section leader, told investigators that the more intense hazing can come when a student is identified for senior-level positions.
“I guess they know I was going to be like a (band) leader in the future,” Cox said, recalling his own earlier experience with the ritual.
But he noted that the band’s trombone section had been “cut in half” due to suspensions for alleged hazing prior to the November incident.
On the day that Champion died, drum major Keon Hollis told investigators, he had endured the same ritual.
“I did it for the same reasons everybody else do it,” he said. “Get the respect.”
Hollis – who went before Champion – said they had to fight their way through a fury of punches and slaps, while other band members swung with sticks and straps.
“(Robert) really didn’t want to do it, but he was kind of like, I’m just going to do it,” said Hollis. “You know, I told him, I said, if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it.”
Hollis said Champion seemed fine immediately after the ritual.
“He was fine. … He asked me, he’s like, ‘man, I need something to drink.’ And I had a bottle of water and I gave it to him,” Hollis said in an audio interview with investigators released Wednesday.
Soon afterward, Champion began having trouble breathing, according to witnesses and police reports.
“He was sitting on the bus at the steps. … He said he can’t breathe, so I checked him,” said band member Darryl Cearnel, who is not charged in the case. “He wasn’t saying anything. He wasn’t responsive or anything. They was calling his name and (he) wasn’t saying anything.”
Cearnel told investigators that he performed CPR until paramedics arrived.
The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy ruled the death a homicide. The autopsy found “extensive contusions of (Champion’s) chest, arms, shoulder and back,” as well as “evidence of crushing of areas of subcutaneous fat,” the fatty tissue directly under the skin. He did not have any bone fractures or injuries to his internal organs.
There was also no any evidence of “natural disease except for a slightly enlarged heart,” nor did toxicology tests reveal signs of drugs or alcohol.
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 one also is 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.
Champion’s death brought renewed public scrutiny to hazing, a practice that some say has gone on for years. Other band members had come forward previously with allegations of hazing and some had been hospitalized for injuries allegedly suffered in the practice.
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.