Members of WSU fraternity where Bellevue freshman died didn’t know what constitutes hazing, evidence shows

Hours of interviews recorded by Pullman police show that even fraternity leaders didn’t understand the hazing.

PULLMAN, Wash. — Approximately 35 hours of interviews recorded by the Pullman Police Department related to the 2019 WSU fraternity hazing death of 19-year-old Sam Martinez reveal members and pledges of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity (ATO) did not understand what constitutes hazing.

This streak includes members in leadership positions tasked with educating younger members on fraternity laws and rules against hazing practices.

The interviews took place as part of the inquest into the November 2019 death of Martinez, a Bellevue freshman. Martinez died of acute alcohol poisoning. Police and an internal Washington State University (WSU) investigation determined the hazing contributed to the death.

“I don’t know that until we started asking very pointed questions, anyone understood that there was some type of hazing going on,” Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins said. “Most of the students who come here have an idea in their minds of these kinds of extreme situations and it confuses them. It doesn’t have to be extreme to be considered hazing.

In dozens of interviews, members and pledges insisted that no hazing took place because no one was “forced” to participate in the activities. Yet, according to Washington State Hazing Laws, WSU Rules of Conduct, and the ATO’s Official Handbook, coercion is not necessary for hazing to occur.

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“Hazing includes any activity expected of a person joining a group…that causes or is likely to cause a risk of mental, emotional, and/or physical harm, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate,” they wrote. writes the authors of the Washington State Administrative Code (WAC). ). The state legislature created the law making hazing a felony in 1993.

Incidents that constituted hazing reported by fraternity members to police included promises to eat onions for missing questions on fraternity history tests. Other offenses involved drinking an unknown mixture with hot sauce, performing physical tasks such as wall-sitting and push-ups, and mopping floors with toothbrushes in the dark.

None of the interviewees acknowledged these activities as hazing, according to police interviews.

“We had to clean the floor with toothbrushes while they turned off all the lights in the dark room and [they were] snapping [expletive] on the ground that we had to clean,” said a freshman.

“We had to clean the party floor on our hands and knees with toothbrushes with Pinesol and stuff,” another pledge said. “It sucked having to use toothbrushes, but it wasn’t that bad. I wouldn’t call it hazing because I could have said “no” at any time. Ultimately, you go through this with your friends, so ultimately it brings you closer, so I had no problem with that.

Another pledge called the incidents “innocent stuff” promoted by members of the upper class on “power trips”.

“It was like, ‘Oh man, I can make them do anything. I can make them do push-ups; I can make them do wall sits. I can make them do jumping jacks and sing the national anthem three times in a row, “because we did it,” the pledge said. “Everyone says, ‘Hazing is so bad,’ but I wouldn’t consider that hazing. I would consider that to be, “He’s drunk. He’s telling us to do something stupid,” and we did.

All hazing is “dangerous”

Researchers and experts said it’s essential to understand what hazing is, including activities that may seem harmless, because it can all be dangerous – you can’t predict how the person being hazed will react.

“When people are fogged up, it’s not easy to predict how it will affect them. They might have a background unknown to the group. The person might have been abused. So that might be a triggering event,” said Dr Norman Pollard, a retired dean of students at Alfred University in New York who was involved in two landmark studies of hazing. “Those involved in the behavior may see the activity as positive and helpful, part of an initiation, but [hazing] can be dangerous, have serious consequences and [have] hidden harms. »

An ATO pledge admitted to seeing children collapse after incidents that fit the definition of hazing.

“Some guys would break down, and some wouldn’t,” the pledge said. “I’ve seen kids cry in my pawn classroom and go up to their rooms and stay in their room and not come out. I’ve just seen broken down kids before, that’s for sure.

“I never forced him to drink”

In the case of Sam Martinez, police found that the provision of alcohol and encouraging promises to drink large amounts of alcohol by members of the upper class contributed to his death.

On November 12, 2019, further pledges found Martinez unresponsive in the basement of the fraternity house. The night before, Martinez had taken part in the ATO’s annual “Big-Little Night,” where the identities of the big brothers are revealed to the pledges. According to police records, the event includes the ritual of the upper classes sharing alcohol, a “family drink”, with their little brothers.

Martinez’s older brother provided a half-gallon of spiced rum, the equivalent of 40 shots, to be split between Martinez and another pledge, according to police records. Martinez died of acute alcohol poisoning as fraternity members believed he was “sleeping [the alcohol] stopped.”

During interviews with police, members and pledges repeatedly told detectives that no one was “forced” to drink alcohol at the event.

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“I never forced him to drink,” said Martinez’s older brother, Wesley Oswald, who pleaded guilty to providing alcohol to a minor in the case in October 2021. Oswald was sentenced 19 days in jail and one year probation. Pullman police recommended hazing charges against Oswald and another member, but the statute of limitations had expired.

“He didn’t force us to drink or anything,” said the pledge who shared the bottle of rum with Martinez. “I just want to reiterate that Wes was not forcing us to drink at all. He watched over us. He was like, ‘If you don’t want to drink, don’t drink it.’ He said to me, ‘If you feel like you can’t do this, then don’t do it.’ »

Others said donating alcohol and sharing the “family drink” was for bonding, not hazing.

“I think it’s just a tradition. Your big brother buys you booze and then gives you the option to drink it or not,” said an involved engagement that night.

“I drank all by myself,” said another pledge. “We were supposed to finish the bottle. It is not mandatory, but it is encouraged. »

“I kind of wanted [finish up] the bottle. I didn’t want to drink all this so I forced myself to drink it and vomit,” said an ATO pledge. “I feel like it’s just something you do. I don’t know, I guess, I don’t know. It’s just what I thought.

“Big-Little” events result in multiple deaths

Hazing researcher and author Hank Nuwer from Indiana said the pledges clearly didn’t understand that they had been jammed throughout the “Big-Little Night.”

“Coercion is present even when members are told what they are doing is voluntary,” Nuwer said. “This idea of ​​giving [the ‘family drink’] is part of this idea of ​​why it’s not voluntary. Because ‘I have to give you something back [in exchange for the bottle]. Like consuming the whole bottle and doing it fast and being a better pledge than these wimps here who can’t do what you can. “”

Nuwer has traced all hazing deaths in the United States dating back to 1838. It maintains a database that currently contains 225 hazing deaths. More than 100 of them have occurred since the year 2000, including 16 linked to the “Grandes-Petites Nuits” as in the case of Sam Martinez.

“[I’m] incredibly angry that another good boy is gone,” Nuwer said. “In the mid-90s, that’s when the deaths really started piling up from alcohol-related hazing, and it didn’t stop.”

Documented history of hazing

The ATO house at WSU had issues for hazing before. According to university records, in 2013 the WSU Conduct Committee found the chapter violated hazing, reckless endangerment, and alcohol laws after promises were made to participate in social activities. hazing, including cleaning raw sewage without protective equipment. The conduct committee concluded that this violated reckless endangerment laws and university policy by “unnecessarily endangering” members’ health.

The conduct committee imposed the most severe penalty possible: loss of chapter recognition by the university for one year, with two years of probation to follow. But the punishment did not hold. The WSU president reduced the loss of recognition to eight months probation.

It was a lost opportunity to curb hazing culture, according to Sam Martinez’s parents.

“[WSU administrators] claim that their position is “zero tolerance for hazing”. Show me. These are words on paper until you put effort into them and hold accountable those who give the Greek system a bad name,” said Martinez’s mother, Jolayne Holtz. “It’s just this ridiculous cycle. And why would you repeat the mistakes of the past? You know it doesn’t work. When were they going to take him seriously?

Experts said the most dangerous part of hazing is the inability to foresee the consequences. No one at the ATO predicted the ultimate consequence: Sam Martinez died after a “big-little night” featuring what was supposed to be a “fraternal drinking” occasion.

“Many have a strong need to belong and belong in this group, so they are willing to do just about anything to be part of this organization. Being willing to do something that is potentially harmful to you is what hazing is,” Chief Jenkins said. “As time passes, my fear is that the thought of the consequences of the hazing will pass, and maybe it will be the death of Sam Martinez [that will] are causing this change in culture and the way society looks at these things that are changing this whole culture.

After Martinez’s death, WSU officials withdrew official recognition from the ATO for at least five years. Seven ATO members pleaded guilty to supplying alcohol to a minor.

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