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Thousands of pages of evidence detail the killing of FAMU drum major

By Jeff Kunerth, Stephen Hudak, Denise-Marie Balona and David Breen, The Orlando Sentinel –

ORLANDO, Fla. — The beatings began well before the Nov. 19 hazing death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion, according to more than 2,300 pages of documents and 30 audio files released Wednesday by the Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office.

Champion’s death after being pummeled by fellow marching-band members aboard a charter known as “Bus C” culminated a string of violent hazing initiations during the weekend of the Florida Classic football game — a major fundraiser for FAMU and its longtime rival, Bethune-Cookman University, that draws tens of thousands of people to Orlando each year.

The day before the Classic, several members of FAMU’s famous band took turns submitting to beatings while huddled under a blanket on the ride to their hotel from the annual Battle of the Bands, a Friday night showcase of university- and high-school band talent that kicks off the Classic weekend.

An assistant band director who traveled that night on Bus C — one of a train of charter buses that transport about 400 band members and FAMU employees to games and other events — told investigators that he did not notice anything.

Once the bus parked, many people retired to the hotel. But some — as they would do again Saturday night when Champion was killed — stayed aboard Bus C to deal more blows to young musicians eager for acceptance into this prestigious group.

Percussionist Requesta Harden was supposed to submit to a beating that Friday but got scared, she told investigators. On the way to the Classic on Saturday, one of the band’s leaders tapped her on the shoulder and directed her to the back of the bus. There, she submitted to a ritual known as the “hot seat” — being pummeled nonstop for several minutes while seated and covered in a blanket.

Harden said she couldn’t perform at the game because she became dizzy and passed out.

After the Classic, in the back parking lot of the Rosen Plaza Hotel, the violence continued, with Champion being the last of three band members hazed in two separate rituals — the “hot seat” and another known as “crossing Bus C.”

Those accused of the beatings had been hazed themselves at some point, band members told detectives with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. Some had suffered beatings aboard Bus C during other band trips.

They also told investigators that Champion, who had resisted and spoken out against hazing in the past, willingly underwent the hazing on Bus C after the last game of the football season. In line to become the band’s lead drum major the next year, Champion needed the respect bestowed upon those who endure the traditional torment, students said.

“It’s tradition. … It’s like an acceptance type of thing. So that’s where you get respect from,” drum major Keon Hollis told investigators, adding that he was hazed along with Champion that Saturday night.

Hollis said the two had discussed the hazing before Champion stepped aboard the bus.

“Yeah, we was talking about it. He really, he really didn’t want to do it, but he was kinda like, ‘I’m just gonna do it,’” Hollis told investigators. “I told him, I said, ‘If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. … You don’t have to do it.’”

Band members had talked about Champion’s plan to participate in the ritual during telephone communications before the hazing, some students said.

Head drum major Jonathan Boyce said Champion had wanted to go through the Bus C ritual earlier in the school year, but Boyce would not allow it because he could not afford to lose a drum major to injury. On the night Champion was killed, Boyce was among those who participated in the hazing, according to an 89-page sworn affidavit summarizing the evidence against those charged in the case.

Boyce and 10 other band members were charged earlier this month with felony hazing in connection with Champion’s death. Two other band members were charged with misdemeanors for their roles in hazing the two band members who went through the gantlet before Champion.

Champion’s initiation began with the “hot seat.” Like those before him, he was told to take a seat at the back of the bus.

A fellow band member instructed him in how to protect himself by assuming the “crash position” — sitting with his knees pulled toward his upper torso and using his forearms to cover his face and torso. A blanket was pulled over him while members kicked him and beat him with drum sticks and brass-drum mallets.

Champion was also hit and kicked while “crossing Bus C,” the goal of which was to make it from the front of the bus to the back while other band members beat him, tried to knock him down and pulled him back toward the front.

One of those accused of kicking Champion was Benjamin McNamee, who told investigators he quit the band in 2010 because of hazing but then returned two weeks before the Classic so he could get his scholarship.

Authorities have said about 60 band members — including at least two of those charged in Champion’s death — did not meet the requirements to be in the band but were still allowed to travel with the band to Orlando and also were given per diem payments to cover their trip expenses.

Caleb Jackson, charged with felony hazing in Champion’s death, told investigators he was ineligible to be in the band but was allowed by FAMU to march in the Classic. An attorney for Brian Jones, also charged in Champion’s death, told The Orlando Sentinel that he, too, was ineligible but given permission to come to Orlando.

Band member April Tarpley of Orlando told investigators she thought McNamee and others went overboard while kicking Champion.

Tarpley said she thought Champion’s hazers were more aggressive with him because drum majors have to endure only one “hot seat” while others are subjected to two or more. Another band member, Marc Baron, said he had undergone four “hot seats” before “crossing over” Bus C, according to the documents released Wednesday.

The “hot seat” beatings, which Baron said can last three or four minutes, end when the “bus president” decides so.

After the “hot seat” pummeling, Champion was to complete his initiation by “crossing over” Bus C, as fellow band members Lissette Sanchez and Keon Hollis had done before him. All three were hit with “straps, hands, sticks and a big orange traffic cone,” Hollis told investigators.

Sanchez, of Orlando, said she briefly lost consciousness after she made it to the back of the bus.

“I couldn’t do nothing,” she said. “I just had to lay there until everybody got off the bus.”

Hollis said he was pushed toward the back of the bus by some band members and pulled in the opposite direction by others. At one point, he fell to the floor.

“Once you get on the ground, anything can happen,” he told investigators.

Drum major Rikki Wills claims he was one of those trying to help Champion through the ordeal of punches and kicks.

“I’m Robert’s roommate so I decided I was going to help him get through, so I pushed him through … and when we got to the end, Robert said, ‘Oh my God, uh, I’m having trouble breathing,’” Wills said.

Champion then passed out. Medical examiner’s records show he was suffering from hemorrhagic shock cause by blunt-force blows to his body.

His body was bleeding on the inside. He was feeling fatigue, thirst, weakness and a loss of vision. His body temperature was 102 degrees.

Band member Darryl Cearnel told investigators he found Champion sitting at the front of the bus with two or three other people when he returned from a trip to the bathroom. He said Champion was unresponsive and having trouble breathing.

Somebody called 911 while Cearnel began performing mouth to mouth and chest compressions.

Champion then began vomiting while Cearnel was trying to revive him.

Band director Julian White arrived before Champion was lifted into the ambulance.

“I’m not a doctor, but I saw death,” White told investigators. “I assumed Robert was dead. I became distraught. I’m walking around saying, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, I lost, I lost, I lost …”

White said he persuaded paramedics to let him ride in the passenger seat of the ambulance that transported Champion to the hospital.

Champion, 26, died at Dr. P. Phillips Hospital.

During the series of hazing initiations that Friday and Saturday — with students being beaten, kicked and passing out — the university’s percussion director Shaylor James was seated at the front of the bus when it was traveling, according to the documents.

James told investigators he saw nothing and heard nothing that he would consider hazing.

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