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Student reluctantly agreed to hazing to gain respect, friend says

By Denise-Marie Ordway and Stephen Hudak, Orlando Sentinel –

ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida A&M University drum majors Robert Champion and Keon Hollis grew close in 2011, working together to direct the school’s famous marching band.

Yet one situation frustrated both young men as they tried to keep their fellow musicians in line during last fall’s football season, according to a recent affidavit by Hollis.

Band members were challenging the newly promoted drum majors’ authority. There was a lack of respect.

Hollis seemed too laid-back, mellow. Some band members disliked Champion because he was gay and a stickler for rules.

But the two knew there was one sure way to capture the group’s respect, especially among the band’s largest and often rowdiest section — the percussionists.

They had to cross Bus C — a violent hazing ritual held on the bus that transported much of the percussion section to football games.

The beating would kill Champion, leave Hollis aching and vomiting in a hotel parking lot and lead to the arrests of 14 fellow marching band members. It also would expose a violent culture in the band that had festered for years, leading to the retirement of band director Julian White and the resignation of FAMU President James Ammons and others.

Hollis’ version of events leading to the tragic scene aboard Bus C on Nov. 19 is contained in a three-page, typewritten statement that the Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office made public Tuesday. It’s the most detailed accounting of the thought process that went into Champion’s decision to put himself through the ritual beating.

Given under oath, Hollis’ statement also describes in troubling detail the beating that he and Champion took that night. It is part of a 104-page probable-cause document that outlines the state’s criminal case against Dante Martin, the unofficial “president” or leader of Bus C.

Martin recently became the 12th member of the band to be charged with felony hazing in connection with Champion’s death.

The 11 others charged with felonies in Champion’s death were arrested in May. Two other former band members are charged with misdemeanor hazing.

In his statement, Hollis, 22, describes how his friendship with Champion, 26, evolved and why they felt compelled to submit to the hazing ritual together after the Florida Classic football game.

“We were ‘Squad Dogs,’ a term used to define the people who made drum major together. So that meant we were our brother’s keeper,” wrote Hollis, who was Champion’s roommate during the weekend in Orlando.

After performing at the Classic, the two men changed clothes in their hotel room and reluctantly agreed to cross Bus C.

“I asked him if he was sure he wanted to do it and he stated, ‘Yea I just want to get it over with,’ ” Hollis wrote. “So then I took a shot of vodka and I and Robert went downstairs … ”

Hollis explained how he boarded a bus that was “very cold” from the air conditioning and “very dark” because it was parked in a dimly lit lot behind the Rosen Plaza hotel.

He described how he was instructed by Martin to sit with his head down on the left side of the bus and Champion was told to sit on the right as a young woman finished taking her punishment in the Bus C ritual before them.

As the young woman made her way from the front of the bus to the back through a gauntlet of fists, feet, drum sticks, drum mallets and other items, Martin announced that Champion had not yet completed a different hazing ritual called the “hot seat.”

Typically, band members have to complete one or more rounds of the “hot seat” — being beaten while sitting — before they can cross Bus C.

Champion withstood that beating before Hollis was directed to start crossing. He described the difficulty of moving through a crowd of fellow band members who were trying to beat him, hold him back and force him to the floor.

He described Champion’s struggle to make it to the back. At one point, Champion fell down and the crowd dragged him back to the front of the bus to start over. As Champion moved toward the back, two other drum majors started pulling Champion to help him along.

After the hazing, many band members returned to the hotel. After repeatedly vomiting in the parking lot, Hollis went to lie down in one of the hotel rooms.

That is where he learned Champion was rushed to the hospital and later died.

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