May 24, 2012
By KYLE HIGHTOWER and MIKE SCHNEIDER
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A Florida A&M drum major who died after being hazed on a bus was known for his opposition to hazing but agreed to go through a brutal initiation ritual because it was seen as an honor, according to interviews with band mates released Wednesday.
Robert Champion, 26, had asked all season to go through the hazing ritual known as “crossing over,” defendant Jonathan Boyce said. Multiple witnesses say the ordeal involved the participant going from the front to the back of the bus while others beat the person.
“It’s a respect thing, you know,” Boyce told detectives. “Well, he was wanting to do it all ... all season.”
Champion died last November after enduring hazing by other band members outside a hotel in Orlando, where FAMU had played its archrival in football. His death revealed a culture of hazing in the famed band, which has performed at Super Bowls and presidential inauguration parades.
An autopsy concluded Champion suffered blunt trauma blows to his body and died from shock caused by severe bleeding.
Champion’s parents said at a news conference Wednesday that they are having a hard time believing that their son volunteered to be hazed.
“He was murdered on that bus, and no one signs up for that,” Pam Champion said.
Prosecutors in Orlando have more than 1,500 pages of evidence against the 13 people charged in Champion's death last year. Eleven defendants are charged with a third-degree felony and two are charged with misdemeanors.
Drum major Keon Hollis told detectives he went through the same hazing ritual as Champion the night he died. He said there were at least 15 people on the bus.
He said Champion was the next person to be hazed after him. He said Champion seemed fine immediately afterward, but said he was thirsty. Hollis said he gave Champion some water.
Champion soon collapsed and later died.
Another hazing ritual called “the hot seat” involved getting kicked and beaten with drumsticks and bass drum mallets while covered with a blanket on a band bus called, “Bus C,” band member Marc Baron told investigators. Baron isn’t charged and wasn’t on the bus the weekend Champion died.
Depositions offered clues to the defenses the defendants will use.
Boyce and another defendant, Shawn Turner, claimed they tried to help Champion get off the bus by pulling him through the gauntlet of band members.
“So I grab him to try to keep everybody off him, and I grab him and I’m pulling him and I’m pulling him,” Boyce told detectives. “People are kicking him so I stopped them from kicking him and I put my body around his body.”
Defendant Aaron Golson denied getting on the bus where the hazing took place. He said he got a ride back from the game with a friend.
“I don’t know anything that happened with Robert,” Golson said.
Golson also told detectives that Champion wasn’t into the hazing rituals.
“Man, I’m shock(ed) if that happens,” Golson said when told that Champion chose to get on the bus to be hazed.
Another defendant, Caleb Jackson, at first told detectives that he wasn't on the bus when Champion was beaten but then changed his story when he was told that hotel video surveillance showed him getting off the bus. At the time of Champion’s death, Jackson was on probation for a felony battery charge.
“I love Robert like a brother, more than ya’ll, any, everybody in this band loves this man like a brother, you know what I’m saying,” Jackson said.
FAMU’s famed Marching 100 band was suspended shortly after the incident, and officials have said it will remain sidelined at least through the 2012-2013 school year.
The school also tried to fire band director Julian White. White's dismissal was placed on hold while the criminal investigation unfolded, but he insisted that he did nothing wrong and fought for months to get reinstated.
He announced his retirement earlier this month.
Under a policy in place for years before Champion’s death, band members attended a mandatory antihazing workshop and sign a pledge saying they will not participate in hazing or submit to it. Violators were supposed to be kicked out of the band.