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

Hours of videotaped interviews with Pullman police show that even fraternity leaders didn’t understand harassment.

PULLMAN, Wash. – Approximately 35 hours of taped interviews by the Pullman Police Department related to the 2019 harassing death of 19-year-old Sam Martinez at the hands of the WSU fraternity reveal a lack of understanding of Alpha Tau Omega (ATO) fraternity members and commitments have what constitutes harassment.

This footage includes senior members tasked with educating the youngest members on laws and fraternity rules against bullying practices.

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

“I don’t know until we started asking some very pointed questions that everyone understood there was any kind of harassment at all,” said Pullman Police Commissioner Gary Jenkins. “Most of the students who come here have an idea in their heads of these extreme situations and that worries them. It doesn’t have to be extreme at all to be considered haze.”

In dozens of interviews, members and pledges insisted there was no harassment because no one was “forced” to attend the activities. However, under Washington State bullying laws, the WSU Code of Conduct, and the official ATO handbook, coercion is not required for bullying to occur.

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“Verbal abuse includes any activity expected of someone 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,” the Washington authors wrote State Administrative Code (WAC). The state legislature created the law in 1993 making bullying a crime.

Among the incidents reported to police by fraternity members was promising to eat onions over missing questions on fraternity history tests. Other violations included drinking an unknown hot sauce concoction, performing physical tasks such as wall sits and push-ups, and cleaning floors with toothbrushes in the dark.

According to the police interviews, none of the respondents recognized these activities as harassment.

“We had to clean the floor with toothbrushes while they turned off all the lights in the pitch-dark room and [they were] strike [expletive] on the grounds that we had to clean up,” said one newcomer.

“We had to clean the party floor on our hands and knees with pinesol toothbrushes and such,” another promise said. “It was a shame we had to use toothbrushes, but it wasn’t that bad. I wouldn’t call it harassment because I could have said no at any time. You end up going through it with your friends, so it ends up bringing you closer together, so I didn’t have a problem with that.”

Another promise characterized the incidents as “innocent stuff” encouraged by high schoolers on “power trips.”

“It was like, ‘Oh man, I can make her do anything. I can make her 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 that’s what we did,” the promise said. “Everyone says ‘Hazing is so bad,’ but I wouldn’t call that hazing. I would look at that like “he’s drunk”. He tells us to do something stupid’ and we did it.”

Any turbidity is “dangerous”

Researchers and experts said it’s important to understand what bullying is, including activities that might seem harmless, because anything can be dangerous – you can’t predict how the victimized person will react.

“When people are being bullied, it’s not easy to predict how it will affect them. They could have a background unknown to the group. The person may have been abused. So it could be a triggering event,” said Dr. Norman Pollard, retired dean of studies at Alfred University in New York, who participated in two seminal studies on the subject of hazing: “People involved in the behavior may see the activity as positive and purposeful, as part of an initiation, but [hazing] can be dangerous, have serious consequences and [have] hidden damage.”

An ATO pledge admitted he had seen children fall apart after incidents that fit the definition of bullying.

“Certain guys would break down and others wouldn’t,” the promise said. I’ve certainly seen children collapse.”

“I never forced him to drink”

In the case of Sam Martinez, police determined that the delivery of alcohol and being told to drink large quantities of alcohol contributed to his death.

On November 12, 2019, other pledges found Martinez unresponsive in the basement of the sorority house. The night before, Martinez had attended the ATO’s annual “Big-Little Night,” where the identities of the big brothers are revealed for promises. According to police records, the event includes the ritual where high schoolers share alcohol, a “family drink,” with their little brothers.

Martinez’s big brother provided half a gallon of spiced rum, equivalent to 40 shots, to share between Martinez and another pledge, according to police files. Martinez died of acute alcohol poisoning while fraternity members believed he was “asleep.” [the alcohol] out.”

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

RELATED: No, bullying laws are not the same across the United States

“I never made him drink,” said Martinez’s big brother Wesley Oswald, who pleaded guilty in October 2021 to supplying alcohol to a minor. Oswald was sentenced to 19 days in prison and a year’s probation. Pullman police recommended that charges be filed against Oswald and another member, but the statute of limitations had expired.

“He didn’t force us to drink or anything,” said the pawn, who shared the bottle of rum with Martinez. “I just want to reiterate that Wes didn’t force us to drink at all. He took care of us. He said, ‘If you don’t want to drink, don’t drink it.’ He said, ‘If you feel like you can’t do it, don’t do it.’”

Others said giving away alcohol and sharing the “family drink” was for bonding, not dulling.

“I think it’s just a tradition. Your big brother buys you alcohol and then gives you the choice whether you want to drink it or not,” said a promise that evening.

“I was drinking alone,” said another Pledge. “We should finish the bottle. It is not mandatory but it is recommended.”

“I kind of wanted it [finish up] the bottle. I didn’t want to drink any of that, so I just forced myself to drink it and throw up,” said an ATO pledge. “I have a feeling it’s just something you do. I don’t know, I guess I don’t know. That’s just what I thought.”

“Big Little” events result in multiple deaths

Indiana hazing researcher and author Hank Nuwer said the pledges clearly didn’t understand they were being obfuscated during “Big-Little Night.”

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

Nuwer has traced all victimization deaths in the United States since 1838. He maintains a database that currently contains 225 deaths attributed to bullying. More than 100 of these have occurred since 2000, including 16 related to “Big-Little Nights” as in the case of Sam Martinez.

“[I’m] incredibly angry that another good kid has gone,” Nuwer said. “In the mid-’90s, deaths from alcohol-related haze really started to pile up, and it hasn’t stopped.”

Documented history of hazing

The ATO house at WSU has had problems with chicanes before. According to university records, in 2013 the WSU Conduct Board found the chapter against the turbidity, reckless endangerment, and alcohol laws in violation after pledges were made to participate in turbidity activities, including cleaning raw sewage without protective gear. The Conduct Board found that “unnecessarily endangering” the health of members violated reckless endangerment laws and university policies.

The Conduct Board imposed the most severe sanction possible: loss of chapter recognition by the university for one year, followed by two years of probation. But the sanction didn’t last. The WSU president shortened the loss of recognition to an eight-month probation.

According to Sam Martinez’s parents, it was a missed opportunity to curb the culture of bullying.

“[WSU administrators] claim their stance is “zero tolerance for harassment”. Show me. Those are words on paper until you really make an effort 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 past mistakes? You know it doesn’t work When would you take it seriously?”

Experts said the most dangerous part of the cloudiness is the inability to predict the aftermath. No one at ATO predicted the ultimate consequence: Sam Martinez dies after a “big-little night” that reportedly included an opportunity for “fraternal drinking.”

“Many have a strong need to belong and belong to this group, so they are willing to do almost anything to be part of this organization. A willingness to do something that has the potential to harm you is bullying,” Chief Jenkins said. “As time goes on, I fear the thought of the aftermath of the bullying will pass, and perhaps it will be the death of Sam Martinez [that will] cause that culture to change and the way society looks at these things that causes that whole culture to change.”

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.

CLOCK: KING 5 Investigators playlist on YouTube Members of WSU fraternity where Bellevue freshman died didn’t know what constitutes hazing, evidence shows

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