BELLEVUE, Wash. — The parents of Sam Martinez, the Bellevue teen who died after a 2019 Washington State University (WSU) hazing incident, urge other families to learn from their story.
As thousands of young people in Washington prepare to head off to college, Martinez’s mother, Jolayne Houtz, said one of their greatest fears is hearing of another death to hazing.
“I will take that so personally if it happens. And I pray that it doesn’t. We just can’t afford to lose any of our young people and especially to something as bizarre and medieval as hazing,” Houtz said. “It’s really hard to talk about what happened to Sam but I couldn’t forgive myself if we didn’t try to share our story in a way that could reach someone.”
Martinez joined WSU’s Alpha Tau Omega fraternity (ATO) in August 2019.
In November of that year, he attended the frat’s annual “Big-Little Night” party where new recruits find out who their “big brother” will be throughout college. Police records show Martinez’s big brother provided a half-gallon of rum to Martinez and another freshman to split between the two – the equivalent of 40 shots. Fraternity members tried to help Martinez when he became extremely inebriated by helping him to the basement of the house and putting him to bed on a couch with a bucket nearby for vomiting, according to police.
But no one recognized the signs of alcohol poisoning. No one called 911 for help until finding Martinez unresponsive in the morning. By the time first responders arrived, Martinez was dead of acute alcohol poisoning.
“I saw him last night when I walked in here and he was fine. And I woke up this morning and he was just face down and we turned him over,” a fellow freshman told Pullman police the morning Martinez died. “It’s just a lot. I didn’t think this would ever happen.”
A Pullman police investigation determined Martinez was illegally hazed by upperclassmen by encouraging him to drink to excess as part of becoming a member of ATO.
“He’s the first thing we think about and the last thing we think about before going to sleep,” Houtz said. “The hole in our lives is palpable, it is ever-present, and it hurts.”
Martinez’s parents urge other families to do research before choosing a fraternity, sorority or other campus club.
When Martinez went off to school, there was no information on the WSU website or provided at student orientation about the history of hazing at any of the school’s fraternities, including ATO.
“ATO was well-known to have a terrible track record for having disciplinary issues,” Houtz said. “At the highest levels of WSU, they knew this was a troubled chapter and people kept intervening for them and covering for them and none of it was published. I had no access. We had no access to that information.”
“Nothing negative. Everything was bright and solid,” said Martinez’s dad, Hector. “It was totally covered up.”
Sam’s Law goes into effect
A bill championed by Houtz and Hector Martinez in the last legislative session, Sam’s Law, officially went into effect July 1. It requires all colleges in the state to provide hazing training to incoming students. It also mandates that schools track and publicize incidents of hazing on the school website.
Sam’s Law is designed to take the cloak of secrecy off hazing.
“(Now on the WSU website) you see the names, the same chapters getting into trouble over and over again. That’s a red flag and sadly we didn’t have that information, but now parents (have access to that),” Houtz said. “This would have been a non-starter for me. I would not have wanted Sam to join, and I don’t think he would have wanted to join if we had known (the track record of hazing infractions).”
“I do expect it will save lives over time. I think it will save lives this fall as they start to go through (training). More and more people will understand the dangers (of hazing),” said state Rep. Mari Leavitt, D-University Place, who sponsored the bill. Leavitt is vice chair of the House College and Workplace Development Committee.
“To those who think that hazing is just something that’s done and that you can’t impact or change that culture, I would submit that that’s not the case. I think the Sams of Washington state; there are several families I can name off that have been impacted by this. And it’s a serious situation for those families and those communities and it just really has to stop.”
Parents didn’t recognize signs of hazing
In the first months of Sam Martinez’s affiliation with ATO, his parents recall him mentioning activities that at the time didn’t register as hazing, but now they know otherwise. Martinez told his parents he was tired from having to get up early and walk across campus from his dorm to the fraternity for cleaning chores alongside other freshmen. Martinez also told his parents upperclassmen had the pledges do “wall sits,” an exercise where you lean against a wall and hold a sitting position.
“And I will regret that every day for the rest of my life that I didn’t see the signals,” Houtz said. “They weren’t strong signals, but they were there.”
The police investigation into Martinez’s death revealed widespread hazing before the “Big-Little Night” tragedy. Detectives found pledges received “various punishments” for failing to do fraternity tasks appropriately, such as cleaning up after parties or missing answers to fraternity history tests.
“New members reported eating or taking bites of onions, drinking some type of mixture as a group, cleaning up disgusting messes, having to clean messes with a toothbrush and completing physical tasks like pushups and wall sits,” wrote a Pullman detective in a narrative associated with the case.
“They were sworn to secrecy. It’s the brotherhood, and it hurts me that he had to go through that,” Houtz said. “In the end, it was just us. There was nobody who had (Martinez’s) back. Not the brotherhood, not the fraternity and definitely not WSU. They were not our partners. They did not have our backs.”
Pullman police and hazing experts underscore that “force” is not necessary for hazing to occur. Even if a person being recruited to a fraternity, athletic team or other student group agrees to activities such as drinking to excess or doing physical exercises, hazing is still taking place, as it may appear necessary to join the group.
According to Washington state law, hazing is defined as “any act as part of a person’s recruitment, initiation, (or) pledging…is likely to cause bodily danger, physical harm or…emotional harm…regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.”
“In many (people) there’s a strong need to belong and belong to this group. So, they’re willing to do just about anything to be part of this organization,” said Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins. “Being willing to do something that’s potentially harmful to you; that’s what hazing is.”
Additional hazing legislation to be proposed
In the next legislative session that begins in January, Martinez’s parents and state Rep. Leavitt will team up again in an effort to pass another hazing bill. It would increase the crime of hazing from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor. And in cases where hazing leads to substantial bodily harm or death, the bill will call for a felony charge.
Martinez’s parents hope awareness and the knowledge that all hazing is dangerous will prevent another death like the one that’s shattered their lives.
“I’m still picking shards of glass out of the life that I thought we were going to have together,” Houtz said. “All of us as a family. And I feel there’s so much more work to do.”