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

Hours of Pullman police videotaped interviews show even fraternity leaders didn't understand hazing.

PULLMAN, Wash. — Approximately 35 hours of Pullman Police Department taped interviews connected to the 2019 WSU fraternity hazing death of 19-year-old Sam Martinez reveal members and pledges of the Alpha Tau Omega (ATO) fraternity did not understand what constitutes hazing.

That footage includes members in leadership positions charged with training the youngest members on laws and fraternity rules against hazing practices.

The interviews took place in the investigation of the November 2019 death of Martinez, a freshman pledge from Bellevue. Martinez died of acute alcohol poisoning. Police and an internal Washington State University (WSU) investigation determined hazing contributed to the death.

“I don’t know that until we started asking some very pointed questions that anyone understood that there was any type of hazing going on at all,” said Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins. “Most students who come here get an idea in their heads of these extreme types of situations and that is hazing to them. It doesn’t have to be extreme at all to be considered hazing.”

In dozens of interviews, members and pledges insisted no hazing occurred because no one was “forced” to drink or take part in other activities. Yet, according to Washington state hazing laws, WSU rules of conduct, and the ATO official handbook, coercion is not necessary for hazing to occur.

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“Hazing 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,” wrote authors of the Washington State Administrative Code (WAC). The state Legislature created the law making hazing a crime in 1993.

The police investigation into the death of Martinez revealed other hazing activities at the ATO house in the fall of 2019. Those included "punishments" for infractions, including eating onions for missing questions on fraternity history tests, police records show. Other infractions such as not sufficiently cleaning up after a party, led to drinking an unknown mixture with hot sauce, physical tasks such as wall-sits and push-ups, and cleaning floors on their hands and knees with toothbrushes in the dark.

No one interviewed recognized these activities as hazing, according to the police interviews.

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

“We had to clean the party floor on our hands and knees with toothbrushes with Pinesol and stuff,” said another pledge. “It sucked that we had to use toothbrushes, but it wasn’t that bad. I would not call it hazing because I could have said ‘no’ at any point. In the end, you’re going through it with your friends, so in the end, it makes you closer, so I had no problem with it.”

Another pledge characterized the incidents as “innocent stuff” promoted by upperclassmen on “power trips.”

“It was like, ‘Oh man, I can make them do anything. I can make them do pushups; 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 we did that,” said the pledge. “Everyone’s like, ‘Hazing’s so bad,’ but I would not consider that hazing. I’d consider that like, ‘He’s drunk. He’s telling us to do something stupid,' and we did it.”

All hazing is ‘dangerous’

Researchers and experts said it’s critical to understand what hazing is, including activities that might appear harmless, because all of it can be dangerous - you cannot predict how the person being hazed will react.

"When people are hazed, there’s no easy predictability of how it will affect them. They could have a background unknown to the group. The person could have been abused. So, it could be a triggering event,” said Dr. Norman Pollard, retired dean of students at Alfred University in New York who participated in two landmark studies on hazing. "The people involved in the behavior may see the activity as positive and purposeful, part of an initiation, but [hazing] can be dangerous, have serious consequences and [have] hidden harms."

One ATO pledge admitted he saw kids fall apart after incidents that fit the definition of hazing.

"Certain guys would get broken down, and other guys wouldn’t,” said the pledge. “I’ve seen kids cry in my pledge class and go up into their rooms and just stay in their room and not come out. I’ve just seen kids broken down before, for sure.”

‘I never forced him to drink’

In the case of Sam Martinez, police found supplying alcohol and encouraging pledges to drink large quantities of alcohol by upperclassmen contributed to his death.

On November 12, 2019, fellow pledges found Martinez unresponsive in the basement of the fraternity house. The night before, Martinez had participated in the ATO annual “Big-Little Night,” where the identities of big brothers are revealed to pledges. According to police records, the event includes the ritual of upperclassmen sharing alcohol, a “family drink,” with their little brothers.

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

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

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

“I never forced him to drink,” said Martinez's big brother Wesley Oswald, who pleaded guilty to furnishing alcohol to a minor in the case in October 2021. Oswald was sentenced to 19 days in jail and one year of probation. Pullman police recommended hazing charges against Oswald and another member, but the statute of limitations had lapsed.

“He didn’t force us to drink or anything,” said the pledge who shared the bottle of rum with Martinez. “I just want to reiterate that Wes wasn’t forcing us to drink at all. He was looking out for us. He was like, ‘If you guys don’t want to drink, don’t drink it.’ He was like, ‘If you guys don’t feel like you can do this, then don’t do it.’”

Others said the gifting of alcohol and sharing the “family drink” was for bonding, not hazing.

“I think it’s just a tradition. Your big brother buys you alcohol and then gives you the option if you want to drink it or not,” said a pledge involved that night.

“I drank on my own,” said another pledge. “We were supposed to finish the bottle. It’s not mandatory, but it’s encouraged.”

“I kind of wanted to [finish up] the bottle. I didn’t want to drink all of that, so I just forced myself to drink it and throw up,” said an ATO pledge. “I feel like 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 lead to multiple deaths

Hazing researcher and author Hank Nuwer of Indiana said the pledges clearly did not understand they were hazed throughout the “Big-Little Night.”

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

Nuwer has traced all hazing deaths in the United States dating to 1838. He maintains a database that currently contains 225 deaths stemming from hazing. More than 100 of them have occurred since the year 2000, with 16 related to “Big-Little Nights” like in the case of Sam Martinez.

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

Documented history of hazing

The ATO house at WSU was in trouble for hazing before. According to university records, in 2013, the WSU Conduct Board found the chapter broke hazing, reckless endangerment, and alcohol laws after pledges were made to take part in hazing activities, including cleaning up raw sewage without protective gear. The Conduct Board found that violated reckless endangerment laws and university policy by "needlessly jeopardizing" the health of members.

The Conduct Board assigned the most serious sanction possible: loss of chapter recognition by the university for a year, with two years of probation to follow. But the sanction didn’t stick. The WSU president reduced the loss of recognition to an eight-month probation.

That was a lost opportunity to curb the culture of hazing, according to Sam Martinez's parents.

"[WSU administrators] claim that their stance is ‘zero tolerance for hazing.’ Show me. That’s words on paper until you actually put some effort into that and hold to account the ones who are giving 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’s not working. When were they going to take it seriously?”

Experts said the most dangerous part of hazing is the inability to predict consequences. No one at ATO predicted the ultimate consequence: Sam Martinez dying after a “Big-Little Night” featuring what was supposed to be an opportunity for "family" bonding. 

“In many, 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. Being willing to do something that’s potentially harmful to you, that’s what hazing is,” Chief Jenkins said. “As time passes, my fear is that the thought of the consequences of hazing are going to pass, and maybe it’s Sam Martinez’s death [that will] cause this culture change and the way society looks at these things that causes this whole culture to change.”

After the death of Martinez, WSU officials removed official recognition from ATO for a minimum of five years. Seven ATO members pleaded guilty to furnishing alcohol to a minor.

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