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Family remembers WSU student from Bellevue who died at fraternity: 'Sam was a beautiful spark of light'

A preliminary investigation indicates Sam Martinez's death may be alcohol-related, Pullman police said. Martinez graduated from Newport High School in Bellevue.

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Pullman police identified the 19-year-old student who died at a Washington State University fraternity Tuesday as freshman Samuel Martinez of Bellevue, Washington.

Pullman Police Operations Commander Jake Opgenorth said Martinez was found unconscious and not breathing at the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity about 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday. Medics later determined he was dead.

"On Nov. 12, 2019, we lost our beautiful son and brother, Sam Martinez," the family said in a statement. "We want you to know and remember some things about Sam--his amazing athleticism, the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled, his sharp mind, his sense of humor and his steadfast loyalty to his family and friends. Sam was a beautiful spark of light, a comet that came and went through our lives too quickly. We are overcome with grief. And we are so grateful for your prayers and well wishes through this unbearable loss."

The Whitman County Coroner has not released the cause and manner of death, but police said Tuesday that a preliminary investigation indicates the death may be alcohol-related.

Dispatchers can be heard on a 911 call placed Tuesday morning saying, "A 19-year-old male, he's not conscious, not breathing. They believed it may be alcohol poisoning." 

Opgenorth said in a press release Wednesday evening that the department does not believe the incident meets the state's definition of hazing.

The fraternity, like all Greek houses at WSU, is off-campus. The police department is investigating the death with cooperation from the university and the ATO fraternity.

"The Pullman Police Department extends our deepest condolences to the Martinez family, his ATO brothers, and the WSU and Bellevue communities," the department wrote on Facebook on Wednesday. 

Doris Donovan knew Martinez since he was in the second grade. The school teacher knew right away Martinez was something special.

"He was a fantastic young man, a gentleman. He was sweet, serious, responsible," Donovan recalled. "I cannot imagine what his parents are going through. I mean, you get that phone call."

Martinez was in the Spanish Immersion Program in the Bellevue School District and graduated last year from Newport High School. Photos on Facebook show a talented soccer player who played for years with Donovan’s son. There was, however, one thing Donovan said Martinez was not.

"He wasn't the kind of kid who was a partier, a drinker. He was an all-around good kid," Donovan said.

Donovan believes the fact that the 19-year-old freshman wasn't much of a partier may have contributed to his death. She wonders whether the college fraternity culture of excessive drinking may have pushed him into a danger zone he wasn't prepared for.

A place too many students have gone before him.

"We have to do something. Last week it was San Diego State. Last year it was the kid who fell down the stairs and nobody called the police,” Donovan said. “The universities have to crack down on this more than just waiting for someone to die and then shutting down the frat houses. That doesn't bring Sam back."

It's a heartbreaking reality that has Donovan worrying for her own college student son, and everyone else's, too.

"It's yet another tragedy. Here we go again. We send our kids to college to study, to have a good social life, to network and they don't come back home," Donovan said.

All fraternity and sorority events at Washington State University have been suspended after Martinez died at the fraternity on Tuesday. 

"In response to this situation, all fraternities and sororities within the WSU Greek community have self-imposed an immediate suspension of all social events for the remainder of the semester," WSU spokesman Phil Weiler said in a press release.

The WSU Interfraternity Council released a statement about the death of Martinez, stating in part that while the investigation into the circumstances continues, the IFC instituted an interim suspension of all social events for the remainder of the semester.

A preliminary investigation indicates the death may be alcohol-related, Opgenorth said, but the Whitman County Coroner will determine the official manner and cause of death. 

Students are being offered support and counseling on campus.

ATO Nationals issued the following statement Tuesday afternoon: 

"Alpha Tau Omega mourns the death of a member who passed away overnight. The chapter is working with local officials and university administrators in their investigation. Counselors are on site offering assistance and support. The National Fraternity will have a team on site today to work with chapter members and assist the University and law enforcement as needed." 

Credit: Doris Donovan
Sam Martinez

Past incidents at WSU student fraternities

In October 2016, a 21-year-old WSU student was found dead inside of a bedroom at the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity house. The Whitman County coroner determined the death was a result of acute intoxication from a combination of methadone and alprazolam, more commonly known as Xanax. 

Fraternities at WSU have had many incidents involving alcohol over the years. Students have been injured after drunkenly falling out of windows, others have been hospitalized for alcohol poisoning and there have been allegations of date rape.

Second death at U.S. fraternity in past week

This is the second death at an American university fraternity in the past week.

On Tuesday morning, the Associated Press reported that 14 fraternities at San Diego State University are under suspension after the death of a 19-year-old freshman. The student, Dylan Hernandez, died at a frat party last week.

The medical examiner ruled the death was accidental. Hernandez suffered injuries to his head when he fell from his bunk bed in the dorm, authorities said. A toxicology report is pending. 

School officials said Hernandez had gone to the party Wednesday night. University police were investigating the circumstances. The Daily Aztec reported that Hernandez was pledging to the Phi Gamma fraternity.