Published November 20, 2014
Robert Champion was known for his opposition to the hazing rampant in the Florida A&M University marching band, but he was vying to be lead drum major and wanted the respect he could earn by enduring a brutal ritual known as "crossing over." With chances for initiation ending with the football season, fellow band members say, Champion agreed to run through a gauntlet of people kicking and beating him with drum sticks, mallets and fists aboard a bus.
The decision would be fatal.
Interviews with defendants in Champion's killing and other band members released Wednesday paint the most detailed picture yet of what happened the night he died last November. They also offer some insight into why Champion, whose parents and friends say he was a vocal opponent of hazing, finally relented and got aboard "Bus C," the band's notorious venue for hazing after its performances during FAMU football games.
Champion was seeking the top position in the famed marching band, leading dozens who had already endured the hazing ritual. The Marching 100 has performed at Super Bowls and presidential inauguration parades, and some felt the leadership position had to be earned.
"It's a respect thing, you know," defendant Jonathan Boyce told detectives. "Well, he was wanting to do it all ... all season."
What awaited him was a punishing scrum in which about 15 people pushed, struck, kicked and grabbed at participants as they tried to wade down the aisle from the bus's driver seat to touch the back wall, according to the interviews. One witness said bigger band members waited at the back to make the final few steps the most difficult. Several others who went through it said the ordeal leaves participants dizzy and breathless at a minimum.
After finishing the gauntlet, Champion vomited and complained of trouble breathing. He soon fell unconscious and couldn't be revived. An autopsy concluded Champion suffered blunt trauma blows to his body and died from shock caused by severe bleeding.
Thirteen band members have been charged with causing Champion's death on Nov. 19. Eleven defendants face a count of third-degree felony hazing, and two others have been charged with misdemeanors. The team has been suspended at least until next year, and its director resigned earlier this month.
Champion's death illustrated how ingrained hazing was in the band, although previous hazing incidents were well-documented at the school in lawsuits and arrests. Two band members received serious kidney injuries during hazing beatings several years ago, and another member suffered a broken thigh bone just weeks before Champion's death.
Still, nobody is forced to endure the hazing on Bus C. It is voluntary, another defendant, Caleb Jackson, told detectives.
"If you go to that bus that's saying that you wanted to do it," Jackson said. "It's not anybody saying, 'Yeah you go and come on this bus,' especially with it being a drum major and a strong mind .... If you came to the bus they mean you made up in your mind that's what you wanted to do."
Champion's parents, Pam and Robert Sr., said 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.
Champion was gay, but his parents said earlier this year that they didn't think his sexual orientation had anything to do with the hazing. Manual and electronic searches of the documents turned up no references to his sexual orientation.
After performing at the season's final football game against rival Bethune-Cookman University on Nov. 19, Champion rode in a stretch limo with band director Julian White and other drum majors back to their Orlando hotel.
Even though band members are required to sign a pledge promising not to participate in hazing, initiations were planned that night for Champion and two other band members aboard Bus C. Along with "crossing over," the bus was also known for "the hot seat," which involved getting kicked and beaten with drumsticks and bass drum mallets while covered with a blanket.
Boyce, who was back at a hotel room, said that people on the bus were sending him texts to ask if Champion was going to participate. Boyce said Champion told him he intended to go through with it.
Ryan Dean, a drummer who rode on Bus C regularly, said he was surprised when Champion told him he planned to participate.
"Earlier that weekend, I talked to him and he said 'I will see you guys on the bus.' I was going, like, 'why?'" said Dean, who is a defendant. "He said it so nonchalantly, I thought that was weird and out of character for him because he never approved of anything like that."
Dean, who said he had been hazed previously, said there always pressure to submit to hazing.
"If you want to be somebody, you do it," Dean said.
Drum major Keon Hollis, who was hazed immediately before Champion, said the bus usually carried the percussion section, whose respect is considered crucial because it's the largest. Hollis said he was kicked, punched and struck with straps. Another band member, Lissette Sanchez, also was hazed before Champion.
Boyce said he was in a female band member's hotel room when someone called to say Champion was on the bus. By the time Boyce got there, Champion was in the back, getting kicked and punched, said Boyce. He said he and another defendant, Shawn Turner, tried to shield Champion from the blows and pull him to the back of the bus to end the ritual quickly.
Champion seemed fine immediately afterward, Hollis said, only saying he was thirsty. Hollis said he gave Champion something to drink.
Soon after, Champion began panicking, saying he couldn't breathe or see, even though his eyes were wide open, Boyce said.
Champion collapsed and later died.
"The only reason why I think he died is like he didn't have enough time to breathe or whatever," Sanchez told detectives. "'Cause I know when I finished, like I almost had a panic attack."