13 charged in FAMU hazing

Published May 3, 2012

ORLANDO — Thirteen people were charged Wednesday in one of the biggest college hazing cases ever prosecuted in the United States — the death of a Florida A&M University drum major who authorities say was beaten by fellow members of the famed Marching 100 band.

The charges came more than five months after Robert Champion, 26, died Nov. 19 aboard a chartered bus parked outside an Orlando hotel after a football game against rival Bethune-Cookman College.

"The death . . . is nothing short of an American tragedy," Orange County State Attorney Lawson Lamar said in a news conference announcing the charges. "No one should have expected that his college experience would include being pummeled to death."

Eleven defendants were charged with hazing resulting in death, a felony, and misdemeanor offenses that all together could bring nearly six years in prison. Two others face misdemeanor charges. It was not immediately clear whether those charged were all students or whether they included faculty members or others involved in the road trip.

By Wednesday afternoon, two students were in custody at the Leon County jail in Tallahassee: Rikki Willis, 24, and Caleb Jackson, 23. Both are charged with felony hazing resulting in death.

Willis, who was also a drum major last fall, declined to comment when reached by phone. No working phone number was available for Jackson. The names of the 11 others have not been released.

Jackson was serving probation for a felony battery charge, according to state and local records. He was arrested in 2009 by Tallahassee Community College police for battery and resisting without violence and arrested again by Tallahassee police a year later, according to county jail records.

Lamar said other charges could follow and that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is also helping in the investigation, suggesting that at least one suspect is from Georgia.

Champion, a clarinet player from Decatur, Ga., had bruises on his chest, arms, shoulder and back and died of internal bleeding, Lamar said. Witnesses told emergency dispatchers that he was vomiting before he was found unresponsive aboard the bus.

Champion's mother, Pam, of Decatur, said she was glad charges were filed but was disappointed they weren't more severe.

"I thought it would be a great opportunity, since all eyes are on Florida, to send message that we will not tolerate hazing. . . . This message is not as harsh as it should be. My son had to pay with his life."

But Lamar said prosecutors didn't have the evidence to bring more serious charges.

"The testimony obtained to date does not support a charge of murder, in that it does not contain the elements of murder," he said. "We can prove participation in hazing and a death. We do not have a blow or a shot or a knife thrust that killed Mr. Champion. It is an aggregation of things which exactly fit the Florida statute as written by the Legislature."

Hazing in Florida was upgraded to a felony in 2005 after the death of a University of Miami student four years earlier. Chad Meredith was drunk and died trying to swim across a lake at the behest of his fraternity brothers. No charges were filed, but a civil jury ordered the fraternity to pay Meredith's parents $12 million.

Champion's death has jeopardized the future of FAMU's legendary marching band, which has performed at the Grammys, presidential inaugurations and Super Bowls and represented the United States in Paris at the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.

FAMU has suspended the band, and there is no decision on whether it will be allowed to perform in the coming football season. The university also set up a task force on curtailing hazing.

Hazing has long been practiced in marching bands, particularly at historically black colleges like FAMU in the South.

Much of the hazing reported at FAMU has involved students trying to get into certain cliques within the band, and it has typically included punching, slapping and paddling.

In a separate incident at FAMU, James Harris, Aaron Golson and Sean Hobson were charged with hazing clarinetist Bria Hunter. She told authorities on Nov. 7 that she was repeatedly punched on the thighs and hit with a metal ruler during initiation rituals to join the "Red Dawg Order," which is composed of band members from Georgia.

Hobson and Golson also were charged with felony battery.

In January, FAMU students Hakeem Birch, Denise Bailey, Anthony Mingo and Brandon Benson were each charged with misdemeanor hazing.

The four were accused of either participating in or failing to stop the hazing of five pledges who were trying to join a clique affiliated with the band's clarinet section known as the "Clones."

During initiation meetings that began about Sept. 1, pledges were lined up by height. They were punched, slapped or paddled and forced to exercise and play music, according to police.

FAMU president James Ammons and the chairman of the school's board of trustees, Solomon Badger, released a joint statement Wednesday stressing that FAMU has taken "significant steps" in recent months to end hazing. "We are vigorously working to eradicate hazing from FAMU and doing everything within our power to ensure an incident like this never happens again," they said.

Julian White, the band's director, was put on administrative leave. He is hoping to be reinstated, arguing that he tried unsuccessfully to get the university to pay more attention to hazing prior to Champion's death.

"Dr. White worked tirelessly to root out hazing in all forms over the past 22 years as director of bands," said White's lawyer, Chuck Hobbs.

On Tuesday, a lawyer for two FAMU music professors who allegedly were present during a hazing of band members in 2010 said they have been forced out.

Former drum major Timothy Barber said the charges filed in Champion's death could help stop hazing at FAMU. "It kind of strikes a level of fear in people, that this hasn't stopped and it's not going to be tolerated," he said.

Information from the Miami Herald, Orlando Sentinel and Atlanta Journal-Constitution was used in this report.