ORLANDO, Fla. — Thirteen people were charged Wednesday in one of the biggest college hazing cases ever prosecuted in the U.S., accused in the death of a Florida A&M University drum major who authorities say was mercilessly pummeled by fellow members of the marching band.
The charges came more than five months after Robert Champion, 26, died aboard a chartered bus parked outside an Orlando hotel following a performance against a rival school.
While the most sensational hazing cases have typically involved fraternities, sororities or athletic teams, the FAMU tragedy in November exposed a brutal tradition among marching bands at some colleges around the U.S.
“The death … is nothing short of an American tragedy,” said State Attorney Lawson Lamar. “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 were in custody at the Leon County jail in Tallahassee: Rikki Wills, 24, and Caleb Jackson, 23. Both are charged with felony hazing resulting in death. Wills, who was also drum major, declined comment when reached by phone. No working phone number was available for Jackson. The names of the other 11 have not been released.
Champion had bruises on his chest, arms, shoulder and back and died of internal bleeding, Lamar said. Witnesses told emergency dispatchers that the drum major was vomiting before he was found unresponsive aboard the bus.
The prosecutor gave no motive for the beating. But witnesses said Champion might have been targeted because he opposed the routine hazing that went on in the marching band or because he was gay, according his family’s attorney.
Legal experts had predicted more serious charges, such as manslaughter or second-degree murder.
Champion’s mother, Pam, said she was glad charges were brought but disappointed they weren’t more severe. “I thought it should send a harsher message,” she said.
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 following 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 U.S. in Paris at the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. FAMU, based in Tallahassee, has suspended the band and set up a task force on curtailing hazing.