The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Just months away from becoming Florida A&M University’s head drum major, Robert Champion still had one more test he felt he had to pass: earning true respect from the rest of the Marching 100.
That, at least, was the story police got from some band members who are now charged with beating Champion to death during a hazing ritual on Nov. 19. They said the 26-year-old Decatur resident begged repeatedly to go through the ordeal he thought would finally give him gravitas.
“He was wanting to do it all all season," head drum major Jonathan Boyce told investigators, according to hundreds of pages of documents released Wednesday by Florida prosecutors.
In a press conference Wednesday afternoon at their attorney's offices in Peachtree Center, Champion's parents assailed the suggestion that their son wanted to be hazed.
“My son was not the kind of person to go along to get along,” said Robert Champion Sr. “He was brought up to do what was right.”
As for Boyce’s account, Robert Champion's mother, Pam Champion, said: "Consider the source. They're trying to save themselves."
The medical examiner ruled that Champion died of hemorrhagic shock caused by blunt-force trauma.
Eleven of Champion’s band mates -- including four from metro Atlanta -- are charged with third-degree felony hazing. The Atlantans are Boyce, 24, Shawn Turner, 26, Aaron Golson, 19, and Lasherry Codner, 20. Two other students face misdemeanor charges.
FAMU officials have suspended all band activities at least through the 2012-2013 academic year. Longtime band director Julian White, who had been trying to get his job back after a suspension, retired earlier this month.
The more than 1,500 pages of transcripts and 49 audio recordings released Wednesday present a dark picture of a night that saw at least three band members run through a gauntlet of fists, feet, drumsticks and straps on the notorious “Bus C.”
One of the three, Lissette Sanchez, 19, told investigators she was placed in the “hot seat,” as part of her experience. She had to sit in the last seat on the bus, where she was covered with a blanket and beaten with drumsticks for several minutes.
Other band members also described to investigators undergoing the "hot seat" treatment at various times during their Marching 100 careers.
As described by several band members, Champion endured a different ritual called "crossing" Bus C. It involved walking from the front to the back of the bus while other students punched, kicked and struck him with various objects.
In Boyce's account, he said he had refused Champion's requests to undergo the ritual earlier in the season because he didn’t want Champion distracted.
“As being his head drum major, they don’t do anything unless I give them the go ahead,” Boyce told investigators.
But the Nov. 19 game against ancient rival Bethune-Cookman was the last game of the season, so, Boyce said, he allowed the hazing to proceed.
Now, he said, "I feel like I shoulda been a stronger person and kept telling him no."
Both Boyce and Turner told investigators that they arrived at the bus only after Sanchez and Champion's roommate, Keon Hollis, had been hazed and the beating of Champion was almost over.
“The way the procedure goes, you have to make from the front of bus to the back and touch the back wall and it is over,” Boyce said. “By the time I got there, he was a foot or two away from the back.”
Boyce said he made his way through the crowd, climbing over seats, to try to shield Champion.
“I see him reaching (to touch the back of the bus), so I grab him to try to keep everybody off him,” Boyce said. “I am pulling him and I see people kicking him. I put my body around his body and I am pulling him. Me and Shawn.”
After Champion touched the back wall and the blows stopped, Boyce said, “We sat him up on the floor of the bus. He asked for some water. We gave him some Gaterade. Me and Shawn figured, it would be okay. I did it in 2007.”
Asked why he would submit to being beaten, Boyce said: “The purpose? ... it's like a respect thing ... it's sad to say.”
Golson, who was also charged and has pleaded no contest in a second hazing incident, told investigators that he did not get on the bus at all the night Champion was killed. Interviewed 10 days after the death, he said that he was "probably in the hotel," during the hazing.
Investigators asked him several times if he was absolutely certain he was not on Bus C when the hazing occurred.
“Don’t make the mistake of anticipating what we are going to ask," one of the detectives told him. "Don’t get in trouble by telling us something that isn’t true. If you lie to me, that is gonna make it difficult, because we know certain things.”
"I don't know anything that happened with Robert," Golson told detectives, punctuating his comments with nervous laughter.
At Wednesday's news conference, Champion's parents were asked about their reactions to some of the more violent details in the documents. Their attorney, Chris Chestnut, said he had shielded the couple from reading many of those accounts.
As for whether Champion willingly underwent the hazing, Chestnut said that's ultimately immaterial. “He was murdered,” the lawyer said. “No one signed up for that.”