David Goldman, Associated Press
ORLANDO, Fla. — 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 bus lined with people kicking and beating him with drumsticks, mallets and fists.
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 ordeal, 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.
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