ORLANDO — The parents of a Florida A&M band member who died after a hazing ritual last November said they will sue the company that owns the bus where the hazing took place.
Robert Champion’s parents and their attorney told The Associated Press on Monday that the bus company’s negligence contributed to his death. They said band members were able to get back on the bus to conduct hazing rituals after they had returned to an Orlando hotel following a football game against the school’s archrival.
Ray Land, the owner of Fabulous Coach Lines, said his staff did everything to get help once they were notified there was a problem. Land told the AP in December that the bus driver was helping students unload their instruments when Champion collapsed. “The bus company has some liability,” the Champions’ attorney, Christopher Chestnut, told the AP. “They knew or should have known that hazing was occurring on the bus.”
An autopsy ruled Champion’s death a homicide. It concluded Champion suffered blunt trauma blows to his body and died from shock caused by severe bleeding.
Witnesses have told Champion’s parents that the 26-year-old drum major may have been targeted for severe hazing because of his opposition to the marching band’s culture of hazing. Other witnesses have told them Champion being gay, and the fact that he was a candidate for chief drum major, also may have played roles. They believe it was the first time he was hazed.
“The main reason that we heard is because he was against hazing and he was totally against it,” Champion’s father, Robert Champion Sr., said in an interview in Orlando.
But the Champions and their attorney said they are uncertain how or why Champion was on the bus since it was well known that hazing rituals were organized on the bus by a group of band members known as “Bus C” after the game against archrival Bethune-Cookman University.
Band members, mainly percussionists, would return from the game, drop their gear off in their hotel rooms and return to the bus to haze others who wanted to be indoctrinated into the organization, Chestnut said.
Robert Champion Sr. and his wife, Pam, discount homophobia as a major motive in their son’s hazing since other band members had known about his sexual orientation for years and had never bothered him about it.
“His sexual orientation was not something he was defined by,” Chestnut said. “He was more defined by music. This was not something that he, quote, unquote ‘advertised.’ It was a part of who he was.”
FAMU’s band director Julian White released a statement through his attorney Tuesday saying that Champion’s beating may have been because he was gay, rather than as a result of ritualistic hazing. White was fired by FAMU President James Ammons after Champion’s death, then reinstated and put on administrative leave.
Chestnut and Champion’s parents dismissed White’s suggestion.
“It’s an attempt to exonerate the band and the band administration for their negligence, for their part in Robert’s hazing, by saying because of sexual orientation this is a hate crime,” Chestnut said at a news conference at the hotel where Champion died. “This is not a hate crime. This is a hazing crime.”
The Champions are unable to file a lawsuit against FAMU for another several months because of state law setting up procedures for suing public entities. Suing the bus company will allow the Champions’ attorneys to depose witnesses and gather documents, Chestnut said.
Orange County detectives and Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents are investigating Champion’s death.
Any death involving hazing is a third-degree felony in Florida but no charges have been filed so far in Champion’s death.
In a separate case, three band members were arrested in the Oct. 31 beating of a woman band member whose thigh bone was broken. Four students dismissed by the university were also reinstated while authorities work on the investigation.
Trustees have reprimanded Ammons but the board rejected Gov. Rick Scott’s recommendation that he also be placed on administrative leave.
Photo: Julian White