Lawsuit Details FAMU Hazing; Bus Driver May Have Helped

By: From CNN, Posted by Ralph Hipp
By: From CNN, Posted by Ralph Hipp

ORLANDO (CNN) -- The parents of Robert Champion, the Florida A&M University drum major who died after a hazing incident in November in Orlando, have filed suit against the school's board of trustees, the company that owns the bus in which the abuse occurred and the bus driver.

"Now, our journey begins as to really how we can eradicate a culture that's not just a FAMU problem, not just a Florida problem; it's an American problem," lawyer Christopher Chestnut told reporters Wednesday.

The complaint alleges that the bus driver, Wendy Millette, "frequently participated" in or allowed hazing rituals to occur on the buses she was operating, and that Fabulous Coach management knew of and allowed the hazing rituals, which occurred each year after the Florida Classic Football Game.

It alleges that Millette "breached her duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety and protection of her passengers ... and acted in a careless and negligent manner. ..."

The 33-page document, which was filed Tuesday in circuit court in Orange County, Florida, does not specify damages being sought.

Chestnut said he hoped to use the discovery process -- via depositions, subpoenas and interrogatories -- to learn precisely what led to the 26-year-old's death. "We still feel that Robert Champion was murdered," he said, but "the prosecutor is limited as to what he can charge."

The complaint offers a detailed description of what Chestnut and Champion's parents allege occurred on the night of November 19, 2001, after the band performed at the Florida Citrus Bowl.

Champion accompanied the band's five other drum majors and Julian White, the band director, from the stadium to the Rosen Plaza Hotel where they were staying, in a limousine, arriving with the buses at the hotel that evening, the complaint says. The band members unloaded the equipment and went to their hotel rooms and common areas no later than 8:30 that night, it says.

"At a designated time after 8:30 p.m. and prior to 9:46 p.m., a series of hazing rituals were begun by members and/or alumni of the FAMU Band on one of the Fabulous Coach buses, specifically Bus C," the complaint says.

Bus C was the third bus in a convoy of vehicles operated by Fabulous Coach for members of the 375-member band. The bus driver, Millette, let more than 20 band members and/or alumni into the bus, where the hazing ritual began, the motion alleges.

"The 'Bus C' initiation consists of 'pledges' attempting to run from the front door of the bus to the back of the bus, down the center aisle, while initiated members of the Bus C posse position themselves in between seat rows, launching punches, slaps, kicks, hitting with objects, yelling, or assaults and batteries otherwise upon the 'pledge' as he or she runs down the aisle of the bus," it says.

"Should the 'pledge' fall to the bus floor from the blows sustained to his or her body, the 'pledge' may be stomped and is then dragged back to the front of the bus, and must begin the ritual again.

"Failure to successfully complete the 'Bus C' initiation results in a FAMU Band student being subjected to alienation from social contact, embarrassing public ridicule and mockery, sleep deprivation, and prohibition from talking, eating, drinking, sleeping, smiling, looking around or laughing while a passenger on Bus C or during FAMU Band activities."

At about 9:30 p.m., Champion was subjected to a number of hazing rituals, including the "Hot Seat," in which a pillowcase or other object limiting the flow of oxygen was placed over a victim's head. He is then asked questions by a hazer. "If or when the victim answers a question correctly, the object is briefly lifted to allow a brief flow of oxygen to the victim, and then quickly pulled back down over the victim's head as another question is asked," the complaint says. "Should the victim fail to correctly answer the question, the object is not removed and the victim is prevented from inhaling fresh air, before the next question is asked. During this time, the victim is punched, slapped, kicked, or hit otherwise by members of the 'Bus C' posse."

The complaint says that "John Doe 1," who himself had completed the "Hot Seat" initiation, "opined that the physical and verbal abuse by the initiated upon (Champion) was more brutal than normal."

When John Doe 1 stood to help Champion, he "was immediately struck back down into the seat and pinned down as the physical abuse continued. ..."

Champion was also subjected to the hazing ritual known as "Bus C," it says. Somewhere between 9:30 p.m. and 9:46 p.m., he "appeared at the doorway of the bus and began vomiting in the parking lot."

At that point, Millette "advised Decedent that he would be alright as she forced him back onto the bus," it alleges. There, he was subjected to further physical abuse, it says. "The physical harm suffered by Decedent after being forced back onto the bus cumulatively led to the fatal injuries. ..."

At 9:46 p.m., another band member called 911 and said Champion was no longer breathing. He was taken to Dr. P. Phillips Hospital, where he was declared dead less than an hour later. Cause of death: "Blunt force trauma (sustained) during a hazing incident."

FAMU Dean of Students Henry Kirby recommended three days before the incident that the band be suspended because of hazing, but his recommendation "was ignored," the complaint says. Fabulous Coach did not immediately respond to an e-mail; CNN was not able to reach Millette.

Band director White has retired and FAMU President James H. Ammons announced Wednesday that he is returning to a tenured faculty position in October.

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