15 Men Charged in Connection With Death of Fraternity Pledge
Fifteen men were charged in connection with the alcohol-poisoning death of a Washington State University student, prosecutors said on Wednesday, after a yearlong police investigation into a fraternity pledging case from 2019.
The men were members of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity when the student, a freshman named Samuel Martinez, died in 2019, according to Denis Tracy, the prosecutor for Whitman County. The men, now ages 20 to 23, were each charged with supplying liquor to minors, Mr. Tracy said in a statement.
The charges relate to an investigation by the Pullman Police Department into the death of Mr. Martinez, who was 19 when he pledged to join the fraternity. Mr. Martinez died of alcohol poisoning on Nov. 12, 2019, after he took part in a fraternity event, according to the prosecutor’s office.
The family of Mr. Martinez said in a statement: “While the charges may lead to some level of accountability, this is not justice. It does not bring us closure.”
The family said it was “deeply disappointed” that hazing charges were not filed. “The Pullman Police Department allowed the statute of limitations for that charge to expire,” the family’s statement said. “That’s despite the fact that Pullman police found substantial evidence of hazing that would have supported hazing charges.”
The police investigation, which Mr. Tracy described as “extensive,” was turned over to his office in February. He said in a statement that Washington State requires any criminal charge of hazing be filed within a year. “Since the police investigation took over a year,” he said, “I did not make a determination regarding hazing.”
Chief Gary Jenkins of the Pullman police told the news station KREM-TV earlier this year that the investigation took over a year because it involved a large number of interviews, some witnesses had left the area as a result of breaks from school, and because of challenges accessing a cellphone for evidence.
Mr. Martinez’s family said he and another pledge were ordered to finish a half-gallon of rum between them and his blood-alcohol content was measured at 0.372 after his death, nearly five times the legal limit.
Furnishing liquor to minors is a gross misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and up to a $5,000 fine.
The family of Mr. Martinez said those potential penalties were “insulting compared to the devastating consequences of their actions, which directly led to Sam’s death, and the loss we are living with for the rest of our lives.”
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The defendants will be summoned to appear in the Whitman County District Court, according to Mr. Tracy. It was not immediately clear whether they had lawyers.
Last year, the family of Mr. Martinez filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the university and the fraternity. Jolayne Houtz, Mr. Martinez’s mother, said on Thursday that the lawsuit continues to move forward, though part of it is on hold pending the resolution of the criminal charges. A trial date is set for March 2022, she said.
A spokesman for Washington State University declined to comment on the charges. In a statement on Thursday about the criminal charges, Alpha Tau Omega said that it did not “condone hazing or providing alcohol to minors” and that “individuals who participate in this type of conduct should be held accountable for violating the law.” The fraternity added that members of the chapter at the university “were repeatedly educated about ATO’s health and safety policies, including the prohibition of hazing and providing alcohol to minors.”
After the death of Mr. Martinez, the fraternity said, its chapter at the university was closed and the members involved “were permanently expelled from the fraternity.”
In an opinion essay in The Seattle Times, Ms. Houtz called for an end to hazing traditions on college campuses. “The college fraternity system,” she wrote, “is long overdue for the kind of reckoning many other American institutions now face for enabling and perpetuating violence, injustice and destructive behavior.”
The charges are the latest in a series of cases involving serious injuries or the death of college students at fraternity-related events around the country.
In April, eight men were indicted in connection with the death of Stone Foltz, 20, a sophomore at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Mr. Foltz died in March, days after he had attended an off-campus fraternity event; school officials said in a statement that they were “aware of alleged hazing activity involving alcohol consumption.”
In November, a member of Louisiana State University’s Phi Kappa Psi chapter was charged in an off-campus hazing event that left another student on life support, the authorities said. In that case, prosecutors filed a dozen misdemeanor counts and one felony count of criminal hazing, and one count of failure to seek assistance after a student was dropped off at a hospital with severe alcohol poisoning.