By MIKE SCHNEIDER, Associated Press
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The parents of a Florida A&M band member who died after being hazed filed a wrongful death lawsuit Monday against the owner and driver of the charter bus where the ritual took place, claiming the company's managers told drivers to ignore hazing.
On the night Robert Champion died, the driver even stood guard outside the bus, the lawsuit said, and forced the drum major back on the bus after he got off to vomit. The lawsuit doesn't explain how Champion was forced back on the bus.
Ray Land, the owner of Fabulous Coach Lines, said in an email that he needed time to prepare a statement. He told The Associated Press last year that the bus driver was helping students unload their instruments when Champion collapsed.
The lawsuit also revealed new details about the hazing the Champion may have endured before he died. The suit described two types of hazing. During the first, pledges of a band clique known as "Bus C" ran from the front to the back of the bus while other band members slapped, kicked and hit them, the lawsuit said. A pledge who fell could be stomped and dragged to the front of the bus to run again.
In a ritual known as "the hot seat," a pillow case was placed over the pledge's nose and mouth while the pledge was forced to answer questions. If a pledge got a right answer, the pillow case was removed briefly; a pledge with a wrong answer was given another question without a chance to take a breath, the lawsuit said.
A fellow pledge who was hazed with Champion said band members on the bus treated Champion more brutally than others, according to the lawsuit.
Champion suffered blunt trauma blows and he died from shock caused by severe bleeding, authorities said. Detectives are investigating the death as a homicide.
An attorney for the Champion family said he doesn't know exactly why he was on the bus. Champion was a drum major, a leader in the band, and had been a vocal opponent of hazing, attorney Chris Chestnut said.
"Am I suggesting that this bus driver hit him? No," Chestnut said. "Am I suggesting that she knowingly aided and abetted? She opened a bus, it was running, the air condition is on. If that's not participation, then I don't know."
The lawsuit names the driver as Wendy Mellette, of Branford, Fla., where the bus company is located. No one answered the phone at that listing.
After Champion's death, FAMU president James Ammons originally fired band director Julian White, saying he failed to report hazing he knew about. White, who is now on administrative leave, denies that he didn't do enough.
Three people have been charged after alleged band hazing ceremonies Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, when Bria Shante Hunter's legs were beaten with fists and a metal ruler to initiate her into the "Red Dawg Order," a band clique for students who hail from Georgia.
The Board of Governors — which oversees Florida's 11 public universities — launched its own investigation in November into whether FAMU officials had ignored past warnings about hazing. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement also is investigating the band's finances.
Associated Press researcher Judith Ausuebel in New York contributed to this report.
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