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How hazing led to the death of fraternity pledge Sam Martinez

Sam Martinez's death after hazing
Sam Martinez's death after hazing 13:33

We've all heard the story: a healthy young man is hospitalized or dies after being hazed pledging a college fraternity. Despite years of education campaigns and attempts to stop underage drinking, the hazing continues. Some victims' parents are working with leaders of national fraternities, pushing for tougher laws against hazing, while other parents charge the national fraternities that oversee the local chapters are, themselves, part of the problem.

When a freshman named Sam Martinez died pledging Alpha Tau Omega at Washington State University in 2019, his parents said the national fraternity hid the local chapter's history of hazing, and hindered the investigation into their son's death.

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  Sam Martinez

Jolayne Houtz: If we had known even a fraction of what we know now, Sam never would've wanted to join that fraternity. We feel duped. 

Anderson Cooper: By whom?

Jolayne Houtz: By Alpha Tau Omega, the national fraternity, the chapter on that campus, and by Washington State University.

Jolayne Houtz and Hector Martinez said they knew their son, Sam, had been pledging Alpha Tau Omega for more than two months, but were unaware that, according to the police report, some witnesses said he'd already endured being hit, tackled, and asked to consume large quantities of alcohol by ATO members. They last spoke with Sam around 5 p.m. on November 11, 2019.

Jolayne Houtz: We told him that we loved him. And he said, "I love you too." And that was the last time that we got to talk to him.

Hector Martinez: I remember we, we s-- we say, "Take care of yourself." And he say, "Don't worry, I got it."

Around 9 p.m., Sam was summoned by fraternity members to Big/Little Night – when each pledge learned who their "big brother" was and, according to police, got introduced to the so-called "family drink."  ATO rules forbid hazing and alcohol at the fraternity house, but Sam recorded a video shortly after he and another pledge were given nearly half a gallon of rum by their "big brother" – the equivalent of about 40 shots.

Gary Jenkins: And basically told, "Go ahead and start drinking."

Anderson Cooper: Two people drinking almost half a gallon of rum?

Gary Jenkins: Correct. 

Gary Jenkins is chief of police in Pullman, Washington, where Washington State University is located. He oversaw the investigation into Sam Martinez' death.

Gary Jenkins:  It was about a half an hour later, that witnesses were telling us there was only about two and a half inches left in that--

Anderson Cooper: Wow.

Gary Jenkins: Half-gallon bottle.

It wasn't the first violation of ATO's dry policy that semester. Sam shot another video in the fraternity basement in August. One young man is leaning over a garbage can. Two others appear passed out. This one is propped up with a backpack.

Gary Jenkins: They would put a backpack on someone, so they wouldn't be able to stay on their back and potentially inhale their own vomit while they were unconscious.

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  Gary Jenkins

According to the police report, when Sam passed out, he too was left on a sofa in the basement. He died of acute alcohol poisoning hours later.

Gary Jenkins: It was strictly from too much alcohol in his system, that shut down his-- his organs.

Anderson Cooper: I assume it would've made a difference if when he had first passed out, somebody had called 911?

Gary Jenkins: Absolutely.

Anderson Cooper: Or taken him to an emergency room?

Gary Jenkins: Sure. I mean, he was-- he was alive till around 4:00 or 4:30 in the morning. Any time before then, more than likely his life would've been saved.

A fraternity member did finally call 911 at 8:30 a.m. Police and EMTs found Sam's body on the basement floor. His blood alcohol level was nearly five times the legal limit.

Later, according to police, the fraternity's student president told them he got advice from ATO's national headquarters that Chief Jenkins said hampered the investigation.

Gary Jenkins: The student president of the fraternity told us that they got word from national to-- to instruct all of their members to delete all their social media. And so that tells me a lot about—about the national organization, whether they're really interested in the truth. 

Anderson Cooper: Did they prevent justice?

Gary Jenkins: I think so. I think there was very likely information that would be very relevant to the investigation of Sam's death that would've been in social media, that now we'll never know. 

Eight months after Sam's death, his parents filed suit against ATO, its members, and Washington State University. Doug Fierberg, their attorney, has litigated more than 40 hazing cases during the last two decades.

Doug Fierberg: This is an industry that's been involved in this sort of misconduct for decades.

Anderson Cooper: I don't think a lot of people think of fraternities as an industry.

Doug Fierberg: It's a network of organizations that are there trying to solicit membership from young people who are away from home, often for the first time.  And it's clearly designed to make money like any other industry.

Anderson Cooper: What is the role of fraternity leadership?

Doug Fierberg: They have complete control but also pair that with deniability. Because principal to them is this idea that when somebody dies, and that's gonna happen, or when somebody is sexually assaulted, and that's gonna happen, that they have some blockade between them and the victim in terms of liability. 

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  Doug Fierberg

Wynn Smiley: My primary goal, when Sam died, was to find out what happened. Liability was the last thing on my mind.

Wynn Smiley has been CEO of Alpha Tau Omega's national fraternity organization for 25 years and reports to a board of directors that has authority over its multimillion-dollar budget. He said they set the rules for ATO's 137 local chapters nationwide, educate members aggressively on their policies banning hazing and underage drinking, and have the power to shut local chapters down. After Sam's death, Wynn Smiley flew to Washington State University the next day.

Wynn Smiley: We wanted to find out who broke ATO policy. They knowingly decided to provide alcohol to Sam, which is a violation not only of our alcohol policy, but also of our hazing policy. 

Anderson Cooper: We understand you came with  an "insurance adjuster."

Wynn Smiley: I came with Linda, who is a great investigator. She acts like a mother as it relates to them feeling-- feeling comfortable with her.

Anderson Cooper: Is she an insurance adjuster?

Wynn Smiley: She is. 

Anderson Cooper: Do you turn over the results of any interviews you've done with members to the police?

Wynn Smiley: Depends on the situation.

Anderson Cooper: In Sam's death, did you?

Wynn Smiley: I ha-- I-- I don't-- I don't recall, frankly.

Anderson Cooper: If you want to be transparent, you would turn over the results of those interviews to the police, no? 

Wynn Smiley: We would have certainly provided that information, had we-- had the police asked.

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  Wynn Smiley

Chief Jenkins told us his officers were unaware Wynn Smiley and Alpha Tau Omega's insurance adjuster were conducting an investigation and received no information from ATO about what members told them.

Anderson Cooper: The president of  the fraternity told the police that, and I'm quoting, "National's ATO had told them to delete all their social media."

Wynn Smiley: Any time the chapter is in a situation where it has knowingly violated ATO policy, and we know that there's going to be news coverage, we advise chapters to take down their social media.  We did not tell them to "delete." We never tell anybody delete-- delete anybody's social media.

Anderson Cooper: Did you tell members to save all of their communications about what happened that night in order to give it to police?

Wynn Smiley: We told members to cooperate fully with the police.

But according to Chief Jenkins, fraternity members were not particularly cooperative.

Gary Jenkins: We definitely found that, when interviewing fraternity members, that they were less than forthcoming. And-- and we found a lot of conflicts between what they told us and what other people told us who knew what was happening.

Sam's parents say it was only after his death they learned ATO had a troubled past at Washington State University. In 2013, WSU put the fraternity on probation for nine months because of alcohol-related hazing.

Jolayne Houtz: Parents need to see the track record, the disciplinary history of these fraternities so that, you know, we can be informed.

Anderson Cooper: They could easily do that.

Jolayne Houtz: I think so.

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  Hector Martinez and Jolayne Houtz

In 2018, after another complaint of hazing, ATO's national office stepped in and removed nearly half the chapter's members - some 30 students - though ATO never disclosed why.

Anderson Cooper: Did you make that information public anywhere?

Wynn Smiley: We had that conversation with the members in terms of why they're being expelled, and they can certainly share that with whomever they want. 

Anderson Cooper: But you don't publish information on your website about what you find.  Why not be up front about what you actually found?

Wynn Smiley: We're moving forward with the men who are in the chapter, who we believe--

Anderson Cooper: You put a lot of very positive stuff about ATO on your website. Don't you also owe it to potential pledges and their parents to give them information when they're looking at your fraternity? 

Wynn Smiley: If we thought that would help, but we don't consider it--

Anderson Cooper: Why don't you think that would help?

Wynn Smiley: Because I don't think that-- I don't think undergraduates look at websites. And I don't think-- 

Anderson Cooper: Wait, wait a minute. You-- you "don't think undergraduates look at websites?" You know that if you put all this information on your website, it might dissuade people from choosing to pledge your fraternity.

Wynn Smiley: That's, that's not why we wouldn't put it on. We're considering-- we're looking at that. 

Wynn Smiley told us he supports efforts to increase criminal penalties for hazing, but doesn't believe his national organization has a duty to supervise its local chapters.

Wynn Smiley: These are self-governing, independent organizations for a reason.

Anderson Cooper: Right. But you-- you want them to be. You are making money from them.  You can shut them down, you can go in and tell them that you're gonna drug-test. You do have a supervisory function; you just are not wanting to embrace it.

Wynn Smiley: And if we thought that that would be effective, we may consider that. 

Anderson Cooper: You don't want any adult supervision that's directly linked to you. You don't feel that would be beneficial.

Wynn Smiley: We're not convinced that that would necessarily be beneficial.

Gary Jenkins: I don't think they could be more wrong. I think having an adult there to oversee what's going on and ensure that they are complying with their own handbook. Everything that was going on was in violation of what their handbook says.

Jolayne Houtz: They set themselves up to ensure that if something goes wrong, that they can't be held accountable.  And they'll point to the rogue fraternity members or they'll point to the university or they'll point at the young dead pledge and blame them, but it's never their fault.

Anderson Cooper: Did they try to blame Sam?

Jolayne Houtz: Oh yeah.  Why was he drinking that night? It's-- that's not what we do here.

Wynn Smiley says Sam Martinez wasn't bullied or pressured into drinking the night he died.

Wynn Smiley: When push comes to shove, uh, the pledges, um, can stand up and say, "No."

Anderson Cooper: Wait a minute, wait a minute, come on. 

Wynn Smiley: And I don't wanna put-- I don't wanna put that on them. I don't wanna put that on them, because that's not fair. I'm just saying that--

Anderson Cooper: But, but come on. You know if a pledge says, "This is ridiculous. I'm not gonna drink hot sauce, I'm not gonna do, you know, squats against the wall and I'm not gonna do 20 shots of rum," they wouldn't get into the fraternity.

Wynn Smiley: No, and-- I'm telling you they would.

Anderson Cooper: This is the second-biggest night in the entire pledge process that Sam has undertaken.

Wynn Smiley: He was provided the alcohol, should never have been provided the alcohol--

Anderson Cooper: He wasn't "provided the alcohol" like somebody just goes and gets beer for some kids hanging outside a 7-Eleven. He was handed a nearly half-a-gallon of rum. You're saying if he had just said, "You know what? No, this is ridiculous, they woulda said, "Great. You-- you can be a member of our fraternity.  That's great. That shows spunk on your part." You think that's what would have happened?

Wynn Smiley: Had he said, "No, I don't wanna drink," I'm confident that he would not have had to have drinked.

Anderson Cooper: He'd already had Date Night. Actually, it's called "Black-Out Date Night," I believe. What happens on Black-Out Date Night?

Wynn Smiley: So whoever organized that event for the fraternity, again, did so outside of ATO policy. And people were, were connected with dates, or they brought a date--

Anderson Cooper: They were handcuffed to dates.

Wynn Smiley: Some were. And--

Anderson Cooper: Yeah, well, he was handcuffed to a woman and told to drink, I think it was-- a half-bottle of vodka.

Wynn Smiley: And should have never been put in that position.

In July, Alpha Tau Omega settled the lawsuit brought by Sam Martinez' parents without admitting wrongdoing. Washington State University removed its recognition of the chapter, and then ATO revoked its charter. The chapter can seek reinstatement in 2026.  Seven fraternity members have been sentenced to between 1 and 19 days in jail for serving alcohol to minors. Sam's parents are now working with state legislators to try to make hazing a felony.

Jolayne Houtz: He was the beautiful, quirky, funny center of our world. And it felt like the earth just fell away the day that we learned the news. 

Anderson Cooper: What do you wanna see happen?

Jolayne Houtz: I don't wanna see any more young men die.

Since our interview, ATO has updated its national fraternity website to include several instances of "chapter discipline," including hazing incidents.

Produced by Sarah Koch. Associate producer, Chrissy Jones. Broadcast associate, Annabelle Hanflig. Edited by Patrick Lee.

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