Pullman police are recommending misdemeanor charges for seven fraternity members involved in the heavy drinking that led to a 19-year-old Washington State University student’s death by alcohol poisoning.
Late last month, police recommended hazing charges for two WSU students, including the fraternity “big brother” to Samuel Martinez, who died in November 2019. The “big brother” designation is meant for upper classmen to mentor younger students in the fraternity about college life, according to a police report.
Police believed the remaining five fraternity members should be charged with furnishing alcohol to a minor, said Pullman Police Department officer Jake Opgenorth.
Though Martinez became unconscious after drinking and died roughly four hours before fraternity members called 911, Opgenorth said investigators did not feel there was enough evidence for the prosecutor to prove manslaughter beyond a reasonable doubt.
On the morning of Nov. 12, 2019, police arrived at the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity at 710 NE Linden Street in Pullman and found Martinez, from Bellevue, lying dead on the floor beside a couch and some vomit, the report said.
The coroner found Martinez had a blood alcohol content of 0.37 and died from alcohol poisoning, according to the report. Many fraternity brothers had been drinking that night and another member was found outside 600 Colorado Street very drunk with “spit and vomit running down the steps around him,” the report said.
Through interviews, police learned that the evening of Nov. 11 had been “Big/Little Night,” an event in which older fraternity members called “bigs” for “big brother” join their “littles” in drinking.
Martinez’s “twin brother,” another freshman who shared the same “big brother” as Martinez, told police the “twins” were sharing a half-gallon bottle of rum. The freshman told police he was “pretty sure” they finished it, though he did not remember much of the night. After 30 minutes of drinking, the twin said there were about 2½ inches of alcohol in the bottle, according to the report.
Martinez’s “big brother” told police he never forced Martinez to drink more. He said by 10:30 p.m., Martinez seemed very drunk so he took Martinez to his bedroom and laid him on the couch with a trashcan nearby. He said some younger pledges took Martinez to the bathroom so he would throw up, he told police.
Martinez did not vomit and was “kind of fighting them,” the report said.
The “big brother” told police that later in the night Martinez asked many times for more alcohol and that he kept the bottle away and refused Martinez, according to the report.
One fraternity member told police that around 11:30 p.m. he was leaving the house and saw a group of freshmen, led by Martinez’s “big brother,” carrying Martinez down the stairs to the room where police later found him dead, according to the report.
The report said fraternity members took part in other hazing activities that semester. Members said if they failed to memorize certain fraternity-related information, they were forced to drink an unknown mixture, clean disgusting messes and bite an onion and eat it, the report said.
A week before Martinez died, older fraternity members handcuffed each male pledge to a woman pledging for a sorority and locked them in a room with the key at the bottom of a vodka bottle the pair were expected to consume, according to a lawsuit Martinez’s parents filed claiming WSU and the fraternity were responsible in his death.
In July 2020, Martinez’s mother, Jolayne Houtz, wrote in a Seattle Times op-ed she was still sleeping with her son’s ashes beside her bed eight months after her son’s death. She wrote that she cradled the velvet bag each morning and night.
She blamed hazing in her son’s death and wrote that fraternity executives and alumni, college presidents and campus police know that the fraternity events can be deadly and “still look away as fraternities continue to subject new pledges to these dangerous rituals.”
Opgenorth said the investigation was unique for the Pullman Police Department because it involved so many potential witnesses.
During the investigation, completed in January one year and two months after Martinez’s death, police interviewed around 75 people, he said, while also pulling information from cell phone forensics.
Whitman County prosecutor Denis Tracy did not immediately respond to requests for an interview.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.