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Prosecutor charges 15 WSU fraternity members in drinking death; family says ‘this is not justice’

UPDATED: Thu., June 3, 2021

Prosecutors have charged 15 former members of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity at Washington State University with furnishing liquor to a student who died of alcohol poisoning during a party.  (Courtesy KHQ)
Prosecutors have charged 15 former members of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity at Washington State University with furnishing liquor to a student who died of alcohol poisoning during a party. (Courtesy KHQ)

Fifteen former members of a Washington State University fraternity were charged Tuesday in connection with the 2019 alcohol poisoning death of a student, according to a news release from the Whitman County Prosecutor’s office.

The family of Sam Martinez, who died at age 19 in November 2019, find the light potential sentences “insulting,” compared to the loss they’ve experienced, according to a statement from the family.

Prosecutor Denis Tracy charged the former Alpha Tau Omega members with furnishing liquor to minors, a gross misdemeanor that will carry up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine if they are convicted.

“While the charges may lead to some level of accountability, this is not justice. It does not bring us closure,” Martinez’s family said in a statement. “Universities and the national fraternity corporations that promote and profit from fraternities must finally be held to account.”

Martinez died from alcohol poisoning suffered during a party to celebrate each freshman meeting their “big brother,” an upperclassman designated to mentor younger members, according to a police report.

Martinez became unconscious during the party and frat members carried him downstairs to the room where he died roughly four hours before fraternity members called 911, according to the police report.

One of the charged men, 22-year-old Wesley Oswald, was Martinez’s “big.” Oswald had a half-gallon of rum that Martinez drank from, according to a police report. Around 10:30 p.m., Oswald saw that Martinez was very drunk and brought Martinez to the couch in Oswald’s room, where Oswald set up a trash can for Martinez to throw up in, the documents say.

Several pledges then carried Martinez to the bathroom, but Martinez did not throw up. Oswald and Martinez were drinking from the half-gallon together after that point, the report said.

Then-president of the Alpha Tau Omega chapter Luke Hawksford, now 22, was not involved in planning the party but saw several freshmen carry Martinez down the stairs as Hawksford was leaving the party around 11 p.m., according to the police report.

Police turned the results of their investigation over to Tracy in February and recommended hazing charges for two members – Oswald and another man who was not ultimately charged – along with charges of furnishing liquor to minors for five fraternity members. Police said in February they did not see sufficient evidence for a manslaughter charge.

Hazing charges, as a misdemeanor, have a statute of limitations and cannot be pressed more than a year after the suspected crime. Tracy would not have been able to pursue hazing charges by the time police turned over their investigation.

Martinez’s family said Pullman police allowed the hazing charge to expire, despite gathering enough evidence to merit recommending the charges. The family believes the state of Washington should elevate hazing from a misdemeanor to a felony and extend the statute of limitations. The family’s statement pointed to two more alcohol poisoning deaths in Virginia and Ohio this year during “big little” nights at fraternities.

Oswald and Hawksford are both charged with furnishing liquor to minors along with Griffin Fish, 21; Maxwell Rovegno, 21; Jaron Selset, 23; Finn Anderson, 21; Joshua Entriken, 20; Jack Kuske, 20; Jacob Lewis, 21; Jeremy McAteer, 22; Cole Peterson, 22; Tyler Kim, 20; Garrett Smith, 21; Cameron Thomas, 20 and Nolan Valcik, 20. Three people who police recommended charges against were not charged.

To Martinez’s family, the potential sentence of one year is “insulting,” compared to the loss their family faces.

“What happened the night Sam died was not an isolated incident. WSU, the ATO national office and others knew this chapter had a long history of alcohol and student conduct violations. Yet they did nothing,” the family’s statement said.

“A boy dies. His family and friends are shattered. Promises of reform are made, and broken. We say enough. It is time for universities, fraternities and policymakers to enact meaningful reforms that end this toxic culture.”

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