The events of that night in November 2019 prompted a criminal investigation that lasted well over a year, a lawsuit, the suspension of one of the school’s oldest fraternities and misdemeanor charges this week against 15 men who were members of the organization at the time.
Martinez’s death has also driven his family to take on an influential system that has held sway on college campuses across the country for more than 150 years, despite a history of racism, sexual violence and fatal hazing. After the Whitman County prosecutor announced the charges — 18 counts of furnishing liquor to minors — Martinez’s parents and sister issued a statement saying the punishment was far too lenient. “This is not justice,” the family said.
“Just like Sam, they were forced to drink lethal amounts of hard alcohol in order to join their frats. Just like Sam, they were abandoned by their so-called fraternity ‘brothers’ to die alone,” said the family statement, signed by Martinez’s mother, Jolayne Houtz; his father, Hector Martinez; and his sister, Ariana Martinez.
“We say enough,” they continued. “It is time for universities, fraternities and policymakers to enact meaningful reforms that end this toxic culture.”
One such change, the family said, would be to further criminalize hazing. The 15 men charged — including Martinez’s “big brother,” a kind of Greek-life mentor — face a maximum of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine, consequences the family called “insulting.”
They had hoped that hazing charges would be brought, as police recommended earlier this year, but by the time authorities turned the investigation over to prosecutors, the one-year statute of limitations had expired.
“That was very heart-wrenching for the family,” one of their attorneys, Sergio Garcidueñas-Sease, told The Washington Post. “There is plenty of evidence there that hazing occurred, so it wouldn’t have been a difficult charge to prosecute.”
Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins told The Post that the coronavirus pandemic delayed the inquiry and made it even more difficult to track down and interview students who did not live year-round in the college town. Jenkins said they were waiting on results of a forensic analysis of Martinez’s cellphone, which they believed could turn up text messages that “could support a manslaughter prosecution.”
Officers chose to wait on the analysis rather than press forward with a hazing prosecution that could have created “a double-jeopardy issue” and imperiled a more severe charge, Jenkins said.
“We did not want to settle for a misdemeanor charge at the cost of the possibility of a felony manslaughter,” he added.
Martinez’s family said they would like to see hazing, a misdemeanor in Washington, upgraded to a felony and its statute of limitations extended.
According to a list maintained by Hank Nuwer, a professor emeritus at Franklin College in Indiana, hazing has killed scores of students in recent decades. Since 1959, Nuwer has found, not a year has passed without a hazing death — except 2020, when the coronavirus put Greek life and in-person college attendance on hold.
Even before Martinez was summoned to an Alpha Tau Omega satellite house on “Big Brother Night,” he had experienced “a pattern of hazing,” says the complaint in his family’s lawsuit against the university and the fraternity, which is set to go to trial next year.
The filing lists several instances: Pledges were allegedly forced to clean the fraternity house, quizzed on the organization’s history and made to eat raw onions for every wrong answer, taken on camping trips and beaten and forced to drink or take drugs. A week before Martinez died, the complaint says, each pledge was locked in a room with a woman rushing a campus sorority. The pair was handcuffed and the key was at the bottom of a vodka bottle they had to drain before being released.
On the night of his death, Martinez and another pledge were told to split a half-gallon bottle of rum, according to the filing. They drank nearly all of it, cheered on by the other fraternity members. Cocaine and cannabis were also passed around at the party, which moved from the annex house to the main chapter lodge. Within about 90 minutes, Martinez had lost consciousness.
Fraternity members carried him to the basement, the complaint says, and left him there overnight. The next morning, other pledges noticed that Martinez’s skin had begun turning blue, but it took members approximately 30 minutes to call 911.
“Emergency personnel were not summoned and Sam was not taken to the hospital for the treatment he desperately needed in order to survive,” the complaint reads.
Martinez died of alcohol poisoning, a coroner said.
In a statement, Alpha Tau Omega’s national leadership said the Washington State members were “repeatedly educated about ATO’s health and safety policies, including the prohibition of hazing and providing alcohol to minors.”
Those involved were “permanently expelled from the fraternity.”
The university declined to comment on the criminal charges or on disciplinary measures taken against the students. The school suspended Alpha Tau Omega from campus for six years, and the fraternity signed an agreement admitting to violating the university’s rules against hazing, abuse and underage alcohol use.
The Martinez family’s lawsuit claims that the university knew about past dangerous behavior and hazing at Alpha Tau Omega but allowed it to continue. The family is pushing for more oversight of Greek life and more transparency about organizations’ disciplinary records.
“Pledges and parents need to see the whole picture — not just the glossy promises of brotherhood and leadership opportunities,” the family statement said.
For Martinez’s parents and sister, the loss is still acute. They remember him as a sharp student who wanted to study business and entrepreneurship, a talented athlete with a smile that made his eyes crinkle. Houtz, his mother and a former Seattle Times reporter, wrote in the newspaper last year that “the wound is as fresh and deep as the day police knocked on our door.”
“I sleep with my son’s ashes beside my bed,” she wrote. “I cradle the black velvet bag each morning and night and tell Sam how much I miss him.”