Family of Bellevue teen who died at WSU frat house sues

Sam Martinez and another student consumed the bulk of a half-gallon of rum. He died within hours.

By Paige Cornwell / The Seattle Times

In his first semester at Washington State University in Pullman, Sam Martinez witnessed or took part in several activities that his family says was a pattern of hazing at Alpha Tau Omega (ATO), the fraternity he hoped to join.

Pledges were quizzed on the history of the fraternity and forced to eat raw onions if they answered incorrectly, and taken on camping trips where they were tackled and beat up. A week before Martinez died, each pledge was handcuffed to a female pledging a sorority and then locked in a room; the key was at the bottom of a vodka bottle the pair had to consume.

On the November 2019 night before Martinez died, he and another student consumed the bulk of a half-gallon of rum, cheered on by members of the fraternity. He became unconscious within two hours, but no one called for medics until 8:30 the next morning.

The details of the Bellevue 19-year-old’s death Nov. 12 and the events leading up to it are outlined in a lawsuit filed Friday by Martinez’s family that alleges WSU, the fraternity, its Pullman chapter and some specific members bear responsibility for his death.

Martinez, a graduate of Newport High School who loved to play sports and hoped to study business and entrepreneurship at WSU, died of acute alcohol intoxication. His death was classified as an accident by the Whitman County coroner.

Martinez’s parents have tried to get as much information as possible about the circumstances of that night — and advocated for sweeping changes to a system that they say is responsible for their son’s death. The wound is “as fresh and deep as the day police knocked on our door,” his mother, Jolayne Houtz, wrote in a Seattle Times op-ed. She sleeps next to his ashes each night.

“We are speaking up now, at the beginning of the school year, as parents and students are heading back to campus and thinking about the school year ahead,” said the former Seattle Times reporter. “We lost our son and I really can’t bear to think of any other sons or any other children being lost to the same thing.”

Houtz said the lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, is a call for reform in fraternities and colleges that allow fraternities to operate with little oversight. Greek organizations can have benefits, his father, Hector Martinez, said, noting that his son and other students had volunteered by giving out gifts to children just weeks before his death.

“It doesn’t outweigh the terrible risks,” Houtz added. “When you pledge a fraternity, you shouldn’t be pledging your life. We feel like Sam was just pushed to the brink by this ritual and then left to die alone.”

A trial date is scheduled for August 2021, according to Seattle attorney Rebecca Roe, who is representing the family. They are seeking unspecified compensation for economic and noneconomic damages, including wrongful death, “pre-death pain and suffering,” fear of impending death and lost earning capacity.

In Pullman, ATO lost its recognition for six years and as part of a suspension agreement admitted to violating WSU’s standards of conduct, including hazing, reckless endangerment and providing alcohol to minors.

WSU said Friday that it does not comment on pending litigation. Alpha Tau Omega CEO Wynn Smiley declined to comment, writing in an email that the national organization had not been made aware of the lawsuit.

In January, the WSU Intrafraternity Council developed a nine-point initiative “in an effort to prevent any further tragedy” that included a ban on alcohol at “big-little” events, a requirement that each chapter host an alcohol education course and the creation of a committee dedicated to lobby the Washington Legislature on laws related to hazing and other items that affect the WSU Greek community.

The lawsuit filed by Martinez’s family joins a steady stream of legal allegations against fraternities across the U.S. by pledges or members.

In January, the family of a Cornell University freshman who died after a “Christmas in October” event at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity sued the university and the fraternity, according to the Ithaca Times.

A former University of Arizona student filed a lawsuit in April against the university, Theta Chi fraternity and chapter leaders after suffering what he claims was a chemical burn in his eye and a blood infection during hazing, according to The Arizona Republic.

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