By Hannah Furfaro and Paige Cornwell / The Seattle Times
Samuel Martinez’s eyes crinkled when he smiled. He had a dry sense of humor, adored his cat named Snow and went out of his way to do community development projects in Mexico and volunteer at local organizations. More than anything, he loved to play sports.
In a photo from high school, Martinez is in a scarlet jersey and looks gleeful on a soccer field after scoring a goal with his Newport High School team.
These are the ways his loved ones hope to remember the 19-year-old Washington State University freshman and Bellevue native who graduated from Newport High School in June.
On Tuesday, he died at a WSU fraternity house — marking the latest in a spate of deaths on or near U.S. college campuses this month.
Police said they suspect alcohol consumption may have been a factor, but the Whitman County Coroner has not released any information about Martinez’s cause of death. Martinez’s family did not have additional details and said they were awaiting information from the police investigation. Late Wednesday, a statement from the Pullman Police Department said they did not believe the incident met the definition of hazing.
“The grief just feels bottomless,” said Martinez’s mother, Jolayne Houtz, a former Seattle Times reporter. “But we have each other, and we’re holding tight to each other.” Houtz described her son as a young man who “had so much potential,” saying he served those in need at a food bank in Pullman along with other fraternity members.
In a statement, Martinez’s family called him a “beautiful spark of light, a comet that came and went through our lives too quickly.”
Martinez applied to two universities and WSU was his first choice, his mother said. He was studying business entrepreneurship and had decided to pledge as a member of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, she added. She said she wasn’t sure if Martinez had formally committed to being a member of the fraternity.
Experts say that the ever-growing list of injuries and deaths at fraternities locally and nationally calls for greater oversight from the universities that often say the organizations are difficult to regulate.
On Monday, an Arizona State University student was found dead in a student housing complex that houses members of sororities and fraternities, the Associated Press reported. A day earlier, a 19-year-old San Diego State University freshman died after attending a fraternity party. He fell out of his bunk bed and suffered injuries to his head; a medical examiner ruled his death accidental, the AP reported. The university suspended 14 fraternities following the incident.
At WSU, officials say the university’s sororities and fraternities have voluntarily suspended their social activities for the rest of the semester. Of the more than 20,000 students who attend the Pullman university, about 25% participate in Greek life, according to WSU’s website.
As of late Wednesday, the university had not emailed students or faculty about Martinez’s death. But in a message posted to the school’s website, officials say they are making counselors available to WSU students and to Martinez’s family.
Incoming WSU students are required to undergo mandatory alcohol and safety training, said Phil Weiler, the school’s vice president for marketing and communications. But it may be time for the university to revisit its policies, he said.
“Whenever we have a tragedy like this it’s a time for us to step back and say, ‘is there more that we need to do?’ I think clearly that will happen in this case,” Weiler said. The university’s police department will work closely with Pullman police as its investigation continues, he said.
Fraternity houses have consistently been the sites of student injuries and deaths at Washington State, though they’ve become less frequent. In September 2012, a student was hurt when he fell from a window at the Phi Kappa Tau house. Two months later, another student had critical head injuries when he fell from a second-story balcony at Lambda Chi Alpha. A Delta Upsilon fraternity member was injured when he fell from a fire escape at the Sigma Phi Epsilon house in September 2015.
Brock Lindberg, a WSU student from Wenatchee, died of a drug overdose in October 2016 after he was found unresponsive in his Pi Kappa Phi room.
In November 2016, the WSU Panhellenic and Interfraternity councils enacted a self-imposed, two-month moratorium on social events at all fraternities and sororities, in response to alcohol- and drug-related incidents. The councils cited an increase in “assaults, rapes, falls and hospitalizations” by members of Greek organizations, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News reported at the time. They created an action plan that outlined new education policies for members and additional rules for the fraternities and sororities when hosting parties and other events.
The university also strengthened its rules regarding alcohol use: All fraternities and sororities that house freshmen must be alcohol-free.
In some cases, the house’s national organizations have shut down the local chapter in response to hazing or other allegations. In December 2017, Alpha Kappa Lambda was shut down following an investigation for “several risk management violations,” the WSU newspaper The Daily Evergreen reported. At least four other Greek organizations are currently suspended or under investigation, according to a university database.
The more extreme option of abolishing the organizations entirely might not work — but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be regulated more, said John Hechinger, journalist and author of “True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities.”
“I think that people think of frats as a kind of subculture that can be ignored, but what I found, particularly in big public universities, is that they are the center of social life, of political life,” said Hechinger, a senior editor at Bloomberg News. “Colleges rely on them to provide a social life, networking, and also places to live. They are extremely important and can’t be ignored.”
Nationwide, there have been at least 80 deaths connected to fraternities in the past 15 years, according to Hank Nuwer, and author and professor at Indiana’s Franklin College who has studied fraternities for decades. Many of them are related to hazing or alcohol abuse. Greek life, including alcohol use and hazing, is equated with college, he said.
“Unless it’s disconnected, we will continue to have these deaths,” Nuwer added.
Pullman police responded to the fraternity house around 8:35 a.m. on Tuesday, where they found Martinez unresponsive, according to a police report. Fraternity members performed CPR until medical professionals arrived, police said. WSU-affiliated fraternities are off campus.
Representatives from the fraternity’s national chapter traveled to WSU this week, they said, to “work with local authorities and WSU administrators.”
“We are shocked and extraordinarily sad that Sam Martinez has passed away. Our prayers are with Sam’s family, friends and chapter mates,” Wynn Smiley, the fraternity’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. The university’s student government president and officials from WSU’s Center for Fraternity and Sorority Life declined to comment.
Houtz said the family has received support from the university and traveled to WSU when they were notified of Martinez’s death.
She said, “We wanted to be near him.”