Anderson Cooper used one of his 60 Minutes slots on the weekend to explore a tragic death that never should have happened.
Sam Martinez was a student at Washington State University. In 2019, he died while pledging Alpha Tau Omega.
According to his parents, Martinez had been trying to join the fraternity for the previous two months. Only after his death did his folks find out about some of the things he’d been going through to join. According to witnesses who spoke to police, he’d already been hit, tackled, and asked to consume large quantities of alcohol.
Reports of abusive hazing practices at fraternities are not uncommon, sometimes involving participants taking part in humiliating or sexual acts to join their chosen chapter. Alcohol abuse is common, despite it usually being against the rules of the institutions and fraternity organizations.
The fateful night in question was dubbed Big/Little Night, in which new members find out who their “big brother” is and are introduced to the “family drink.”
Martinez recorded a video that evening in which he and another pledge were given nearly half a gallon of rum: roughly equivalent to 40 shots.
Witnesses say most of the bottle was consumed. Martinez later passed out and was left on a sofa in the basement. He died of alcohol poisoning.
A fraternity member called 911 at 8.30am. By this time, it was too late to save Martinez. A coroner later recorded his death as accidental.
The 60 Minutes report says the fraternity quickly sought advice from ATO’s national headquarters. It advised them all to delete their social media accounts. The national fraternity’s long-serving CEO, Wynn Smiley, flew in the next day, bringing an insurance adjuster.
ATO’s own guidelines forbid hazing and the consumption of alcohol. Despite this, the organization has denied wrongdoing.
Cooper took Smiley to task over the death and to what extent the fraternity organization aided police in their investigations. Local cops say they found individual fraternity members not very helpful.
Smiley says he interviewed fraternity members himself, along with his insurance adjuster (“a great investigator. She acts like a mother as it relates to them feeling– feeling comfortable with her”), to try and find out what happened.
“Do you turn over the results of any interviews you’ve done with members to the police?”, Cooper asked him.
“Depends on the situation,” Smiley replied.
“In Sam’s death, did you?” asked Cooper.
“I ha– I– I don’t– I don’t recall, frankly,” said Smiley.
Cooper also pointed out that the ATO fraternity at Washington State University had had problems in the past. Almost half its chapter members were removed by the national organization in 2018, but it’s not publicly been disclosed why.
Cooper challenged Smiley as to why there was no mention of this on ATO’s website, which instead offers glowing testimonies about the fraternity.
Martinez’s parents believe fraternities should publish details of disciplinary hearings, to help parents and students when deciding if they want to join. They also want Washington state to make hazing a felony.
“You put a lot of very positive stuff about ATO on your website,” Cooper asked Smiley. “Don’t you also owe it to potential pledges and their parents to give them information when they’re looking at your fraternity?”
“If we thought that would help, but we don’t consider it–” Smiley began.
“Why don’t you think that would help?” Cooper interrupted.
“Because I don’t think that– I don’t think undergraduates look at websites. And I don’t think–”
This prompted a laugh of incredulity from Cooper: “Wait, wait a minute. You– you ‘don’t think undergraduates look at websites?’”
Cooper also expressed disbelief when Smiley claimed Martinez wasn’t pressured into drinking the night he died.
The CEO went on to say supported criminalizing hazing activities but doesn’t believe his organization has a responsibility to supervise local chapters.
Following his death, Sam Martinez’s parents brought a lawsuit against Alpha Tau Omega. The organization settled this in July without admitting wrongdoing. Washington State University has removed its recognition. Seven fraternity members have been sentenced to between 1 and 19 days in jail for serving alcohol to minors.