PULLMAN, Wash. — KREM 2 obtained, through a public records request, body camera footage, videos from the social media app Snapchat and police records from the Pullman Police Department's criminal investigation into the 2019 death of Washington State University freshman Sam Martinez.
The footage provides insight on the events leading up to Martinez's death from alcohol poisoning after an event at the WSU chapter of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. It also shows interviews with fraternity members, including some of the 15 facing criminal charges, the morning after Martinez's death and the weeks following.
The criminal case comes more than a year after Martinez's death. The Whitman County Prosecutor's Office was unable to pursue hazing charges due to the statute of limitations running out during PPD's investigation. Friends and family have said that while 15 people face gross misdemeanor charges, it isn't enough to do justice for Martinez.
'A gentle soul'
Martinez, a 19-year-old from Bellevue, has been described by friends and family as "loving," "dazzling," and a "gentle soul."
"Sam was like, he was such a goofball. He can make everybody laugh," said Nicole Ballard, who called Martinez one of her best friends. "He had this really loving, gentle side that I really loved about Sam, and that's how we connected a lot."
Ballard said she and Martinez met eight years before his death on November 12, 2019. They met when they both attended the same camp. She said she saw Martinez as a little brother, and he would refer to her as "mom" on occasion as he turned to her for advice.
"Sam was a huge part of my life. He was like a little brother that I didn't have and a best friend and we just, we've known each other for so long," Ballard said. "He was absolutely my best friend."
Jolayne Houtz, Martinez's mother, said her late son had an infectious smile.
"That smile on his face was just dazzling, he, he could light up a room,” Houtz told KREM's sister station KING in 2020.
Martinez is also remembered by his family for his love of soccer, which he played at Newport High School in Bellevue.
"Left foot, powerful," Hector Martinez, Sam's father, said.
Through his friends, family and police records of interviews with fraternity members, Martinez was known among those close to him as a bright young man up until his death.
Police investigate Martinez's death as criminal
Martinez was found dead on November 12, 2019, the morning after an event at the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity chapter at WSU. The Whitman County Coroner determined he had died of alcohol poisoning, and ruled it an accident.
Videos on Snapchat taken by Martinez and others show the events the night before Martinez was found dead. It was "Big - Little Night" for the fraternity. The event entails first-year members of the fraternity being assigned an older member of the fraternity as their "big brother" who acts as a mentor, according to notes from interviews with fraternity members. "Big brothers" and their "little brothers" are considered families in the fraternity chapter.
That night, Martinez found out his "big brother" would be Wesley Oswald, who was interviewed by police the morning Martinez was found dead.
"It was big little night. He was one of my littles," Oswald said. "They all showed up. I had two littles, him and the other guy, and I had a half gal [half gallon bottle of liquor]. I never once forced him to drink from the half gal and you know, he took a good amount of pulls [drinks from the bottle]. He seemed like he was okay."
Oswald declined to comment for this story.
According to those who spoke with police, it was tradition for a "big brother" to pass down the family drink to their "little brother(s)." Police heard allegations that the older members of the fraternity possibly hazed the pledges, which are members being initiated into the fraternity, including trying to get them as drunk as possible, according to police records describing interviews with some of Martinez's friends.
"It was Big and Little reveal night, and all of the pledges were hazed to drink a fifth of vodka each. I heard that he was just left alone for long periods of time," a woman who identified herself as a high school friend of Martinez's told police. KREM is not naming the woman as she is not facing criminal charges and wasn't considered a suspect in the investigation.
Some of the drinking that night was caught on Snapchat videos, including some shot by Martinez himself. Another fraternity member, Finn Anderson, told police it was a choice for younger members when it came to how much alcohol they consumed.
"If they want to do it. Like, you know, it's Big - Little night, so you're like, yes, like they, we have alcohol," Anderson said. "We're just going to hang out and drink all night and stuff like that. So that's kind of, that's kind of the idea of it, I guess."
KREM's attempts to reach Anderson for comment were unsuccessful.
Records show witnesses had told police Martinez was heavily intoxicated by about 10 p.m. that night. After originally laying Martinez down in fraternity president Luke Hawksford's room, Martinez was moved by Oswald and a group of freshmen to their chapter room.
"We just took him down to the chapter room, put him on the couch, put his head down so if he threw up he wouldn't choke on it," Oswald said. "I checked him at least three or four times the rest of the night, so did other people, and every time he was good, he was asleep. And I just woke up this morning and he wasn't."
Martinez would be found dead, face down on a couch the next morning. Ballard got a call from her sister with the tragic news.
"I was very shocked to see that it was Sam that had passed," Ballard said. "He just like, he has this light that you just want to be around and it's beautiful. I feel so lucky that I got to spend so much of Sam's very short life with him."
Martinez's blood alcohol level was .372 at the time of his death, more than four times higher than the legal limit for adults. Being a minor, the legal limit for Martinez would have been .02.
Heavy drinking was part of what Ballard said was a toxic culture Martinez had described.
"He shared with me, some of the stuff that was happening at Alpha Tau Omega," Ballard said. "Just the terrible environment that it created. I think Sam was very stubborn sometimes, and so he was always saying that he could do it, he could get through it, that it wasn't bad."
Alpha Tau Omega's national organization declined to comment due to the wrongful death lawsuit Martinez's estate has filed against it and WSU.
Fraternity suspended, but no criminal hazing charges filed
WSU suspended Alpha Tau Omega's chapter at the university until May 2026. Alpha Tau Omega's national organization handed down the same punishment.
In the loss of recognition letter, WSU made a strong statement, saying if the allegations against the fraternity were true, Alpha Tau Omega had violated the university's hazing rules.
But Hawksford, the fraternity president, refuted this to police the morning Martinez was found.
"I mean we've been really trying to crack, ever since I've been president, trying to crack down on hazing because my freshman year," Hawksford said. "He went through a membership review, which you might know about. And part, I don't know all of the reasons for it, but, you know, part of that was for hazing. I mean, I got hazed. So we know what happens when you do that."
But, no one has faced criminal hazing charges. Pullman police did include two hazing charges in their recommendations, but the statute of limitations ran out by the end of the investigation. Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins said this was due to a number of factors, the largest being police struggling to access applications on Martinez's cellphone and witnesses not being fully cooperative.
One example of this was the high school friend of Martinez who called Pullman police to report that she had heard the freshmen were made to drink large amounts of vodka, and that Martinez was left alone.
In that phone interview, the friend refuses to tell police who told her or how she found out. The detective informs her that without a name, they can't do anything with the information. The friend continues to refuse to tell police who she heard it from, even if it meant police couldn't do anything with it.
Jenkins had said they still included the hazing charges in the recommendations because they felt they had sufficient evidence.
Even with the difficulties, 15 people are facing charges of furnishing liquor to a minor, a gross misdemeanor in Washington punishable by up to a year in jail, a $5,000 fine, or both.
The suspects charged, which were all fraternity members at the time, are:
- Wesley Oswald (two counts)
- Finn Anderson
- Luke Hawksford
- Griffin Fish
- Maxwell Rovegno
- Jaron Selset
- Joshua Entriken
- Jack Kuske
- Jacob Lewis
- Jeremy Mcateer (two counts)
- Cole Peterson
- Tyler Kim
- Garrett Smith
- Cameron Thomas
- Nolan Valcik (two counts)
One of the 15 - Mcateer - is set to make an appearance in Whitman County District Court on Wednesday, June 30. The other 14 are set to appear on July 9.
Even with 15 people facing charges - more than double the amount that Pullman police had recommended, it doesn't represent justice for Martinez's friends and family.
"It is not justice for us," Houtz said. "We live everyday with the loss of our Sam, and it's just unbearable. These charges are very minor charges against these 15 people, and none of it can bring Sam back."
"I don't think that there will ever be justice for Sam, considering that he never gets to come back,' Ballard said. "He's gone, and unfortunately, we don't get to go back and take back those those events that happened. I do think that this trial is a way to hold those folks accountable for their role in it."