Crossing the line for camaraderie

OTL: Drum major died after November hazing ritual, a culture leaders failed to end

Updated: May 2, 2012, 4:47 PM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

It's a Saturday night, the week before Thanksgiving, and Pam Champion's only son is in Orlando for Florida A&M's last football game of the season. The phone rings in the family's Atlanta home. Her youngest daughter, at college in North Carolina, spits out words, rapid fire.

They paralyze her mother: Robert collapsed. He stopped breathing.

Her mind races. Her 26-year-old son is a solid 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, a weight-room regular, a drum major and prominent figure in the FAMU Marching 100 band. Maybe a heart ailment has gone undetected. Or he collapsed from the rigors of a high-intensity band performance in the Florida sun.

[+] EnlargeChampion Family
Courtesy Champion family Robert Champion with his grandmother, Ann Sutton, left, and his aunt, Sarah Cole.

The news from her daughter, Brittany, has been relayed by a friend in the band. No one from the university has called, so there are no answers. Pam begins to pray with her husband, Robert, by her side.

But she can't wait.

She calls a handful of bandmates' cell numbers her daughter has given her. She reaches a young woman who says she will take an elevator to the lobby of the hotel in Orlando where the band is staying in search of information. She calls back with word for the Champions to stay off their home phone, that band director Julian White will call shortly.

After nearly an hour, Pam Champion answers the phone and hears White's voice. He is calling from an Orlando hospital and checks to make sure she is not alone before delivering the news.

Mustering his most comforting tone, he says, "Miss Champion, I'm sorry to tell you, but Robert's gone."

Robert Champion was pronounced dead at 10:36 p.m. on Nov. 19 at Dr. P. Phillips Hospital in Orlando.

The equivalent of a quarterback in one of the most celebrated college marching bands, Champion just hours earlier had high-stepped his way through athletic drill routines during halftime of the Florida Classic, a weekend social built around the season-ending football game between the FAMU Rattlers and rival Bethune-Cookman Wildcats. But now he lay dead, beaten so badly his body had gone into fatal shock.

White didn't tell the Champions the FAMU drum major had been beaten to death by perhaps a dozen or more fellow band members in a brutal hazing ritual known as Crossing Bus C -- the letter referencing the chartered bus assigned to transport the band's percussion section. The ritual has gone on at least two decades, former band members say. And, as with others who go through it, members pummeled and kicked Robert as he crossed Bus C, making his way from the front to the back, the bus rocking and swaying all the while as it sat parked in the back lot of the Rosen Plaza Hotel.

That Robert, a band leader who enforced every rule, and an outspoken critic of hazing stepped onto Bus C for any reason other than to break up a hazing ritual seems inconceivable to those who knew him outside of the FAMU band. But an "Outside the Lines" investigation of what transpired the night of Nov. 19 found a tragic and violent scene that was simply part of the culture within Florida A&M's profitable and best-known ambassador -- the Marching 100.

"Outside the Lines" spoke with dozens of witnesses and former band members, including two who, for the first time, publicly shared what happened on Bus C and in the minutes after Robert collapsed. The investigation found that Robert's death was the culmination of a university administration's inability to weed out physical hazing despite multiple incidents and warnings over a period of several years. Attempts by the Champion family to find out exactly what happened to their son -- and why -- have been met by silence from many of the 350-some band members (some facing potential criminal charges) and school administrators.

White, who has spent 50 years with the band as a student through his latest position as band director and chairman of the music department, told "Outside the Lines" in the presence of his attorney that he was unaware -- until that night -- of the brutal hazing ritual as well as all the inner workings of the band's secret society of unsanctioned subgroups -- claims that ring hollow with some current and former members. Now on paid administrative leave, he is driven to retain his job with the band while portraying the university president as soft on hazing and blaming those under his tutelage with paying only lip service to his warnings about longtime band rituals.

Early on, the band's culture of secrecy even influenced the police investigation. The first law enforcement news release about the incident read: "There are no signs of foul play."

Crossing Bus C

Keon Hollis boarded Bus C that November night alongside Robert Champion. But, contrary to a report published by the campus newspaper's website and other media later identifying him among four drum majors suspended in the wake of the hazing death, Hollis told "Outside the Lines" that he voluntarily -- just like Champion -- submitted to the Bus C beatdown.

[+] EnlargeFAMU Bus
ESPNBus C, where Robert Champion endured the hazing ritual Hot Seat before moving on to Crossing Bus C.

As is customary for the drum majors at the last game of the season, they hopped in a limousine with White at game's end for a ride in style back to the hotel. They were upbeat as White spent much of the ride praising the field generals for their role in a successful season. It was close to 8:30. Upon arrival, Hollis says, he and Champion -- roommates in Orlando and on other road trips -- went to their rooms to change.

In preparation for what lay ahead, Hollis put on a full-body Nike Dri-Fit -- "Those suits that football players wear" -- and basketball shorts; Champion, a white T-shirt and pants.

They made their way to the hotel lobby and walked deep into the hotel parking lot, where, among the buses chartered by FAMU, sat a 56-seat silver motor coach -- No. 208.

Hollis says no adults were around. The bus was open, the engine running and the air conditioning on. Another band member on the bus, though, is less certain the bus was running, instead recalling that it got so hot inside that he briefly stepped off.

When he and Champion got to the bus, Hollis says, hazing organizers told them to take seats near the front -- one to the left of the aisle, the other the right. Champion and Hollis were told to sit leaning forward with their heads down. At least 15 band members were on the bus, with others later trickling in.

Someone called Hollis to the front row and prepped him to cross Bus C. He took off his shirt and stood bare-chested facing the back of the bus, hands raised above head, as hazing leaders slapped his chest and then his back until he began to lose feeling. He slogged his way through the gantlet to the back of the bus. While Champion remained hunched in his seat, other hazers started him on a Hot Seat -- a ritual Hollis got out of the way on a late-season football trip.

In the Hot Seat, Hollis says, "People are punching you, kicking you, hitting you with whatever they have in their hand until somebody says, 'OK, stop.'"

Another witness says of Champion's Hot Seat, "To me, it wasn't nothing -- it just lasted a minute or so." Yet, even as he soldiered on with his own physical challenge, Hollis recalls pained sounds coming from Champion's direction as he absorbed blows -- "the sound that you make when you get hit," he says.

Hollis was sore and tired a couple of days after his earlier Hot Seat. On this night, there is no rest as Champion moved from the warm-up act onto the most brutal test within the Marching 100's secret society -- Crossing Bus C. It often takes little more than 5 minutes, the hazee starting at the front and having only to touch the back wall for it all to end. But it's a one-person brawl against most everyone on the bus. The tough guys park themselves in the narrow aisle, bent on making the cross as grueling as possible.

A former percussionist and Bus C veteran described it as "hell on wheels." Would-be crossers have been known to be "roofed," lifted to the bus ceiling and dropped to the floor. Or to have had a bare, sweaty arm scraped with a bristle brush and then sprayed with rubbing alcohol.

Hollis
Courtesy Audrey TolsonKeon Hollis, one of six FAMU drum majors, says he went through the Crossing Bus C hazing ritual just ahead of Robert Champion.

"Everybody is in the middle, everybody that's on the bus -- so you're basically going through a brawl almost, about 15 people, maybe a little less, maybe a little more, all beating you at the same time," Hollis says. "I was trying to push through. People were hitting me, punching me, and I fell and, when I was trying to get up -- they would try to hold you and beat you some more. Somebody would, like, hold your arm and keep you from getting to the back, to beat you more and longer.

"You don't really try to fight back because you'll waste your energy that you could use to try to get to the back of the bus. So you just try to get to the back of the bus by any means necessary. That means crawl. You just got to get to the back so you finish."

Finally, at the end, Hollis recalls, "I was tired. I was mentally drained and physically drained. I remember my body was really sore. I was out of it ... my heart beating fast. My adrenaline is rushing. I'm out of breath. I'm real sore. I feel like I can barely breathe. My body is beat-up. So I'm trying to pretty much do everything that I can to maintain consciousness just to make sure that I am OK. Because it gets intense, it gets real intense."

His mission accomplished, Hollis fell into a back seat and watched as Champion followed the same path.

"I leaned up and I looked -- I saw them beating him," he recalls. "I saw them punching him, kicking him. I saw them hitting him with stuff. I saw them hold him down so they could beat him some more. I saw them pull him back. He got about halfway, they pulled him back a couple of more feet ... he finished."

Hollis, 22, suggests his friend's beatdown might have been more intense than his own, though it never crossed his mind that it might end in a trip to the morgue. It was known that some viewed Champion as lame or a kiss-ass because of his outspoken opposition to hazing, although -- years earlier, as a freshman -- he'd been initiated into the Red Dawg Order, a sizable band subgroup of members from Georgia. This trek through the gantlet also afforded rare payback of a drum major described as a stickler -- "He was always on the job" -- at times ordering band members to run a lap or drop for pushups as punishment for arriving late to the practice field.

But this night, the rookie drum majors -- Champion and Hollis -- stepped onto the bus purposefully, expecting to be on the receiving end of a smack-down. Hollis says he and Champion talked during the football season about participating in the ritual, only to finalize plans days before leaving for Orlando.

Crossing Bus C enhances standing within the band's most influential and boisterous section, the percussion players -- the drummers. It's difficult functioning as a drum major without the section in your corner. But, from an even broader perspective, crossing also brings additional respect within the band, something Hollis confides that he and Champion were short of when they stepped on the bus.

"I felt like that played a major part [in] his decision," Hollis says, "because, like me, he probably thought, 'OK, if I do the bus, I'm going to get more respect from my band members. The people that disrespect me, they're going to respect me because I did Bus C.'"

Hollis paints a picture of Champion, former leader of the clarinet section, as appreciated for his musical and choreography talents, yet from time to time faced with back talk and blatant insubordination when issuing directives to small pockets within the band. Some of it could be written off to the disgust of taking orders from a fellow student.

Others tuned him out or snickered in the face of suspicions that Champion was gay, although members say homosexuality isn't unique within the band.

"That definitely played a part in the lack of respect that he would get from other members because some members did feel that way about him," Hollis says. "He didn't act in any form or fashion gay, so I didn't even pay attention. When people were saying 'Yeah, Robert's gay,' I would say, 'No, he's not. You don't know him. You [are] just going off what the next person told you. Just a rumor.' That's when problems start.

"So now you have to pretty much try to control a band and people are saying all these wrongful things about you that they don't even know it's true. ... So you can kind of imagine how he deals with it, how he used to deal with it, pretty much on a daily basis."

Chaos in the aftermath

Henry Nesbitt waits for the crowd of 20 or so to file off Bus C before checking on his friend, Robert Champion. Both enjoyed Atlanta roots and joined the band in 2004 -- Nesbitt rising to tenor drum section leader; Champion basking in drum major status. That November night, Nesbitt cast himself sitting in a third-row seat, "observing."

[+] EnlargeHenry Nesbitt
Mike Fish/ESPN.comHenry Nesbitt, shown with attorneys Zachary White, left, and La Dray Gilbert, right, made the 911 call after Robert Champion collapsed.

He watched as Lissette Sanchez, a female percussionist in the Class of 2014, becomes the first of the three taking on the Bus C challenge. Right after, Hollis follows while Champion partakes in the Hot Seat ritual. But rather than stay to witness Champion cross Bus C, Nesbitt says, he leaves because he is bothered by the heat.

When he returned, the scene in the rear of the bus had begun to turn scary bad. Two or three people who had stayed behind were tending to Champion. "He began to just complain that he couldn't breathe," recalls Nesbitt, built strong and squatty like a nose tackle. "So I was like, 'Robert, tell me your name?' He was like, 'Robert Champion.'"

Those would be some of his last words. He turned incoherent, his brown eyes glassy and unfocused. His skin cold to the touch; at one point, vomit spewing from his mouth.

"Of course, we're scared," Nesbitt says to "Outside the Lines" as he replays the scene, seated alongside two attorneys. "That is just a normal reaction when somebody that is your friend is unresponsive. ... I have never seen that happen to somebody."

Nesbitt reacted by making a frantic 911 call that police records reveal started at 9:46 p.m. and lasted about six minutes. He placed it from just outside the bus. Champion was dragged by others to the front of the coach and stretched out on the dark, grimy floor. Another percussionist and trained firefighter, Darryl Cearnel -- also band parliamentarian -- had begun administering CPR.

Halfway into the 911 call, Nesbitt remembers handing the phone to head drum major Jonathan Boyce and taking off toward the hotel lobby in search of help. He returned shortly with a hotel security guard and two off-duty officers. By then, an ambulance and White, the band director, were on the scene.

When Hollis, the other drum major who participated in the violent ritual, left the bus that night, Champion was alive, he says. He headed back to his hotel room after people started dispersing and spread out on his bed. It was maybe 10 minutes later when two drum majors showed up with word that Champion had stopped breathing.

He didn't follow his normal instincts and rush to a fallen friend. Instead, he says, he followed orders and stayed behind. When a drum major returned almost an hour later with news that Champion had died, Hollis says, "I was scared." He phoned his mother, who was in town for the Florida Classic, and stayed the night down the road in her hotel room.

As he tried to sleep, the image kept coming back of Champion and him sitting in the rear of the bus, both "out of it," his friend thirsty and asking for water. "I figured he was fine, when he was still conscious and everything was normal. He just said he was thirsty. So I figured, 'OK, he was fine.' I knew the condition that I was in, so I assumed that he was feeling the same way."

[+] EnlargeChampion FAMU house
Mike Fish/ESPN.comRobert Champion lived in this off-campus house while he attended Florida A&M in Tallahassee.

Since that night, Hollis and Nesbitt -- the 911 caller -- have retained legal counsel. Both could end up as prosecution witnesses if there is a trial.

Nesbitt was interviewed on campus after the Thanksgiving break by David Phelan, lead investigator for the Orange County Sheriff's Office, and later met with prosecutors in Orlando.

As for his willingness to reveal publicly what happened on Bus C, he says, "For me, it is more important to make sure that people know what happened. ... The events did take place. I am not worried about somebody saying, 'Oh, you told what happened.' Because either I tell what happened factually or [the media] speculates what happened and tells it wrong."

He acknowledges having gone through the Bus C ritual in 2008. He also claims to have witnessed the initiation earlier this season during a trip to South Carolina State. But he says he never hazed anyone on the bus.

Nesbitt told "Outside the Lines" that two other drum majors -- among the band's best and brightest, selected to leadership roles by White in part because of their high character -- were also on the hazing bus in Orlando as observers, although he declined to identify them. He, however, identified percussionist Dante "Bolo" Martin as the unofficial president of Bus C, overseeing the percussion section's hazing rituals.

Martin, 24, declined three interview requests. At least seven band members identified by witnesses as being on Bus C that night also declined comment or ignored interview requests.

The band director says that he later heard suspicions that Martin participated in the Bus C escapades but never came across him in the parking lot. White had come down from his 13th-floor suite to head off for dinner in a chauffeured limo when he turned an eye to the flashing lights of the ambulance and the commotion around the bus.

He would accompany Champion to the hospital. At 10:36, less than an hour after the 911 call, the drum major was pronounced dead, although White acknowledges "I'm not a medical doctor, so I couldn't give a professional opinion, but, as a layman, I did not see life from the very beginning."

What followed in the ensuing hours and days inside the famed Marching 100 remains in many ways a blur, rife with emotion and tears, chaos and conflicting recollections. White made the difficult call to the Champion family back in Atlanta and later fielded questions from law enforcement in the hospital.

He never mentioned hazing as a possibility when he talked with Champion's parents. And hazing would not be mentioned as a possibility by three other university administrators who called the Champions to offer condolences, either. But the talk of hazing went viral in the social media world, and three days later -- after the preliminary autopsy and a trip to Tallahassee by investigators to interview band members -- the Orange County Sheriff's Office issued a statement saying that "hazing'' occurred prior to the 911 call to assist Champion.

When the final autopsy report was released Dec. 16, it suggested death was a result of "hemorrhagic shock due to soft tissue hemorrhage, incurred by blunt force trauma." Although no bone fractures or internal organ damage was discovered, the report detailed remnants of the beating as such: "extensive contusions and swelling over the upper chest and breast area & extensive contusions of the back and left flank & mottled variegated contusion over the upper back and extending down almost to the waist with shadings of purplish-gray & 3 x 4 cm abrasion over the right knee."

The manner of death: homicide.

Warnings about hazing, but it continued

After he talked with Champion's parents, rather than sleep, White, 71, says he began playing out events. He didn't like the answers after asking a few band members who had been on the bus and why. He didn't buy that a seemingly healthy drum major collapsed without reason, although Nesbitt -- the 911 caller -- says neither White nor anyone else from FAMU has ever asked him what happened.

[+] EnlargeDr. Julian White
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreFlorida A&M Marching 100 Band Director Julian White says he did all he could to stop hazing within his band.

So, the band director says it was he who phoned at 3 in the morning to tip off police that hazing likely played a role in Champion's death. "You know what, I really think that I gave them more concerns," White says. "Because I noticed the questions they were asking, and to me they just weren't asking the right questions."

A law enforcement official close to the case dismissed the portrayal, contending the band director "seems to be a self-important kinda guy."

But White doesn't profess to have all the answers.

White swears he had never heard of the Bus C ritual. He claims no knowledge of Keon Hollis having crossed Bus C alongside Robert Champion, adding "I haven't talked with him, and he hasn't told me that."

Hollis, in a separate interview with "Outside the Lines," says he and the other drum majors met with White the next day in Orlando and detailed what had transpired on Bus C. He described White as having been told "everything."

After White huddled with the drum majors, Hollis says, "He kind of understood what happened. Bus C is something that's old. It's something that's been going on for a long time. And I remember him saying, 'I thought it had stopped? I thought it was over? Why are people still doing it?' So at that point he pretty much knew that it was about to be a lot of controversy going on as far as with the band and the school."

The Champion family's attorney, Christopher Chestnut, suggests of White, "He may have conveniently not known, but he knew."

Others note the Bus C hazing culture often was on display at the annual banquet during the introduction of drum majors. For those yet to cross, the percussionists had been known to break into a chant of "No license, no license" -- meaning the drum major hadn't gone through the Bus C initiation.

White says he's never witnessed any of it.

Nor does he claim to be familiar with his band's most basic rite of passage that freshmen run, not walk, on the FAMU drill field, best known as The Patch. "Well, actually, it's possible that it's not observed," White says, vigorously adding, "If I know that freshmen can't walk, I'll annihilate it. I'll stop it."

The band director's recollection occasionally differs from that of his understudies', including from the chaotic night of Nov. 19. White says he was drawn to the scene by the flashing lights of an ambulance in the hotel parking lot, only to later say he arrived to see a band member administering CPR to Champion -- not a paramedic. He also describes sending Nesbitt, the 911 caller, back to the hotel to retrieve a medical device, although Nesbitt says he went on his own to alert hotel security. Nesbitt also says the first he saw White was when he returned to the lot and the ambulance had arrived.

White says none of this would be a topic of discussion if only band members had bought into his anti-hazing warnings. "That is one thing I got out of this, that you can't trust any student," he says.

A secret society but well-known incidents

The FAMU Marching 100, stretching end zone to end zone in green-and-orange uniforms on football Saturdays, is the Alabama Crimson Tide of high-energy drill routines and molar-rattling tunes. The Rattlers field a football team, although the product is watered down in the wake of integration that has top black talent suiting up at major state football powers.

So the jocks, in an odd twist, serve as a warm-up act for the band. It's the tradition-rich band that travels the globe and turns the university a profit, not the football team. The band is accustomed to playing Super Bowls, presidential inaugurations (both of Bill Clintons' as well as Barack Obama's in 2009) and performing alongside Kanye West at the Grammy Awards.

But for years, away from the spotlight and adoring fans, the Marching 100 has been dogged by a hazing culture that has at times led to serious injury and lawsuits. At the core is a secret society of unsanctioned subgroups within the instrument sections, acting similar to fraternities with specific initiations and rites of passage. White calls the subgroups "illegal," yet, by unofficial count, at least 10 operated under his watch this past fall -- bearing names like the Whompin' White Whales (tubas), Gestapo (saxophones), and Screamin' Demons or Hollywood Hoods (trumpets).

The culture has its roots in campus Greek systems and has been witnessed routinely in athletics teams and even in the military and its academies. The act of physical hazing is not confined to one campus or band, but, in the past decade or so, the most high-profile hazing cases involving marching bands have tended to be at predominantly black institutions such as FAMU. Most have occurred in a cloak of secrecy, off campus and out of sight of band staff.

As early as 1998 at FAMU, then-sophomore Ivery Luckey ended up in a Tallahassee hospital with renal failure for two weeks after a beatdown during initiation for the Clones, the clarinet subgroup. A trumpet player went into similar renal failure after a 2001 hazing incident. Two years later, Tallahassee police records reveal, a freshman saxophonist suffered cuts to his hand during his subgroup's initiation held at a local motel. Four band members were arrested on multiple hazing charges in 2006, although the State Attorney declined to prosecute.

The mother lode of complaints and red flags, though, began in late August. Felicia Fabre, the mother of a saxophone player, complained about hazing in emails and, during an early September campus sit-down with White, writing at one point: "Your section leaders and upperclassmen are still being abusive. These practices MUST STOP, and they will not until someone stands up and some changes are made."

Two months later, freshman Bria Hunter, 5-foot-1, 118 pounds, was struck with fists, spatulas, binders and metal rulers during an off-campus initiation for the Red Dawg Order, a subgroup of band members from Georgia. She ended up with a blood clot in her leg and a cracked femur. Three were charged -- two with hazing and battery, another just hazing -- and Hunter is suing the university.

[+] EnlargeRobert Champion Sr., Pam Champion
AP Photo/David GoldmanRobert Champion, left, and his wife, Pam, lead a procession into the funeral for their son, Florida A&M University band member Robert Champion, in Decatur, Ga.

Another four band members were charged in connection with a September initiation for the Clones, the clarinet subgroup.

All told, 26 members of the band were suspended for hazing-related activities in the month leading up to the season-ending Florida Classic in Orlando.

"I felt comfortable that we really did not have anything to worry about as far as hazing because of the steps that we had taken, the suspensions from the band," White says.

The band director, an early FAMU drum major, casts himself as an anti-hazing pioneer, having voiced concern more than three decades ago and created a "blueprint" he claims is still widely used by other historically black college bands. He holds workshops to drill in the idea that hazing is dangerous and against the law. To his further credit, the theme permeates the band's preseason information packet and the signing of an anti-hazing pledge is a requirement at the start of every season.

The afternoon before leaving for Orlando this past November, White called his band together for another anti-hazing lecture. Campus police chief Calvin Ross and other school officials chimed in with warnings. Almost a page in the travel itinerary handed to band members referenced the dangers and consequences of hazing.

Yet some say only lip service has been paid the "zero tolerance" sermons because, in part, of the FAMU administration's failure to dismiss the band's bad actors from school. Those booted from the band, it is said, often hang around the FAMU campus and have even been known to continue participating in off-campus initiation rites. White was initially fired days after Champion's death but was reinstated after investigators asked the school to hold off on disciplinary action while the investigation continued. As he fights for his job, supporters place the blame on FAMU president James Ammons for his passive stance.

Yet in the early stages of the investigation, the Orlando sheriff's office noted publicly that Ammons and his staff had been fully cooperating with its criminal investigation.

Ammons, through a consulting firm retained by FAMU, cited the on-going investigations in declining interview requests to "Outside the Lines" and failing to respond to a list of questions emailed to him nearly three weeks ago. A statement issued through the firm Monday says: "From the ongoing suspension of the Marching 100 and intake of all student organizations, to the formation of the FAMU Anti-Hazing Committee and mandatory campus safety forums, we are taking a firm stance and believe we are collectively on the right path."

The university has not responded to Jan. 19 public records requests from "Outside the Lines" pertaining to disciplinary action taken against Marching 100 members, including academic expulsion. A source close to White, however, says it's believed the number of such expulsions in the past decade is minimal, perhaps as few as two.

"If you slapped a professor in the face, are you going to come back to school?" says former hazing victim Luckey, who is now a Morgan Stanley vice president. "Or are you going to get two weeks or a semester off? No, I am pretty sure they are going to expel you."

More than 30 people under investigation

Champion's death has changed FAMU. The governor is watching from a few blocks away in the capital city, having already called for the FAMU president's suspension. The band director is on paid administrative leave. The fallout might cost him and the president their jobs eventually.

In Orlando, there's a joint county and state agency investigation into who killed Champion. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which reports to Gov. Rick Scott, has since spun off a separate criminal probe after discovering alleged irregularities with the band's finances. All of which has opened the door for the State University System of Florida to initiate a review of the oversight, or lack thereof, exercised by the FAMU board of trustees, who since have retained a New York-based PR firm to assist in managing the crisis.

Later this spring, attorneys for the Champion family expect to bring a civil lawsuit against FAMU -- if a settlement isn't reached first. A lawsuit already has been filed against the charter bus company.

As for the homicide case led by the Orange County Sheriff's Office, a source close to it told "Outside the Lines" that 34 individuals -- 27 men and seven women -- remain under investigation, although it's unlikely that all would be charged. The case is complicated because of the number of suspects, plus the potential national media exposure. The state prosecutor's office in Orange County, as well as the sheriff's office, are particularly on edge after the ordeal of Casey Anthony, acquitted this past July of murder in her daughter's disappearance and death.

Assistant State Attorney Kenneth Lewis has been assigned the latest homicide case by his boss, Lawson Lamar, who stands for re-election in November.

According to three former state prosecutors interviewed by "Outside the Lines," authorities are presumed to be attempting, where possible, to whittle the list of potential suspects to those who played major roles leading to Champion's death. The charges presumed under consideration are involuntary manslaughter and felony hazing.

"My guess is what is taking so long," says Eric Abrahamsen, former prosecutor in the State Attorney's Office in Tallahassee, "is they want to find out, is there a subset? Do a lot of the percussionists just go [on the bus] to watch? And is this subset really pushing Robert Champion into it, and are they the ones really aggressively hitting people? They may choose to charge the people they find most culpable rather than charging all the people on the bus.

"Or they could charge everyone on the bus, even if they didn't hit him. You can show that everyone knew what was going on. They aided, encouraged, participated because they're attending the event with the idea this ritual is going to happen. So they are aiding in it to the level they can be charged as a principal."

Away from the legal ramifications is what will happen to the band, a popular topic in the FAMU community. In 2007, FAMU administration suspended Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity for seven years after two members were convicted under a new state hazing law of beating a pledge. Yet despite the apparent institutional precedent, many expect the famed Marching 100 to return in some form next football season.

Finding forgiveness but holding the guilty accountable

Back home in Atlanta, the Champion family lines up among those favoring the band's eventual return.

"Our goal is never to stop the music because that's what my son loved," Pam Champion says.

The family mission, though, is to eradicate hazing, and, toward that goal, the Champions have established a foundation in their son's name.

Although voicing a willingness to forgive, the parents still want justice. Their son's body rests in a mausoleum a few miles from home.

They want anyone and everyone who might have played a role in their son's death held accountable. That means FAMU band officials and administration. That means the charter company and the driver, who might have allowed access to the bus. And, of course, that means those who laid a hand on their son.

"I really don't hate them," Mrs. Champion says of the Bus C hazers. "But, of course, you did something that was wrong. You can't play like you didn't know. It was wrong.

"No matter where you walk, where you go in life, you're going to know that you were responsible and you will be held accountable for what you've done."

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.