NEW YORK -- Days before 12 former members of the Florida A&M University Marching 100 go on trial in connection with the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion, two of them sent a message to Champion's parents during a taping of the TV talk show "Katie."
In recorded statements, both Keon Hollis, 22, and Rikki Wills, 24, expressed regret for not doing something to stop the hazing or protect Champion. They also asked for forgiveness from his parents.
"I really ask for your forgiveness for what happened," Hollis said. "And if there's anything I can do, anything my family can do, please let me know."
"If there's anything else that I could've possibly done, I would've done it," Wills said. "I loved your son like a brother."
Pamela Champion, Champion's mother, responded simply, "I have no hate."
Champion, 26, a drum major of the highly respected Marching 100 at FAMU, was killed in a band-hazing incident Nov. 19. In the taping this week of an episode of Katie Couric's new show, "Katie," to air on Friday, some of Champion's band mates opened up about the night he was killed.
Hollis, Champion's roommate, also was undergoing the same hazing ritual that night.
During the hazing, referred to as "Crossing Bus C," Champion had to make it from the front to the back of a coach bus -- similar to the type used by Greyhound -- while battling an onslaught of physical beatings by his band mates, the two said during the taping. Champion was pulled into seats, getting trapped while he took hits from fists, belts and an orange parking cone. He was given a "hot seat" -- in which members placed a blanket over him while continuing the beating. A bass drum mallet flying though the air hit Champion, while also fracturing Wills' finger caught in the cross fire, said Wills.
After about 10 minutes, when Champion made it to the back of the bus, he complained he felt dizzy and hot, and had trouble breathing. "He kept saying 'I'm hot, I'm hot, I'm hot,'" Wills said.
Champion was jumping up and down saying, "can't hear you" as his band mates tried to make sure we was OK, the two said during the taping. Champion began to vomit, then passed out. By the time an emergency call was placed, tenor drum section leader Henry Nesbitt told dispatchers Champion's body was cold. Less than an hour later, at 10:36 p.m., he was pronounced dead.
The coroner in Orlando, Fla., ruled Champion's death a homicide in December 2011, the result of "hemorrhagic shock due to soft tissue hemorrhage, incurred by blunt force trauma" and "extensive contusions and swelling over the upper chest and breast area & extensive contusions of the back and left flank."
The incident was at night in a darkened bus, so no one is quite sure who threw which blow. Police interviewed witnesses and 11 band members were charged with "hazing with death," a felony. If found guilty, they'll face a maximum of six years in jail under Florida law. It's estimated 15-20 people took part of the hazing rituals.
"You've got to wonder about the mentality of those people, because they're not kids. ... Then to justify it, they put the word hazing on top of it. Now it becomes, it's just hazing. It's murder. It actually is murder," Pamela Champion said. "If you take away that word hazing off of it, what is it? That's what needs to be looked at."
Asked if he regretted not doing anything to stop the incident, Wills said, "I want to say yes, I regret not stopping it, but I can't say that because if the band staff couldn't stop it, if the university couldn't stop it, or any officials, what is one student goin' to do?"
"It's hard to lose somebody," Hollis said. "Especially when you feel like you could've done something to stop it."
Some reports speculated that Champion might have been targeted for a more intense beating because he openly opposed hazing, which has long existed in the band, or because he was gay and a candidate for chief drum major. Champion's parents dismiss the idea about their son's sexual orientation as nonsense, but did knowledge his opposition to hazing.
Hollis and Wills said they believe Champion wanted to earn his band mates' respect, but his parents have a hard time believing that is the real reason. His mother said Champion never mentioned anything about possibly subjecting himself to the Marching 100's hazing rituals.
The university, as well as the FAMU student newspaper, recently declared that Champion was at fault in his death, because he entered the bus willingly, knowing about the ritual.
But even as FAMU insists it isn't to blame, the band director was initially fired then placed on leave before he eventually retired, the university president has been ousted and the Marching 100 suspended.
Champion's parents are suing FAMU, in addition to the bus owner. "Everyone should be held accountable for what you did or did not do," Pamela Champion said.
To hear more from experts and Champion's parents, watch the full episode Friday. This episode of Katie Couric’s nationally syndicated talk show, “Katie” airs Oct. 5 (Check local listings or katiecouric.com.)