COURTESY OF JOLAYNE HOUTZ AND HECTOR MARTINEZ
Fall is a difficult season for Jolayne Houtz and Hector Martinez. On Oct. 3, they celebrated their son Sam Martinez’s 20th birthday, and today marks the first anniversary of his death.
“Our family feels very incomplete without him,” Jolayne said.
The upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays only compound the feeling of loss Sam’s family is experiencing, Jolayne said. This is the second holiday season they will be celebrating without their son.
Sam was a loyal and empathetic person, his parents said. His death left a hole in their lives.
Hector said Sam was a gifted and competitive athlete. Sam played baseball and basketball, but his real passion was soccer, which he began when he was 3 years old.
“He was a natural. He had it in his blood,” Hector said. “The other kids didn’t even know how to kick the ball.”
Every summer, Sam’s family volunteered in a town outside of Oaxaca, Mexico, to help with community development projects. When Sam was little, he would carry large rocks to the foundation of the houses they were building, Hector said.
Sam would hand out donated clothes and school supplies to the children who lived in the town, he said. Sam spoke Spanish, so he could easily communicate with friends as they worked on the projects or played soccer.
Jolayne said Sam could always tell when someone needed support. When Sam was a ski instructor, he taught a group of three young boys. Two of the boys went on the chair lift together and left the third one behind, causing him to cry.
“Sam [told the boy], ‘Hey, no problem, I’m going to sit with you … I’m going to be right there next to you,’” Jolayne said. “He was very empathetic to people who needed a boost.”
Sam would also defend other pledges during his time at Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, Jolayne said. In one incident, initiation rituals got out of hand when fraternity members bullied a pledge. Sam brought up the incident to the chapter’s leadership.
“He stood up to them and tried to set things right,” Jolayne said. “He was a quiet leader. He wasn’t the loudest voice in the room, but [his friends] looked up to him.”
Sam cared more than most fraternity members and tried to fight back if they mistreated him or other pledges, said Charlie Gartenberg, sophomore marketing major and one of Sam’s friends from WSU and high school. During a camping trip, Sam tried to tackle ATO members when they targeted pledges as part of a game.
During ATO’s “family drink night,” older members brought large quantities of alcohol for pledges to drink.
Sam consumed a fatal amount of alcohol that night and died on the morning of Nov. 12, 2019. The Whitman County coroner ruled Sam died from acute alcohol intoxication.
His parents said the “family drink night” was one incident in a pattern of hazing Sam experienced as a pledge. WSU’s Center for Community Standards listed hazing in the list of standards ATO violated, according to a Conduct Resolution Agreement document obtained from the CCS.
“He had so much more to him than just a kid who died from drinking,” Charlie said.
WSU students and student organizations are prohibited from participating in hazing, according to the Washington Administrative Code. Hazing is defined as any initiation method that causes or is likely to cause physical, mental or emotional harm. This includes alcohol abuse during new member activities.
One year later, Sam’s family and friends still feel the effects of his death.
“It really sucks that it’s him that had to go,” said Will Carlson, Sam’s close friend since kindergarten. “I have to deal with him being gone, the main person [who] I would talk to … It was a punch in the gut.”
It is difficult to accept Sam’s death, Will said. Sometimes, Will dreams about Sam and wakes up wanting to tell him about the dream.
Sam would normally support Will through emotional times, but now Will has to cope alone.
Jolayne said she is still shocked Sam is no longer with them.
“There are still days when you’re just waking up in the morning and you aren’t quite fully awake yet — you don’t remember right away,” Jolayne said. “There’s this moment where it seems like it must be the way it always was when it was all of us together.”
On the day they were notified of Sam’s death, Hector was working at Seattle Children’s Hospital while Jolayne was at the University of Washington.
Hector said his brother called him, telling him to come home because police officers were at their door. But his brother did not say why they were there.
“I didn’t hear yet that my son died,” he said, “but I could feel it.”
Early that Tuesday morning, one of Charlie’s friends told him an ATO pledge died. Charlie said he did not think about it until his economics class, which he shared with Sam.
Sam did not show up to class, even though he told Charlie he would be there that day. Charlie said he asked several ATO members if they knew where Sam was, but they dismissed his questions.
Charlie later called another ATO member he was friends with and found out Sam was dead.
Will was in Illinois when he got the call about Sam. He said he felt “completely fazed” and did not understand what was going on. About 12 hours after that call, Will was on a plane back to Washington.
“If you ever got the wind knocked out of you, it’s that times a million,” Will said.
The feeling of loss comes and goes, he said. Will is coping with his grief by surrounding himself with loved ones.
“When someone dies, a bunch of other people lose a lot of their lives,” Will said. “Death has its ripples. There’s a lot of people who feel the impact.”
Jolayne said she and Hector have been camping and hiking more since Sam’s death because being in nature helps them cope.
“It’s become a little bit of an escape for us,” she said.
Sam’s family started a memorial fund in his honor, which currently has about $8,000 in donations. The money will be split between their yearly service project in Mexico and the construction of a memorial trail at the church camp Sam attended. Funds will also be used to support anti-hazing organizations.
People who wish to donate to Sam’s memorial fund can mail checks to Fauntleroy Church with “Sam Martinez Memorial Fund” in the subject line. The church’s address is 9140 California Ave. SW, Seattle, WA 98136.
The Pullman Police Department’s investigation into Sam’s death is still ongoing, Jolayne said.
Jolayne and Hector want to know what happened, and they are frustrated they do not have answers yet.
“Having a full picture of that night is really important to us as parents,” Jolayne said.