Air Force Academy ritual was something out of a bad fraternity movie, sources say
By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette | Published: September 15, 2018
COLORADO SPRINGS (Tribune News Service) — The ritual was something out of a bad fraternity movie: blindfolded neophyte cadets, half-naked seniors and a threat of forced oral sex.
It’s a tradition that had gone on for at least three decades on the Air Force Academy men’s swimming team, sources tell The Gazette.
And, according to criminal charges announced Thursday evening against two cadets, it could be a federal felony.
The hazing charges released by the academy are without precedent in the school’s 64-year history, with two seniors facing up to five years behind bars on allegations of obstruction of justice and dereliction of duty. In the past, hazing cases have been handled through the school’s administrative discipline process, making this the first criminal hazing case in academy history.
“It must be emphasized that charges are merely accusations, and the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty,” the academy said in a news release.
Cadets Michael Hannigan, the captain of the swimming team and Lars Knutson, a top swimmer who was named a first-team all Western Athletic Conference swimmer last year, face preliminary hearings. Those hearings will determine whether there’s sufficient evidence to court-martial the pair.
They are two of 11 swimmers who were suspended from the team in February amid an investigation into hazing.
The school’s superintendent, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, discussed the case with the school’s civilian oversight board in April.
“Times have changed, and some of these rituals hang on that are completely, ridiculously inappropriate,” Silveria said.
A summary of the 900-page investigative file obtained by The Gazette showed the hazing took place on Sept. 29, 2017, the same day as a Nerf gun fight at the school that triggered hysteria after it was reported as both an active shooter situation and a terrorist attack.
The swim team started the evening with a dinner for the freshmen class at Olive Garden. Over all-you-can-eat pasta, the newcomers were introduced to “Phi Kappa Sierra” a self-described swimming team fraternity that has been in existence since at least the 1980s.
The bounty of food on the table was part of the initiation rites, the freshmen were told. As the pasta kept coming, the newcomers were instructed to eat as much as they could.
After the meal, the stuffed freshmen were waddled to a car and blindfolded with their blue cadet ties. They were driven to the woods north of the 18,500-acre campus for another ritual called the “chunker.”
Upper-classmen had gallons of milk for the cadets to drink and foods prepared for the event. Jello with mustard was one example.
The freshmen, who had just finished eight weeks of basic training, were made to run, drink milk, eat and run some more, sources told the Gazette. The goal of the chunker was to make them vomit, “spew chunks” in cadet lingo.
With that ritual completed, the final stage of the hazing allegedly began, with seniors stripping and freshmen being blindfolded again.
No sexual acts were alleged to have taken place. The unclothed seniors pulled their pants back up and announced it was all a gag. The incident prompted one of the freshmen to complain to top academy leaders.
That triggered the investigation, which lasted through most of the swimming team season.
It resulted in a dramatic scene in Houston on Feb. 22, when cadets were literally pulled from the pool at the Western Athletic Conference championships and suspended from the team, which was making a run at the conference crown.
“The timing couldn’t have been worse, but this is about the hard right and not the easy wrong,” former academy Athletic Director Jim Knowlton told The Gazette in March.
The investigation focused on Knutson and Hannigan, who were held back from graduation May 23.
Charge sheets indicate that as many as 10 other cadets may have been involved in the hazing incident, but they are unnamed and uncharged co-conspirators in court papers released Thursday.
The charges come as the academy awaits results of an outside review of athletic culture that was triggered by the swimming incident and a similar probe into the school’s lacrosse team.
In the case of the lacrosse team, details of which have not been released, Coach Eric Seremet was removed and Bill Wilson installed as interim head coach of the squad.
While lacrosse players were suspended and faced other, unspecified discipline, none of them were charged with crimes.
For the swimming squad, coach Rob Clayton, who is entering his 20th year leading the team, remained listed as the coach on the academy’s official roster Thursday.
Hazing at the academy has been officially banned since its founding in 1954. But that’s never quite worked.
Rituals from the “hall brawl” and “first-snow, first-shirt” have made headlines in recent years. Hazing was also a focus of the “agenda for change” which followed the school’s 2003 sexual assault scandal, when dozens of women said their claims of sexual assault were mishandled or ignored.
Through the years, the academy has relied on school rules to deal with the hazers, which as outlined by Congress require “dismissal, suspension, or other adequate punishment for violations.”
It remains unclear why the school charged Hannigan and Knutson.
Knowlton, before he left to take the top athletic job at the University of California in April, told The Gazette, though, that he wanted to take tough measures to stamp out athlete misconduct.
“Was it tough? Yes,” he said in March. “Was it the right thing to do? Absolutely.”
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