Renne Morrow, a 19-year-old sousaphone player, stepped in front of a moving car on her way to a UC Davis marching band “bonding” party. Police would later say her blood-alcohol level was more than double the legal limit to drive.
She died from her injuries three days later.
Since the February 2012 accident, members of the UC Davis marching band have honored Morrow’s memory with an annual beer pong tournament, students told The Sacramento Bee. At her grave in Davis, fellow students would gather around her tombstone, enshrined with the words: “She never met a stranger.”
“We all stood in a circle around her grave and they say a few words about her, and then they pass around a flask and people take drinks of it. They poured (it) on her grave,” said Ema Seijas, a former section leader in the band who still pays band dues.
Morrow’s death did little to change the behavior of many students in the UC Davis marching band, known as the Band-Uh!, an investigation by The Bee has found. A raucous, sexually charged, alcohol-soaked culture has been part of the marching band since before most of its current members were born, and it has continued.
The band was placed on 10 months probation in 1992 after reports of underage drinking, hazing and sexual harassment. In 2008, the band’s director filed a formal sexual harassment complaint, accusing the students he was hired to oversee of raunchy behavior.
Now, in the era of the #MeToo movement – in which universities, businesses and Hollywood have confronted decades of inappropriate behavior – the band is facing its own reckoning with yet another university investigation by a prominent local law firm known for investigating high-profile allegations of misconduct.
The volunteer and mostly student-run California Aggie Marching Band is a tight-knit group of students. It operates as a social club with hierarchies and officers and dues. Many members from specific sections of the band often live with each other in rented houses around Davis. They study and party together, when they are not performing at games or university events in large or smaller ensembles.
“The California Aggie Marching Band is one of the proudest, most spirited and best loved organizations on the UC Davis campus,” the band’s website reads.
Band members who spoke with The Bee shared consistent stories of a culture of hazing, binge drinking and people taking off their clothes. One student described the band as a “frat with instruments.” Three people told The Bee they had sexual experiences so traumatizing they sought professional therapy, and one woman said she had to be hospitalized for a psychotic breakdown.
Some students in the band pass around the “Hymnal.” It contains 68 pages of songs about sex, bestiality, incest, rape, masturbation, oral copulation, and is decorated with hand-drawn pornographic illustrations.
Other band members described alcohol-fueled “Maverick” parties and a “hyper-sexualized” culture in which people are encouraged to “make out” with as many as possible. They described a tradition called “Shirts-Off O’clock,” in which partygoers take off their shirts at a set time. They said at least one section in the band hosts naked hot tub sessions at an annual band retreat called “Cabin” held in the Tahoe area. The Bee obtained video taken last year at a band practice on campus, featuring several students performing in their underwear.
Others described hazing. One man said he was forced to wear a hood and was slapped before being pressured to drink large amounts of alcohol. One woman said she was given a dirty T-shirt for winning the “Wise-Ass Freshman Award,” then vomited and passed out after she was pressured to drink copiously from a bottle of bourbon.
Noting that the current band class has close to 300 members, several students who spoke with The Bee said that allegations of misconduct from a handful of students did not reflect their experiences.
Students said members of the band have made a concerted effort to change troublesome traditions, and for the most part, they said, they have made progress. Campus spokeswoman Melissa Lutz Blouin said that in December, the university prohibited the alumni from participating in band activities, after receiving sexual harassment complaints.
“A lot of us are still active members and wouldn’t be if we thought bad stuff was happening in the band,” said Zoe Ehlers, a senior tenor saxophone player.
But now, again, the band’s behavior is under scrutiny.
The allegations of inappropriate conduct, some of which were first published in The California Aggie, the UC Davis student newspaper, have prompted university officials to hire the Sacramento law firm Van Dermyden Maddux.
The university hired the firm to investigate a 2011 incident in which campus police Lt. John Pike calmly sprayed seated student protestors with pepper spray, leading to an international outcry. The university paid a $1 million settlement to the pepper-sprayed students, and Pike was dismissed in 2012.
The Sacramento Kings recently hired the same firm to investigate allegations surrounding its new coach, Luke Walton, who has been sued by a sports reporter alleging Walton sexually assaulted her before he became head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Why did we report this story?
Allegations of misconduct within California Aggie Marching Band first surfaced in April in the UC Davis campus newspaper, The California Aggie. In the days that followed, a number of former band members reached out to The Sacramento Bee’s tipline urging us to dig deeper. Initial interviews and research pointed to serious problems that had lingered at the band for decades. When the university decided to hire an outside lawyer to investigate the band’s behavior, it became clear we needed to investigate.
Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.
How did we report the story?
We began calling past and former students, many of whom asked not to be identified out of fear of bullying and retaliation. In total, we attempted to contact close to 50 students in an effort to tell the most complete, accurate and fair story about life inside Band-Uh! A student provided us with copies of the raunchy hymnal, and shared a cell phone video of band members performing on campus in their underwear. We also visited eight homes in west Davis that students had told us where known as “band houses,” places were band members lived and hosted wild parties. We filed three requests under the California Public Records Act seeking police records and university investigative files. Those requests were denied, with officials citing various privacy exemptions under state law. We are still pursuing that information, and this story.
Who did we speak to?
Band members, band alumni, university officials, police, hazing experts, and the family of Renne Morrow, the student who died on the way to a band party after being struck by a car.
The university also is conducting a “climate survey,” after complaints of “potential hazing, sexual misconduct and violations of the student code of conduct,” the band’s director, Josh Garcia, said in an email obtained by The Bee.
“UC Davis has received information about possible misconduct by members of the Cal Aggie Band, including hazing, sexual harassment and sexual assault,” Lutz Blouin said in an emailed statement. “However, that information has not been sufficiently specific to allow an effective investigation into misconduct by individuals.”
Trauma from sexual encounters
At every band orientation in the fall, students are required to participate in a course in which university officials walk students through the university’s hazing policy, the band’s code of conduct and sexual harassment and assault, officials said.
Students are told a person cannot give consent to sex when they’re intoxicated, and consent should be “enthusiastic and sober,” said Seijas, the former section leader in the band. Students also are told the “absence of a ‘no’ does not mean ‘yes,’ ” she said.
The Bee interviewed four students – three women and one man – who said they were traumatized by sexual encounters they had with other students in band or recent alumni, all in connection to band parties, and all questioning whether they were too drunk to give consent. None of the students reported the incidents to police. Only one was willing to have her name used as she described what she said happened to her.
Christina Peña, now 22, had moved into a band house in Davis during her sophomore year. “Band houses” dot west Davis and are the sites of wild parties, she and others said.
She was a member of the trumpet section. In an interview at a Davis duplex she now shares with two graduate students, she described a night in January 2017 when an upperclassman came to their home, bringing a bottle of vodka for the students, at least two of whom were under 21. At 19, Peña said she wasn’t much of a drinker, but she had two cocktails that were made for her.
“I remember I get up and try to get to the restroom and it was the most dizzy, couldn’t-walk-kind-of-drunk I’d ever been,” she said.
She said she eventually stumbled back to her room, a man followed her and they had sex.
“I was too drunk to walk, to do anything,” she said. “Like, I didn’t take off my own clothes, didn’t turn off the lights, didn’t lay down by myself. I didn’t do any of that without assistance.”
She did not report the incident to the university or law enforcement because she feared retaliation, she said. Instead, she sought out help from the campus Center for Advocacy, Resources & Education and underwent therapy, she said.
“I really didn’t remember everything for a long time,” Peña said. “I kind of grayed out and it took me almost a year to fully, like, go to therapy and counseling on campus and try to work everything out.”
A year after the incident, Peña said she was hospitalized for 10 days at Sierra Vista Hospital in Sacramento after suffering a “psychotic breakdown.”
“I was in the all female ward because I couldn’t even be left alone with male doctors,” she said.
Another student, 21, who asked not to be named claims he developed a disorder after he had sex with another band member who allegedly accompanied him to a dorm bathroom following a night of heavy drinking.
“It was gray because I was so, so, so drunk that I did say, ‘Yes.’ I did agree, but I don’t, I don’t know if being in a culture of everyone being hyper-sexual and then also being very, very drunk counts as consent,” he said. “I woke up the next day and cried about it.”
Yet another band member, now 23, described an instance in which a prominent, older member of the band made sexual advances toward her at a band party, which left her feeling used.
“I felt taken advantage of,” she said. “I remember feeling taken advantage of but I didn’t really understand why because this person was very experienced and I had zero of any sort of experiences. I was really drunk. I was so drunk I couldn’t feel anything.”
Another woman told The Bee said she had a traumatizing sexual encounter with a band alum after she’d had too much to drink.
The woman, now 24, said in 2012 she went to a band event called “Mixed Drinks” at a band house in Davis. She said she recalled the night in detail, down to the color of her shoes and dress. “Mixed Drinks” is a formal occasion in which each section made their own cocktails.
While she and others continued to drink, the woman said she walked outside to show off her new tattoo. As the night waned on and people started to leave, the woman said she returned inside to get her purse, but it had been upended during the party and her belongings were missing. She said she was looking for her keys when she was approached by a drunken former member of the band.
“He put his mouth on me. Without warning, he starts kissing on me,” she said. The woman said the man reached up her dress and groped her, pulling down her tights and asking for oral sex. She began to sob as she described him climbing on top of her.
She said she didn’t fight him off. She said she didn’t say “no.”
“I did go along with it, even though I didn’t want to,” she said. “I didn’t know how to express (that) I didn’t want this and have him listen to that.”
Afterward, the man went upstairs and fell asleep. The woman said she laid down on a couch in the living room to sleep. A friend picked her up in the morning.
She said she was in therapy for two years following the incident.
Some band-wide parties are called “Mavericks,” which typically happen after fall football games, students said. At “Mav Parties,” students said they pay cover fees ranging from $5 to $10 to compensate older students for the cost of alcohol, including a powerful booze concoction called “Mav Juice” whose recipe is a closely guarded secret passed down by a select group of Band-Uh! members, known as the “Mav Committee.” It’s sometimes served in a trash can with a spigot at the bottom, students said.
Students who have had Mav Juice said they think it’s probably a mixture of hard liquor, Kool-Aid or soda, and sometimes caffeine-loaded energy drinks.
“They’re not telling you what’s in it,” Peña said. “They’re not telling you this is the equivalent of a cup with three shots, one shot, four shots like what’s in there. You either choose not to or you black out. There’s no in between.”
One student who left the band in 2017 said at her first Maverick party in 2015, students called “Coats” stood in front of the party goers, leading them in singing sexual songs from the profane hymnal. She said the freshmen are pushed to the front of the group so they can learn the lyrics.
But Edgar Baculi, a 22-year-old section leader, said students don’t sing songs from the hymnal anymore, and the parties have grown much tamer. He said he’s never seen a band member pressured into anything they didn’t want to do.
“You are going to do you, and nobody is going to judge you for it,” he said, noting that he and many other members of the band don’t drink alcohol. “If you don’t want to drink then nobody is going to say anything about it. You basically do you, and we will support you in what you are comfortable with. That is the general atmosphere that I get when we do have these parties.”
Other students described a near-constant sexually charged atmosphere at band events and out-of-town-trips.
Every year, students in the band make a trip to Lake Tahoe for an outing called “Cabin.” Students interviewed by The Bee described events such as “naked Jenga” in one section’s cabin, and naked hot tub parties in another. Alumni attend the party, staying in a separate cabin, students said.
Some sections keep to themselves during Cabin, playing board games and doing their homework. In others, “it’s essentially just a three-day binge drinking, marijuana smoking, naked hot tubs fest,” Peña said.
While at Cabin her sophomore year, Peña said she was groped while sitting naked in a hot tub with friends.
She said a man sitting in the hot tub with them “saw me starting to rest my head back and close my eyes and he started grabbing my thigh and boobs under the water.”
“I said, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ ” Peña said. “He stopped. And then he did it again. I said, ‘Don’t you have a girlfriend?’ and he got out of the hot tub and I told people in my section that he did that. ... Nobody did anything about him.”
In the alto section’s cabin, some students play “naked Jenga,” according to two students. Each piece of the game has instructions to remove clothing when they pull it from the tower of blocks.
“They just hyper-sexualized everything that happened during the off-band time,” one student said. Nearly every student who requested to remain anonymous said they did so out of fear of being ostracized or bullied on social media.
At least one tradition featuring students in various states of undress happens on campus.
In a 2018 cell phone video obtained by The Bee, scantily-clad students can be seen playing their instruments in the band room after hours.
The tradition is known as “Midnight Rally” and is part of the build-up for Picnic Day, where the band performs in Battle of the Bands.
Band officers use their key cards to let students into the Activities and Recreation Center after hours, which houses the band’s rehearsal room, Seijas said. The students squeeze into the room, and some strip down. Then they play.
In the video, many men are shirtless and some women are wearing bras and panties as they play an upbeat marching tune.
The band’s hymnal has been shared among a handful of students in email threads going back nearly a decade. The emails include a digital attachment of a 68-page document filled with raunchy songs and illustrations of genitalia.
Titled the “Jolly Roger’s Piece Core Hymnal,” the songbook’s cover is decorated with a disembodied, leering, one-eyed pirate. Saliva is dripping from his extended tongue. Page 2 features a logo for “Golden Cock Publications,” which includes a picture of a rooster and a penis that appears to be ejaculating.
Dated 1982, and written on a typewriter, it’s filled with more than 100 songs, all of them containing some kind of sexual reference.
Senior students said they remembered singing “Battle Hymen of the Republic” as freshmen. The song opens with, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of my nards. We have raped the vestal virgins in their very own backyards. We have hacked apart their hymen with our terrible swift swords. While their mothers watched and cried.”
Notes – such as “early to bed, early to rise, makes your girl pregnant” – are scribbled in the margin. Hand-drawn illustrations of sexual acts and genitalia are littered throughout.
Students said the hymnal now is treated like a historical document, a record of the band’s raunchy past. Some current band members said many of the songs aren’t used anymore in an effort to change the band’s culture. However, they said, that effort is derailed by some alumni who frequent band events, reintroducing dead customs as “tradition.”
“The hymnal, they still pass it down but with the caveat like, ‘We don’t sing these songs that way any more and this is our history, and we should respect it but we’re changing it to make it more friendly,’” said a student who left the band in 2017 and asked not to be named out of fear of bullying on social media.
“The alumni come back and sing out about bestiality and rape, and they have these parts where you raise your hand and you say something, and it’s kind of like a competition to be the one to say the most disgusting line.”
Over the years, the band developed a series of traditions and rituals as bonding experiences. Some of them have been thrown by the wayside, but others persist.
For some students, those experiences cross the line into hazing.
At an event for saxophone players called “Sax Dinner,” one student said a hood was put over his head and he was dragged outside.
“I was slapped by four different people like across the face and I was forced to chug a cup of, like, jungle juice or something,” he said. “Then they were like, ‘It’s time to see who can make out with the most number of people,’ so they turned it into, like, a competition.”
The California Aggie reported that some men were blindfolded at another bonding event before being handed candles carved into the shape of penises. They were instructed to describe what the candles felt like, and later asked to describe their own genitals, the student paper reported.
During her freshman year, Peña was given the “Wise-Ass Freshman Award” during a ceremony known as “Home Desserts,” at which a variety of awards are given out and some of them are meant to be disparaging, she said.
As part of her prize, Peña was given a shirt that she said had been stained with a variety of fluids including urine, feces, vomit and bong water.
“It’s just a white shirt that is brown that is literally disintegrating a bag,” she said. She was told to not put the shirt on, but to keep it in somewhere in her room, Peña said.
Months later, upperclassmen and alumni who had previously won the same award took Peña out for a congratulatory dinner. It was called the “Wise-Ass Freshman Bonding.”
“They bought me a dinner and I remember being like ‘Oh, should I get the spicy pasta or fettuccine Alfredo? And they said, ‘What will taste better coming back up?’ ” she said.
She ended up vomiting that night after guzzling bourbon, before passing out in a stranger’s house.
Initiation rituals begin almost as soon as the Freshmen join the band.
At the end of the band’s fall retreat, where new students learn how to march and basics of performing, freshmen are misled into believing they’re having a marching test, but are instead lead to Putah Creek, a tributary that runs through the university’s arboretum.
With band members and professional staff looking on, they soak their hats in the creek and rub them in the dirt. They’re encouraged to wear the soggy, dirty hat for the remainder of the day.
Some students interviewed by The Bee who took issue with some of the band’s racier traditions said they weren’t bothered by that one. It’s meant to be an innocent gesture: students carry a piece of Davis with them wherever they perform.
But Joel Gutierrez, 21, who played clarinet, said he felt it crossed a line into university-sanctioned hazing.
“It very much felt like hazing to me and it made me feel extremely uncomfortable and people would look at me like, ‘Why do you look you’re so pissed? It’s fine. Every one does this. Every one goes through this,’” he said. “But in reality it was really unnerving and embarrassing and also gross.”
A long history
Allegations of misconduct have dogged the band for more than a quarter century.
In 1992, the band was placed on probation for 10 months for allegedly violating the school’s policies after receiving complaints of sexual harassment, underage drinking and hazing. A student alleged she was sexually harassed by the band director at the time.
Other allegations included a ritual defacing of members’ “Maverick” hats, referred to as “raping the hats;” a toast to freshmen who have survived initiation laced with sexual and profane terms; cheers sung during games that include sexually suggestive terms; an initiation rite for freshmen that forces them to introduce themselves by name, section of the band and sexual preference; and T-shirts, which were worn as informal uniforms, with sexual slogans.
In response, the university said allegations against the marching band had been “sufficiently serious to warrant a full examination of the band’s composition and practices.” But investigators did not find any evidence to “substantiate informal allegations of racism, homophobia, serving alcohol to minors, or hazing.”
“Practices that could be construed as sexual harassment have been discontinued or modified,” Frank L. Rincon, vice chancellor for student affairs, said at the time.
Similar allegations resurfaced a decade ago, in 2008, this time from former band director Thomas Slabaugh II, a UC Davis faculty member. He filed a sexual harassment complaint, alleging a number of “ridiculous, disturbing and offensive” incidents he was exposed to, including an event known as “Naked Van” in which band members would strip down to their underwear en route to a football game at Portland State University.
At the time, the San Francisco Chronicle reported an incident in which a sousaphone player and a clarinetist used masking tape to write “I BOOBS” on the van’s window. A motorist who saw the van on Interstate 5 complained to the university.
In addition, four reportedly drunken band members were caught urinating in a dormitory elevator during the band’s fall retreat in 2007, the Chronicle reported. Then, at Picnic Day, four others dropped their uniform pants down and recreated the incident, which was captured by a photographer at the event.
At rehearsals, instances of nudity persisted with male band members removing their pants and women sometimes taking their shirts off, showing their bras, Slabaugh wrote in his complaint. He said an evening practice was derailed when a bass drummer started performing lap dances, the paper reported.
In response to a Public Records Act request from The Bee, the University of California said it no longer had a record of Slabaugh’s complaint, saying it only retained complaints for seven years. Band members said “Naked Van” was phased out after the complaint.
Slabaugh declined to comment on the complaint and its resolution when contacted by The Bee. On his Facebook page, Slabaugh posted the recent story in The Aggie with a caption saying, “I’m so sad.”
In response to a comment on Facebook, Slabaugh said his 2008 complaint was addressed, “thus allowing the band to become a wonderful band, full of great young adults. To see these behaviors hit the band again is simply sad. So many people, students and staff, worked so hard to eliminate these behaviors.”
Baculi, the 22-year-old leader of the “baritax” section made up of baritone saxophones and horns, said the band’s leadership and the university has made a conscientious effort to move past the raucous traditions of decades past and become a more inclusive organization. For instance, they list their preferred pronouns on their emails so LBGT students feel more comfortable, he said.
Students are always given the option of opting out of drinking or participating in anything that could make them uncomfortable, he said. The recent efforts to exclude alumni from events is an example of how current band members want to chart their own course, with their own traditions, he said.
“The band is what we want to make it, and what we want to make it is a loving organization that includes everybody,” Baculi said. “I can’t say what alumni have done 20 years ago, or 30 years, or that far back. But what we’re focused on is ... making what we want it to be and not what tradition says.”