But Chestnut’s approach to public relations doesn’t reflect the Gary model. A key part of Gary’s success has been his skill at staying on top of the facts in his cases and shaping the direction of media coverage. Chestnut has let the press run away with the public discussion of the Nov. 19 “Crossing Bus C” hazing incident.
Chestnut has had little control over the Robert Champion, Jr. story ever since ESPN investigative reporters began sharing their findings in March. A lawsuit filed by Chestnut stated that Fabulous Coach Lines driver Wendy Millette stood guard outside the bus on which Champion was being hazed. It also claimed that she “forced” him back onto vehicle when he came out the bus door to vomit.
ESPN’s coverage provided an eyewitness account by FAMU drum major Keon Hollis, who said he arrived at the bus with Champion and stayed with him throughout the entire hazing process. Hollis said he didn’t see the bus driver anywhere around the vehicle.
Hollis also said that he and Champion willingly participated in the hazing process.
The effort to attack the competence of those who handled the criminal investigation didn’t go anywhere. When news organizations across the country received the Champion case files from the OCSO, they gave sympathetic coverage to the detective work. They also published big headlines about the evidence that Champion volunteered to be hazed.
Chestnut finally had to call a press conference to address the issue he had been avoiding since the Hollis interview aired on ESPN in March. He told reporters that even after the release of the case file evidence, it still wasn’t clear to him that Champion boarded the bus on which he was hazed willingly.
Maybe Chestnut thought he could indirectly discredit Hollis’ statements about Champion’s willing participation and the bus driver’s absence from the vehicle by trying to convince the public that the criminal investigation, which heavily relied on Hollis’ sworn affidavit, was “botched.”
If Hollis cooperated with detectives and prosecutors to bring criminal charges against his own bandmates, why would he have any reason to protect the bus driver? Why would he have any reason to make a false claim about Champion participating in the hazing ritual on his own free will?
Until Chestnut comes forward with some evidence that can prove Hollis’ account is wrong, he has no chance of regaining control of the Champion story.