Air Force Academy announces first criminal hazing charges in school's history

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U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY (The Gazette) - 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 new 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.

Click here to read the full article by 11 News partner The Gazette.