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Entries in Florida A&M University (16)

Monday
Mar042013

Former Florida A&M Band Members Facing Upgraded Charges in Drum Major's Death

Champion Family Photo(ORLANDO, Fla.) -- A new state prosecutor has raised the stakes in the case involving members of the Florida A&M University marching band, who are accused of hazing drum major, Robert Champion, resulting in his death. Including two additional defendants, 12 people are now charged with manslaughter.

Previous charges for felony hazing resulting in death had been filed against 10 former band members. Now, the 10 and two additional defendants are charged with manslaughter, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

Bill Sharpe, an attorney for suspect Rikki Willis, called the upgraded charges ludicrous.

"He's disturbed, scared. Anybody would be. This is frightening to him. You know, he's lost everything he was trying to do," Sharpe said Monday.

In November 2011, Champion was beaten to death in Orlando. The 26-year-old died after collapsing, following what prosecutors call a savage hazing ritual. It happened on a bus at a hotel parking lot after FAMU played Bethune Cookman for the annual Florida Classic.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

Monday
Oct222012

Hazing Death Plea Gets Leniency, But Not from Victim's Mom

Champion Family Photo(TALLAHASSEE, Fla.) -- The first of a dozen defendants charged in the hazing death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion appears to have gotten off easy with the judge Monday, but not with Champion's mother.

Champion, 26, was a member of the college's famed "Marching 100" band when he collapsed and died Nov. 19 on a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel after a football game.

Champion's parents sat steely-eyed and stared straight ahead as the judge explained his reasoning for sentencing Brian Jones, 24, to two years of probation and 200 hours of community service.

Moments earlier, the judge made an exception and allowed Champion's mother Pamela Champion to directly and sternly address Jones. She explained her thought process when deciding what to say to him.

"I thought about expressing the agony and pain that my family has gone through because of you. I thought of expressing the torment I go through each and every day knowing that I will never see Robert because of you," she said. "I even thought of expressing my anger, my disappointment in all the deceitful lies, the corruption, the ruthlessness, the mishandling of my son's murder."

In the end, she said, she decided to pose a series of questions to Jones. She asked him how long he could hide the truth, how he could live with the lie and what punishment he deserved.

"The judge had stated that your part in Robert's death was really minimal, but you and I know that's not true," she said. "It will always be there haunting you. We both know that."

Champion's father Robert Champion also addressed the court, speaking with "a lot of mixed emotions and a heavy heart."

"This is an opportunity that we can take to tell the world that we are not going to accept hazing. It's a thing of the past and it starts now with holding these people responsible for what they did," he said. "It's been going on too long and this is time to make a statement."

Jones' mother expressed her "deepest" and "sincerest" sympathy to the Champion family, but pleaded with the judge to show mercy to her son who told her that he was not involved in Champion's death.

"I've taught Brian to talk to me and tell me the truth," Jacquelin Jones said. "I'm convinced that my son told me the truth."

Jones was the last to tearfully address the court.

"I stand before you today still in shock, but with a sound mind and humble heart," he sniffed. "I just want the world to know that I'm sorry for the death of your son Robert. I truly am. No words or anything I could do would be sufficient enough to express how regretful I am of the loss of Robert."

He said the band's behavior was "completely inexcusable" and that the events of the night "went further than anyone imagined, wanted or thought." Jones said his "heart continues to ache at the thought of what happened."

Jones said he did not know Champion, but had heard of his high character, academic talents and precise marching skills. Through tears, he called Champion a "role model for excellence."

Jones was charged with a third-degree felony. He entered a no-contest plea on Oct. 9 after originally pleading not guilty.

Judge Marc Lubet called the sentencing an "extremely difficult situation" and said he had to look at Jones in terms of a ladder of culpability and prosecutors did not have any evidence that Jones hit or hurt Champion. Lubet quoted Abraham Lincoln before announcing the sentence, saying, "Mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice."

"I could destroy his life right this minute, but, once again, based on all the facts of this case, I think the quote from Abraham Lincoln is very, very pertinent," Lubet said. "I think you're worth saving."

The judge even commended Jones for being the first defendant to come forward and "take some responsibility."

In addition to the probation and community service, Jones was ordered to have no contact with the Champion family unless they were to initiate it and no contact with any of the other defendants.

Thirteen FAMU band members have been charged in relation to Champion's death. Eleven of the band members face felony hazing charges and the other two face misdemeanor hazing charges. The defendants have pleaded not guilty.

In May, over 2,000 pages of evidence from the investigation into Champion's death were released by the Florida District Attorney's Office, which delivered a blow-by-blow of the events from the night of Robert Champion's death.

Champion endured a lethal pummeling down the aisle of a pitch-black bus that rocked from the force of the violence inside, according to the documents.

Champion struggled, with a female band member holding him back to prolong the punishment, through a gauntlet of band mates who used their fists, feet, straps and sticks to pound him into unconsciousness.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Tuesday
Sep112012

Parents of Hazing Victim 'Appalled' FAMU Blames Son for His Own Death

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images(ORLANDO, Fla.) -- The parents of hazing victim Robert Champion are "appalled" that Florida A&M University is insisting in court papers that their son was responsible for his own beating death during a hazing incident at the school.

"It's startling that they would blame the victim for his own death," Champion family attorney Christopher Chestnut told ABC News Tuesday. "FAMU is pointing the finger at everyone else but themselves, including their own students."

Chestnut said that Champion's parents, Robert and Pamela Champion, are "appalled" by the university's claim, but that they're "more committed than ever" to abolishing the culture of hazing at the school.

"Arguably, part of the reason the culture still exists is because the blame has always been on anyone except for the institution, by the institution," Chestnut said. "FAMU is always blaming other people, never taking responsibility."

The university filed a motion on Monday night to dismiss Champion's parents' wrongful-death lawsuit against the school.

Champion, 26, was a member of the college's famed "Marching 100" band when he collapsed and died Nov. 19 on a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel after a football game.

FAMU claims that the hazing occurred after Champion was "relieved of his responsibilities" as a band member and had already gone back to his room and changed out of his band uniform.

"No, he was on the clock," Chestnut said. "This is a school sanctioned event. It's in a bus they chartered, at a hotel they designated for him to stay at exclusively with members and staff of this institution."

The university's motion also points out that Champion signed a "Hazing and Harassment Agreement" months before his death in which he acknowledged understanding the "dangers of participating in hazing, either as a hazer or a hazee."

"It is undisputed that Mr. Champion knew that existence of the danger (hazing) of which Plaintiff now complains, he realized and appreciated the possibility of injuries as a result of such danger, and notwithstanding the opportunity to avoid the danger simply by not showing up at the designated place and time, he deliberately exposed himself to the danger," the motion said.

Chestnut called the reference to the signed agreement a "tongue-in-cheek" move by the school.

"Everyone signed that agreement, but they also knew that unless you were hazed, you weren't accepted," he said.

The school called the other band members on the bus "Mr. Champion's co-conspirators" and said there was no allegation or evidence that Champion reported the hazing event or tried to stop anyone from participating.

"Florida's sovereign immunity bars Plaintiff's claim against FAMU because Mr. Champion agreed, conspired, combined or confederated with others to do unlawful acts, and encouraged, requested or helped cause others to commit such unlawful acts."

The filing said that even if one assumes that Champion did not commit any crimes in relation to the hazing, he at least "participated as a hazee."

The motion also cites the sworn statement given by band mate Keon Hollis, who was also hazed the night of Champion's death.

After Hollis and Champion changed out of their band uniforms and returned to the hotel following the football game, Hollis said Champion asked him if we was going to "cross the bus," which is how they referred to the hazing ritual that took place on a bus.

Hollis said that when he told Champion he was going to participate, Champion "stated to me that he was going to cross as well. I asked him if he were [sic] sure he wanted to do it and he stated, 'Yea, I just want to get it over with.'"

"In the final analysis, neither Mr. Champion, Mr. Hollis, hotel security, nor law enforcement experts ... were able to predict or prevent this shocking and depraved hazing incident, and therefore, it would be unfair and illogical to hold FAMU to a different and higher level of omnipotence," the motion states.

The Champions alleged in their lawsuit that the school did not do enough to stop the hazing that was a well-known tradition within the marching band.

"Our whole goal here is to make sure no one else has to go through what we've gone through and in order to do that there needs to be some accountability," Pamela Champion said in July.

The lawsuit also seeks monetary compensation for the Champion family for reasons including "past and future mental pain and suffering," "past and future loss of decedent's support and services," and expenses from medical care and funeral arrangements.

FAMU denied that money is owed to the Champions.

"Respectfully, as a 26 year old adult and leader in FAMU's band, Mr. Champion should have refused to participate in the planned hazing event and reported it to law enforcement or University administrators," the motion says. "Under these circumstances, Florida's taxpayers should not be held financially liable to Mr. Champion's Estate for the ultimate result of his own imprudent, avoidable and tragic decision and death."

Thirteen FAMU band members have been charged in relation to Champion's death. Eleven of the band members face felony hazing charges and the other two face misdemeanor hazing charges. The defendants have pleaded not guilty.

In May, over 2,000 pages of evidence from the investigation into Champion's death were released by the Florida District Attorney's Office, which delivered a blow-by-blow account of the events from the night of Robert Champion's death.

Champion endured a lethal pummeling down the aisle of a pitch-black bus that rocked from the force of the violence inside, according to the documents.

Champion struggled, with a female band member holding him back to prolong the punishment, through a gauntlet of band mates who used their fists, feet, straps and sticks to pound him into unconsciousness.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Thursday
May242012

Hazing Assault on FAMU Drum Major Detailed in Documents

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images(TALLAHASSEE, Fla.) -- Over 2,000 pages of evidence from the investigation into Florida A&M drum major Robert Champion's death were released by the Florida District Attorney's Office and they deliver a blow-by-blow of the night's events.

They also describe a culture that considers repeated "hot seat" beatings and the final "crossing over" gauntlet that killed Champion as rites of passage.

Band members said that the band director and bus driver were not on the bus for the "crossing over," but that they were sometimes up front watching movies during the "hot seat" beatings.

Jonathan Boyce, the head band member now charged with felony hazing, told detectives that Champion "was wanting to do it [cross over] all season," but Boyce had been reluctant to let him.  Champion could not participate without Boyce's permission, as dictated by the band's internal code of hierarchy.

The band was in Orlando, Fla., on Nov. 19, 2011 for the last game of the football season.  Boyce asked Champion if he still wanted to participate.

"I was like, 'Do you still want to do it?'  So he was like, 'Yes,'" Boyce told detectives.  "I was like, 'Fine.'"

Champion, 26, was a member of the college's famed "Marching 100" band when he collapsed and died Nov. 19 on a bus parked outside an Orlando, Fla., hotel after a football game.  His death was ruled a homicide and 11 people have been charged with felony hazing and two have been charged with misdemeanor hazing in connection to Champion's death.

That night, Boyce said he was in a friend's room at the hotel when he got a call that Champion was going to do it, so he rushed to the bus to "try to save him," according to his interview with the police.

Meanwhile, Champion had begun the hazing.  He was shirtless as dictated by the band's rules --women wear only sports bras as they "cross over" -- and he was the third band member to try to make his way to the back of bus that night.

Ryan Dean, another band member indicted for felony hazing, told detectives that he yelled into Champion's ear, "Come on, push through."  A woman was holding Champion back as fists rained down on him.

Keon Hollis went with Champion to the bus for the "crossing over."  When asked to explain the process, Hollis said, "Basically, get on the bus and you have to take your shirt off and you basically have to make it from the front of the bus to the back of the bus." 

Hollis told the detective that the goal is to "just get through it as quick as you can."

"They was using hands, straps, think [I] saw a comb," he said.  Hollis said they used drum sticks and kicks as well.

At the end of the ordeal, Hollis walked back to the front of the bus, through applause and "hooting and hollering" from his band mates.  When he got outside the bus, he threw up.

While Hollis tried to compose himself, Champion started down the aisle.  He battled through the storm of fists and feet with a female band member holding him back to prolong the punishment.

At its most severe, Champion collapsed into a seat, prompting a band member to brace himself on seat backs and jump up and down on the drum major for an estimated 15 seconds.  Champion was greeted with a flurry of seven to 10 punches when he pushed himself free and resumed his death march down the bus aisle.

At least one band member jumped from seat to seat to get to the back of the bus to get another chance at Champion.

"By the time I got there he was maybe like a foot or two away from the back of the bus," Boyce said.  "So I climbed over the seats all the way to the back."

When he reached Champion, Boyce said he grabbed him "to try to keep everybody off of him" and "put my body around his body" to try to stop the beating.

Moments later, Champion touched the wall indicating that he had made it to the back.

Champion asked for water and they gave him Gatorade.  He complained that he was having trouble breathing and that he couldn't see, though his eyes were wide open.

Band members got him to the steps of the bus, but he continued to say that he could not breathe.

"I checked him, he wasn't saying anything…he wasn't responsive or anything," band member Darryl Cearnel told detectives.  Cearnel said he had first aid training.  "They was calling his name and [he] wasn't saying anything.  And I checked his pulse."

They had Champion lay on the ground and someone called 911 while Cearnel did CPR.  Moments later an ambulance arrived.  Champion died on the way to the hospital.

Though band members told detectives that Champion "never approved" of the hazing rituals, they also said that in order to be considered for leadership positions, one had to cross over.

"Crossing over" was only one aspect of the band's hazing traditions.  Multiple band members told investigators that they were routinely called to the back of the bus by a tap on the shoulder by older students for a "hot seat" after doing something wrong.

In the "hot seat" they would have a blanket thrown over them and they were pummeled with fists, drum sticks and bass drum mallets.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Monday
May142012

FAMU Marching Band Suspended for Another Year

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images(ORLANDO, Fla.) -- Florida A&M’s marching band has been suspended for another school year, the university announced Monday, out of respect for the family of Robert Champion, the drum major who died following an alleged hazing incident last fall in Orlando.

"I know it's a hard pill to swallow because I know we all love the Marching 100,” FAMU president James Ammons said in announcing his decision Monday in a brief teleconference.

“The suspension of the band will continue through the 2012-13 academic year,” Ammons said.

Thirteen band members were charged in Champion's death. The university is awaiting the results of at least two investigations connected to the band.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Monday
May072012

FAMU Hazing Suspects Escorted Robert Champion's Casket at Funeral

The Champion Family(TALLAHASSEE, Fla.) -- Three of the Florida A&M University band members charged in the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion were fellow drum majors who escorted his casket as an honor guard at his November funeral.

A lawyer for the Champion family also said that several drum majors called Champion's mother after his death to express remorse -- but not guilt.

Champion, 26, was a member of the college's famed "Marching 100" band when he collapsed and died Nov. 19 on a bus parked outside an Orlando, Fla., hotel after a football game.

The death was ruled a homicide, and Champion's torso was covered with bruises that were inflicted during a brutal hazing ritual that contributed to his death, according to investigators.

Last week, Florida State Attorney Lawson Lamar announced charges brought against 13 individuals in connection with Champion's death.

Among those charged with felony hazing were Jonathan Boyce, 24, Shawn Turner, 26, and Rikki Wills, 24, all fellow drum majors. They were among five drum majors who led Champion's funeral march, escorting his casket during the funeral.

"I can confirm that some of the people arrested were part of the funeral," Champion family attorney Christopher Chestnut told ABC News Monday. Chestnut was present at Champion's Nov. 30 funeral.

When asked about Boyce, Turner and Wills, Chestnut said, "Yes, they were drum majors that participated in the funeral."

Champion's mother Pam Champion received phone calls of condolences from FAMU drum majors in the days following her son's death.

"We can't disclose who, but some of the drum majors reached out to her and although they experienced remorse and admitted to being present, their story just didn't add up," Chestnut said.

The news that the very men who marched in front of her son's casket were the ones who allegedly beat him to death on a bus has caused Pam Champion to reconsider the phone calls she received.

"Is she surprised? No. Is she appalled? Yes," Chestnut said. "Was the initial call that appeared to be sincere really insincere? It has caused her to question many of the motives."

The three drum majors were among 11 defendants who turned themselves in to law enforcement after being charged with felony hazing last week. The last of the 11 turned herself in on Sunday. Most have bonded out of jail while the case makes its way through the system.

FAMU's on-campus news network, FAMU TV 20, posted a video of Rikki Wills speaking to their reporter at Champion's funeral. Wills called Champion the most "thoughtful and considerate person I've ever met in my life" and said it was a "pleasure" to know him.

"If anybody else had a relationship like I did with Robert, one thing you would remember about Robert is that he was always smiling, just always smiling and nodding," Wills said. "And I'm going to stick with that in my head for my memory of Robert."

The Champion family alleged last week that there was a "calculated conspiracy" to cover up their son's death.

"We have heard that alumni were communicating with students on that bus, telling them how to respond, what to say, what not to say in order to ensure that no one would be arrested and charged for murder. That is simply inexcusable," Chestnut said at a news conference last week.

The family has expressed anger at the fact that none of the students on the bus were ever put on academic probation or arrested. Four students were briefly suspended, but they were allowed to go back to school. The school's band director Julian White was fired, but later reinstated and put on administrative leave.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Thursday
May032012

FAMU Hazing Death: Parents Claim Cover-Up

Champion Family Photo(LEON COUNTY, Fla.) -- The parents of Florida A&M drum major Robert Champion, who died from a hazing attack, alleged Thursday that there was a "calculated conspiracy" to cover up their son's death.

The accusation follows Florida State Attorney Lawson Lamar's announcement Wednesday of charges brought against 13 individuals in connection with Champion's death in November 2011.

Champion, 26, was a member of the college's famed "Marching 100" band when he collapsed and died Nov. 19 on a bus parked outside an Orlando, Fla., hotel after a football game.

The death was ruled a homicide, and Lamar said Champion's torso was covered with bruises that he said were inflicted during a brutal hazing ritual that contributed to his death.

"It did not take five months to figure out who murdered Robert Champion. This is not a murder mystery," Champion family attorney Christopher Chestnut said at a news conference today in Atlanta. "There is no excuse for the lack of accountability."

"We have learned that there was a calculated conspiracy to cover up Robert Champion's murder," he said. "We have heard that alumni were communicating with students on that bus, telling them how to respond, what to say, what not to say in order to ensure that no one would be arrested and charged for murder. That is simply inexcusable."

Chestnut said he has statements from students who revealed these communications. He would not say how many statements he has, but said that he suspects several of the statements came from the same 13 people who have been charged in the hazing.

Eleven of the 13 individuals were charged with hazing resulting in death, a third-degree felony, as well as two counts of misdemeanor hazing. The other two people were charged with one count each of misdemeanor hazing. The maximum sentence for hazing resulting in death is six years.

The state attorney said on Wednesday that there was not enough evidence for murder charges.

"Obviously, someone should be charged with murder," Chestnut said. "The most severe sentence is six years. Robert Champion has a life sentence."

Chestnut said he understood that there is currently not enough evidence for murder charges, but said this was because law enforcement had "botched" the investigation.

He said the case was compromised when authorities let the students on the bus go back to school and that the physical evidence was tainted when the bus was sent back to the company without collecting sufficient evidence.

Chestnut said the Champion family "absolutely, unequivocally" will be suing FAMU. "Robert Champion did not die. He did not pass peacefully away at night," Chestnut said. "He died after being beaten to death. He was murdered. This is a murder case."

So far, three of the 13 individuals have been arrested. Caleb Jackson, 23, and Rikki Willis, 24, were both charged with felony hazing and taken to Leon County Jail. Bryan Jone, 23, turned himself in and was charged with felony hazing in Hillsborough, Fla., but was released on a $15,000 bond.

Some band members have said that Champion died after participating in a rite of passage called "crossing bus C," a ritual in which new band members are beaten as they walk from the back to the front of the bus.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Wednesday
May022012

FAMU Hazing Charges Expected in Drum Major's Death

On the day Robert Champion died, he texted his parents a photograph of himself with a young boy from a children's marching band. (Champion Family Photo)(ORLANDO, Fla.) -- Criminal charges are expected to be filed Wednesday against members of the Florida A&M University marching band who were involved in the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion last November.

Champion, 26, was a member of the college's famed "Marching 100" band when he collapsed and died Nov. 19 on a bus parked outside an Orlando, Fla., hotel after a football game. The death was ruled a homicide and police said hazing contributed to his death.

An autopsy revealed that he died of internal bleeding caused by blunt force trauma. Officials said that he had bruises on his chest, arms, shoulder and back.

The charges will be announced at a news conference at the state attorney's office Wednesday following a six-month investigation.

Some band members have said that Champion died after participating in a rite of passage called "crossing bus C," a ritual where new band members are beaten as they walk from the back to the front of the bus.

Four students were dismissed from the university after Champion's death, but were later reinstated pending the investigation's completion. The school's band director Julian White was fired, but later reinstated and put on administrative leave.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Monday
Jan232012

Four FAMU Students Dismissed Following Hazing Arrests

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images(TALLAHASSEE, Fla.) -- Four students have been expelled from Florida A&M University Monday after being arrested and charged with hazing offenses.

The expulsions come two months after drum major Robert Champion died on a school bus following a football game. Police have said they believe hazing contributed to his death.

The four band members expelled in the latest hazing incident were identified as Denise Bailey, 22, Brandon Benson, 23, Hakeem Birch, 21, and Anthony Mingo, 22. They were arrested on Thursday for allegedly attacking five clarinet players as part of a hazing ritual for a group of the school's famed marching band, the "Marching 100."

An arrest report said that "the hazing created a substantial risk of physical injury or death."

Five FAMU students and band members were identified in the arrest report as the victims of the hazing: Elijah Brown, Riva Nance, La'Nesia Smith, Sychiquita Stokes and Shantivia Conley.

The students were pledging to become members of the "Clones," a group within the clarinet section of the band. Three or four initiation meetings had been scheduled for the Clones, beginning around Sept. 1, 2011.

"During the scheduled initiation meetings, the pledges were forced to exercise, play music, and were either punched, prepped (slapped with both hands on back) or paddled," according to the arrest warrant.

After the meeting, the students discussed their experiences and showed each other their injuries. Conley took photos of her bruising and quit the pledge process after the first meeting.

The meetings were coordinated by Bailey or Benson, according to the warrant, and took place at the off-campus home of Birch and Benson.

The FAMU Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Last week's arrests were the latest in a hazing scandal that has marred the school and its famous marching band.

Since Champion's death in November, the school has stepped up its efforts to stamp out hazing, which has long been a surreptitious tradition within its band.

Champion, 26, was a member of the college's Marching 100 band when he collapsed and died Nov. 19 on a bus parked outside an Orlando, Fla., hotel after a football game. His death was ruled a homicide, but no charges have been brought.

Four students dismissed by the university in Champion's case were reinstated while authorities continue to investigate.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Friday
Dec162011

FAMU Band Drum Major's Death Ruled Homicide

On the day Robert Champion died, he texted his parents a photograph of himself with a young boy from a children's marching band. (Champion Family Photo)(TALLAHASSEE, Fla.) -- The death of Robert Champion, the Florida A&M drum major who was allegedly hazed in November, has been ruled a homicide, the medical examiner announced Friday.

"Homicide investigators have interviewed the vast majority of the individuals present during this incident. In the coming days and weeks investigators will be working with the State Attorney's Office to identify the charges that are applicable," the Orange County Sheriff's Office said in a statement.

The 26-year-old died Nov. 19 on a bus outside a hotel after the band had performed at a football game in Orlando. Four band members were subsequently dismissed from FAMU in connection with the Champion incident, and then reinstated.

The director of the school's Marching 100 band, Julian White, was fired and then put on administrative leave pending an investigation from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

FDLE is currently investigating the school for potential fraud and misconduct. FDLE has asked the school to suspend any disciplinary or administrative reviews related to the alleged misconduct.

"We're aware of the autopsy results and our investigation is still active," FDLE spokesman Keith Kameg said Friday.

Last week FAMU's board of trustees reprimanded school president James Ammons for the way he dealt with hazing, but students rallied in support of Ammons Thursday night to protest the board's recommendation that Ammons be suspended immediately.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio







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