Fraternity, 18 members charged in Penn State student’s death
BELLEFONTE, Pa. — Eighteen Penn State fraternity brothers have been charged with crimes ranging up to involuntary manslaughter in the death of a pledge who authorities say repeatedly fell down a flight of stairs after he and others were made to run a gantlet of drinking stations guzzling vodka, beer and wine.
Beta Theta Pi members resisted getting help for 19-year-old Timothy Piazza, causing him to suffer for hours and possibly making his injuries worse, a prosecutor said Friday in announcing the results of a grand jury investigation.
“This is a very sad day for Centre County — it’s been sad ever since we lost a child for reasons that are totally preventable,” District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said.
Eight of the fraternity brothers and the chapter were charged with involuntary manslaughter. Other charges include aggravated and simple assault, evidence tampering, alcohol-related violations and hazing.
An attorney for the chapter didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
The grand jury, aided by security camera footage, said the fraternity was heavily stocked with booze for the Feb. 2 ceremony at which Piazza, a sophomore engineering student from Lebanon, New Jersey, and 13 others accepted pledge bids. The pledges were pressured to chug vodka, shotgun beers and drink wine.
Piazza tumbled down a flight of stairs that night and fell several other times, injuring his head, Miller said. The next morning, he fell down the stairs again and was unconscious when help was finally summoned. He died Feb. 4 as a result of a traumatic brain injury.
Miller said doctors estimate Piazza had a blood-alcohol content of nearly 0.40 percent; the legal limit for drivers, for comparison, is 0.08 percent.
The investigation found some frat members tried to conceal what happened. It found that a text message recovered by police urged pledges to get rid of evidence of alcohol and that conversations discussing deleting conversations from a messaging app were discovered.
Piazza’s father, Jim Piazza, blamed a “flagrant disregard” for the law and said the death “didn’t have to happen.”
“Sadly,” the dad said, “we’re never going to see his smile again except in pictures.”
Penn State permanently banned Beta Theta Pi on March 30, accusing it of a “persistent pattern” of excessive drinking, drug use and hazing.
University President Eric Barron called the report heart-wrenching, sickening and incomprehensible.
“It is numbing how an atmosphere that endangers the well-being and safety of another person could occur within an organization that prided itself on commitment to each other and to its community,” Barron said.
Miller said video footage turned over to investigators provided evidence of what occurred and contradicted stories some witnesses had told.
The cameras recorded Piazza drinking vodka and beer and an hour later needing help to walk from an area near the basement stairs to a couch. Piazza later is shown trying unsuccessfully to open the front door, then “severely staggering drunkenly toward the basement steps,” the grand jury report said.
He was found at the bottom of the steps after apparently falling face-first. Four brothers carried his limp body upstairs, where some poured liquid on him and one slapped him in the face, the grand jury said. Fraternity members put a backpack containing textbooks on him so he wouldn’t suffocate on his own vomit, the grand jury wrote.
When a brother insisted Piazza needed medical help, he was confronted and shoved into a wall, the report said. When that brother insisted again that Piazza required help, he was told others were biology and kinesiology majors so his opinion wasn’t as valuable as theirs, it said.
Piazza tried to get up later but fell backward and hit his head on the wooden floor, the report said. He also fell onto a stone floor before being found in the basement hours later, it said.
“Timothy was lying on his back with his arms clenched tight at his sides and his hands in the air,” grand jurors wrote.
During the next 40 minutes, fraternity brothers shook him, tried to prop him up, covered him with a blanket, wiped his face and attempted to dress him before one finally called 911, the grand jury said.
Ten of the defendants were arraigned Friday and were released on bail. The remaining defendants will be arraigned next week.