BELLEFONTE, Pa. — The 56-year-old Pennsylvania State University football trainer who was living in a campus fraternity house when a sophomore pledge died in February said he had no role in the house party that night and didn’t know the teen was left to die on a couch after an alleged night of booze-soaked hazing.
“I would in no way, shape, or form give permission” for alcohol abuse or a drinking “gauntlet,” trainer Tim Bream testified Wednesday.
His appearance on the witness stand came as a preliminary hearing resumed for the Beta Theta Pi members accused of fatally hazing 19-year-old Tim Piazza. Judge Allen Sinclair could rule this week on whether the defendants should be held for trial and on what charges.
Bream’s testimony offered little new insight into the case that has rocked Penn State, and Sinclair halted one of the more significant lines of questioning — whether the live-in adviser directed the fraternity members to delete text messages about the party after Piazza’s death, as defense attorneys have asserted.
Piazza, of Lebanon, N.J., died Feb. 4 from injuries he sustained after the Feb. 2 frat initiation party. Prosecutors say Piazza participated in a drinking gauntlet, later fell down stairs, and was left to languish on a couch. No one called for emergency help until almost 12 hours later.
The 18 defendants face charges including involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, hazing, and tampering with evidence.
Bream isn’t charged in the case, but questions about his presence at the now-closed house before Piazza’s death have swirled, with some attorneys suggesting he should share culpability.
A former Chicago Bears head trainer, Bream took the Beta Theta Pi adviser job in August 2016. On the night of the party, he reported being in his second-floor room, but said he had no role in the event. Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller told the judge the attempts to turn the spotlight onto Bream were “just a distraction.”
But Sinclair allowed Leonard G. Ambrose III, the lawyer for Joe Sala, a frat member from Erie, to question Bream.
Taking the stand, Bream testified that he doesn’t drink, never has, and as a trainer cautions young men that alcohol can be “poison” to their bodies. He also said he advises them that if they are offered more than one drink, “sip the second, and deny the third.”
He said his role in the fraternity house was not to serve as an “overlord or overseer,” but to make sure the house was taken care of, serve as liaison to the cook, act as a guide on financial matters, and offer education on the principles of Beta Theta Pi concerning the fraternity and its history.
“I wasn’t in charge of discipline,” Bream asserted.
Bream, a Gettysburg native, testified that he did not observe alcohol in the house that night and didn’t know the members had been given permission by the university’s Interfraternity Council to serve it. He said when he left the house around 5 a.m. on the morning after the party, he didn’t see Piazza on the couch or anywhere.
During the hearing in July, a defense lawyer had noted the grand jury presentment in the case referred to a text message involving from one frat member that said it had been “Tim’s idea” to delete an online chat about the event after Piazza’s death.
On the witness stand, Bream acknowledged that he told the house members — saying it was out of concern for the Piazza family — not to use social media to discuss what happened after Piazza’s death. But when Ambrose tried to press him about text messages among frat members suggesting they delete the transcript of a group chat after Piazza’s death, the judge halted the questioning, ruling that Bream need not answer because Ambrose’s client was not part of that text conversation.
Piazza’s parents, Jim and Evelyn, have asked Penn State to fire Bream. They and their lawyer, Tom Kline, have said they believe Bream should be held culpable for Piazza’s death. The university has said only that it is “investigating all aspects of what occurred at the Beta Theta Pi house,” but that such student and personnel matters are confidential.
After Bream’s testimony, defense attorneys began what could be two days’ worth of closing statements. Lawyers sought to minimize the role of their clients by arguing that their clients weren’t at the house for much of the night and didn’t buy the alcohol or approve the drinking gauntlet.
One lawyer, Andrew Shubin, suggested Piazza knew what he was getting into when he showed up for pledge night and was responsible for his own fatal alcohol consumption. Frank Fina, who represents fraternity president Brendan Young, said the prosecution didn’t show how much Piazza drank, when he drank it, or exactly what caused his fatal injuries.
“It’s fundamentally impossible to determine there was criminal liability for this tragic death without answers to these core questions,” he said.
Several attorneys said that some less serious charges could stand, such as furnishing alcohol to minors and hazing, but that the rest should be tossed.
But the prosecutor asserted that each member was “part of an organization that is rushing people through to get them as drunk as possible, as fast as possible,” and that each should be held accountable for the outcome.
“Just like the getaway driver is responsible for the whole robbery,” Parks Miller said.
Arguments are scheduled to resume Thursday morning.