Defense lawyer for PSU frat member disputes charges

Michael Bonatucci, a member of Penn State University's Beta Theta Pi fraternity, leaves the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte after the preliminary arraignment on May 5, 2017.

The family of one of the fraternity members charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of Pennsylvania State University student Tim Piazza said their son wasn’t  in the house when much of the behavior cited in the grand jury presentment  occurred.

“Our hearts go out to the Piazza family for their unfathomable loss,” the parents of Michael Bonatucci said in a statement issued by their attorney, Rocco C. Cipparone Jr. of Haddon Heights.

But they said the serious charges against their son, which they called inappropriate, are “devastating to him and to our entire close-knit family.”

The statement was one of the first from the 18 Beta Theta Pi members charged  in connection with Piazza's death. They have largely kept their silence about the alcohol-fueled pledge night party on Feb. 2 since being charged this month.


Bonatucci, 19, a second-semester freshman from Woodstock, Ga., was among eight members who face the most serious charges, including aggravated assault.

Piazza, a sophomore engineering major from Lebanon, N.J., was forced to drink large amounts of alcohol at different stations as part of a pledge activity known as “the Gauntlet” and later fell down a flight of stairs, according to the grand jury presentment.

No one called for emergency help until about 12 hours later, and in the interim, Piazza fell several other times, was slapped, had liquid poured on him, and was left to languish on a couch where fraternity members had placed him, the report said. Piazza died Feb. 4, having suffered a non-recoverable head injury, ruptured spleen, and collapsed lung.

“There is no indication in that very detailed presentment that Michael personally provided any alcohol to Mr. Piazza,” Cipparone said in a statement, “that Michael saw or was aware that Mr. Piazza fell; that Michael saw any bruising or injury to Mr. Piazza; that Michael engaged in the alleged 'backpacking'  as to Mr. Piazza; that Michael had any physical contact with … Piazza before, during or after he fell; or that Michael participated in any alleged debate about … Piazza's condition or what to do about it."

While his parents said he wasn't present for most of the events, his lawyer declined to say where he was. 

Tom Kline, the lawyer representing Piazza’s parents, Jim and Evelyn, said he believes the charges are justified.

“Having read the grand jury report, we are confident that the district attorney has a basis to file charges against all of those who were involved that night,”  Kline said.

The preliminary hearing for the 18 men charged is scheduled for June 12 in Centre County.

Bonatucci, who also is charged with simple assault, reckless endangerment, hazing, furnishing alcohol to minors, and consumption of alcohol by a minor, is mentioned in the 70-plus page presentment seven times.  The report first notes that he was part of the pledge class in the fall of 2016 and then identifies him as the member who carried into the house a case of Natural Light beer the night of the party where Piazza fell. He is later identified as the person who handed a beer to one of the pledges at the Gauntlet’s beer station and then handed three other pledges beers to “shotgun.”

Cipparone said the charges against his client “appear to be some form of accomplice liability theory painted with an extremely broad brush that doesn’t hold up for a defendant who was not in a position to see what was allegedly happening at the important moments in the time line.”

Cipparone’s comments come one day after Piazza’s parents appeared on news shows on the three major networks and CNN, sharply rebuking the fraternity members' behavior and calling for justice for their son.

“In my heart, they were all morally culpable,” Jim Piazza, an accountant, told Matt Lauer on Today when asked whether he thought some people were more responsible for his son’s death than others.

“What is a life worth, Matt? What is a life worth?” Piazza said when asked what punishment he thought the fraternity members should face. “They threw their lives out, Matt. You don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. I mean, we didn’t ask them to do that to our son.”

Nicholas and Barbara Bonatucci, who grew up in the Philadelphia area, said in their statement that their son has no criminal history. He became a Penn State football fan early in his life and achieved his dream of being accepted to the school. They described him as “a normal young man who enjoys sports" and played high school and recreational sports, who “has been industrious working during high school and in the summers, and has been committed to his education.”

One other lawyer, William J. Brennan, has spoken to the Inquirer and Daily News on behalf of his client. Brennan is representing Joseph Ems Jr., 20, a junior from Philadelphia, who was charged with a misdemeanor count of reckless endangerment.

“I’m treating this misdemeanor as if it were a first-degree felony,” Brennan said.

Ems, according to the presentment, was one of three fraternity members who put a filled backpack on Piazza, the theory being that it would prevent him from rolling on his back and choking on his vomit if he passed out. He also is the fraternity member identified as striking Piazza hard in the abdomen with his open right hand, which the presentment stated could have exacerbated Piazza’s injury.

“It is not lost on me or my client that a young man's life was lost here," Brennan said. “It's a horrific tragedy, and, though this is not an admission of culpability, my client and his family extend their deepest sympathies to the deceased and his family."