BELLEFONTE, Pa. – Eighteen Pennsylvania State University students and their fraternity were charged Friday in one of the largest hazing prosecutions in the nation’s history, sending a chill through the campus in nearby State College as it was about to begin commencement festivities.
Eight students face involuntary manslaughter charges in connection with the death of Tim Piazza, 19, who suffered fatal injuries when he fell down a set of stairs during a Beta Theta Pi pledge party in February.
Flanked by Piazza’s parents and a blown-up portrait of the sophomore engineering major, Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller accused fraternity members of putting Piazza through a booze-fueled hazing ritual and failing to call for help once it was clear he was seriously injured.
“It’s heartbreaking all around,” she said. “There are no winners here.”
With his arm wrapped around his wife, Piazza’s father, Jim, choked back tears.
“This did not have to happen,” he said. “No parents should have to deal with this.”
The charges were the result of a months-long grand jury investigation and served as an indictment of the Greek system at Penn State.
"The Penn State Greek community nurtured an environment so permissive of excessive drinking and hazing,” the presentment said, “that it emboldened its members to repeatedly act with reckless disregard to human life."
The panel’s presentment described a ritual known as “the gauntlet” in which Beta Theta Pi pledges were required to stop at various stations, where they guzzled vodka, shotgunned beers, drank from wine bags, and played multiple rounds of beer pong.
Those charged with involuntary manslaughter were Brendan Young of Malvern, president of the Beta Theta Pi chapter at Penn State, and fellow fraternity members Daniel Casey of Ronkonkoma, N.Y.; Jonah Neuman of Nashville; Nick Kubera of Downingtown; Michael Bonatucci of Woodstock, Ga.; Gary DiBileo of Scranton; Luke Visser of Encinitas, Calif.; and Joe Sala of Erie.
Each also faces felony charges of aggravated assault, which could result in prison terms, as well as other charges. All were arraigned in Centre County Court on Friday. Bail was set at $100,000 for each, but they were released on their own recognizance.
Ten other members of Beta Theta Pi face lesser charges, including hazing, furnishing alcohol to minors, reckless endangerment, and tampering with evidence.
Beta Theta Pi’s international fraternity in a statement called the charges "incredibly disheartening,” and said it stood by its decision to suspend and disband the local chapter.
“Beta Theta Pi International Fraternity has clearly and consistently expressed its position that it does not tolerate hazing or alcohol abuse in any form by its members,” said Jim Ewbank, counsel for the international fraternity.
Piazza, of Lebanon, N.J., was intoxicated at the Feb. 2 pledge party when he fell multiple times and was knocked unconscious, the district attorney said. His blood-alcohol level was a life-threatening 0.37 when he took the first fall that evening, Parks Miller said.
His final hours were captured on video as a result of a surveillance camera system within the fraternity house.
After his initial fall, members of the fraternity moved him to a couch "and hovered over him for hours" but did not seek emergency help until the next morning, about 12 hours later, Parks Miller said, though injuries were visible to his stomach and head.
According to the grand jury presentment, Kordel Davis, a newly initiated fraternity member, told other members that Piazza needed to go to the hospital late on the night of the party. He said he was rebuffed by Neuman, who shoved him and said that the members had the situation under control.
Overnight, Piazza fell several more times as he tried to move about. He lastly fell a second time down the basement stairs, where he would remain for hours before the fraternity members discovered him in the morning, Parks Miller said.
His chest was bare, he was breathing heavily, and he had blood on his face, according to the presentment.
Even then, fraternity members waited 42 minutes before calling for emergency help, according to the presentment. They shook him, attempted to prop up his limp body, covered him with a blanket, wiped his face, and tried to dress him, according to the grand jury.
A forensic analysis of one frat member's cellphone showed a series of internet searches at the time, including "falling asleep after head injury," "true or false, a person with a serious head injury or concussion should be kept awake," and "binge drinking, alcohol, bruising or discoloration, cold feet and cold hands."
Piazza died the next day at Hershey Medical Center, having suffered a nonrecoverable head injury, ruptured spleen, and collapsed lung.
Defense attorneys for the students have said that fraternity members did not know Piazza was in danger but thought he was just drunk and would sleep it off.
The evidence presented by Parks Miller, including the video, challenged that account.
Prosecutors also claim there was an effort to conceal and destroy evidence. The fraternity brothers communicated through a group messaging system, which showed that the day after the party, Young, the president, instructed another member to clean the basement and get rid of any traces of alcohol.
In one series of texts, Young wrote that the fraternity could be sued “for giving [Piazza] alcohol that contributed to his death. Also the guys taking care of him didn't call an ambulance right away. ... I just don't know what I'm liable for as president.”
Young later directed that one of the messaging systems be deleted.
Reached by phone, Young’s mother declined comment.
In one recovered message, a pledge member told fellow pledges: "If need be, just tell them what I told you guys, found him behind an away bar the next morning at around 10 a.m., and he was freezing cold, but we decided to call 911 instantly, because the kid's health was paramount."
Philadelphia attorney Tom Kline, who was hired by the Piazzas, was dismayed.
"It is all the more disheartening that those who were responsible for the death of Tim Piazza then took elaborate steps to conceal their own culpability, seeking to escape the consequences," Kline said.
The university, having conducted its own investigation, permanently banned Beta Theta Pi this spring. The university also instituted new rules for the rest of its 83 fraternities and sororities, whose members represent about 18 percent of the student body.
Penn State president Eric Barron at a news conference called the “alleged details in the grand jury presentment … sickening and difficult to understand.”
He said he hoped the serious charges the students face will serve as a stern warning against hazing and excessive drinking, and he called on alumni and parents to work with the university on resolving the problem.
In a statement Friday, the university’s Interfraternity Council pledged it was committed to changes that would prevent similar deaths in the future.
“The best way to shift culture is for students, alumni, and the university to work together,” the statement read.
No charges were filed against Tim Bream, 56, a Penn State assistant athletic director and head trainer for the football team who lived in the Beta Theta Pi house. Bream was employed by the fraternity as an adviser.
Parks Miller said Friday that Bream said he was in his room at the fraternity house on the night of Piazza’s death, but the investigation did not reveal any evidence that would result in charges.
Beta Theta Pi had a history of hazing and heavy drinking, Parks Miller said. The presentment described a ceremony in which pledges were blindfolded, paddled, and forced to drink a mixture of food and drink left over in the frat's refrigerator.
Over an eight-day span leading up to the fatal pledge party, fraternity brother Craig Heimer and possibly others purchased $1,179.30 worth of wine, beer, vodka, and malt liquor, according to the presentment. This was for a fraternity that on paper declared itself "dry" and prohibited drinking on its premises.
Heimer, of Port Matilda, was charged with hazing, reckless endangerment, and furnishing alcohol to minors.