BELLEFONTE, Pa. — Lawyers for the Pennsylvania State University fraternity members accused in the hazing death of Tim Piazza tried to chip away at the case Monday, raising questions about the charges, who isn’t being held accountable, and whether anyone “forced” the 19-year-old pledge to consume a lethal amount of alcohol.
“Who made that decision to drink? The pledge or someone else?” lawyer Frank Fina asked State College Police Detective David Scicchitano.
The questions came as a district judge resumed the preliminary hearing to determine if Beta Theta Pi members charged in Piazza’s Feb. 4 death will stand trial for crimes including involuntary manslaughter, assault, and hazing.
Last month, prosecutors spent three hours showing Judge Allen Sinclair gruesome video footage from the night Piazza, a sophomore from Lebanon, N.J., participated in a hazing ritual and twice fell down a flight of stairs, suffering a brain injury, ruptured spleen, and collapsed lung that killed him. They say the fraternity members forced him and other pledges to drink copious amounts of alcohol and complete a “gauntlet” where the young men chugged vodka, beer, and wine.
In his cross-examination of the detective on Monday, Fina, a former state prosecutor who represents Beta Theta Pi president Brendan Young, a 21-year-old from Malvern, questioned what constitutes force. It usually means “physical compulsion,” he said.
“The compulsion was to gain acceptance into the fraternity,” Scicchitano responded.
Only Fina and one other attorney for the 16 individual defendants — two others waived their right to the hearing — got a chance to question Scicchitano on Monday; the others will get their chance when the hearing resumes Tuesday at the Centre County Courthouse. But each is likely to employ similar strategies: pressing the prosecution to prove their clients’ role in Piazza’s hazing or death and to justify the high-profile case.
Under questioning from Fina toward the end of the eight-hour hearing, the detective acknowledged that Young didn’t buy the alcohol for the Feb. 2 “bid night,” nor did he hand alcohol to Piazza. He also testified that Young wasn’t present during either of Piazza’s falls down the stairs and had left the house some time before midnight to go to area bars.
Still, Scicchitano said, Young, as the fraternity’s president, had culpability in the hazing ritual.
“He had total authority to stop all this,” the detective testified. “He didn’t.”
During his cross-examination, Fina also appeared to point the finger at others who may have had a part in Piazza’s death. He questioned the role of two “social checkers” who were hired by the Interfraternity Council as part of routine monitoring and were in the Beta Theta Pi house within nine minutes of Piazza’s first fall.
He also raised new questions about Tim Bream, the 56-year-old head athletic trainer for Penn State’s football team, who lived in the house and served as an adviser to the fraternity.
Fina referred to a text message from fraternity member Ed Gilmartin III to member Lars Kenyon, which noted that it was “Tim’s idea” to delete GroupMe chat groups about the night of the deadly bid party to prevent them from being captured and leaked to the media.
Fina asked Scicchitano who “Tim” was in reference to, and Scicchitano said Kenyon told him he believed it to be Bream. Prosecutors didn’t charge Bream, whom they said was not seen on the house surveillance video and was in his room when the drinking began.
The cross-examination came after Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller ended the prosecution case Monday with text messages showing that fraternity members delayed calling 911 because they feared their fraternity could get shut down and they could get sued.
While Piazza lay dying in a hospital after the event, the pledge master sent a text message to his girlfriend.
“I think we’re f–d,” Daniel Casey, 19, of Ronkonkoma, N.Y., wrote, later adding: “It’s over. I don’t want to go to jail for this.”
Prosecutors say Piazza’s blood-alcohol level at one point that night rose to between 0.28 percent and 0.36 percent — more than four times the legal limit for drivers. After he twice fell down a flight of stairs, frat brothers didn’t call for help despite knowing the severity of his condition. Only the next morning did they seek medical attention. Piazza died the following day.
His death — and the unusual charges against the fraternity members — has ignited a new level of scrutiny in regard to reckless college drinking.
Scicchitano also testified that one frat member, Gary DiBileo, 21, of Scranton, told police he and member Greg Rizzo said aloud after Piazza’s first fall that they should call 911. Instead, others said it should be a group decision — one that didn’t happen until the next morning.
On the day Piazza was taken to the hospital, a text from Rizzo to DiBileo seemed to signal the trouble they knew they were in: “It’s not the fact that he drank. He drank because we hazed him too. Main word being hazed.”
“We tried our best to get him to the hospital. Wish people listened. But yes, you are right,” DiBileo responded.
Charged with involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault are: Young; Casey; DiBileo; Nick Kubera, 19, of Downingtown; Luke Visser, 19, of Encinitas, Calif.; Joe Sala, 19, of Erie; Michael Bonatucci, 19, of Woodstock, Ga.; and Jonah Neuman, 19, of Nashville.
Ten others face lesser charges, including hazing, recklessly endangering another person, furnishing alcohol to minors, and tampering with evidence.
As they did last month, Piazza’s parents, Jim and Evelyn, again took front-row seats in the courtroom for the hearing. Jim Piazza rocked back and forth, eyes watering and jaw clenched, and glared at Young as prosecutors read a text conversation between the former fraternity president and his girlfriend in which Young said he hoped Piazza’s parents didn’t sue.
Tom Kline, the Piazzas’ lawyer, said there was nothing voluntary about Tim Piazza’s alcohol consumption the night of the pledge event. “This wasn’t free will,” Kline told reporters after the hearing.
Two members of Penn State’s board of trustees, Anthony Lubrano and Bill Oldsey, attended the hearing.
“It’s a tragedy on so many levels,” Lubrano said. “We only want the Piazzas to find peace. Hopefully, through this process, they can begin to heal.”