Judge dismisses most serious charges against Penn State frat brothers in Tim Piazza's death

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Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, announcing anti-hazing legislation last week outside the Centre County preliminary hearing for former Penn State fraternity brothers charged in Tim Piazza’s death. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/TNS)

BELLEFONTE, Pa. — A judge on Wednesday for a second time threw out involuntary manslaughter charges against five Pennsylvania State University fraternity brothers accused in connection with the February 2017 hazing death of sophomore pledge Tim Piazza.

Ending a three-day preliminary hearing, Centre County Judge Allen Sinclair also dismissed dozens of other charges against the former members of Beta Theta Pi, drastically scaling back a prosecution he had first sought to limit last year.

Some of the defendants still face other charges that the judge had held for trial from the last hearing. But his ruling deals a blow to a case that not only has rocked Penn State’s campus but added to the growing national scrutiny of misconduct and alcohol-soaked hazing by fraternities.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office took over prosecution of the case this year and refiled 300 counts against onetime Beta Theta Pi members, suggested Sinclair’s rejection of many of those might not be the final word.

“I am disappointed by the decision of the Magisterial District Judge and we are assessing our legal options,” he said in a statement. “My office is committed to seeking justice for Timothy Piazza and his family and holding responsible individuals accountable for their actions, consistent with the law and the evidence in this case.”

In the end, Sinclair allowed just 30 of the refiled charges to stand. Among them were a conspiracy-to-commit-hazing charge against fraternity president Brendan Young, of Malvern, and member Daniel Casey, of Ronkonkoma, N.Y.

That heartened Piazza’s parents, Jim and Evelyn, of New Jersey, who also noted that hazing and reckless endangerment charges still stand against some members, including Young and Casey, from the last hearing.

“These charges carry with them significant penalties, including substantial jail time,” said their lawyer, Tom Kline.

Gary DiBileo of Scranton, was bound over on five counts of furnishing alcohol to minors; Luke Visser, of Encinitas, Calif., on seven counts of the same; and Michael Bonatucci, of Woodstock, Ga., on two counts. They also were bound over on multiple counts of unlawful acts related to liquor.

Theodore Simon, a lawyer for Visser, said the ruling again showed the most serious charges against his client were “unfounded, unwarranted, and unjustified.”

“This was a sad and tragic loss of life,” Simon said, “but not every unfortunate tragedy should result in serious criminal charges.”

Defendants who saw all the refiled charges dismissed include Jonah Neuman, of Nashville; Joseph Sala of Erie; Nicholas Kubera of Downingtown; Lars Kenyon of Barrington, R.I.; Michael Angelo Schiavone of Yardley; and Parker Jax Yochim of Waterford, Pa. All of them, however, were bound over on hazing charges during the hearing last summer and several of them on reckless endangerment.

The prosecution, this time led by Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Zarallo, argued that fraternity members planned and executed a hazing ritual in February 2017, deliberately got Piazza drunk, and then failed to get him medical care after he was seriously injured. Piazza consumed 18 drinks in 82 minutes, then fell down the stairs at the fraternity house. No one called for help for nearly 12 hours, and Piazza later died of head, spleen, and lung injuries.

“A failure to act in and of itself is reckless,” Zarallo argued.

If Piazza’s fall that rendered him unconscious had happened anywhere other than a fraternity house, it would have been expected that 911 would be called, he said.

Defense attorneys maintained that their clients didn’t and couldn’t know the severity of Piazza’s injuries and that Piazza’s drinking was voluntary.

Philadelphia attorney Michael Engle, representing DiBileo, said there’s “simply no evidence he’s the direct cause of  Piazza’s death.”

Some of the testimony this month broke new ground, including video shown of drinking that went on in the fraternity basement. Prosecutors alleged a fraternity member deleted the video, but the FBI was able to recover it. But much of the evidence also retreaded or expanded on ground covered last summer when the first preliminary hearing was held for 18 defendants.

That hearing culminated with a surprising Sept. 1 ruling by Sinclair to throw out the most serious felony charges against eight of the fraternity members and remove all charges against four others.

Then-Centre County Prosecutor Stacy Parks Miller refiled the charges in October and charged 12 additional members of the fraternity in Piazza’s death after recovering footage from a basement video camera, for a total of 26. After she lost a bid for reelection, new Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna, citing a conflict of interest, asked the Attorney General’s Office to take the case.

Shapiro declined this month to press aggravated-assault charges against the fraternity members but charged five of them with involuntary manslaughter. In addition to the 11 facing the hearing Friday, three others previously waived their right to a preliminary hearing and were held for trial. The 12 others charged face a preliminary hearing in May.

Penn State closed the fraternity in the wake of Piazza’s death and has since intensified its scrutiny on parties and socializing at the fraternities.