Felony assault charges against Penn State fraternity members tossed

On Friday, May 5, 2017, Centre County DA Stacy Parks Miller speaks about the Beta Theta Pi hazing investigation and the charges brought against 18 people. Timothy Piazza’s parents Jim and Evelyn Piazza stand with her in the Centre County Court annex in Bellefonte, Pa. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )

Members of a Pennsylvania State University fraternity will not face felony aggravated assault charges — among the most serious — in the death of a sophomore pledge, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office has decided.

But some members of Beta Theta Pi continue to face a misdemeanor count of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Tim Piazza, and others will be charged with hazing, reckless endangerment, furnishing alcohol to minors, and other offenses under papers filed by the attorney general in court on Thursday.

The attorney general’s decision is the latest turn in a deadly hazing case that drew national attention and spurred the university to crack down on Greek life. Piazza, of Lebanon, N.J., died last February after falling down the stairs at a fraternity party following an alleged booze-fueled hazing ritual. He languished on a couch for hours before anyone called for help.

In part, the attorney general’s decision sides with a ruling made last summer by Centre County Judge Allen Sinclair, who threw out aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter charges against eight members of the fraternity.

But the Attorney General’s Office also differed with Sinclair and sided with former Centre County Prosecutor Stacy Parks Miller in that it kept the involuntary manslaughter charge against four fraternity members: Beta Theta Pi president Brendan Young of Malvern and members Daniel Casey of Ronkonkoma, N.Y., Gary Dibileo of Scranton, and Luke Visser of Encinitas, Calif.

“We will seek justice for the Piazza family,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement. “My office is committed to holding every responsible individual accountable for their actions, consistent with the law and the evidence in this case.”

Parks Miller expressed disappointment with the decision. “I am sorry for the Piazza family the AG is not behind the charges that we carefully chose to file based upon the extreme facts of this case,” she said in an email.

“We believed the facts showing recklessness were extreme in Tim Piazza’s case, warranting the aggravated assault charge, and we were ready to fight for the right outcome. While the attorney general may have a different approach now, I remain hopeful and confident in their dedication to the other charges moving forward.”

Aggravated assault was charged as a first-degree felony, which can carry up to 20 years in prison, while involuntary manslaughter was charged as a first-degree misdemeanor, which carries only up to five years.

In total, the Attorney General’s Office filed charges against 11 members who are scheduled to appear at a preliminary hearing next week. Three other members waived their preliminary hearings and were bound over for trial.

Twelve other members also face charges, but the Attorney General’s Office has not made a determination in their cases.

“Our review is ongoing,” Shapiro said in the statement. “These charges represent one part of our investigation, and we will have further information to release as our review moves forward.”

Also differing from Parks Miller, the Attorney General’s Office did not charge the local fraternity group, noting in papers that it “consists only of alumni, and does not or has not consisted of the chapter or active members of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity as of the dates of the events included in the above referenced complaints.”

Center City attorney Tom Kline, who represents Piazza’s parents, Jim and Evelyn Piazza, said he was not disappointed by the decision.

“They are going to refile involuntary manslaughter charges against a number of them, and that’s significant,” Kline said. “And there are 26 individuals who are facing hundreds of charges.”

Parks Miller initially filed charges against 18 members of the fraternity last May. She refiled aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter charges against members in October after Sinclair threw them out, following a multi-day preliminary hearing. She also then added charges against more members.

Parks Miller lost a bid for reelection last fall, and new District Attorney Bernie Cantorna asked the Attorney General‘s Office to take over the case, saying he had a conflict of interest.

Other fraternity members charged by the Attorney General’s Office on Thursday include: Joseph Sala of Erie; Michael Bonatucci of Woodstock, Ga.; Nicholas Kubera of Downingtown; Jonah Neuman of Nashville; Lars Kenyon of Barrington, R.I.; Michael Angelo Schiavone of Yardley; and Parker Jax Yochim of Waterford. The Attorney General’s Office said it would continue to pursue cases against three other members who previously waived their preliminary hearings: Edward J. Gilmartin of Scranton; Ryan K. Foster of Bedford, Mass.; and Craig A. Heimer of Port Matilda.

Rocco C. Cipparone Jr., a Haddon Heights attorney who represents Bonatucci, said he was pleased that the attorney general also decided against charging his client with aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter. Bonatucci is charged with reckless endangerment, conspiracy to commit hazing, and other offenses.

“From the beginning, I believed those charges were not factually or legally appropriate,” he said. “I’m glad the Attorney General’s Office sees it the way I do in that respect.”