Eight members of Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Pennsylvania State University are being charged with involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault in the death of Tim Piazza, a Penn State sophomore who died after participating in hazing rituals at the fraternity house in February, according to documents from the Centre County District Attorney’s office.
Eighteen men total, all fraternity members, are being charged with crimes including hazing, furnishing alcohol to minors, tampering with evidence and more.
This story originally appeared on USA TODAY College.
Beta Theta Pi, the fraternity that Piazza was pledging when he died, is also being criminally charged, with a total of 147 charges.
Piazza died after consuming massive amounts of alcohol during a hazing ritual and then falling down a flight of stairs, then falling again, repeatedly throughout the night on Feb. 2, 2017. He died of irreversible spleen and brain stem damage, according to the district attorney.
“This is a very sad day,” Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said in a press conference after a months-long grand jury investigation. “It’s been sad ever since we lost a child for reasons that are totally preventable. We are all heartbroken as we stand here.”
Miller was joined by Piazza’s parents, who made a brief statement eulogizing their son and saying his death “did not have to happen.”
The Grand Jury Findings
According to the grand jury’s findings, Piazza died after falling multiple times during an alcohol-fueled party at Beta Theta Pi fraternity house on bid acceptance night.
At the Beta fraternity house, Piazza was made to “run the gauntlet,” according to testimony. A fraternity member testified that the purpose of the gauntlet was to “get pledges drunk in a very short amount of time.” They were made to have four to five drinks within two minutes.
Beta Theta Pi was supposed to be a dry fraterrnity, but the grand jury found evidence that the brothers had what they called a “slush fund” for alcohol purchases. They had bought over a thousand dollars in alcohol — vodka, beer, wine and potent malt beverage Four Loko — for this particular party, according to receipts.
Around 11:50 p.m. the night of the party, after Piazza’s fall, fraternity member Greg Rizzo wrote to others in the house in a group message that Piazza “might actually be a problem. He fell 15 feet down a flight of stars, hair-first, going to need help.”
Video footage from a security system in the Beta house shows that in fact Piazza fell multiple additional times during the night and the early morning. Fraternity brothers and the pledge class testified to those falls as well.
Video shows fraternity brothers carrying a limp Piazza up the stairs with a bruise that had bloomed and was visible on video.
In the early hours after the initial fall, brothers poured liquid on Piazza’s face and slapped him in attempts to rouse him.
A little after 3:30 a.m. video footage shows Piazza attempting to stand and moving around the house, falling and striking his head multiple times. Around 7:15 a.m., video shows Piazza “staggering” toward the basement steps.
The grand jury report concluded that “the severity of Timothy Piazza’s condition was obvious and noticed by the fraternity brothers and pledges around him that evening.”
Around 10 a.m., a fellow pledge, Daniel Erickson, found Piazza in the basement. According to Erickson’s testimony, Piazza was “breathing heavy,” had “blood on his face,” felt “cold to the touch” and appeared “pale” with his eyes half-opened.
Nobody called 911 until 10:48 a.m.
The grand jury also concluded that there was an “active attempt to conceal and/or destroy evidence” after Piazza was transferred to the hospital. For example, several brothers discussed deleting or actually deleted GroupMe messages.
On Feb. 5, Brendan Young, the president of the Penn State chapter, discussed concerns about “lawsuits” with another member. “The guys taking care of him didn’t call an ambulance right away, so they could get in trouble for negligence,” Young wrote in a text message. “I just don’t know what I’m liable for as president.” (Young is being charged with 200 crimes: 1 count each of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, simple assault and tampering with evidence, plus 50 counts of recklessly endangering another person, 50 counts of hazing, 48 counts of furnishing alcohol to minors and 48 counts of unlawful acts relative to liquor.)
After learning that Piazza had died, evidence shows brothers considered “erasing the video surveillance” from the house.
The fraternity website shows the group’s motto was “Men of Principle.”
The death has already impacted Greek Life at Penn State
Greek life is a deeply embedded part of campus culture at Penn State, which recognizes 81 fraternities and sororities. About 17% of all PSU students are a part of Greek life.
Weeks before the grand jury investigation findings were released, Penn State Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims told Philly.com that the university knew the party included a “hazing ritual” that involved “gross misuse of alcohol.”
Even before the criminal charges were announced, Piazza’s death rocked Greek life at Penn State:
- Penn State officials banned Beta Theta Pi from campus for at least five years, with the possibility of the ban becoming permanent pending the results of the investigation.
- Other fraternities and sororities at Penn State are restricted from recruiting new members until 2018 as well as limited as to the number of social events they can hold and how much and what kind of alcohol they may serve.
- Several fraternities and sororities then violated new rules over parents weekend. Sigma Alpha Mu was suspended after violating “every rule that was imposed.”
- President Barron wrote an open letter to the Greek community citing several rule violations coming from Penn State frats. And, he said, if that disregard for rule continued, he envisioned “many empty houses and then the end of Greek life at Penn State.”
In a statement responding to the grand jury investigation and charges, Penn State President Eric Barron called the findings “heart-wrenching and incomprehensible.” Regarding what happened on the night Piazza sustained his fatal injuries, Barron said,
“The alleged details in the grand jury presentment, which suggest the inhumane treatment of a student forced through hazing to consume dangerous amounts of alcohol and endure hours of suffering, are sickening and difficult to understand. It is numbing how an atmosphere that endangers the well-being and safety of another person could occur within an organization that prided itself on commitment to each other and to its community.”
Nine members of the fraternity are expected to surrender to police for arraignment at the Centre County Court House at 2 p.m.
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