18 Former Frat Members Charged in Connection with Teen's Hazing Death: 'It Is an Astounding Tragedy'
Eight former members of a Pennsylvania State University fraternity have been charged with misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault in connection with the hazing death of 19-year-old Timothy Piazza, PEOPLE confirms.
Authorities say that Piazza died after taking part in a hazing ritual for the Alpha Upsilon chapter of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity’s bid acceptance night on Feb. 2.
Piazza’s death was caused by traumatic brain injuries and spleen damage after he consumed lethal amounts of alcohol and suffered multiple falls — including falling head-first down 15 basement steps.
“It is an astounding tragedy,” says Centre County, Pennsylvania, District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller.
“You have a death that was completely preventable, and you have a family who will never again see their son,” Miller tells PEOPLE. “It is senseless tragedy all the way around. There are no winners.”
The criminal charges against the ex-members of Beta Theta Pi were announced Friday, after a months-long grand jury investigation, according to the Centre County District Attorney’s Office.
No pleas were entered, and the accused were released on their own recognizance. The aggravated assault charge, a felony, carries a 10- to 20-year sentence upon conviction.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for May 17.
The eight facing felony charges are: Michael Bonatucci, Daniel Casey, Gary Dibileo, Nick Kubera, Jonah Neuman, Joe Sala, Luke Visser and Brendan Young, the fraternity president.
Ten additional former Beta Theta Pi fraternity members are charged with misdemeanor offenses that include hazing, recklessly endangering another person, tampering with evidence, furnishing alcohol to minors and unlawful acts relative to liquor. They will appear in court on Tuesday.
It was unclear Monday who among the 18 charged have retained attorneys who could comment on their behalf. Efforts to reach the accused directly were unsuccessful.
The Beta Theta Pi fraternity itself, which prosecutors say also faces criminal charges, has been banned from ever returning to Penn State.
Its university chapter was closed in February, after Piazza died. The 18 charged were members of the fraternity at the time of his death.
In a statement from their attorney following Friday’s announcement, Bi Theta Pi said, “The nature of those charges are incredibly disheartening as the organization and its membership continue to grieve Tim’s passing and the pain experienced by his family.”
“Since the incident in early February, the International Fraternity has cooperated fully with local officials in their investigation,” the statement continued. “The early findings … indicated that the behavior of several undergraduate members was in direct contradiction of the International Fraternity’s expectations and risk management policies, as well as the International Fraternity’s reputation and commitment to character development.”
District Attorney Miller says, “I think the evidence shows that they [the members] were looking out for their own self-interest and they were concerned about how it would reflect on them in terms of providing alcohol and hazing. The evidence shows that is what contributed to their delay in calling for help.”
University President Eric Barron called the grand jury findings, which were obtained by PEOPLE, “heart-wrenching and incomprehensible.”
“The university community continues to mourn his tragic death, but no pain we feel can begin to compare to the devastating heartbreak that Timothy’s family and friends are experiencing,” he said in a statement.
“All indicators suggested Beta Theta Phi was a model fraternity,” Barron continued. “The house, privately-owned and situated like all other fraternity houses on private property, was beautiful, the subject of a multi-million dollar renovation; both the Beta alumni and the national organization provided strict rules of behavior; and, the brothers had a no alcohol policy which stated that anyone caught drinking would be expelled.
“It is clear, however, this was no ‘model’ fraternity.”
Penn State has enacted stricter limits on Greek life at the school, such as restricting how many events with alcohol are allowed and delaying the annual recruitment “rush” for freshman.
“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,” President Barron said.
In its finding, the grand jury concluded that the Penn State fraternity “nurtured an environment so permissive of excessive drinking and hazing that it emboldened its members to repeatedly act with reckless disregard to human life.”
Piazza, the grand jury found, “died as a direct result of the extremely reckless conduct of members of the [fraternity].”
Witness: ‘Help Was Just Unnecessary’
“This didn’t have to happen,” Piazza’s father, Jim, said at a news conference on Friday.
“This is the result of a feeling of entitlement, flagrant disobedience of the law and disregard for moral values that was then exacerbated by egregious acts of self-preservation,” he said. (Piazza’s family did not return a call for comment.)
According to the grand jury’s findings, Piazza participated in a hazing ritual at Beta Theta Pi called “the gauntlet,” whereby the pledges were made to drink at a fast pace at a series of drinking stations — such as the shotgun and wine station — for the purpose of getting “pledges drunk in a very short amount of time.”
Fraternity members testified that Beta Theta Pi was supposed to be “dry,” but they put money into a “slush fund” specifically to purchase alcohol for fraternity events such as socials and recruitment and pledge nights.
Authorities said the fraternity had purchased $1,179 of alcohol, including cases of vodka, beer, wine and 15 cases of the malt liquor Four Loko for the party Piazza attended.
Part of what ensued that night — Piazza’s injuries and the disregard with which he was allegedly treated — was captured on video surveillance that was shown to the grand jury.
In once instance, video shows Piazza staggering drunk around the living room before he falls down the 15 basement steps.
Video footage shows him being carried upstairs and placed on a couch, and fraternity members slapping and pouring liquid on his face in an effort to wake him up.
In more video footage, Piazza is seen falling off the couch, standing up and falling backwards and striking his head on the hardwood floor and falling head-first into an iron railing leading up to the second floor of fraternity house.
At 5:15 a.m., one of the fraternity members is seen walking downstairs for a drink of water, stepping over Piazza and looking at him before returning to his room. Soon after that, another members walks Piazza to another room, but he leaves him there after Piazza falls down three steps.
Two hours later, Piazza is seen staggering toward the basement steps but isn’t seen again until fraternity members discover his body on the basement floor.
“Timothy was lying on his back with his arms clenched tight at his sides and his hands in the air,” the grand jury transcript reads. “His chest was bare, his breathing heavy, and he had blood on his face.”
According to the transcript, four fraternity members carried him upstairs and placed him back on the couch. For 42 minutes, as he lay unconscious, the fraternity members shook him, tried to prop his body up on the couch, covered him with a blanket and attempted to dress him.
“Although numerous brothers were in the possession of cell phones, no one made an effort to dial 911,” the grand jury transcript states.
One fraternity member called 911 at 10:48 a.m. the next morning, about 12 hours after he fell down the basement stairs on Feb. 2.
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
Kordel Davis, a newly initiated brother, testified that when he saw Piazza passed out on the couch, he screamed to get help.
In an interview with Good Morning America on Sunday, Davis said he repeatedly asked his fraternity brothers to call 911, but they ignored his pleas.
“They said, ‘No, you’re overreacting, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ ” Davis recalled. “And I said, ‘No, I really do know what I’m talking about. He could have a concussion.’ ”
After Piazza was taken to the hospital, authorities alleged that some of the defendants made a concerted effort to “conceal and/or destroy evidence,” according to the grand jury findings:
In a Feb. 3 text, fraternity president Brendan Young allegedly instructed the pledge master to “make sure the pledges clean the basement and get rid of any evidence of alcohol.”
In a later text exchange, the grand jury found, Young allegedly talked about the fraternity’s potential culpability, writing, “They could get us for giving him alcohol that contributed to his death. Also the guys taking care of him didn’t call an ambulance right away, so they could get in trouble for negligence. I just don’t know what I’m liable for as president.”
Young’s attorney could not be reached for comment.
Speaking to GMA, Davis said, “I was told it was going to be handled their way. I was told that they had the situation under control and that my help was not needed and that my opinions were not relevant and not needed … I was told it was all a myth, I was overreacting and I was crazy …. They thought calling for help was just unnecessary.”
David said his fraternity brothers “just wanted to make sure that they themselves were safe, rather than Tim truly being safe.”