Hours after Penn State University student Tim Piazza fell down the stairs of his fraternity, he "looked like a corpse," a detective testified on Monday

By Christine Pelisek
June 15, 2017 02:10 PM
Credit: Patrick Carns via AP

Hours after Pennsylvania State University student Timothy Piazza fell down the stairs of his fraternity — following what authorities called a hazing ritual gone awry — he “looked like a corpse,” a detective testified during a court hearing on Monday.

The 19-year-old sophomore”looked dead,” according to Dave Scicchitano, a detective with police in State College, Pennsylvania.

Scicchitano appeared Monday as a witness during the first day of a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to hold former members of Piazza’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity for trial on charges related to his Feb. 4 death.

The hearing — which also included surveillance video of that fateful night — will continue on July 10 and 11, and the defense will have the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses.

Authorities said 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. That night, according to a grand jury, he participated in “the gauntlet,” whereby the pledges were made to drink at a fast pace at a series of drinking stations for the purpose of getting “pledges drunk in a very short amount of time.”

Piazza’s death was caused by traumatic brain injuries and spleen damage after he consumed a deadly amount of alcohol and suffered multiple falls — including tumbling head-first down 15 basement steps.

Eighteen former members of the fraternity have been charged in connection with Piazza’s death. Of those, eight former members were charged with misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault (a felony), hazing and reckless endangerment.

The other 10 were charged with misdemeanor offenses including evidence tampering, reckless endangerment and hazing. The criminal charges were announced last month, after a months-long grand jury investigation.

The eight people facing felony charges are: Michael Bonatucci, Daniel Casey, Gary Dibileo, Nick Kubera, Jonah Neuman, Joe Sala, Luke Visser and Brendan Young, who was then the fraternity’s president.

The 10 facing misdemeanors are: Braxton Becker, Joseph Ems Jr., Ryan Foster, Edward Gilmartin, Craig Heimer, Lars Kenyon, Ryan McCann, Lucas Rockwell, Michael Schiavone and Parker Yochim.

The fraternity is also charged in the case, according to prosecutors.

The 18 former members have yet to enter pleas and have been released from custody pending trial. Efforts to reach most of them or their attorneys for comment have not been successful.

‘His Chest Was Bare, His Breathing Heavy’

During Monday’s hearing, prosecutors showed three hours of video from the fraternity’s surveillance cameras of Piazza before and after he became intoxicated, the New York Times reports.

In one instance, video showed Piazza staggering drunk around the fraternity’s living room before he fell down the basement steps.

Video showed him then being carried upstairs and placed on a couch, after which fraternity members slapped and poured liquid on his face in an effort to wake him up.

In other footage, Piazza was 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 the frat house.

Courtroom observers watched as his fraternity brothers picked him up and dropped him on a couch, sat on his legs and shoved his arms into a backpack filled with books in an apparent attempt to prevent him from falling off the couch and choking on his vomit.

“They’re treating him like a rag doll,” the district attorney, Stacy Parks Miller, said during the hearing, according to the Times.

In another clip, one fraternity member was seen walking downstairs for a drink of water, stepping over Piazza and looking at him before returning to his room. Soon after that, another member walked Piazza to another room, but he left him there after Piazza fell down three steps.

Two hours later, Piazza was seen staggering toward the basement steps but wasn’t seen again until fraternity members discovered his body on the basement floor.

The grand jury transcript, which was previously obtained by PEOPLE, states, “Timothy was lying on his back with his arms clenched tight at his sides and his hands in the air. His chest was bare, his breathing heavy, and he had blood on his face.”

Attorney Rocco C. Cipparone Jr., who is representing Bontaucci, tells PEOPLE that the prosecution played “selective portions” of the video.

“I expect that when we look at the full video, we will see that my client in particular left the fraternity house well before all off the salient events — with respect to Mr. Piazza falling and struggling — and he was not present during any of the alleged interactions between other fraternity members the prosecutor portrays as criminal,” Cipparone says. “I think the charges against Mr. Bonatucci are an overcharge, and the law won’t fit the facts.”

Visser’s prominent Philadelphia-based lawyer, Theodore Simon, echoed that, telling PEOPLE: “It is clear from Monday’s 11-hour court hearing, the charges against my client Luke Visser are both factually and legally unfounded, unwarranted and unjustified.”

Peter Sala, who is representing Joe Sala, tells PEOPLE the charges against his client are “excessive.” As the other defense attorneys noted, Sala says the video shown in court was only a selection of the whole, which would have shown Joe Sala leaving the fraternity house around midnight.

“He recognizes it is a tragedy, but at the same time he is stunned at what he is accused of,” Peter Sala says. “All we can do right now is wait ’til next time and see what else they [prosecutors] present.”

‘Unspeakable Tragedy’

The Times reports that video appeared to show Piazza’s frat brothers carrying him, unconscious and shirtless but for a black coat. They were seen making calls, poking at him and attempting to pry his clenched fists apart.

One fraternity member called 911 at 10:48 a.m. the next morning, about 12 hours after Piazza fell down the basement stairs on Feb. 2.

“The video is horrific, it is gruesome, it is something that you couldn’t imagine until you’ve seen it, ” Piazza family attorney, Tom Kline, told ABC News.

William J. Brennan, a defense attorney for Joseph Ems Jr., one of the accused, says his client and other fraternity members present that night didn’t realize how sick Piazza was.

“This is a terrible, unspeakable tragedy that Tim Piazza lost his life, and I feel terrible for his family,” Brennan tells PEOPLE. “My client or any reasonable person had no way to determine the extent of his internal injuries that were not visible to the naked eye. At first glance, Tim Piazza looked like a frat guy who had too much to drink.

“Later, after an autopsy, we learned that he had a brain bleed, bran stem fracture and a ruptured spleen — but none of that was visible to the naked eye. It was not like he had any head gash that was bleeding profusely. And I think it is unreasonable of [prosecutors] to now hold my client to a higher standard of knowledge than anyone would have in real time.”

Prosecutors “are claiming that my client [Ems] struck Tim Piazza in the abdomen area, and the video shows that he tossed a couple of canvas-like boat shoes on the sofa where Tim Piazza was reclining and you see his shoulders and part of his upper arm moving in Tim’s direction,” Brennan says. “But I didn’t see any violent thrust or movement.”

“Joe Ems just thought the young fellow drank too much,” his attorney adds. “There was no evil intent to harm here to Tim Piazza on Joey Ems’ part.”

Student’s Family Wants to Prevent Future Deaths

In May, University President Eric Barron called the grand jury findings in Piazza’s death “heart-wrenching and incomprehensible.”

The school 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.

The Beta Theta Pi fraternity itself 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 the announcement of criminal counts in May, 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.”

The fraternity’s attorney declined to comment. Neither the district attorney’s office nor Piazza’s family or their attorney returned messages.

Kline told ABC News that Piazza’s family left the courtroom on Monday when the surveillance video was shown — and, according to the Times, they have never seen the footage.

“They want to remember their son as the young, bright, handsome, full-of-life person who he was,” Kline said. “And they agonized over this decision. But they decided that in the end this was not something that they should do. At least not today.”

“The Piazza family’s ultimate goal is to make sure that this never happens again,” Kline added, according to ABC. “This video should be watched by every president of every university to see what happened at Penn State and to say to themselves, ‘This can never ever happen again.’ ”

Piazza’s parents previously spoke out in an interview. His father told Today‘s Matt Lauer, “This wasn’t boys being boys, Matt. This was men who intended to force feed lethal amounts of alcohol into other young men, and what happened throughout the night was just careless disregard for human life.”

He continued, “They basically treated our son as roadkill.”