18 members of Penn State frat charged after pledge’s fatal fall

Updated May 7, 2017 - 5:34 pm

BELLEFONTE, Pa. — A Penn State fraternity pledge died after stumbling and falling several times with toxic levels of alcohol in his body and suffered for hours with severe injuries while his friends failed to summon help, authorities said Friday in announcing criminal charges against the fraternity and 18 of its members.

A grand jury investigation, greatly aided by security camera footage from the Beta Theta Pi chapter house, found that fraternity members resisted getting help for 19-year-old Timothy Piazza before his death in February. The grand jury said their actions in some cases may have worsened his injuries.

“This is a very sad day for Centre County — it’s been sad ever since we lost a child for reasons that are totally preventable. A child who just wanted to come to college here, who put his faith in Penn State,” Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said.

Eight of the fraternity brothers and the chapter itself were charged with involuntary manslaughter. Other charges include aggravated and simple assault, evidence tampering, alcohol-related violations and hazing.

The grand jury said the fraternity was heavily stocked with booze for the Feb. 2 ceremony at which Piazza, a sophomore engineering student, and 13 others accepted pledge bids. The pledges were pressured to run a “gauntlet” of drinking stations that required them to chug vodka, shotgun beers and drink wine.

Piazza fell down a long flight of stairs that night and fell several other times, injuring his head, Miller said. The next morning, he fell down the same steps a second time and was unconscious when help was finally summoned. Piazza, from Lebanon, New Jersey, died Feb. 4.

Miller said doctors estimate Piazza had a blood-alcohol content of nearly .40 the night of the pledge ceremony, a dangerously high level.

Penn State permanently banned Beta Theta Pi on March 30, accusing it of a “persistent pattern” of excessive drinking, drug use and hazing. University President Eric Barron called the report heart-wrenching, sickening and incomprehensible.

“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,” Barron said.

Miller said video footage turned over to investigators was critical to the investigation, providing evidence of what occurred and contradicting stories some witnesses had told.

The cameras recorded Piazza drinking vodka and beer at around 9:20 p.m. and an hour later needing help to walk, staggering and hunched over, from an area near the basement stairs to a couch. He’s later shown trying unsuccessfully to open the front door, then “severely staggering drunkenly toward the basement steps” at about 10:45 p.m., the grand jury report said.

He was subsequently found at the bottom of the steps after apparently falling face-first. Four brothers carried his limp body back upstairs, where some poured liquid on him and one slapped him in the face, the jury said. Fraternity members put a backpack containing textbooks on him so Piazza, lying on his back, would not suffocate on his own vomit, the jury wrote.

When a brother insisted Piazza needed medical help, he was confronted and shoved into a wall, the report said. When the same brother insisted again that Piazza required help, he was told others were biology and kinesiology majors so his opinion wasn’t as valuable as theirs, the jury said.

Piazza tried to get up around 3:20 a.m. but fell backward and hit his head on the wood floor, the report said. He fell onto a stone floor at 5 a.m. and was last caught on video after 7 a.m. He was discovered in the basement at about 10 a.m.

“Timothy was lying on his back with his arms clenched tight at his sides and his hands in the air,” jurors wrote. “His chest was bare, his breathing heavy and he had blood on his face.”

During the next 40 minutes, fraternity brothers shook him, tried to prop him up, covered him with a blanket, wiped his face and attempted to dress him before one finally called 911, the jury said.

The eight defendants facing more serious charges were scheduled to appear before a judge later Friday to be arraigned and have bail set. That will occur for the other defendants next week, Miller said. Five of them face a single count each of evidence tampering.

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