Eighteen members of a Penn State fraternity were initially accused of various criminal charges stemming from the death of a pledge who was found unconscious at the bottom of the stairs after running a “gauntlet” of drinking stations and repeatedly falling.
UPDATE: On September 1, a judge “threw out involuntary manslaughter and felony aggravated assault counts against members of a Penn State fraternity in a pledge’s alcohol hazing-related death, ordering 12 of the defendants to stand trial on lesser counts,” ABC reported, adding, “District Justice Allen Sinclair dismissed charges altogether against four of the members of the now-shuttered Beta Theta Pi fraternity.” Read more here.
Timothy Piazza, a 19-year-old Penn State sophomore, was found dead on February 3 at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house.
However, that doesn’t begin to describe what happened to Piazza, known as Tim to friends. The 81-page charging document, which you can read in full below, describes a horrific sequence of events in which a severely intoxicated Piazza – who had run a gauntlet of beer, wine and other alcoholic stations – falls down the basement stairs. Authorities accuse various fraternity brothers of not getting Piazza help, throwing liquid on him, physically landing on him, and growing angry when one of them suggests calling for help.
The documents describe Piazza stumbling through the house and repeatedly falling, with no one getting him help, before being found the next morning lying near death behind a basement bar. Even then, it took more than 40 minutes to call 911, the charging documents allege.
On May 5, prosecutors in Pennsylvania announced they had lodged charges against 18 fraternity members and the frat house itself.
Piazza’s father, Jim, called the college student’s death a “senseless and very preventable tragedy” in a press conference. He called Timothy’s death the “result of a feeling of entitlement and flagrant disregard” for the law, according to the Morning Call.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Piazza Was Found at the Bottom of Stairs & Prosecutors Say His Blood Alcohol Level Was Up to .36
According to ABC News, Piazza “died after falling down stairs at the frat house during a pledge ceremony,” prosecutors allege.
When police arrived, they found the college student at the bottom of the staircase unconscious. Fraternity members said “Piazza fell down the basement stairs while intoxicated the night before,” reports ABC. He had an exceptionally high blood-alcohol level of possibly up to .36, according to New 12.
News 12 reports that authorities say Piazza “had toxic levels of alcohol in his body and was badly injured in a series of falls.”
Read the charging documents:
According to NBC, prosecutors allege that “four brothers allegedly carried him upstairs after the fall and placed him on a couch that night but no one called 911 till the next morning. Piazza died at the hospital.”
The coroner ruled Piazza’s death accidental “and said he sustained multiple traumatic injuries from the fall,” reports NBC.
Here’s how the complaint details the injuries:
Piazza, severely intoxicated after a pledge ritual, staggered drunkenly toward the basement steps. A brother heard someone fall. He made his way to the top of the basement stairwell and say Piazza lying on his stomach “face down at the bottom of the steps.”
He wrote fellow fraternity brothers, “Also Tim Piazza might actually be a problem. He fell 15 feet down a flight of stairs, hair first, going to need help.”
Another brother saw Piazza lying “torso face down, legs were on the stairs that go down before the turn.” Four Beta brothers carried Piazza upstairs. His body appeared limp, his eyes were closed and his demeanor was unconscious based on his lack of movement. He had a bruise on his abdomen.
The Beta brothers placed him on a couch and sat next to him. One rubbed his sternum, and another dumped liquid on his face, but he didn’t respond. A brother lifted Piazza’s arm, and it appeared limp. They didn’t get help.
Kordel Davis was a brother who tried to intervene. According to the charging documents, he testified that Timothy looked horrible with a bruise on his chest and his eyes shut. He was thrashing and making weird movements. Davis became concerned for Timothy’s life. He stressed to some of the other brothers that Timothy needed to go to the hospital since he could have a concussion and screamed at them to get help and call 911 immediately.
However, one of the brothers is accused of shoving Davis into a wall and telling him to leave. Davis then confronted the club’s vice president, who allegedly told him he was crazy.
A brother slapped Piazza three times in the face, the documents allege, and another brother landed on him after being tackled, while Piazza was vomiting and twitching on the couch. At one point, Piazza rolled onto the floor and was “slammed” back into the couch and struck in the abdomen.
Piazza then fell again – hitting his head on the hardwood, staggering and falling head first into an iron railing and stone floor, and falling head first into a door. At one point, brothers walked around him and left him there. A pledge took a video on Snapchat.
He once more staggered toward the basement steps. In the morning, they found him behind the bar in the basement, lying on his back with his arms clenched tight and hands in the air. They placed him back on the couch but did not immediately call 911, the charging document alleges. Instead, a brother is accused of searching on the Internet for terms like “cold extremities in drunk person” and “falling asleep after head injury.”
Finally, a brother called 911. The documents allege that, in a text message, a brother instructed another to “make sure the pledges clean the basement and get rid of any evidence of alcohol” and Internet group messages were deleted.
At the hospital, a surgeon opened Piazza’s abdominal cavity and discovered four liters, 80% of a human body’s total blood supply, of dark old blood in his abdomen. His spleen had shattered and was removed.
He had a brain hematoma and skull fracture. A doctor said that moving him around and jostling him intensified his spleen laceration and that his blood alcohol content was between .28 and .36. He died at the hospital; his death was the result of traumatic brain injuries from the falls.
2. Prosecutors Allege ‘Hazing Rituals’ Occurred, Including Making Pledges Run a ‘Gauntlet’
Prosecutors say the fraternity, which was supposed to be a “dry house,” instead was awash in drinking and pledging rituals. “The Penn State Greek community nurtured an environment so permissive of excessive drinking and hazing that it emboldened its members to repeatedly act with reckless disregard to human life. It was not a result of isolated conduct or simple mistake,” the charging documents alleges.
In the week leading up to Timothy Piazza’s death, “one Beta brother bought nearly $1,180 worth of alcohol, including Four Loko and Crown Russe vodka, prosecutors said,” according to NBC.
The charging documents allege:
The fraternity had a “pledge education committee” and a “Beta ritual book” used during fraternity ceremonies such as initiation. The pledge manual prohibits alcohol on the premises and bans hazing activities.
However, a brother “discussed the coordinated efforts of Beta members to purchase alcohol for fraternity events” despite claiming to be a dry facility, the documents allege.
About 40 brothers lived in the fraternity house ranging from age 18 to 22. Beta had a “slush fund” to purchase alcohol for fraternity events, the documents say, and held three alcoholic events, according to testimony: A crate race night, a Four Loko night, and a cigar and beer night. There was alcohol at a bid acceptance night.
A Beta brother purchased a “mass quantity of alcohol over an eight day span” that added up to more than $1,179. Purchases included Crown Rouse vodka and Natural Light beer, 15 cases of Four Loko (a potent malt liquor) and multiple boxes of wine. They also conversed in a chat group called “we f-ck moms.”
During a pledge, the pledge master produced a bottle of vodka and told them they had to drink, specifically instructing the pledges to finish the bottle before it reached the end of the line.
Pledges then had to run down the hallway and encountered another drinking station where they were required to shotgun a beer, the charging documents allege. Upon finishing the beer, they had to run to the next station and drink from a wine bag. Next, they had to play beer pong at another station.
The series of drinking stations was called the “gauntlet.”
Fourteen spring 2017 pledges, including Piazza, were pressured to run the gauntlet at a fast pace. (There was also a hell week, in which the pledges had to drink something called “mush” – a mixture of old food and drink left in the refrigerator. They also went through a paddling ceremony in which they were blindfolded.)
Video showed a brother allegedly hand Piazza a bottle of vodka from which Piazza drinks and then another brother handed Piazza a beer to shotgun. Eventually, Piazza is seen on video surveillance footage obtained by police staggering around while hunched over.
The fraternity members were scheduled to be in court on May 5 for an arraignment, according to NBC News. According to News 12, a grand jury saw security footage from the now closed Beta Theta Pi chapter house and “found that his friends failed to get 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.”
3. Eighteen Fraternity Members Were Initially Facing Charges, Including Some for Involuntary Manslaughter
About 40 fraternity members lived in the house, and almost half of them were initially facing criminal charges. The complaint accuses the following fraternity members of criminal charges.
According to The New York Daily News, in early September 2017, a Pennsylvania judge tossed the charges against four of the fraternity members completely. “The judge also threw out involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault charges against eight students. But he said a dozen of them still face alcohol violations as well as reckless endangerment and hazing charges,” the newspaper reported.
4. Piazza Was From New Jersey, Where He Was on the Football & Track Teams in High School
According to his Facebook page, Piazza graduated from Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Readington, New Jersey before enrolling at Penn State. The above photo, of Piazza (left) with a high school friend, was his Facebook profile photo.
He was an athlete in high school.
Timothy Piazza’s obituary says he was a “son and brother, athlete and volunteer at Hunterdon Central and at Penn State.”
The obituary says Piazza died at Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa., “after a tragic accident on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017.” Born in Edison, N.J., he was the son of James and Evelyn Piazza.
“Tim had resided in Readington Township, N.J., his whole life. He was a graduate of Hunterdon Central Regional High School, where he played football and was also on the spring track team, taking part in shot put, javelin and discus,” the obituary reads. “He was a Red Devil Ambassador at Hunterdon Central and participated in the school’s Teen Prevention Education Program. He volunteered with the Hunterdon Outreach Program to help teach special needs children football, basketball and baseball and took part in the Hopeful Holidays and Readington’s Holiday Gifts Program, donating Christmas and holiday gifts to those in need.”
5. Piazza Was Studying Engineering at Penn State & Was Involved in Charity Groups
The friend in the above photo wrote on Facebook, “The greatest friend that anyone can ask for. Thank you for always being there for me and my sisters. Miss you a lot.” Piazza is on the right.
Piazza’s obit says he was a sophomore engineering student at Penn State University, “where he was on the executive board of AYUDA, a special interest organization benefiting the Penn State Dance Marathon (THON). He was also a member of THON’s Operations Committee.”
The obituary continued: “Tim loved spending his summers at the beach with his family and friends, jet skiing, playing golf and taking it to the hoop in friendly pickup basketball games. He was smart, funny, friendly and kind. His time here has been all too brief but his memory will remain forever in the hearts of all who knew and loved him.”
One person wrote on the obituary page for Piazza: “Our family extends our deepest sympathy and prayers to you all. Our son is a senior at PSU. Tim was a wonderful person according to everyone who knew him, including our nieces, who graduated from Hunterdon Central with Tim. May he rest in eternal peace with Our Lord, and may the Blessed Mother comfort him always. Tim’s spirit will live on forever at Penn State. We will think of him always when we are there and especially when we watch THON.”