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Penn State fraternity and 18 members charged in fatal fall

Written by Mark Scolforo/Associated Press | May 5, 2017 10:33 AM
timothy_piazza_penn_state.jpg

This Oct. 31, 2014, photo provided by Patrick Carns shows Timothy Piazza, center, with his parents Evelyn Piazza, left, and James Piazza, right, during Hunterdon Central Regional High School football's "Senior Night" at the high school's stadium in Flemington, N.J. Prosecutors in Pennsylvania are set to announce, Friday, May 5, 2017, the results of a grand jury investigation into the death of the Penn State student, Timothy Piazza, who fell down steps Feb. 4, during an alcohol-fueled pledge ceremony. (Patrick Carns via AP)

(Bellefonte) -- Eighteen Penn State fraternity brothers have been charged with crimes ranging up to involuntary manslaughter in the case of a pledge who authorities say repeatedly fell down a flight of stairs after he and others were made to run a gantlet of drinking stations where they guzzled vodka, beer and wine.

Fraternity members at Beta Theta Pi resisted getting help for 19-year-old Timothy Piazza, causing him to suffer for hours and possibly making his injuries worse, a prosecutor said Friday in announcing the results of a grand jury investigation.

"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," District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said at a news conference.

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.

An attorney for the chapter did not immediately respond to telephone or email messages seeking comment.

The grand jury, aided by security camera footage, said the fraternity was heavily stocked with booze for the Feb. 2 ceremony at which Piazza, a sophomore engineering student from Lebanon, New Jersey, and 13 others accepted pledge bids. The pledges were pressured to chug vodka, shotgun beers and drink wine at different stations.

Piazza tumbled 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 and was unconscious when help was finally summoned. Piazza died Feb. 4 as a result of a traumatic brain injury.

Miller said doctors estimate Piazza had a blood-alcohol content of nearly .40 percent.

The investigation found some frat members tried to cover up what happened. A text message recovered by police urged pledges to get rid of evidence of alcohol, and conversations were found discussing deleting conversations from a messaging app.

"Sadly, we're never going to see his smile again except in pictures," said the student's father, Jim Piazza, who attended the news conference. "This didn't have to happen. This is the result of a feeling of entitlement, flagrant disregard" for the law.

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 grand 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," grand 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 grand jury said.

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

An earlier story appears below.

(Bellefonte, PA) -- Eighteen members of a now-shuttered Penn State University fraternity and the fraternity itself are facing charges in the death of a student who fell down a flight of steps during an alcohol-fueled pledge night.

Eight frat brothers at Beta Theta Pi and the frat are accused of involuntary manslaughter. The other charges range from evidence tampering to furnishing alcohol to minors. 

Nineteen-year-old sophomore Timothy Piazza of Lebanon, New Jersey, fell down stairs at the frat Feb. 2 during events surrounding a pledge acceptance ceremony. Authorities say help wasn't called for 12 hours. When paramedics arrived, Piazza was unconscious on a couch on the main floor. He died at a hospital two days later.

Police had said hazing and excessive drinking at the private chapter house Feb. 2 contributed to the death of Piazza, who was an engineering student.

Fraternity members turned over security camera footage to police but later asked the court to return it.

Dad calls son's death 'preventable'

Jim Piazza said in a news conference today that his son's death on pledge night is "a senseless and very preventable tragedy."

He says his son's death was the "result of a feeling of entitlement and flagrant disregard" of the law.

Beta Theta Pi banned

Penn State permanently banned Beta Theta Pi on March 30, accusing it of a "persistent pattern" of excessive drinking, drug use and hazing.

Some of the students are scheduled to surrender Friday and to be arraigned.

This article has been updated. An earlier version appears below: 

(Bellefonte) -- Prosecutors in Centre County plan to announce this morning the results of a grand jury investigation into the death of a Penn State student who fell down steps during an alcohol-fueled pledge ceremony.

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller plans to disclose details about events surrounding the Feb. 4 death of pledge Timothy Piazza, of Lebanon, New Jersey.

Her office said in a court filing last week that charges were likely against several people for "conduct surrounding the death of another person."

Police have said hazing and excessive drinking at the Beta Theta Pi chapter house on Feb. 2 may have contributed to the 19-year-old sophomore engineering student's death.

Penn State permanently banned Beta Theta Pi on March 30, accusing it of a "persistent pattern" of excessive drinking, drug use and hazing.

Help for Piazza apparently wasn't summoned until about 12 hours after he was injured during events surrounding a pledge acceptance ceremony.

Police have said Piazza was found unconscious on a couch on the main floor when they were called to help. He later died at a hospital.

Fraternity members turned over security camera footage to police and have gone to court to recover it.

Since Piazza's death, chapter alumnus Donald Abbey, a California real estate magnate, has sued the fraternity.

He wants more than $10 million he says he loaned the chapter to fix up the house and shore up its finances.

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