By David Spunt, Natasha Brown and Alexandria Hoff
BELLEFONTE, Pa. (CBS/AP) — 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. Their names: Brendan Young, Daniel Casey, Jonah Neuman, Nick Kubera, Michael Bonatucci, Gary DiBileo, Luke Visser and Joe Sala.
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.
“It’s just heartbreaking all around, there are no winners,” said Miller. “You don’t win by even charging these young men because the only win is for him to be alive.”
Friends of 19-year-old Nick Kubera called their friend “one of the nicest kids in the world.”
Kubra, is among eight of the 18 students facing the most serious charges of aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter.
Those inside of the Malvern home of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity Chapter President Brenden Young did not answer the door.
“What we know of them is that they are really nice people,” said Melanie Howson, who lives nearby.
Young is also among those facing the most serious charges for organizing the alcohol fueled party and neglecting to call 911.
Court documents show a response Young sent to a friend who told him not to blame himself : “How can I not? I don’t think you fully comprehend the situation he looked – (obscenity) dead.”
The other two local fraternity brothers charged with less serious offenses are 21-year-old Michael Schiavone, of Yardley and 20-year-old Joseph Ems, of Philadelphia.
Authorities say surveillance footage shows Ems punching Piazza in the stomach, which an pathologist testified could have made his fatal injuries from the fall worse.
Beta Theta Pi International Fraternity said in a statement that the “nature of those charges are incredibly disheartening.”
“The early findings of that investigation 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. Beta Theta Pi International Fraternity has clearly and consistently expressed its position that it does not tolerate hazing or alcohol abuse in any form by its members. The former undergraduate members were well educated by the International Fraternity and Penn State on these policies; however, they are entitled to the presumption of innocence as they face these charges,” the organization said.
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.
He continued, “In honor of our son, we are committed to doing everything that we can to ensure that no other parents will have to go through the pain and grief we are currently experiencing.”
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.
According to court documents, what was supposed to be a dry fraternity often had parties fueled with alcohol. One member described a slush fund where brothers were expected to contribute to pay for booze.
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.
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