Death of Tim Piazza
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Timothy John Piazza (September 25, 1997 – February 4, 2017) died as the result of hazing at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, Pennsylvania. The incident led to closure of the fraternity's chapter at the university and, as of November 14, 2017[update], at least 26 members of the fraternity face charges, including involuntary manslaughter. The initial investigation was led by attorney Bruce Castor.
In 2005, Penn State alumnus Donald G. Abbey, a member of Joe Paterno’s first ever Penn State Nittany Lions football scholarship class and Beta Theta Pi alumnus, donated $1.2 million to renovate the Beta Theta Pi house. In 2006, Abbey raises another $3.5 million in renovation funds. This would go on to become the most expensive fraternity house renovation in American history. The renovation was lauded by Paterno and his wife, Sue Paterno. Throughout the renovation process, fraternity brothers smashed holes in the walls with baseball bats, leading Abbey to predict future damage to the property. He was a staunch critic of hazing, and due to the toxic culture he found in Beta Theta Pi, he installs an extensive video surveillance system to ensure he will be notified if an emergency situation ever occurs on the property.
The Penn State chapter of Beta Theta Pi was known throughout history to have a deep history of hazing. Brothers once held a racial slurs party on their front porch, yelling the N— word to an African American Penn State student as he walked past the house. The house was once banned for having a front yard littered with used condoms along with hot sauce covering the entire Great Hall.
In September 2016, a pledge named Kordel Davis was driven to a clinic after a night of hazing that left a gash on his head.  A fraternity brother nicknamed “Pajamas” saw Davis in a desperate state, and Davis asked “Pajamas” to drive him back to his dorm room. “Pajamas” texted Pledge Master Brendan Young this information, in which Young replied, “Who? Cordell [sic]. Not worth it.”
Piazza was a 19-year-old sophomore engineering student at Pennsylvania State University. He was a pledge of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at the university. On the night of February 2, 2017, while undergoing hazing activities for the fraternity, Piazza, on an essentially empty stomach, drank large amounts of alcohol in a short time as part of an obstacle course called "The Gauntlet", which required each pledge to drink from a bottle of vodka, drink a beer, and finally drink from a bag of wine. It later was revealed that Piazza took prescription anti-depressants, which contributed to his inebriation. The fraternity was supposed to be alcohol-free after a suspension in 2009.
In this state of intoxication, he fell on the basement stairs of the house and was knocked unconscious. He was carried to a couch, where surveillance cameras captured a conspicuous bruise that bloomed on his left abdomen; however, this was shown to have originated from another one of the alcohol-fueled rush events for fraternities that Piazza had attended a week earlier. Jonah Neuman, Lars Kenyon, and Edward Gilmartin colluded in prohibiting witnesses from calling 911. Neuman threw someone against a wall, Gilmartin labeled witnesses crazy and insane, whilst Kenyon downplayed the concerns of witnesses in group chats.
Some time later, Piazza regained consciousness and rolled off the couch. Three brothers picked him up and placed him back on the couch. Security footage shows them poking Piazza in the face, to determine if he was okay, but he remained unconscious and unresponsive. Kordel Davis, a newly initiated fraternity chapter member, attempted to render aid to Piazza, encouraging fraternity members to call 911 and get an ambulance to the house. He was shoved up against a wall and his attempts were ignored.
At around 3:30 A.M on February 3, 2017, Piazza tried to get up, but once he reached a standing position, fell backward. He continued to stand up only to repeatedly fall back down. Once he was finally able to maintain balance, he staggered toward the lobby area of the house, but fell again headfirst into an iron railing and landed on a stone floor, likely incurring serious head trauma. He got up and tried to reach the front door but fell headfirst into it, knocking himself unconscious again. He later tried once more to ascend the basement stairs and was missing until several of the fraternity brothers discovered him several hours later behind the bar in the basement, cold and breathing rapidly.
It was at this point that he was carried upstairs. After several minutes of debating on what the next step should be, the conclusion was made that Piazza's injuries were indeed serious and that he would require medical attention. Before emergency assistance arrived, the brothers wiped blood from his face and attempted to dress him in effort to warm him. Soon emergency services arrived and Piazza was brought to Mount Nittany Medical Center, but was quickly transported to Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center because of the severity of his injuries.
Upon arrival, Piazza was rushed into surgery, where he was discovered to have a ruptured spleen and class IV hemorrhagic shock. His brain had swollen to the point that roughly half of his skull had to be removed to relieve the pressure. The surgeons attempting to save his life deemed the injuries to likely be nonrecoverable, and Piazza was pronounced dead in the early morning of February 4, 2017. He is estimated to have had a blood alcohol content of nearly 0.40 on the night of the hazing incident.
Brendan Young claimed that after the hazing incident, Piazza "looked fucking dead."
The Piazza case resulted in one of the largest hazing prosecutions in US history. On May 5, 2017, following a comprehensive grand jury investigation conducted by Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller, eighteen members of the fraternity were charged in connection with Piazza's death: eight were charged with involuntary manslaughter and the rest with other offenses, including hazing.
In addition to the fraternity brothers, the Beta Theta Pi fraternity itself was also charged. Its Penn State fraternity branch was closed after its president ordered it banned from campus indefinitely. As of September 2017[update], the fraternity and its eighteen members faced a combined total of more than 850 criminal charges.
In May 2018, Senior Deputy Attorney General Andrew Notaristefano took over the investigation and uncovered a massive cocaine ring being run by the Penn State Beta Theta Pi Executive Board, coded by accountants as a “slush fund.”
Prosecutors have filed the following charges in relation to this crime and its cover-up:
- Daniel Casey (age 19): 201 counts, including involuntary manslaughter; charges reduced to reckless endangerment, hazing, and furnishing alcohol to a minor
- Brendan Young (age 21): 200 counts, including involuntary manslaughter; charges reduced to reckless endangerment, hazing, and furnishing alcohol to a minor
- Jonah Neuman (age 19): 79 counts, including involuntary manslaughter; charges reduced to reckless endangerment, hazing, and furnishing alcohol to a minor
- Lars Kenyon (age 19): 52 counts, including reckless endangerment; charges reduced to furnishing alcohol to a minor
- Michael Schiavone (age 21): 52 counts, including reckless endangerment; charges reduced to hazing and furnishing alcohol
- Nick Kubera (age 19): more than 50 counts, including involuntary manslaughter; charges reduced to hazing and furnishing alcohol
- Ryan Foster (age 21): one count of tampering with evidence
- Edward Gilmartin (age 20): one count of tampering with evidence
Tampering with evidence and endangerment charges have also been dismissed against three other students, Joseph Ems (ghost brother and leader of dangerous hazing events in the Fall of 2016), Ryan McCann, and Lucas Rockwell.
On November 14, 2017, ten more members were charged in connection with Piazza's death. The new charges were filed after the Centre County District Attorney announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had recovered video showing that Piazza had been given at least 18 drinks in an 82-minute span, and that the video had been intentionally deleted. The additional defendants are:
- Joshua Kurczewski (age 19): eight counts; including involuntary manslaughter, hazing, and furnishing alcohol to a minor
- Ryan Burke (age 21): eight counts; including involuntary manslaughter, hazing, and furnishing alcohol to a minor; pleaded guilty on June 13, 2018
- Jonathan Kanzler (age 19): eight counts; including involuntary manslaughter, hazing, and furnishing alcohol to a minor
- Aiden O'Brien: eight counts; including involuntary manslaughter, hazing, and furnishing alcohol to a minor
- Brian Gelb: three counts; including hazing, furnishing alcohol to a minor, and unlawful acts relative to liquor
- Patrick Jackson: three counts; including hazing, furnishing alcohol to a minor, and unlawful acts relative to liquor
- Reggie Goeke: three counts; including hazing, furnishing alcohol to a minor, and unlawful acts relative to liquor
- Mike Fernandez: three counts; including hazing, furnishing alcohol to a minor, and unlawful acts relative to liquor
- Donald Prior: three counts; including hazing, furnishing alcohol to a minor, and unlawful acts relative to liquor
Ems (age 19) now has additional charges against him—hazing, furnishing alcohol to a minor, and unlawful acts relative to liquor stemming all the way back to forcing a pledge to drink mass amounts of alcohol in September 2016, sending him to a clinic with blood gushing out of his forehead. Braxton Becker (age 20), who had the charge of tampering with evidence dropped against him, was charged with it again (and later acquitted) after new footage suggested he deleted the footage that lead to these new charges. Becker was also charged with (and acquitted of) obstructing administration of law and charged with (and convicted of) hindering apprehension after it was discovered he dilutes psychedelic mushrooms into vodka and sells the byproducts to Penn State students. On November 1, 2017, Lars Kenyon claimed “the judge got it right” and Kenyon has to “[figure] some stuff out.” As of November 14, 2017[update], at least 26 members face charges.
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Beta Theta Pi - Alpha Upsilon et al.
On August 11, 2017, on the fifth day of the preliminary hearing, it was announced by lead investigators that basement footage from the bid acceptance on February 2, 2017, had in fact been deleted by a defendant already charged in the case. Lead prosecutor Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller noted that additional charges would be filed as a result of this finding.
That same day, defense attorneys for a number of the defendants started to put blame on Tim Bream, the Penn State Nittany Lions football head athletic trainer and Beta Theta Pi live-in advisor. He was present during the night of Tim Piazza's bid acceptance, although he has never been charged in the case. After unsuccessful attempts by attorneys to have Bream subpoenaed, the judge in the case ordered that Bream have his own hearing on possible contempt of court and avoiding his subpoena.
After the preliminary hearings, a number of defense attorneys colluded against former District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller. Frank Fina, disgraced attorney who sabotaged the career of Kathleen Kane, led the attack against Parks Miller. Notable dissidents against Parks Miller include Joseph L. Amendola and Matthew McClenahen. On February 8, 2019, Parks Miller received a law license suspension of one year and one day. Parks Miller was defended by Bruce Castor throughout the trial.
One of the fraternity brothers charged in the death of Piazza pleaded guilty on June 13, 2018, to nine charges, making him the first in the case to enter a guilty plea. Ryan Burke, age 21, pleaded guilty to four counts of hazing and five counts relating to unlawful acts involving liquor in the deadly injuries Piazza sustained following a night of heavy drinking and hazing. Burke was accused of giving Piazza a bottle of vodka at the Beta Theta Pi party. Burke admitted his role in the hazing of Piazza, which included being present for and actively encouraging a gauntlet of drinking games and an obstacle course involving Piazza and other pledges.
On July 31, 2018, Burke was sentenced to three months of house arrest for his role in the hazing death of Piazza. He pleaded guilty to nine misdemeanor charges, including four counts of hazing and five counts involving unlawful acts related to alcoholic beverages. In addition to the house arrest, Burke was sentenced to 27 months of probation and was ordered to pay fines, costs, and restitution.
The Timothy J. Piazza Anti-Hazing Law
The Grand Jury that recommended charges against the brothers also directed Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller to investigate Penn State University and their role and response to hazing. During many months of testimony from multiple witnesses, including former pledges and others with first-hand experience, the Grand Jury collected evidence about the University's response and handling of hazing across the board. The Grand Jury received testimony regarding the prior Penn State fraternity hazing related death of Joe Dado and a suicide linked to hazing pressures at the Altoona branch of Penn State. Witnesses aware of the ongoing hazing and extreme drinking over the years say they notified Penn State authorities but little was done, despite extensive records documenting the hazing, abuse, and other dangerous behavior. Pledges that testified confirmed that hazing had become routine behind the closed doors of the fraternity houses with Penn State turning a blind eye and adopting a hands-off approach.
The testimony revealed that pledges were routinely forced to drink to the extreme and potentially deadly levels, brothers would physically and mentally abuse pledges including physical violence and sleep deprivation. More extreme behaviors including sexual physical and emotional abuse and the killing of small animals were documented. The pledges were threatened if they told anyone of the activities, there would be consequences. As a result of this evidence, the Grand Jury released a scathing 236-page report regarding hazing and excessive alcohol consumption at Penn State fraternities.
The Report recommended sweeping changes to Pennsylvania's hazing law and Penn State's inadequate manner of handling hazing. The Report called for the legislature to establish "Tim's Law," creating more severe punishments for hazing. It directed Penn State to strengthen their hazing policies. The report recommended a zero-tolerance policy against those who violate hazing law and the implementation and enforcement of severe restrictions for underage drinking. The Report recommended strengthening laws against furnishing alcohol to minors and that Penn State create a "pledge's bill of rights" that outlines acceptable and unacceptable behavior during the pledge process. Finally, the report recommended that Penn State establish a confidential hazing hotline.
In response to the Report's recommendations, released by District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller on December 15, 2017, on March 27, 2018, "The Timothy J. Piazza Anti-Hazing Law" was unanimously approved by the Pennsylvania State Senate Judiciary Committee. Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (Republican, Benner Township) and Piazza's parents, Jim and Evelyn Piazza, introduced the bill on March 23, 2018, at the courthouse in Bellefonte.
The bill would create tiers for hazing. Hazing resulting in serious bodily injury or death would be a third-degree felony, which could include fines of up to $15,000 and imprisonment up to seven years. Hazing resulting in bodily injury would be a third-degree misdemeanor, which could include fines of up to $2,500 and imprisonment up to one year. Other hazing would be a summary offense. The bill would also establish "organizational" and "institutional" hazing categories.
"The bill has been carefully crafted because we want this to be a model for changing anti-hazing laws nationwide," Corman said. "My intent with this legislation is clear – to prevent death or serious injury due to hazing so that families, such as Tim's, never experience tragedies like this ever again."
The anti-hazing legislation was subsequently submitted for consideration in the full state Senate.
On April 18, 2018, the Pennsylvania State Senate unanimously passed the bill, which would make hazing in fraternities a third-degree felony in cases of serious injury or death, and could allow universities to seize offending Greek organizations' houses.
The law is sponsored by Republican Senate Majority Leader and 34th Senatorial District Rep. Jake Corman, who worked with Tim Piazza's family to create the bill. It defines hazing as coercing an individual to participate in any illegal activity in order to join a social group, including the use of drugs and alcohol to inflict physical or emotional harm or the use of other forces such as "whipping, beating ... or extreme embarrassment".
Lawmakers named the anti-hazing legislation after Timothy Piazza.
Kordel Davis led a Hazing Prevention tour in the Fall of 2019 entitled “One Night a Pledge.”
Penn State settled with the Piazza family to avoid further civil litigation.
Tim Bream, the Penn State Nittany Lions football Head Athletic Trainer, attempted to sue Penn State for wrongful termination but the judge ruled against him, citing prescription drugs being stolen right out of his work desk. In March 2021, Bream sued Penn State a second time claiming the university violated his contract and created “intolerable” working conditions as a result of his role in the Beta Theta Pi house.
- Timothy John Piazza
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