Eighteen fraternity members were charged in the death of a 19-year-old Pennsylvania State University student who fell multiple times after consuming toxic levels of alcohol — and whose own friends failed to get help for him for many hours, authorities said.
The fraternity brothers’ actions, and inaction, were detailed in grand jury investigation findings released Friday by Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller. The Beta Theta Pi chapter was charged as well.
Timothy Piazza’s death led to the permanent banning of the fraternity from Penn State, and strict new rules for Greek organizations on campus. Penn State’s president called the grand jury’s findings “sickening” and vowed to firmly enforce the new rules.
The Beta Theta Pi chapter house was celebrating with Piazza and other students who had just accepted bids to join the fraternity one night in February. During the pledging party, Piazza fell down the stairs after drinking excessively, but no one called for help for almost 12 hours, according to police, who found him unconscious and took him to a hospital. He died the next morning.
Eight of the fraternity brothers were charged with involuntary manslaughter, as was the chapter, and other charges included hazing, aggravated and simple assault, alcohol-related violations and evidence tampering. The investigation benefited from video evidence from surveillance cameras inside the fraternity’s house, which is privately owned.
The grand jury’s presentment describes pledges forced through a gauntlet of drinking stations at the party that night, at which they were ordered to quickly drink vodka, shotgun a beer, and so on. It described videotape of Piazza being helped staggering, hunched over, to a couch and later trying unsuccessfully to open the front door, then “severely staggering” in the direction of the basement steps.
He was found unconscious at the bottom of the stairs, according to the findings.
Later video showed Piazza on a couch, unresponsive even as fraternity brothers poured water on his face, his left arm falling limply when someone lifted it, according to the grand jury presentment. At one point, a new member of the fraternity saw Piazza, became upset and screamed at the others that they needed to get him to the hospital. Someone pushed him against a wall and ordered him to leave. Later, Piazza tried to stand but fell, hitting his head on the floor. He fell a few other times trying to get to the front door. The next morning, he fell down the stairs again. When fraternity members found him the next morning, it was more than 40 minutes before they called 911.
Piazza died the next morning.
His parents, Jim and Evelyn Piazza, stood by as the charges were announced, according to an Associated Press report from the news conference Friday.
Eric Barron, the president of Penn State, responded to the grand jury’s findings with a statement expressing horror and determination to enforce strict new rules.
The details alleged in these findings are heart-wrenching and incomprehensible. The university community continues to mourn his tragic death, but no pain we feel can begin to compare to the devastating heartbreak that Timothy’s family and friends are experiencing.
The alleged details in the grand jury presentment, which suggest the inhumane treatment of a student forced through hazing to consume dangerous amounts of alcohol and endure hours of suffering, are sickening and difficult to understand.
He also wrote that the chapter, which had a policy banning alcohol, appeared to be a “model” fraternity. It was not.
For this reason, we have announced the imposition of a number of aggressive measures and made clear recognition by the university [what] is at stake for those Greek-letter organizations that do not abide by the rules. Indeed, since this tragic incident occurred, the university suspended Sigma Alpha Mu for its flagrant violations of our measures. While some have criticized our measures as excessive, they are not. It is essential that all constituents, including these private Greek-letter organizations, alumni, parents, national organizations and all other partners involved are committed to ensure immediate, vital and sustainable changes.
The new rules included a ban on liquor, kegs and day-long parties. Ten Greek parties with alcohol are allowed per semester rather than 45, and compliance is monitored by both students and university staff.
“Alcohol misuse, hazing and sexual misconduct pose significant problems across the nation and particularly on college campuses,” Barron wrote. “We have also seen a rise in the intensity of excessive drinking and hazing at Penn State and elsewhere, despite more than a decade of focus and the introduction of educational and other programs, as well as policies that clearly spell out consequences.”
Read the Charges and Presentment here: