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Court Documents Detail How Deleted Video Footage Was Discovered in Beta Theta Pi Case

by on November 14, 2017 12:27 PM

Related: What Happened in the Beta Theta Pi Basement the Night of Timothy Piazza's Fatal Injuries

Criminal complaints filed Monday for the new charges against former members of Beta Theta Pi fraternity provide more details on what occurred on the night Timothy Piazza suffered fatal injuries at the fraternity house on North Burrowes Street.

The latest charges -- against 12 new defendants and five who had already been charged -- arose from recovery of deleted surveillance video footage from the basement of the house. While video from the first floor of the house on the night of Feb. 2 and morning of Feb. 3 was detailed at length in a grand jury presentment that led to the initial charges and in preliminary testimony over the summer, police were initially told the cameras in the basement, where much of the drinking that preceded Piazza's death took place, were not working.

In August, State College Police Det.David Scicchitano testified during the preliminary hearing on the initial charges that new evidence had emerged that the basement cameras had been working and that someone had deleted the recordings before the equipment was taken by police.

The video equipment was subsequently sent to the FBI for analysis and recovery. The recovered footage led to a raft of new charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault to hazing and furnishing alcohol to minors.

In total, 26 former members now face charges in the case, and among those 13 are charged with aggravated assault, involuntary manslaughter and simple assault.

Piazza, 19, was a Penn State student and fraternity pledge participating in an alcohol-fueled bid acceptance night at Beta Theta Pi that prosecutors have described as hazing. Investigators say the recovered footage revealed Piazza was given at least 18 alcoholic drinks over a period of 82 minutes. A medical examiner's report said Piazza's blood alcohol content at the time of his first fall -- head first down the basement stairs -- would have been between .28 and .36.

He fell multiple times throughout the night and first-floor video showed his condition worsening throughout the night and early morning. He was found unconscious and rigid the following morning. He died on Feb. 4 as the result of nonrecoverable brain injuries and had suffered a shattered spleen and massive internal bleeding.

The criminal complaints for new defendants in the case detail how the deleted video was discovered.

Shortly after Piazza's death, State College Police received permission to take and obtained a search warrant for the digital video recorder system inside the house. Possession of the equipment was the subject of a court battle between the prosecution and the house's owner, the Alpha Upsilon Chapter of Beta Theta Pi, with a judge ultimately deciding he could not order the equipment to be returned.

"They weren’t forthright at all," District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said of the alumni corporation, noting that it did not reflect on the individual defendants. "They were trying to get the video from us. I didn’t feel they were helpful…. Had they done that we couldn’t have discovered this was deleted."

On July 26 a sealed search warrant for the video recorders was obtained, "in regard to another criminal investigation not related to the Piazza death investigation," according to the new criminal complaints. The other investigation is not specified. Braxton Becker, who is accused of deleting the video, also faces unrelated unrelated drug charges that are still making their way through the Centre County Court of Common Pleas.

Upon viewing DVR 2, Scicchitano said he realized he was looking at camera angles he had not seen during many hours reviewing footage from Feb. 2 and Feb. 3. The cameras showed several angles in the basement. The footage was dated Feb. 6 and no other dates were found.

The data page for the DVR 2 read "Clear All Data 2/6/17 10:09:39," according to the complaints. DVR 1 was found to have footage dating back to Jan. 31.  Scicchitano said he called the manufacturer, which confirmed the message on DVR 2 meant someone had manually deleted its contents.

Det. Craig Ripka told Scicchitano that when he was at the house on Feb. 6 to retrieve the video, he took photos of the closet at Beta Theta Pi where the recording equipment was stored, as well as photos of fraternity member and house manager Becker, who was in charge of the equipment for the house, opening the closet and sitting in front of the machines. He also took photos of the DVRs and some of the settings stored on them.

"He also obtained photos of what he believed was an IP address because he did not trust Becker," who was the only one in the house who knew how to operate the machines, according to the complaint.

Becker, who police say was allowed the photos to be taken, reportedly showed Ripka a screen that showed which cameras were functioning. Four blue screens were for cameras that were not operational, he allegedly said. Police said Becker told them the house had problems with those cameras and that they were in the process of being fixed.

After the time the video was deleted was deleted, Ripka confirmed that was the time Becker was in the closet with the DVRs. 

On Aug. 9, the DVRs were sent to an FBI lab to recover deleted video. The recovered footage was returned to State College Police on Oct. 26 and Scicchitano began his review on Oct. 27. He said new evidence was found on video from three basement cameras which police had not seen before.

Police said they also found a text message exchange on Feb. 3, just after Piazza was taken to the hospital, between Becker and house finance officer Adam Mengden, who has not been charged.

Mengden reportedly texted "Erasing the cameras could be the look as long as no one found out." Becker replied "I think the exact same thing...The guy told me to check them in like a few days to make sure they were recording. I could say I checked and they weren't and just turned them on... I want to talk to Brendan."

Brendan Young was the president of Beta Theta Pi. He already has been charged with aggravated assault, involuntary manslaughter, simple assault, recklessly endangering another person, hazing, tampering with evidence, furnishing alcohol to minors and unlawful acts relative to liquor. He was not among the defendants receiving new charges on Monday.

In a Feb. 3 text message exchange, Becker's girlfriend reportedly wrote that Piazza "chose to drink that much and got himself into an accident. Becker replied, "No that's the thing... Is [sic] like it was because he was technically hazed into drinking that much."

In another exchange that day, pledgemaster Daniel Casey asked what time police took video from and if it included "the obstacle course" -- the series of drinking stations in which Piazza and other pledges were sent from station to station to rapidly consume alcohol.

Becker replied, "Nah. They took tapes from 7 and 930 am." Casey then wrote "F-- yes" and Becker replied "We should be good on that front at least.

Casey, who was not among those receiving new charges, already faces counts of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, simple assault, hazing, tampering with evidence, recklessly endangering another person, furnishing, unlawful acts relative to liquor.

In a Feb. 4 text message to member Jeff Stillwell, who is not charged, Becker wrote "It's awful Jeff. We got sloppy. Nugget for the last few days was saying we shouldn't get the kids this f----d up on their first night but no one listened."

On Feb. 5, the day before the basement video was deleted Becker sent text messages to his girlfriend that said "brendan wants to see something on the cameras... I'll head home soon and deal with stuff with brendan... sorry helping camera stuff rn... brendan wanted to see something else.

Becker, 21, was previously charged with a separate count of tampering with evidence that was dismissed following the initial preliminary hearing this summer.

On Monday he was charged with misdemeanor counts of tampering, obstructing administration of law and hindering apprehension.



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at geoff.rushton@statecollege.com or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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