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Former Beta Theta Pi Brother Found Guilty on One Count, Not Guilty on Two Others

by on May 30, 2019 4:20 PM

A former Beta Theta Pi brother accused of erasing video evidence related to the 2017 death of Penn State fraternity pledge Timothy Piazza was acquitted on two misdemeanor charges and convicted on another by a Centre County jury on Thursday.

Braxton Becker was found not guilty of misdemeanor counts of tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice. The 22-year-old was found guilty of hindering apprehension

The jury deliberated for about five hours before delivering the split verdict, following two days of testimony. Becker will be sentenced in August.

He is the first defendant in the case to go to trial. More than two dozen fraternity brothers have been charged in the case, with most pleading guilty to misdemeanors or entering Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition programs for first-time offenders, and a few have had charges dismissed. Only former fraternity president Brendan Young and pledgemaster Daniel Casey still face trial, with their cases on hold pending appeals to state Superior Court.

Prosecutors alleged that Becker had deleted video from the frat house's basement, footage which was later recovered by the F.B.I.

Surveillance video from the house has been key evidence in the case for prosecutors to determine who provided alcohol to pledges and who was aware of Piazza’s condition after his fall down the basement stairs. The 19-year-old died on Feb. 4, 2017, of head trauma, brain injuries and internal bleeding. Prosecutors said he was given 18 drinks in 82 minutes before he fell and that no one called for help until nearly 12 hours later.

In his role as house manager, Becker was the fraternity brother in charge of the surveillance video system. As police began their investigation into the bid acceptance night and party that preceded Piazza's death, it was Becker who was tasked with retrieving footage for the detectives.

Police initially received two digital video recorders from the house, one of which had footage from the first floor. That led to the initial set of charges in the case in May 2017.

The other, for the basement cameras, had no recordings and detectives said they were told those cameras weren’t working. Months later, State College Det. David Scicchitano, the lead investigator, discovered camera angles he had not seen before and the DVR was sent to the F.B.I., which recovered the video and a system log showing a “clear all data” command from the time Becker was downloading video for police.

Defense attorney Karen Muir argued, however, that there was no evidence proving her client had erased it and that the deletion occurred at a time when a detective, who testified he did not see a “clear all data” command appear on the monitor, was watching Becker download the footage. The multi-step process to delete it, she said, was too complex and would have taken too long to accomplish while the detective was looking away for a short time.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Zarallo countered that the circumstantial evidence all pointed to Becker — including his knowledge of the system, the time of deletion in the system log, text messages with other fraternity brothers suggesting he could erase the video, and the detective being distracted by other matters while Becker worked with the video system.

“It’s like a Swiss watch the way it lines up,” Zarallo said during his closing statement.

On the Friday Piazza was taken to the hospital, Becker at first provided “two useless” video clips, totaling about 20 minutes, from the morning that showed nothing of the party the night before, Zarallo said.

Det. Craig Ripka testified he contacted Becker and told him that he needed more and that Becker said he could contact him on Monday afternoon.

After Piazza died on Saturday, Ripka and Officer Adam Salyards went to the house on Monday morning without first notifying Becker. He agreed to retrieve more video but police discovered after some time that it could take days to download everything. So with the consent of Young and former live-in adviser Tim Bream, police took the system's two DVR boxes, one which recorded first floor cameras and the other which recorded basement cameras.

Police found there was no basement footage, but in July 2017, Ripka was investigating an unrelated incident that did not involve Becker and got a search warrant to view the surveillance video.  Scicchitano, the lead investigator in the Piazza case, loaded the DVR box and discovered there were camera angles visible from the fraternity basement.

The DVR was sent to the F.B.I. for analysis and video from the bid acceptance night was recovered, leading to more charges against fraternity members in November 2017. A forensic analyst also retrieved a system log that showed a "clear all data" command from 10:39 a.m. on Feb. 6, a time during which Ripka took a photo of Becker at the system with a remote control in his hand.

Muir said that Becker knew police were coming for more video and that it made no sense for him to wait three days to delete it.

“It’s counterintuitive to think Braxton Becker would wait all that time then delete video in the presence of police officers,” she said.

Zarallo argued that it wasn’t a planned out conspiracy, but that Becker “saw a window of opportunity and he took it.”

The prosecutor said text and GroupMe messages showed Becker had a “willingness and desire” to mislead police.

Weeks earlier the cameras had not been working but had since been fixed. On Feb. 3, Becker sent a message to other fraternity brothers saying “I could see if I could erase last night and say they didn’t start working til today."

In another exchange, a frat brother wrote “Erasing the cameras could be the look as long as no one found out,” and Becker replied “I’m thinking the exact same thing.” Becker also indicated in a message that he could say that after they were repaired he forgot to check if they were recording.

Muir said those were “random, panicked thoughts,” in the immediate aftermath. She noted that in another message Becker said he needed to talk to the executive board, demonstrating his hesitation, and that it was not brought up again.

She added that at the time, fraternity members were worried about getting in trouble with their housing board or national organization, not the police. Though Becker didn’t appear to think it was going to end up in court, he still made no admission in text messages of deleting the video, even though he had discussed it as a possibility, Muir said.

Fraternity brothers also were most concerned about footage police did initially obtain from the first floor, Muir said. That’s where the “gauntlet” — a series of drinking stations where pledges were encouraged to rapidly consume beer, vodka and wine — took place and what they believed constituted hazing.

Zarallo contended that the basement footage was just as damaging and that is where Piazza was given the "vast majority" of drinks before his fall.

Muir also raised questions about how Becker could have intentionally deleted the video with a detective standing nearby. She noted that the monitor he was using only had inputs for one DVR and that the box that was plugged in was for the first floor cameras, not the basement.

Citing expert testimony during the trial, she said it would have taken Becker 50 seconds to hook up the second DVR and go through multiple command screens to clear the data, all of which would have had to be done without a detective noticing. Muir said Ripka took photos of Becker at the machine around the time of the deletion and Becker did not object.

Zarallo said that the deletion could have been accomplished in less than 50 seconds, and that Ripka was not solely focused on Becker as the detective talked to other officers and fraternity members and started paperwork. There also was a gap of about 15 minutes between the photo taken around the time of the deletion and the next one.

Becker is currently serving three years probation after pleading guilty to drug-related charges last year in Centre County court. He was charged two weeks after Piazza’s death in 2017 with allegedly selling marijuana from the Beta Theta Pi house, stemming from an investigation that began in November 2016. He pleaded guilty in June 2018 to misdemeanor counts of  possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia. Felony charges of possession with intent to deliver and criminal use of a communication facility were dropped

 



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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