Surveillance Video Shown, Preliminary Hearing for Beta Theta Pi Brothers Continued
June 12, 2017 7:55 PM
by Geoff Rushton
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As members and pledges of Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Penn State carried the unconscious body of Timothy Piazza from the basement to the house’s great hall the morning of Feb. 3, the 19-year-old from Lebanon, N.J. was pale and rigid, his fists clenched tight and according to investigators, his breathing labored and his extremities cold.

“He looked dead,” State College Police Det. David Scicchitano said Monday. “He looked like a corpse”

Scicchitano was the sole witness, testifying for nearly 10 hours, at the beginning of the preliminary hearing for 18 former members of the fraternity facing charges related to Piazza’s death. No decision was made Monday on whether charges would be bound over to the Centre County Court of Common Pleas for trial.

The hearing began at 8:30 a.m. and shortly after 7 p.m., District Judge Allen Sinclair, ruling on a motion from the defense attorneys, recessed for the day and said an order will be entered soon to continue the hearing.

Scicchitano’s testimony preceded the showing of approximately three hours of surveillance video footage from inside the house the night of and morning after an an alcohol-fueled bid acceptance party on Feb. 2 at the fraternity.

Piazza died early on Feb. 4 after suffering non-recoverable traumatic brain injuries and a life-threatening spleen injury from falling during the night and morning. Piazza had two major falls down the basement stairs and fell multiple times on the first floor of the house throughout the night

Brendan Young, Daniel Casey, Jonah Neuman, Nick Kubera, Michael Bonatucci, Gary Dibileo, Luke Visser and Joe Sala face charges of felony aggravated assault and misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter, simple assault, recklessly endangering another person, furnishing alcohol to minors and unlawful acts relative to liquor. Young and Casey also face charges of tampering with evidence.

The Alpha Upsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi is charged with involuntary manslaughter, 50 counts of hazing, 48 counts of furnishing alcohol to minors and 48 counts of unlawful acts relative to liquor.

Michael Angelo Schiavone, Craig Heimer, Lars Kenyon and Parker Jax Yochim are charged with multiple counts of recklessly endangering another person, hazing, furnishing alcohol to minors and unlawful acts relative to liquor.

Ed Gilmartin, Ryan McCann, Lucas Rockwell, Braxton Becker and Ryan Foster are charged with tampering with evidence. Joseph Ems is charged with recklessly endangering another person.

Gilmartin and Foster were granted preliminary waivers and were not in attendance. The courtroom was otherwise packed with the 17 other defendants, their attorneys and national media. Defense attorneys motioned early to have their clients’ hearings severed but were denied by Sinclair.

Piazza’s parents, Jim and Evelyn, were in the courtroom Monday morning, but left as the video was about to be played. They returned later in the day after the video had concluded.

Defense attorneys argued that the edited video shouldn’t be played since they had not yet received the full 13 hours of video related to the night and morning in question. District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said they will receive it in discovery.

Scicchitano’s testimony and the video largely recounted what was reported in a county grand jury’s presentment recommending charges.  The footage, being shown in public for the first time, depicts Piazza in worsening condition throughout the night, clearly in agony and falling multiple times. 

Piazza and 13 other pledges were summoned to the Beta Theta Pi house on North Burrowes Street at 9:07 p.m. on Feb. 2 for the bid acceptance event. After an initiation ceremony, the video partly showed the “gauntlet” a series of stations for drinking alcohol that the 14 pledges, 12 of whom were underage, were led through. Scicchitano said these involved chugging vodka, shotgunning a beer, chugging from a bag of wine, and chugging a beer if missing a shot at beer pong. These were done in rapid succession and were completed in about eight minutes.

Prior to the gauntlet, the pledges were lined up and given a bottle of vodka. They were told to drink as much as possible before it got to the last person, who would have to finish what was left, Scicchitano said.

After the gauntlet, the fraternity hosted a social where alcohol was served. Video showed a stumbling Piazza being helped into the house’s great hall by Kenyon around 11 p.m. Kubera then walked a visibly intoxicated Piazza through the kitchen and back to the great hall.

At 11:22 p.m. Piazza can be seen staggering to the lobby where he attempts to open the front door. He is unable to and then walks toward the basement stairs, which were out of view of the cameras. The basement cameras were not working, Scicchitano said.

Piazza, witnesses said, fell head first 15 feet down the flight of stairs. Unconscious and limp, he is next seen being carried by four fraternity members through the lobby and into the great hall, where they place him on a couch. A bruise is visible on Piazza’s abdomen as he is carried in.

Fraternity members sat on Piazza’s legs to keep him from rolling over, splashed a liquid in his face, removed his shirt and attached a backpack filled with books to his back to keep him from rolling over and choking on his vomit.

As members move and attempt to position Piazza his head bobs about without resistance, at one point snapping back sharply.

Just before midnight, brother Kordel Davis enters the room and looks down at Piazza. Davis is animated, pointing toward his own head and apparently arguing with others. Neuman then shoves Davis, pushing him into a wall.

Davis then speaks to Gilmartin. Scicchitano said Davis told investigators he was concerned Piazza had a head injury and needed medical attention, but that Neuman told him others had it under control. He said Gilmartin also did not heed his concerns.

Shortly after 2 a.m., Piazza rolls off the couch and is picked up and thrown back onto it by several members. A few minutes later, Ems appears to strike Piazza in the area of his abdomen with an open hand. Ems also, at one point, picks up Piazza’s shoes and throws them at him.

Piazza is then seen attempting to get up and falling throughout the night. At times he is curled up in the fetal position, and at others on his knees with his head in his hands. At about 3:50 a.m. he falls and strikes his head on the floor. A fraternity member attempts to pull him up, then covers him with a blanket and leaves.

At about 4:30 a.m., Piazza gets to his feet, staggers toward the lobby and falls head first into a railing, then falls and hits his head on the stone floor. He gets to his feet again and falls head first into the front door.

Between 5 and 6 a.m. Piazza continues to alternate among lying on the floor, moving around in apparent pain and getting to his feet then falling. He stands up then falls against a table and to the ground. He gets up again, staggers stomach first into a railing and falls and hits his head.

Another fraternity member comes down the stairs and walks with Piazza toward the great hall. Piazza falls down the three steps leading to the hall and the member leaves the room.

Between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.  Piazza is on the floor then gets to his knees with his face in his hands. A fellow pledge who had entered the room and was sitting on the couch points his phone toward Piazza with the light on. Scicchitano said the pledge told him he was taking video of Piazza.

At about 7:55 a.m. Piazza gets up and staggers into the lobby and then toward the basement stairs. He is then out of frame and police believe he fell down the basement stairs a second time.

After a pledge and other members realized Piazza’s shoes were in the great hall, they went looking for him. The next Piazza is seen on the video is shortly after 10 a.m. when pledges and brothers carry his rigid, unconscious body into the lobby then the great hall.

Scicchitano testified that text messages showed some members thought Piazza was already dead when they brought him up from the basement.

They place him on a couch and then put a blanket over him. For the next 42 minutes the members appear to discuss what to do. Both Gilmartin and McCann try unsuccessfully to unclench Piazza’s fists. One member wipes Piazza’s face. Casey brings in a shirt to put on him and members struggle to get it past his shoulders because of his stiffness, at one point propping him up on his feet.

At 10:48 a.m. McCann calls 911. Scicchitano noted that he did not mention the fall that had occurred nearly 12 hours earlier. While McCann is on the phone, others in attendance begin to clean up in an effort Scicchitano said was to get rid of evidence of alcohol.

Police and EMS arrive several minutes later and Piazza is propped up in a sitting position on the couch while a fraternity brother sits next to him. Piazza is eventually taken out on stretcher.

In the courtroom, tempers flared, as they did several times throughout the day between defense attorneys and Parks Miller, when one attorney asked that it be on the record that the video showed police and EMS were on the scene for 10 minutes without administering a sternum rub or life-saving measures.

Parks Miller had pointed out throughout Scicchitano’s testimony that no fraternity members had attempted CPR.

Scicchitano also discussed his observations of Piazza in the emergency room at Mount Nittany Medical Center.

The detective arrived there around 2 p.m., on Feb. 3 just before Piazza was to be flown by helicopter to Hershey Medical Center. Photos were shown of an intubated Piazza with a visible red mark on his head and bruises on his right leg. His eyes were slightly opened, but Scicchitano said Piazza never regained consciousness. Scicchitano choked up as he described Piazza’s brother, also a Penn State student, being guided over to him to say goodbye before he was taken away.

Piazza died on Feb. 4 at Hershey Medical Center. Centre County forensic pathologist Dr. Harry Kamerow wrote in his report that Piazza suffered traumatic brain injuries caused by falls due to severe inebriation.

Kamerow estimated that Piazza’s blood alcohol level would have been between .28 and .36 -- life-threatening in itself, he said -- at the time of his first fall down the basement stairs shortly after 11 p.m. and between .15 and .19 at 7:55 a.m. on Feb. 3 when he suffered his second major fall down the stairs. 

Kamerow also said Piazza would have had “severe and unremitting head pain” and severe abdominal pain, Scicchitano testified. The rigidity seen in the video, meanwhile, was a classic sign of brain damage, Kamerow wrote.

Scicchitano read through a long series of text messages involving Young, the fraternity president, and Casey, the pledgemaster, found during the investigation. Prosecutors allege the text messages demonstrate a history of their roles in hazing and supplying alcohol to minors not only during the spring 2017 semester, but also during the fall of 2016, and in their previous leadership roles in the fraternity in the spring of 2016. They also allegedly show a concerted effort to hide evidence after Piazza's death.

The hearing came to somewhat of a chaotic end after the discussion of those text messages. With Scicchitano’s testimony approaching nearly 10 hours at around 7 p.m., the defense attorneys motioned for the hearing to be continued, noting that they each had the right to cross-examine and that Parks Miller had not yet finished her case.

Parks Miller objected and said one day had been set aside for the hearing. From the gallery, attorney Tom Kline, who represents the Piazzas, attempted to speak in support of Parks Miller on their behalf, raising objections from the defense attorneys.

Sinclair did not allow Kline to speak and granted the continuance. He said a date will be scheduled soon to continue the hearing.

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