Eight fraternity members are charged with involuntary manslaughter, 10 more face other charges
Timothy Piazza died after a hazing ritual on his first night of pledging Beta Theta Pi fraternity
The parents of 19-year-old Timothy Piazza, who died after participating in a hazing ritual at a Penn State fraternity, say the students who have been charged in the case “murdered” their son, and called the system governing fraternities at the university “criminal.”
“They killed him,” Jim Piazza said in an interview with CNN, referring to members of Beta Theta Pi who now face charges in the February 4 death of his son.
“They fed him lethal doses of alcohol and they killed him, and then they treated him like a rag doll, like road kill, they slapped him around, threw water on him, one kid punched him.”
His son died following his first night of pledging at Beta Theta Pi – a fraternity that was supposed to be alcohol-free at Penn State, a result of a suspension eight years ago. The university has now permanently banned the fraternity from operating on campus.
The death of Tim Piazza led to one of the largest criminal indictments against a fraternity and its members in recent history. More than 1,000 counts were levied against 18 members of Beta Theta Pi, including eight who were charged with involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault.
Those charged are accused of putting Timothy Piazza and other pledges through something called “the gauntlet,” forcing the pledges to binge drink dangerous amounts of alcohol. Security cameras at the house show Piazza fell down a 15-foot flight of stairs shortly afterward – and then fell several more times into a railing, on the floor, and down the stairs again, according to the grand jury’s presentment, issued after its investigation into Piazza’s death.
But even after the falls, instead of calling 911, some of the fraternity members stepped over the frat’s newest member, turned to Google to research effects of acute intoxication and what to do for a head injury, and fought over what to do, according to the presentment. One person who wanted to take him to a hospital was criticized by other members of the fraternity as being “over-dramatic,” according to the grand jury findings.
“Our hearts go out to the family. This is heart-wrenching for the family, and our entire community,” Penn State said in a statement issued Monday.
The university did not respond to CNN’s detailed questions related to the allegations, but issued a statement Monday saying that even before Piazza’s death, it had taken measures to tackle binge drinking, which it called a national problem.
“Penn State initiated aggressive enforcement, education and monitoring measures to address these issues well before the tragic death of Timothy Piazza, and announced additional measures following, some of which were taken in consultation with the family, which is appropriate. Our actions will continue, and represent our ongoing commitment to drive change in tackling binge drinking at universities. This is a national problem that has been worsening,” the statement said.
’This was callous and cold and inhumane’
It was more than 12 hours after Piazza’s initial fall down the stairs before help was called, police said, and even then, no one told medical staff that Piazza had a head injury.
“This is torture,” Evelyn Piazza told CNN of her son’s death. “This was callous and cold and inhumane.”
The parents plan to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Penn State, the fraternity and its members, family attorney Tom Kline told CNN.
“In my mind, he was murdered,” Jim Piazza said. “They let him suffer for 12 hours, they let him die a very slow death. It’s not any way anyone should ever be treated.”
“And when they knew that death was imminent the next morning, they waited 42 minutes to call for help while they told people to clean up, cover up the evidence, get rid of it. This wasn’t boys being boys, this was criminal activity,” Jim Piazza added.
The criminal presentment against some of the fraternity members shows electronic messages urging the pledges not to talk, and to clean up the alcohol in the basement.
No one went with Tim Piazza to the hospital, his family said, and no one notified them, either.
CNN has reached out to the attorneys for the men charged for comment on the allegations.
One of them told CNN the charges are “improper on many levels.”
“The government assumes that these young men, many of whom were intoxicated themselves, should have been able to differentiate symptoms of extreme intoxication from symptoms of a life threatening head injury. That is an impossible burden to place on them,” the attorney, Steve Trialonas, said May 8.
Another defense attorney, William J. Brennan, released a statement Monday saying, “While my client is presumed innocent with regards to the criminal charges, I can, as I have done publicly already, extend the deepest sympathy … to the Piazza family for their tragic and unspeakable loss.
“Legal cases aside, I can assure the Piazza family that my client and his family keeps Tim Piazza and his family in their prayers constantly.”
Piazza’s girlfriend, Caitlyn Tempalsky, told CNN she simply can’t fathom the number of people who chose not to help.
“When I think of not just the 18 people that were charged with things, but all the other people that were there – girls, too – I don’t understand how any of them could stand there and watch someone clearly injured and unconscious, seizing, and not do anything about it, hunched over in pain,” she said. “And to read that people are snapchatting?” referencing a part of the charging papers that says people were sending snapchats of Tim Piazza on the floor.
“Whether you have a legal obligation or not, you have a moral obligation to help another human being,” Tempalsky said.
Penn State President Eric Barron stopped all pledging after Piazza’s death and put restrictions on alcohol consumption at fraternity social events.
But the Piazzas say those restrictions were actually at their request, not Barron’s.
“First of all, the changes that they put through, we told them that they had to,” Jim Piazza said, adding that Barron gave no indication that he was planning to implement those changes on his own.
The university told CNN in a statement that the school has been aggressive in tackling fraternity misconduct, with 170 violations in the last two years alone. But Penn State also said it is hamstrung by the fact that fraternities are off-campus.
“I keep hearing from President Barron, ‘I can’t do anything to these fraternities – they’re on private property,’” Jim Piazza said. “The universities need to take a tougher stand, and don’t give me ‘it’s private property.’ You hold the ultimate pen, which is the pen of expulsion.”
Beta Theta Pi International Fraternity described the “nature of those charges” announced earlier this month as “incredibly disheartening as the organization and its membership continue to grieve Tim’s passing and the pain experienced by his family.
’Governing body’ for Penn State fraternities
Aside from the administration – and like many universities and colleges in the United States – Penn State has its Interfraternity Council, which describes itself on its website as “the governing body for the 46 fraternity chapters at the Pennsylvania State University,” and “entirely student run.”
The Piazzas have their own description for the governing body of Penn State fraternities:
“The IFC is a joke,” Jim Piazza said.
“They’re like a criminal organization, they cover things up,” Evelyn Piazza said of the IFC.
CNN’s attempts to reach the IFC and one of its attorneys resulted in a statement from the council’s vice president for communications, Michael Cavallaro.
“Our thoughts continue to lie with the Piazza family,” Cavallaro said. “As students, our primary focus is leading the necessary change Penn State needs to prevent a senseless tragedy like this from happening in the future. We are committed to addressing the critical issues in our fraternity community head on and will be sharing our plans for community-wide changes in the near future.”
Penn State, which is facing two other separate lawsuits related to hazing, had a private security firm, St. Moritz Security Systems, which was monitoring all Penn State fraternities during certain social events. A St. Moritz representative told CNN it had been surveilling Penn State fraternities for years and that security officers sent regular reports to the IFC. Those reports are now before a grand jury.
“We were told by the police,” Jim Piazza said, “that they hire a security firm to monitor parties but that security firm is not allowed into the parties until the party gets cleaned up.”
St. Moritz said it could not comment further due to the ongoing investigation.
A grand jury is now investigating whether the IFC was complicit in allowing hazing and underage drinking at fraternities, and whether Penn State officials were aware, with the grand jury saying in the presentment that “the Penn State Greek community nurtured an environment so permissive of excessive drinking and hazing that it emboldened its members to repeatedly act with reckless disregard to human life.”
Jim Piazza said when he met with university president Barron, he asked for the firing of an athletic trainer with the Penn State football team who was also the chapter adviser for Beta Theta Pi.
“This was an alcohol-free, hazing-free fraternity with an adult athletic trainer living in the house, but there were years of parties documented on the tapes (from security cameras in the fraternity house). Nobody paid attention to anything. I blame all of them,” Jim Piazza said.
That athletic trainer, Tim Bream, has not been charged. The criminal presentment charging the others says that he was in his room while Piazza struggled but that no one notified him of Piazza’s condition.
“He had to know that there were illegal parties going on in that house for years that he lived there,” Jim Piazza said.
“He has a responsibility as an adult, as their adviser, as part of the university staff, to speak up when he sees something going wrong – he didn’t.”
Bream declined to comment to CNN.
Final words, a final tear
Tim Piazza was an engineering major who wanted to make prosthetic limbs for children and soldiers. He followed his older brother, Mike, to Penn State.
“He was a shy kid but, once he was comfortable with you he had a big personality, he would brighten a room when he walked in, sometimes he was just bigger than life,” his father said.
Jim Piazza wasn’t thrilled about his son joining a fraternity. He saw it as a party lifestyle that didn’t seem to fit his son’s personality. Beta Theta Pi looked good on paper, the Piazzas said. It claimed to be alcohol-free, but a grand jury subsequently found that hazing and alcohol abuse had been going on for years at the fraternity.
When his older son, Mike, realized his brother hadn’t returned to his apartment the night after his first fraternity pledge event, he called police.
“When I walked into the (hospital) room, it looked like he got hit by a car,” his brother, Mike said.
By the time the family arrived at the hospital, doctors already knew they couldn’t save Tim.
“I held his hand, telling him we love him,” Jim Piazza said. “But he was certainly not visibly with us, but we did see a tear come to his eye and roll down his cheek and I said to the doctor ‘Is it possible he heard us?’ And the doctor said ‘Maybe.’ He said, ‘We relieved the pressure from his brain, maybe,’
“I’m not sure if I want to know he heard us or not,” Jim Piazza continued, “because if he heard us, then he knew he was dying, and I knew he would think that he let us down.”
No Penn State officials or members of Beta Theta Pi came to Piazza’s funeral. Penn State said “a representative did share in advance with the parents he was unfortunately likely unable to attend the funeral but the university did participate in a vigil held with the Piazza family on campus.”
“I expected people to care,” Jim Piazza said. “I feel like they’re covering their butt.”
A preliminary hearing for the 18 charged is expected to take place in June.
Some of the surveillance footage from the fraternity house likely will be played.
“The first thing that we need is to go through the trials and hopefully make a statement to the country that this can’t happen,” Jim Piazza said.
“Tim Piazza is not just our son, he really represents every son and daughter of every family that is looking to go to college and potentially participate in Greek life in the future. We really need to make these changes for them.”