by Geoff Rushton
After nearly 60 hours across seven days that started in June, the preliminary hearing has ended for former Beta Theta Pi brothers charged in connection with the death of Timothy Piazza.
Now, District Judge Allen Sinclair will decide which charges will be bound over for trial. He will announced that decision at 11 a.m. Friday at the Centre County Courthouse.
Eighteen former members and the Alpha Upsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi are charged with a variety of crimes related to the 19-year-old sophomore’s death in February, as well as broader allegations related to hazing. Piazza died on Feb. 4 as a result of brain injuries and a ruptured spleen caused by falls he suffered during an alcohol-fueled pledge event at the fraternity the night of Feb. 2 and early morning of Feb. 3.
Two men charged with single counts of tampering with evidence — Ed Gilmartin and Ryan Foster – waived their preliminary hearings back in June.
Closing arguments began Wednesday with six attorneys making their cases for dismissal of charges and District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller offering rebuttals to each. It wrapped up on Thursday with 11 defense attorneys making arguments.
For many of the defendants, their attorneys struck familiar chords that were touched on in initial final arguments on Wednesday, and throughout their cross-examinations of the lead investigator, State College Police Det. David Scicchitano, earlier in the hearing.
They emphasized their clients’ limited roles on the bid acceptance night, their limited interactions with Piazza or knowledge of his injuries, and lack of intent and awareness that would rise to criminal recklessness for some of the most serious charges such as aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter.
Attorneys also sought to show that Piazza and the other pledges were voluntary participants in the night’s activities.
As most of the defense attorneys have, Michael Engle, representing Gary DiBileo, took issue with the prosecution’s characterization of all of the defendants being accomplices, since a specific principle actor hasn’t been identified.
“This case is not as black and white as the commonwealth would like you to believe,” Engle said.
Engle argued that it was an “absurdity” to suggest that the event was held to “kill people through alcohol.”
DiBileo is charged with aggravated assault, involuntary manslaughter, simple assault, 14 counts of recklessly endangering another person, 14 counts of hazing, 14 counts of furnishing alcohol to minors, and 14 counts of unlawful acts relative to liquor.
During what fraternity members called “the gauntlet,” a series of drinking stations where Piazza and the other pledges rapidly consumed alcohol, DiBileo ran the wine station, where he held the bag from a box of wine while pledges drank from it.
Engle said that on surveillance video shown earlier in court there is only evidence of two people drinking from the wine bag, neither of whom were Piazza. DiBileo’s only prior experience with the gauntlet was in the fall of 2016, when he was a pledge, and no one died or suffered serious injury, Engle argued, saying he had no reasonable expectation the event could result in death.
District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller countered that brothers had to have been aware consuming large amounts of alcohol carried with it a high risk of danger.
“Do they really think they get a free death before they’re held responsible?” she said. “The question is, is it dangerous when it happens?There’s no question how dangerous their actions were.”
DiBileo, along with his roommate, Greg Rizzo, who is not charged, both advocated after Piazza fell that he needed medical attention. Engle said that the fact DiBileo wanted to get help shows he had no intent to harm.
In a lengthy closing argument, attorney Ted Simon, representing Luke Visser, said there should be a “clear legal line,” between the gauntlet and the social party that followed it with members of a female organization called Trilogy.
Simon said the grand jury report, which acted as the criminal complaint, described only the gauntlet and some drinking immediately before and after it as hazing. He, like others, argued that the social was voluntary and no one knows exactly how much Piazza drank there or what his blood alcohol content was before it started.
Visser is facing the same charges as DiBileo and participated in running the beer pong station of the gauntlet. There is no direct evidence Piazza drank at the beer pong station.
Like DiBileo, Visser had no role in planning or purchasing alcohol for the event and had no position of authority, Simon said. Visser left the house for the rest of the night about 20 minutes after Piazza’s fall and was unaware of Piazza’s injuries, he added.
He also said that there are still unanswered questions about Piazza’s fall down the basement stairs at 11:22 p.m. Defense attorneys, through questioning, have said that around the time of Piazza’s fall one fraternity member was cleaning up vomit around a marble threshold near the stairs and that a female guest may have been sitting near the top of the steps. It’s unknown whether he fell as a result of extreme intoxication or because he slipped or tripped, Simon argued.
“There’s more factual information in the record that this was an accident than criminal act,” Simon said.
Leonard Ambrose, attorney for Joseph Sala, who faces the same charges as DiBileo and Visser, made many of the same arguments as those defendants’ attorneys – that Sala was a newly initiated brother with low standing in the fraternity, no position of authority and no role in the planning or purchase of alcohol.
In arguing that Sala had no conscious awareness and could not foresee that the events could result in Piazza’s death, Ambrose turned his remarks to Tim Bream, the Penn State football trainer and live-in adviser for the fraternity.
Bream testified on Wednesday that he was aware the fraternity officers were planning to apply for an alcohol permit from Penn State’s Interfraternity Council for the bid night but was unaware if they had received it. He said he went to bed before the gauntlet and party began and did not know about what was taking place in the house.
Ambrose said that if the 56-year-old Bream did not foresee a risk then it’s unreasonable to expect Sala would.
Sala is referred to twice in the 310-paragraph grand jury presentment, Ambrose said, and the video shows Sala holding a bag of wine for two pledges, neither of whom were Piazza. There’s no evidence Sala was aware of Piazza’s fall before he left the house for the night at 12:26 a.m.
“How can we sustain a charge against someone who wasn’t even there?” Ambrose asked.
Sala’s involvement with the gauntlet was opening and closing a door for pledges to enter a station, he added.
But Parks Miller argued that each fraternity member who had involvement in the gauntlet played a role in hazing that started the chain of events leading to Piazza’s fatal injuries.
Sala aided in the event and was involved in planning at some point because he was there and discharging his duties, Parks Miller said.
She added that “as a group they designed the gauntlet for maximum devastation,” by getting pledges as drunk as possible as fast as possible. The consequences of that, she argued, were known to all involved and they disregarded the value of human life through their conduct.
Evan Kelly, the attorney for Craig Heimer, said his client is charged only for being the one who purchased alcohol for the event. Scicchitano testified earlier that during the bid acceptance night, Heimer was a witness not involved with running the gauntlet.
Heimer is charged with 14 counts of recklessly endangering another person, 14 counts of hazing, 12 counts of furnishing alcohol to minors and 12 counts of unlawful acts relative to liquor.
Heimer did not participate in the gauntlet when he was a pledge, Kelly said, and didn’t know its purpose at the time. He also knew because the party received an IFC permit, private security inspectors would check on the event, and that Bream met with the executive board, which approved of it.
At the time he purchased the alcohol, Heimer didn’t know that more than one or two of the pledges were under 21, Kelly said.
Michael Angelo Schiavone faces the same charges as Heimer and organized the purchase of alcohol. Like Heimer, Schiavone didn’t participate in the gauntlet as a pledge himself and does not drink alcohol, his attorney, Marc Neff said.
Nor did Schiavone participate in the bid acceptance night or gauntlet in February. His only appearance on the surveillance video is when he comes to the door to sign a form for the private security inspectors contracted by the IFC.
Both Heimer and Schiavone didn’t do anything wrong in purchasing the alcohol, their attorneys argued, since the fraternity had received permission from the IFC to have alcohol.
They were also among the attorneys who argued that since brothers like them had not participated in the gauntlet and were still accepted into the fraternity, consuming alcohol was not a prerequisite for admission.
Parks Miller said that those exceptions aren’t indicative of every pledge, and Scicchitano earlier testified that pledges and brothers had viewed participation as a requirement.
She added that the permit for alcohol was not a permit to haze.
“They didn’t get a permit to break the law and kill Tim Piazza,” she said, a remark that drew an audible reaction from defendants’ families and objections from defense attorneys.
Lars Kenyon and Parker Jax Yochim face similar charges as Heimer and Schiavone. Both were also described as having no direct role in the gauntlet and were charged for their positions on the fraternity’s social committee and text messages showing discussions of what alcohol to get.
But Kenyon’s attorney, Julian Allatt, and Yochim’s attorney, Ron McGlaughlin, said their clients did not do any of the planning for the gauntlet and didn’t serve anyone.
Attorneys for defendants Lucas Rockwell, Ryan McCann and Braxton Becker – who are each charged with one count of tampering with evidence – and Joseph Ems, charged with one count of recklessly endangering another person, also asked for charges to be dismissed against their clients in closing arguments.
The charges for Rockwell and McCann stem from their attempt to put a shirt on Piazza on the morning of Feb. 3, after he was brought up from the basement a second time and at which point he was rigid and unresponsive.
Their attorney, Jason Dunkle, argued that the act was no effort to hide a crime and that they later said the only crime they thought the fraternity might be charged with was furnishing.
Becker is accused of suggesting, after Piazza’s death, that GroupMe messages among fraternity members be deleted. His attorney, Karen Muir, pointed to testimony from Bream on Wednesday, in which the adviser said he met with about 30 fraternity members after Piazza was taken to the hospital and told them to stay off social media out of respect for Piazza and his family.
Muir said Becker wanted to avoid having screenshots that would be embarrassing to Piazza or his family made public and that he was not trying to hide anything from police.
Ems is charged for slapping Piazza’s bare abdomen while Piazza was on a couch after his fall. The charge alleges that the slap may have exacerbated the spleen injury that caused Piazza to suffer massive internal bleeding.
His attorney, William Brennan, argued there was no reckless intent on Ems’ part and that the contact was meant to wake him up. He said there was no way Ems could have known Piazza had a ruptured spleen, as that wasn’t determined until after testing at the hospital.
He added that Piazza, as seen on video, suffered later falls where he struck his abdomen and it’s unknown when the injury actually occurred.
Outside the courthouse after the hearing, Brennan said he doesn’t presume how Sinclair will rule, but expects at least some charges to be dismissed.
“This case is grossly overcharged,” Brennan said.