Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller filed new charges against 17 individuals Monday morning based on evidence the Commonwealth found in recovered surveillance footage from the basement of Beta Theta Pi fraternity on bid acceptance night.
The grand jury presentment released in May says Lt. Keith Robb and Detective Craig Ripka of the State College Police Department first responded to the fraternity house on Monday, February 6, after Detective David Scicchitano, the lead investigator on the case, notified Robb of Piazza’s condition from the hospital on Friday, February 3. When they observed surveillance cameras around the house and asked about them, the two officers received written consent to remove the surveillance machines and recording devices from the house.
Former Beta Theta Pi brother Braxton Becker allegedly deleted the footage from the basement manually on the security footage system at that point, while the police were present at the fraternity house.
Becker was originally charged in May with tampering with evidence for his involvement in deleting group messages, but that singular charge was dropped after preliminary hearings. He was also charged in February, just two weeks after Piazza’s death, with multiple felonies and misdemeanors related to selling marijuana from the fraternity house.
Becker is now facing charges of tampering with evidence, obstructing administration of law, and hindering apprehension for deleting the surveillance video. All three are misdemeanors.
Parks Miller said Becker, who served as the fraternity’s house manager, was the brother responsible for running the surveillance system at the house; he was the only brother who knew how the system worked, and therefore who knew how to delete certain footage, according to criminal complaints in the case. The only other individual with a key to access the system was advisor Tim Bream.
Fraternity brothers initially told investigators the surveillance cameras in the fraternity house weren’t working on the night of the bid acceptance rituals. The footage from those specific cameras resumed a few days later on Monday, February 6, and the grand jury presentment said, “…the individual cameras in the basement did not record on the night in question.”
Police did recover surveillance footage from the lobby of the fraternity house, which was outlined in detail for the first time in the grand jury presentment on the case and has been shown in court during the preliminary hearings.
Beta Theta Pi Vice President Ed Gilmartin admitted to Detective Scicchitano in his initial investigation that the brothers considered erasing the video surveillance footage. Parks Miller said during the press conference announcing the new charges that police recovered text messages between Becker and another fraternity brother discussing the deleted footage.
These messages weren’t included in the grand jury presentment, which did feature messages between other fraternity brothers about tampering with evidence. It’s unclear how many of the fraternity brothers knew about the deleted footage, and to what extent they knew of the implications.
Investigators didn’t learn of the deleted footage until summer. According to criminal complaints in the case, Detective Schicchitano obtained a search warrant in late July for the Beta Theta Pi surveillance system as part of another criminal investigation not related to the investigation of Piazza’s death. When watching the tapes, he realized there were camera angles he had never seen during his review of video leading up to Piazza’s death.
The first box of tapes showed video back to January 31, but the second box of tapes started on February 6 and a data page read “Clear All Data 2/6/17 10:09:39.” Scicchitano called the manufacturer of the surveillance system, who confirmed the message meant the machine was manually deleted by someone.
He also spoke with Ripka at that time, who told Scicchitano about photos he took with his cell phone when he and Lt. Robb originally responded, of Becker accessing the closet where the surveillance system was stored and of how the machines were set up and some of their settings in order to show the IT department, “as he was going to be asking them for assisting with removing the machines.” Ripka also took photos of what the thought was an IP address because he didn’t trust Becker.
The criminal complaint says Becker knew Ripka was taking photographs and had allowed them to be taken. Ripka had Becker show a screen that showed which cameras were functioning, at which point Becker said the four blue screens shown — presumably the basement angles — were not operational, and that the fraternity brothers had had several problems with them that they were trying to get fixed by “the people installing them.”
A State College system analyst later used the video deletion time — 10:05 video time from the first box — to determine the deletion would’ve been around 10:42 a.m. Monday in real time. Ripka confirmed to Scicchitano this was the time Becker was in the closet with the surveillance system. Scicchitano then obtained a search warrant and turned over both boxes of footage to the FBI on August 9 to have their lab retrieve the video, including the video that was suspected to be deleted.
Detective Scicchitano testified at preliminary hearings in August about new evidence showing footage from the basement of the fraternity house was deleted. Scicchitano said police had a suspect for deleting the footage, but charges had not been filed at the time, so he only said the individual was among those already facing charges in the case. We now know the individual charged for deleting the footage is Braxton Becker.
The FBI returned the recovered footage from its Philadelphia office to Schicchitano on a thumb drive on October 26. He began reviewing the video on October 27.
Parks Miller declined to go into detail at the press conference about what the now-recovered footage displayed. She did not clarify whether the footage explicitly shows Tim Piazza falling down the basement steps, but said Piazza was visibly intoxicated and had consumed at least 18 drinks over a period of one hour and 22 minutes, all given to him by fraternity brothers.
This story has been updated to include additional information from criminal complaints filed in the case.