Video Evidence The Focus As Beta Theta Pi Hearing Continues
by Geoff Rushton
Fraternity brothers continued to supply Timothy Piazza with alcohol after he was staggering and showing visible signs of intoxication the night he sustained fatal injuries, video evidence exhibited at a hearing on Monday showed.
As day two got under way for a second preliminary hearing for 11 of the former Beta Theta Pi members facing charges in connection with Piazza’s February 2017 death, video evidence from inside the now-banned Penn State fraternity house was the focus.
Piazza, a 19-year-old sophomore, died on Feb. 4, 2017 as a result of brain injuries, head trauma and internal bleeding after falling multiple times during an alcohol-fueled bid acceptance event the night of Feb. 2. A total of 26 defendants face charges in the case, but the current hearing is for 11 members who saw some charges dismissed after an initial hearing last summer then refiled in the fall.
Some of the video shown in court on Monday was part of that initial hearing last year, but also included this time was footage from the fraternity basement, where much of the drinking took place, that had been deleted and was later recovered after the video equipment was sent to the FBI.
Defense attorneys objected to much of the video being entered into evidence again, arguing as they did on Friday that prosecutors should only be allowed to supplement the record, not start over again with a new record. Deputy Attorney General Brian Zarallo argued that the duplicate evidence was necessary to flesh out his office’s new theories.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office took over the case in January on the request of new Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna, who cited an unspecified conflict of interest.
With State College Det. David Scicchitano on the stand describing the events taking place in the video clips, Zarallo sought to demonstrate each defendant’s role in the alleged hazing and furnishing alcohol to minors, as well as Piazza’s worsening condition throughout the night as no one called for help. Some of the 11 defendants face charges of involuntary manslaughter and recklessly endangering another person.
Before an initiation event, 14 pledges, 12 of whom were under 21, were led into the basement where they were given a bottle of vodka and told to drink from it, passing it down the line until it was empty. After an initiation ritual, they began what was known as “the gauntlet,” a series of stations where they chugged wine, vodka and beer on the first floor and in the basement.
Scicchitano described how fraternity brothers handed the alcohol to the pledges and directed them along. Defense attorney Julian Allatt, representing Lars Kenyon, noted for the record that as the footage was displayed in court, he and other attorneys could not personally identify who was providing alcohol in the basement.
Scicchitano said it appeared “distinctive” to him that at the final station, beer pong in the basement, the pledges had slowed down in their ability to consume a plastic cup of beer.
When the obstacle course concluded with the pledges shotgunning beers, a party with the female organization Trilogy began. Early on, Piazza could be seen chugging from a bag of wine that had been given to him, as well as continuing to be given beer and vodka by fraternity brothers. Scicchitano said all of the drinks Piazza consumed were given to him and that he did not appear to go to the bar to get a drink on his own at any point.
About 40 minutes after the gauntlet had ended and the social began, Piazza was visibly intoxicated, clearly staggering and swaying at some points. But brothers continued to give alcohol until just after 11 p.m., when he was seen staggering again and escorted upstairs by to the great hall by Kenyon and guided to a couch.
Piazza got up and stumbled around the first floor as brother Nick Kubera caught up with him and helped him back to the couch. He then got up, attempted to give a high-five to another brother and missed, and moved toward the lobby where he unsuccessfully tried to open the front door then headed toward the basement stairs.
At 11:22 p.m., Piazza fell down the stairs. Brother Stephen Disko, who is not charged in the case, told Scicchitano in an interview that Piazza was unconscious with his head on the carpet and his legs on the stairs and that there was blood on Piazza’s face.
No basement video footage from the time of the fall was shown in court.
Two minutes after his fall, four men carried Piazza up from the basement and into the great hall. “He looks unconscious,” Scicchitano said. “His eyes are closed. He’s clearly dead weight.”
A bruise was visible on Piazza’s left abdomen, Scicchitano said, which medical examiner Harry Kamerow testified on Friday was consistent with the ruptured spleen that caused internal bleeding.
On cross-examination, Frank Fina, attorney for fraternity president Brendan Young, introduced web search history from Piazza’s phone that showed on Jan. 29, 2017, four days before the bid acceptance night, Piazza had made several searches for information about severe abdominal pain, suggesting the injury had occurred earlier. Scicchitano said he had not seen the information before and that it had not been provided to the medical examiner.
Zarallo, however, said Piazza’s searches were related to irritable bowel syndrome, not the shattered spleen that ultimately caused internal bleeding.
As Piazza was on the couch, fraternity member Greg Rizzo, who is not charged in the case, appeared to administer a sternum rub that did not elicit a response and poured a beverage on Piazza. Brother Luke Visser appeared to take a photo of Piazza, Scicchitano said. Donald Prior, who faces charges but is not among the defendants at the current hearing, also poured a beer on Piazza, Scicchitano said.
Fraternity members adjusted Piazza on the couch but he appeared limp. Scicchitano said it was about 15 minutes before Piazza made any movement at all on his own. His head bobbed without control as brothers lifted him up to place a backpack on him to prevent him from rolling over on his back and choking on vomit.
At about 11:50 p.m., brother Kordel Davis entered and upon seeing Piazza became animated as he talked to others before being pushed toward a wall by Jonah Neuman. Scicchitano previously testified that Davis advocated seeking help for Piazza but was told by other members that they had it under control.
Rizzo, meanwhile, sent a message to the fraternity’s GroupMe at 11:53 p.m. stating that “Tim Piazza might actually be a problem. He fell 15 feet down a flight of stairs hair-first. Going to need help.” Rizzo would send another message at 2:19 a.m. that said “This kid should def. be in a hospital bed yet no one agrees with me.”
In an interview with police played on cross-examination by Steve Trialonas, attorney for pledgemaster Daniel Casey, Rizzo said he thought that Piazza’s condition was due to intoxication, not injury.
Fraternity members appeared to discuss Piazza’s condition and attempt to wake him on and off after he was placed on the couch. Shortly after midnight, Casey appeared to slap Piazza but Piazza did not react.
At about 4 a.m., Piazza could be seen getting to his feet and taking the first of what would be several falls on the first floor. He fell backwards and landed on his head. Twenty minutes later he tried to get up, fell, then got to his feet and staggered toward a wall, falling and hitting his head again.
At 5:30 a.m., the fraternity’s live-in adviser Tim Bream, who until recently also was head athletic trainer for the Penn State football team, could be seen walking in view of the camera. Bream has testified that he did not see Piazza and was not aware of the events that took place in the house that night. He is not charged in the case and Zarallo did not ask Scicchitano if Bream appeared to be aware of Piazza.
Piazza would later stumble into the lobby and fall shoulder first into a railing, falling to the floor. He staggered toward the front door and fell headfirst and would fall several more times before making his way back to the great hall.
Just before 8 a.m., video showed Piazza walking toward the basement stairs and he could be seen on basement footage walking toward one of the bars, then crawling on the floor.
Around 10 a.m. a fellow pledge would find him. As three men carried him upstairs, he was unconscious, his body was stiff and his hands clenched tight. Kamerow testified on Friday that this indicated decorticate posture, a sign of brain damage.
After covering him with a blanket, fraternity members attempted to hold him up to zipper a coat, wiped his face and tried to pull his clenched fingers apart. At 10:46 a.m., fraternity president Young sat on an opposite couch with his head in his hands and two minutes later brother Ryan McCann called 911.
Before the first officer arrived on the scene, brothers and pledges could be seen cleaning up beer cans on the first floor.
Fina, Young’s attorney, began defense cross examination of Scicchitano on Monday afternoon. Responding to questions by Fina, Scicchitano said he had no evidence that Young personally directed or required to drink, was aware of Piazza’s injuries prior to just before 911 was called or knew of Piazza’s condition throughout the night.
Fina also said in his questioning that Disko, who described seeing Piazza after his first fall, told police that “everyone thought [Piazza] was just another drunk kid who fell.”
The hearing will continue on Tuesday.
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