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Four More Enter Guilty Pleas In Beta Theta Pi Case

One of three trials scheduled in the Penn State fraternity hazing case has been eliminated after a new round of guilty pleas by former Beta Theta Pi brothers on Thursday.

Michael Fernandez, Brian Gelb, Donald Prior and Joseph Sala each pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges, including hazing, bringing the total number of guilty pleas in the case to 13.

Fernandez, Gelb and Prior — who each asked for and received immediate sentencing that included probation, fines and community service — had been scheduled for trial beginning Feb. 6. Sala, whose sentencing is scheduled for March 26, had not yet had his trial date scheduled.

Nicholas Kubera was scheduled to plead guilty as well, according to court dockets, but was not called and did not appear. Jonah Neuman, who was scheduled for trial beginning Feb. 14 along with Kubera, Michael Bonatucci and Joshua Kurczewski, is scheduled to plead guilty on Friday.

None of the four defendants pleading guilty on Thursday before Centre County Judge Brian Marshall were accused of directly providing alcohol to pledge Timothy Piazza, whose death following the fraternity’s bid acceptance night on Feb. 2, 2017, spurred the investigation and led to charges against more than two dozen Beta Theta Pi members. The fraternity chapter also has been permanently banned from Penn State.

Investigators have said Piazza was given 18 drinks in 82 minutes during the initiation event and basement party that followed before he fell head-first down the basement stairs. Piazza sustained a series of other falls throughout the night and paramedics were not called until the following morning, nearly 12 hours after his fall down the stairs. He died on Feb. 4, 2017 as a result of brain injuries, head trauma and massive internal bleeding from a shattered spleen, according to a medical examiner.

Deputy Attorney General Andrew Notaristefano said on Thursday that all 14 pledges that night at least vomited as a result of the initiation events.

Fernandez, 24, of Yardley, Pa., pleaded guilty to one count of hazing for holding up a bag of wine for a pledge to chug from during the party in the fraternity’s basement. Another count of hazing and two liquor code violations were dropped as part of the plea.

Notaristefano said prior to sentencing that Fernandez was not offered an accelerated rehabilitative disposition program because witnesses told investigators that Fernandez had pledgemaster duties as a junior in the fall of 2015 and engaged in hazing activities that led to him being evicted from the Beta Theta Pi house.

“He did foster a community of hazing in the Beta Theta Pi house,” Notaristefano said.

Edward Spreha, attorney for Fernandez, said he did not agree with everything the prosecution contended about Fernandez’s past actions but that his client was ready to move on. Fernandez had already graduated from Penn State by the time he was among the second set of defendants charged in the case in November 2017. 

Fernandez was sentenced to 12 months probation, 100 hours of community service and a $250 fine, plus costs of prosecution and supervision.

He apologized and said he had matured since the case began.

“I look forward to hopefully move on from this,” Fernandez said prior to sentencing. “It’s time for me to move on in the adult world and put this case behind me.”

Gelb, 20, of Bethesda, Md., pleaded guilty to one count of hazing and one liquor code violation for holding a wine bag for a pledge to chug. Multiple counts of hazing and liquor code violations were dropped as part of the plea.

“I’m sorry and embarrassed to have played a role in this incident and I’m eager move forward,” Gelb, who now attends college in Maryland, said prior to sentencing.

He also was among the second set of defendants charged in the case. Gelb was sentenced to 12 months probation, 100 hours of community service and $1,500 in fines, plus costs of prosecution and supervision.

Prior, 23, of Mayfield, pleaded guilty to one count of hazing and one liquor code violation for holding up a wine bag for one pledge to chug from and giving a beer to another. Three other counts of hazing and liquor violations were dropped.

“I’d like apologize to the court, the Penn State community and my family, and I look forward to moving forward,” said Prior, who now attends City College of New York.

Prior was sentenced to 12 months probation, 100 hours of community service, $1,500 in fines and the costs of prosecution and supervision.

Sala, 20, of Erie, pleaded guilty to three counts of hazing and one county of conspiracy to commit hazing. Ten other counts of hazing, two counts of furnishing alcohol to minors and two liquor code violations were dropped.

Following a preliminary hearing in 2017, Sala, who was among the first group of defendants in the case, had a number of charges dismissed, including aggravated assault, involuntary manslaughter, simple assault and recklessly endangering another person.

Sala was assistant pledgemaster for the fraternity in February 2017. His role on the bid acceptance night included leading pledges to the entrance to the house and sending them in one by one for the “gauntlet” a series of drinking stations in which they were told to rapidly consume beer, wine and vodka. Sala, who now attends Mercer University, also was present for discussions about the set up for the gauntlet, Notaristefano said, and brought bottles of vodka to the basement for pledgemaster Daniel Casey to use for a lineup where pledges were told to finish a bottle.

Sala did not request to be sentenced immediately.

Ryan Burke, Gary DiBileo, Joseph Ems, Patrick Jackson, Jonathan Kanzler, Aidan O’Brien  Michael, Angelo Schiavone, Bo Han Song and Luke Visser previously pleaded guilty to various misdemeanor charges.

Ryan Foster, Ed Gilmartin, Reginald Goeke, Craig Heimer, Lars Kenyon and Parker Yochim were accepted into ARD programs.

Braxton Becker, who is charged with tampering and obstruction, has a pre-trial conference scheduled for later this month.

Casey and former fraternity president Brendan Young are scheduled for trial beginning April 3.

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About the Author

Geoff Rushton (StateCollege.com)

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.

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