Trial Begins For Former Beta Theta Pi Brother Accused Of Deleting Video Evidence In Hazing Case
More than two years after the February 2017 death of Penn State fraternity pledge Timothy Piazza following an alcohol-fueled initiation event at Beta Theta Pi fraternity, the first trial in the case began Tuesday at the Centre County Courthouse Annex in Bellefonte.
Braxton Becker, however, isn’t accused of hazing, providing alcohol to the 19-year-old Piazza and other pledges or organizing the bid acceptance night event and party that preceded Piazza’s death. The 22-year-old also isn’t alleged to have been there when an intoxicated Piazza fell head first down the basement stairs at the fraternity house. Instead, the former Beta brother and house manager is charged with tampering with evidence, obstruction and hindering prosecution, all misdemeanors, for allegedly deleting surveillance video from the night of Feb. 2 and morning of Feb. 3, 2017, that was later recovered and became key evidence for investigators.
More than two dozen fraternity brothers have been charged in the case, with most pleading guilty to misdemeanors or entering Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition programs for first-time offenders, and a few have had charges dismissed. Only Becker, Brendan Young, and Daniel Casey still face trial. The case against Young, the former president of the now-banned fraternity chapter, and Casey, the pledgemaster, is on hold pending appeals to state Superior Court.
In her opening statement, Deputy Attorney General Megan Madaffari cited text messages from Becker in which he noted the cameras had just been fixed, but suggested he could erase the night in question and say they had just started working again the next day. In a separate exchange, another fraternity brother wrote, “Erasing the cameras could be the look as long as no one found out,” with Becker replying “I’m thinking the exact same thing.”
In his role as house manager, Becker held the keys to the closet where the recording equipment was kept and had knowledge of how the system worked.
Det. Craig Ripka testified that on the afternoon of Feb. 3, after Piazza was taken to the hospital and police began their investigation, he was directed to Becker to retrieve the video. He said Becker was cooperative and contacted him 45 minutes later to tell him the video was downloaded and ready to be picked up.
What Ripka received that Friday afternoon was two short clips totaling about 20 minutes from the morning and showing nothing from the party brothers told police had occurred the night before. He said he contacted Becker and told him that he needed more and that Becker said he could contact him on Monday afternoon.
After Piazza died on Saturday, Ripka and Officer Adam Salyards went to the house on Monday morning without first notifying Becker. He agreed to retrieve more video but police discovered after some time that it could take days to download everything. So with the consent of Young and former live-in adviser Tim Bream, police took the system’s two DVR boxes, one which recorded first floor cameras and the other which recorded basement cameras.
Police found, however, that there was no footage from the basement cameras. The first floor footage was used as evidence in an initial set of charges brought in May 2017.
In July 2017, Ripka was investigating an unrelated incident that did not involve Becker and got a search warrant to view the surveillance video. Det. David Scicchitano, the lead investigator in the Piazza case, loaded a DVR box and discovered there were camera angles visible from the fraternity basement.
The DVR was sent to the F.B.I. for analysis and video from the bid acceptance night was recovered, leading to more charges against fraternity members in November 2017. A forensic analyst also retrieved a system log that showed a “clear all data” command from 10:39 a.m. on Feb. 6, a time during which Ripka took a photo of Becker at the system with a remote control in his hand.
Maddafari said that after police showed up unannounced Becker “had a window of opportunity and he took it.”
“It was now or never,” she said. “And he chose now.”
Becker’s attorney, Karen Muir, said that if Becker had knowingly executed a “clear all data” command, a window showing and confirming that would have appeared on screen.
On cross-examination by Muir, Ripka testified that he did not see that window appear on screen, but said that a number of different windows appeared on the screen while Becker was downloading footage and that he did not take photos of all them. He also said that while Becker was working at the video system, Ripka was not only watching him, but also talking to fellow officers and other fraternity members.
Ripka also testified that he does not know if he saw Becker pick up and use the remote control for DVR box 2, which contained the basement footage.
Salyards, who was there in his role as community relations officer, said he did not see it either and that Ripka was in and out of the video closet a number of times attending to different issues.
“That is reasonable doubt,” Muir said during her opening statement, “And the government can’t overcome it.”
Becker has had charges dismissed three times in the case, with the current charges being held for trial following a fourth preliminary hearing in November.
Centre County Judge Brian Marshall said the jury trial is expected to continue through Friday.
Video from the house showed pledges being sent through the “gauntlet,” a series of drinking stations in which they were encouraged to rapidly consume beer, vodka and wine, then being given alcohol by fraternity members during a basement party that followed. Investigators said that Piazza was given 18 drinks in 82 minutes before his fall down the stairs.
The footage also showed Piazza stumbling before his fall at about 11 p.m., his unconscious body being carried upstairs after and his deteriorating condition throughout the night and early morning hours as he fell multiple times on the first floor. No one called for help until just before 11 a.m. on Feb. 3, 2017.
Piazza died on Feb. 4, 2017, of head trauma, brain injuries and internal bleeding.
His mother, Evelyn, who with Piazza’s father, Jim, has become an outspoken advocate for fraternity reform and anti-hazing initiatives, was in attendance during the first day of the trial.
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“That broken ear is a permanent reminder of the dark side of Penn State University, the lives lost, and a warning. A warning that the deaths will continue unless massive change is enacted.”
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