BELLEFONTE, Penn. — Surveillance video inside a Penn State frat house showed a student who “looked like a corpse” by the time fraternity members came to his aid, a police detective said on Monday.
Still, it would take nearly 40 minutes for Beta Theta Pi brothers to call 911 after discovering 19-year-old Timothy Piazza.
Centre County prosecutors claim the video shows the fraternity brothers failed to help Piazza after a night of heavy drinking, causing his death the next day on February 4 death. Piazza suffered a traumatic brain injury from several falls, including one down a set of basement stairs, according to a grand jury investigation.
Eighteen students have been charged with a variety of offenses, from involuntary manslaughter to alcohol-related offenses — more than 1,000 counts in all. Prosecutors showed the video for the first time Monday in a preliminary hearing to determine if there’s enough evidence to go to trial.
The video shows Piazza staggering through the house the night of February 2 before disappearing near basement stairs where police say he fell 15 steps and lost consciousness. The next few hours of video show him in and out of consciousness, rolling on the floor, struggling to stand and repeatedly falling and hitting his head before he disappears again the morning of February 3.
More than two hours later, the video shows several members carrying him to a couch. His eyes are closed and his legs and arms are visibly rigid, fist clenched so tight that one of the students struggled to pry his fingers open, State College Police Det. Dave Scicchitano testified.
“He looked dead. He looked like a corpse,” Scicchitano said.
Yet, instead of calling 911, they talked among themselves and searched their phones for information, Scicchitano said.
“They put him on a couch, put a blanket over him and stood around and talked for a while,” Scicchitano said. “That went on for an excruciating amount of time to watch without any action being taken.”
Eight members of the fraternity face involuntary manslaughter charges in Piazza’s death. Those eight and another 10 fraternity members were charged with counts including hazing, reckless endangerment, tampering with evidence, and alcohol-related offenses.
Sixteen of them appeared before a judge on Monday with their lawyers, filling the courtroom for a hearing lasting nearly 11 hours. Two others waived their right to a hearing.
Arguments from defense lawyers on a range of evidentiary issues prolonged the hearing, including a motion to sever the cases, which was denied. Confrontations among defense lawyers and Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller grew increasingly contentious as the day went on, leading District Judge Allen Sinclair to admonish the parties. The judge continued the hearing until a date to be determined after the 16 defense lawyers argued they didn’t have any time to question the police detective or make arguments.
Piazza’s parents were in court for the start of the hearing. His father, Jim Piazza, held his head in his hands and sobbed as prosecutors showed pictures of his son in the hospital. On their lawyer’s advice, the couple left for the hourslong viewing of the video.
Piazza family lawyer Tom Kline said it was appalling to see the lack of seriousness and respect from the young men on the video.
“Joking among themselves. Kidding among themselves. You would have thought today that it was a fraternity reunion. It did not go unnoticed by me and more importantly by the family,” he said.
“This was no drinking party. This was an alcohol poisoning, followed by callous, reckless, inhumane behavior.”
Lawyers for some of the defendants said the video only told part of the story. They pointed out that the defense does not have access to the video yet and only portions of it were shown in court Monday.
“I was underwhelmed by the evidence presented today,” said Michael Engel, who represents Gary DeBilio. “As it relates to my client we didn’t hear a lot. … We have a lot more to go.”
Defense lawyer William Brennan, who represents Joseph Ems, said the video absolved his client.
“It’s a tragic situation, but criminally, Joey Ems did not commit a crime,” he said.
What the video showed
As a pledge of the fraternity, Piazza was put through “the gauntlet,” in which he moved from station to station drinking alcohol.
The surveillance video shows Piazza chugging from a bottle of liquor early in the night and chugging a beer at another point. A forensic pathologist said Piazza had a blood alcohol content between .26% and .36% at one point during the night.
Within 90 minutes of starting the gauntlet, the video shows Piazza stumbling through the kitchen toward the basement steps. Two minutes later, the video shows a group carrying Piazza up the stairs unconscious. Moments later, fraternity brother Greg Rizzo sent a group text message saying Piazza had fallen down the stairs and “might actually be a problem.”
The video shows Rizzo take off Piazza’s shirt and position him on the couch. Student Ryan Foster sits on Piazza’s legs in what he described to police as an attempt to keep him from moving, Scicchitano said. The fraternity members appear agitated and at one point a shoving match erupts between two men. One member wanted to take Piazza to the hospital but was pushed aside by another, Scicchitano testified.
Shortly before 2 a.m., Piazza falls off the couch and the video appears to show Ems throw a shoe at his head. As Ems repositions Piazza on the couch, prosecutors say the video shows him punch Piazza in the abdomen, leaving a visible bruise on his side. Ems’ lawyer claims the video shows him reaching for him but not punching him.
As the evening wears on the video jumps to Piazza lying in a fetal position on the ground, rolling around. He tries to get on his feet and falls back on the floor. He tries to get on his feet using his hands and falls over. He gets up, walks into a wall, turns around, stumbles and falls over in a pattern repeated for several hours as he staggers through the house in a zombie-like state.
The video shows at least three people come upon him. One takes a look at him and keeps walking. Another captures Piazza on his phone as he rolls around. He posted it to Snapchat and later deleted it, Scicchitano testified.
As morning breaks, Piazza walks in the direction of the basement steps. More than two hours later the video shows a group of men carrying him back to the couch around 9:30 a.m.
His body is rigid as the men stand around, some with their hands on their hips. They pull out their phones and some make calls. One of them tries to pull his fingers apart. Another adjusts a blanket on him.
About 40 minutes later, a 911 call is finally made, Scicchitano testified.
As a result of the incident, Penn State President Eric Barron permanently banned the fraternity from the university.