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BELLEFONTE, Penn. — A security company hired by Penn State’s Interfraternity Council arrived at the party just after 19-year-old pledge Timothy Piazza fell down a flight of stairs and was fatally injured after an alcohol-fueled hazing ritual, a police detective testified Monday.
State College Police Det. Dave Scicchitano testified during the second day of a preliminary hearing that began last month. Eighteen students have been charged with a variety of offenses, from involuntary manslaughter and hazing to alcohol-related charges. Sixteen are the subject of the hearing, which will determine whether the cases go to trial.
Beta Theta Pi was supposed to be an alcohol-free fraternity, and employees from St. Moritz Security Services were supposed to be spot checking compliance, Scicchitano said.
Within minutes of Piazza’s 15-foot fall down a flight of stairs, uniformed staff from the security company arrived at the fraternity party, Scicchitano testified.
They were seen on frat house surveillance tape going toward the basement, where the brothers had just put pledges through a hazing ritual called “the gauntlet,” the detective testified.
He said they spent two to three minutes inside the frat house. One of the St. Moritz employees carried a clipboard with a checklist of things to look for, he said, such as kegs. There was a keg in the house but it was on the second floor, where St. Moritz employees did not go, Scicchitano said.
The prosecution and defense agreed the checks were not effective. District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller called them a “sham” and a “big failure.”
“They hired them to come in and out for a few minutes,” Parks Miller said.
However, after the testimony about the security company was heard, the judge struck the testimony from the record, due to the confidential nature of the grand jury process.
The Piazza family is still struggling with their son’s death, but is attending the proceeding.
Security company role a surprise to family
Monday’s testimony regarding the role of the security company was a surprise to Tom Kline, the attorney representing the Piazza family.
“We learned that for the first time today in the courtroom. That is something that needs significant additional exploration, and we intend to do it,” he said.
Frank Fina, the defense attorney for the fraternity president, argued that the security company and Penn State have more responsibility than the frat members who are charged.
A St. Moritz representative has previously told CNN it had been providing surveillance of Penn State fraternities for years and that security officers sent regular reports to the Interfraternity Council. Those reports are now before a grand jury. St. Moritz told CNN it could not comment because it hasn’t seen any of the evidence.
Lisa Powers, Penn State spokesperson, issued this statement to CNN in response to Monday’s testimony:
“Our deepest sympathies continue to go out to the Piazza family. As we have stated, the University is investigating all aspects of what occurred at the Beta Theta Pi house. We would note, the University announced on June 2 new safety and reform initiatives, which include taking responsibility from the IFC for monitoring, spot checks and adjudication of violations.”
Earlier Monday, Scicchitano said text messages among Beta Theta Pi members indicated they tried to get rid of alcohol evidence and group messages, in a bid to keep quiet the hazing of Piazza.
Scicchitano detailed text messages from February that he said were made by Beta Theta Pi brothers regarding Piazza, who died from brain and spleen injuries after being put through the hazing ritual called “the gauntlet,” in which pledges moved from one drinking station to another, consuming dangerous amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time.
Defense attorneys for the accused say Piazza performed the ritual voluntarily.
Scicchitano testified that the hazing ritual was a “tradition” at Beta Theta Pi, even though the fraternity was supposed to be alcohol-free. The fraternity itself is also facing charges.
Piazza suffered a traumatic brain injury from several falls, including one down a set of basement stairs, according to a grand jury investigation.
It would take nearly 40 minutes for Beta Theta Pi brothers to call 911 after finding him unconscious.
Within the text messaging, testified to by police, the grand jury found that those charged tried to conceal evidence and deleted text messages.
“Make sure the pledges clean the basement and get rid of any evidence of alcohol,” fraternity President Brendan Young texted pledge master Daniel Casey, authorities said.
The reply: “They’re taking care of the basement.”
The judge also heard the contents of this alleged exchange in which fraternity president Brendan Young is talking to his girlfriend:
“He looked f****** dead.”
“At the end of the day I’m accountable for it all.”
“I’ll be the one going to court, paying for an attorney and maybe put in jail.”
Young is one of the eight people charged with involuntary manslaughter.
The lawyer for Casey, Steve Trialonas, earlier said, “The government assumes that these young men, many of whom were intoxicated themselves, should have been able to differentiate symptoms of extreme intoxication from symptoms of a life-threatening head injury. That is an impossible burden to place on them.”
Defense attorneys began cross-examination on Monday afternoon. They have not addressed the text messages in court.
Fina, Young’s attorney, called the surveillance video “very powerful evidence,” and asked the detectives whether Young did anything to keep the police from getting the surveillance video. The detective responded that Young was fully cooperative.
Surveillance video inside the now-closed frat house showed a student who “looked like a corpse” by the time fraternity members came to his aid, Scicchitano testified in June. The edited three hours of video showed Piazza repeatedly struggle to get to his feet, then stumble and fall repeatedly, for several hours. Prosecutors say he was slowly dying while others slept.
Parks Miller says the video shows the students sat on Piazza, held him down and struck him after the night of drinking, instead of calling for help. They allegedly researched symptoms on Google and fought over whether to call 911.
Lawyers for some of the defendants said the video only tells part of the story. One attorney has gone to court to get what he calls the full tape.
An often contentious hearing
During the often contentious hearing, attorney Ted Simon, who represents Luke Visser, one of the eight charged with Involuntary manslaughter, accused Parks Miller of selectively editing a portion of the tape shown to the grand jury. Simon said the snippet shows Piazza being able to walk well enough to avoid hitting furniture and able to close a door.
Simon wants the judge to see those unedited six minutes of video, accusing the district attorney of cherry picking video footage.
Parks Miller responded, “Shame on you for lying to the judge … that is a bald-faced lie that this young man ever walked fine anywhere. Shame on you.”
Scicchitano’s testimony on text messages includes an exchange allegedly between Gary DiBileo, charged in the case with involuntary manslaughter and hazing, and a fraternity member who is not. DiBileo responded after the other student mentioned drinking and hazing. “We tried our best to get him to the hospital, wish people listened, but yes you’re right.”
Scicchitano detailed another alleged exchange, sent after Piazza was taken to the hospital.
Pledge master: “I don’t want to go to jail for this.”
Girlfriend: “How can you go to jail?”
Pledge master: “Hazing is a huge thing.”
Pledge master: “Drink hazing can send you to jail for organizing the obstacle course.”
Then later this exchange occurred.
Girlfriend: “Make sure no one says anything”
Pledge master: “It’s all staying in the house. only brothers know.”
Young, Visser and DiBileo face eight charges, including involuntary manslaughter. Casey faces nine allegations, including involuntary manslaughter.
None of the defendants have entered pleas.
Testimony at the preliminary hearing is expected to conclude Tuesday.