Penn State frat's 'grotesque actions' were 'beyond human decency,' Piazza family attorney says

Penn State sophomore Timothy Piazza died after falling down stairs at a frat.

ByABC News
May 8, 2017, 6:55 PM

— -- The attorney for the family of Penn State fraternity pledge Timothy Piazza, who died after falling down stairs during a pledge ceremony at the frat house, called the actions of the fraternity brothers who didn't call for help the "worst possible debauchery and depravity that you could possibly have anywhere, let alone a college campus."

Piazza, a 19-year-old Penn State sophomore, died on Feb. 4 after he fell down the stairs at Penn State's Beta Theta Pi fraternity the night of Feb. 2. Piazza's blood alcohol content reached 0.28 and 0.36 percent that night. Police were not called to the Beta Theta Pi house -- which has since been barred from Penn State -- until about 12 hours after the initial fall. According to the forensic pathologist, Piazza's death "was the direct result of traumatic brain injuries."

Here are some details from what happened the night of Feb. 2 and early morning hours of Feb. 3 at Beta Theta Pi, according to a grand jury report, which cited evidence including video from surveillance cameras, testimony and phone records.

Piazza was carried upstairs after the fall, appearing unconscious. During the night Piazza was slapped in the face, slammed onto a couch and hit in the abdomen by fraternity members. After 3 a.m., Piazza tried to stand but he fell, hitting his head on the floor. A fraternity brother attempted to shake him but then left the room. Shortly before 4 a.m. Piazza again tried to stand but fell face down on the floor.

At about 5 a.m., Piazza stood and then fell head first into an iron railing, landing on a stone floor. "He gets up again and attempts to go to the front door, but before he reaches it he falls head first into the door," the grand jury report says.

In the early morning hours, brothers saw Piazza in distress but didn't help. At about 10 a.m., fraternity members found the 19-year-old in the basement lying on his back, breathing heavily and with blood on his face. One brother said Piazza's eyes were half open and he felt cold. Three men carried Piazza's unconscious body upstairs and placed him back on the couch. Surveillance footage showed brothers shaking him and trying to prop him up. At 10:48 a.m., a fraternity member called 911. Piazza was hospitalized and died the next day.

PHOTO: Beta Theta Pi fraternity house at Penn State.
Beta Theta Pi fraternity house at Penn State.

Piazza family attorney Tom Kline called the surveillance video "gruesome" and said it showed "conduct which is reprehensible. Beyond human decency."

Kline told ABC News today that Piazza's family is distraught and called the grand jury report devastating.

"They are hurting, they are mourning," he said. "It was terrible for them to see what really happened to their son. To know the callousness and the heinousness of the crimes which were committed against him."

"That dark night in that Penn State fraternity, the Piazzas lost their precious son," Kline said. "They saw his bright future blossoming and then it all disappeared by the grotesque actions of people who were supposed to be his friends."

Stacy Parks Miller, the district attorney for Centre County in Pennsylvania, announced Friday that 18 Penn State students are facing charges: eight for involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and hazing, among other charges; four for reckless endangerment and hazing, among other charges; and six for evidence tampering. The Beta Theta Pi fraternity itself is facing charges including involuntary manslaughter and hazing.

The grand jury concluded that after Piazza was taken to the hospital there was an active attempt to conceal evidence of the hazing and underage drinking, from deleting messages to admitting to discussing erasing surveillance video.

According to the grand jury report, in a deleted text that was recovered, one man wrote, "If need be, just tell them what I told you guys, found him behind [a bar] the next morning at around 10 a.m., and he was freezing-cold, but we decided to call 911 instantly, because the kid's health was paramount."

Kline called the fraternity member's actions "horrific acts of self-preservation" and "acts of callousness toward a young man."

"They were trying aggressively and affirmatively to make sure that Tim did not get help because it was against their interests," Kline said. "They knew that if they were caught with liquor, if they were caught with a young man who had fallen down the stairs all those hours later, that it was going to be a problem for them.

"He was the unfortunate road kill in this adventure by these young men who thought that they were above the law," Kline added.

About a half an hour after Piazza's fall, a newly initiated member, Kordel Davis, saw Piazza lying on the couch, "thrashing and making weird movements," he later told the grand jury. He said he screamed at the fraternity brothers for help, stressing that Piazza needed to go to the hospital because he could have a concussion. One brother shoved Davis into a wall and said they had it under control.

Kline said "that was a moment where Tim Piazza could have been saved."

"Tim could have been saved when he fell down the stairs, he could have been saved at that moment. Tim Piazza could have been saved when he was put on the couch upstairs, he could have been saved for a number of hours," Kline said. "To let another human being in a deteriorating condition with clear severe injuries, continue to die in front of their very eyes is unjustifiable."

The grand jury, in its report, stated that it had found evidence of a history of hazing at the fraternity that included forced drinking and paddling, and found that Penn State's Greek community "nurtured an environment so permissive of excessive drinking and hazing that it emboldened its members to repeatedly act with reckless disregard to human life."

The grand jury concluded in the report that Piazza's death wasn't the result of isolated conduct or a simple mistake but as a "direct result of the extremely reckless conduct of members of the Beta Fraternity who operated within the permissive atmosphere fostered" by Penn State's Interfraternity Council.

Penn State President Eric Barron in a statement Friday said, "The alleged details in the grand jury presentment, which suggest the inhumane treatment of a student forced through hazing to consume dangerous amounts of alcohol and endure hours of suffering, are sickening and difficult to understand. It is numbing how an atmosphere that endangers the well-being and safety of another person could occur within an organization that prided itself on commitment to each other and to its community."

PHOTO: Old Main on the Penn State main campus in State College, Pa., Oct. 28, 2015.
Old Main on the Penn State main campus in State College, Pa., Oct. 28, 2015.

He added, "It should go without saying that hazing and dangerous drinking are not permitted by the University, and the University takes appropriate action to educate its students about these issues and to hold them accountable whenever it learns of such wrongdoing."

Beta Theta Pi International Fraternity said in a statement, "The nature of those charges are incredibly disheartening as the organization and its membership continue to grieve Tim’s passing and the pain experienced by his family."

"Since the incident in early February, the International Fraternity has cooperated fully with local officials in their investigation. The early findings of that investigation indicated that the behavior of several undergraduate members was in direct contradiction of the International Fraternity’s expectations and risk management policies, as well as the International Fraternity’s reputation and commitment to character development," the statement said. "Beta Theta Pi International Fraternity has clearly and consistently expressed its position that it does not tolerate hazing or alcohol abuse in any form by its members. The former undergraduate members were well educated by the International Fraternity and Penn State on these policies; however, they are entitled to the presumption of innocence as they face these charges.

"As such, and despite the number of accolades bestowed upon the former chapter by the university in recent years, the International Fraternity stands by its decision to suspend and disband the former chapter on February 17, 2017," the statement continued. "The International Fraternity’s policy that prohibited alcohol in the Penn State chapter house, along with the extensive annual investment in risk management, leadership and character-development programs that teach young men the importance of integrity and caring for others, underscored the International Fraternity’s expectations of all of its members."

In a statement, the Penn State Interfraternity Council said its thoughts "continue to lie with the Piazza family as the justice process moves forward."

"Our focus, as students, is leading the change Penn State needs to prevent a senseless tragedy like this from happening in the future," the statement continued. "We are committed to addressing the critical issues in our fraternity community head on. We have formed stakeholder working groups tasked with developing increased community standards and enhancing student safety. The best way to shift culture is for students, alumni and the university to work together."

One of the defense attorneys in the case told ABC News on Friday, "Of course, it's a tragedy. But that doesn't mean there's any intent involved in any of this."

All defendants charged with involuntary manslaughter were preliminarily arraigned Friday. They entered no pleas, bail was set at $100,000 and they were released on their own recognizance, the district attorney said. They are prohibited from having alcohol and nonprescription drugs, may not leave their home state without express permission from the judge and must surrender their passports, the district attorney said. A few additional defendants also had preliminary arraignments Friday with the same conditions but with bail set at $50,000, the district attorney said. The remaining eight defendants are set to be arraigned Tuesday afternoon, the district attorney's office said. Preliminary hearing court dates have not yet been set, the district attorney's office said.

Kline said the Piazza family is "committed to full justice. The Piazza’s are committed not only to punishment but to deterrence. They want to make sure that this never happens again at Penn State or at any American college campus."

ABC News' Sally Hawkins contributed to this report.

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