Eight members of a Penn State fraternity were charged Friday with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a student after a night of heavy drinking, the local district attorney’s office said.
Timothy J. Piazza, 19, of Lebanon, New Jersey, died February 4, two days after he was injured while pledging the Beta Theta Pi fraternity.
The cause of death was traumatic brain injury that resulted from several falls, including a fall down a set of basement stairs, according to a 65-page statement issued by Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller after a county grand jury investigation.
A forensic pathologist calculated Piazza had a blood alcohol content between .26 and .36 percent at one point during the night — an amount that would render him “stuporous” and be “life-threatening,” the statement said.
The fraternity, the grand jury said, “cultivated such a permissive atmosphere regarding excessive alcohol consumption that Timothy Piazza’s death was not simply an unfortunate accident, but was the direct result of encouraged reckless conduct that demonstrated a reckless disregard for human life, or a reckless indifference to the possible consequences of such conduct.”
Penn State President Eric Barron called the series of events that led to the death “sickening and difficult to understand.”
A night of heavy drinking
Piazza and other pledges showed up at the frat house on “bid acceptance night,” when they were formally invited to join the fraternity, Miller’s statement said.
They then ran “the gauntlet,” which a pledge described as going from station to station and drinking alcohol at different stops.
“The purpose of the gauntlet is to get the pledges drunk in a very short amount of time,” the statement said. The night of February 2, the pledges consumed four to five drinks of wine, beer or liquor in a two-minute period, the statement said, quoting a police officer who questioned pledges.
Security camera video in the frat house helped prosecutors describe what happened to Piazza.
“He was injured and injuries were visible on his stomach. There were people that viewed injuries to his head. They let him lie on a couch. They hovered over him for a number of hours. And as the night progressed it appeared from video we have from the whole incident that his injuries worsened,” the district attorney said in a news conference.
“Throughout the night, Timothy got up and fell more times. In the morning … this young man fell again down those stairs and he laid at the bottom of those stairs for a number of hours. And when they brought him up this last time, he was in dire … need of help.”
The fraternity brothers appeared to be frightened and some searched on Google about what to do for a head injury.
“They literally delayed getting him help. And when they finally did call for help they did not tell anyone that he had fallen,” Miller said. “When he arrived at the hospital it was too late.”
Afterward, frat members tried to cover up what happened, authorities said.
Pledges were instructed by frat leadership to clean up the house and get rid of any evidence of alcohol, the prosecutor’s statement said. Frat members communicated through the “GroupMe” application and discussed deleting online conversations before they talked to authorities.
Online searches on one frat member’s phone included “hazing deaths,” “how many drinks are in a 1.75 liter bottle” and “how to calculate BAC, blood alcohol content,” the report said.