The investigation into the February death of a Penn State University fraternity pledge who fell down stairs is likely to result in charges against several people for “conduct surrounding the death of another person,” a prosecutor says in a new court filing.
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said Friday the probe into the Feb. 4 death of Beta Theta Pi pledge Timothy Piazza is nearing its end. Police have said hazing and excessive drinking may have contributed to Piazza’s death, and Penn State has permanently banned the fraternity, saying the school found “a persistent pattern” of excess drinking, drug use and hazing.
The sophomore engineering student from Lebanon, New Jersey, was attending a pledge acceptance ceremony when he fell down a set of stairs, police say. No one called for help until the next day, and he later died at a hospital.
The filing Wednesday was made as part of a legal dispute between prosecutors and the fraternity chapter’s housing corporation, which is seeking the return of hard drives from security cameras that contain footage from the fraternity chapter house the night Piazza died.
“The commonwealth believes and therefore avers that the evidence at issue here will, in fact, be used in the prosecution of a number of individuals associated” with the Penn State chapter of Beta Theta Pi, prosecutor Bruce Castor Jr. told the state Supreme Court in the filing, which said a grand jury has been looking into Piazza’s death.
A lawyer for Miller’s office had written in a county filing Monday: “It is no secret that subpoenas have been issued to multiple prospective witnesses and that the investigation is progressing. Since this video footage, or portions thereof have been played to the Centre County investigating grand jury, the footage is now grand jury material and is covered by grand jury secrecy.”
Castor said in the petition that the office needs the originals for use in future court actions and asked the high court to overturn a county judge’s order earlier this week to return the hard drives to the fraternity.
The Supreme Court denied the prosecutors’ request, although Judge Thomas King Kistler said he would be willing to let prosecutors keep the originals and give the fraternity copies.
Attorney Mike Leahey, who represents the housing corporation, said it wants the originals back but would respect a judge’s order providing only copies.
Along with the criminal investigation, litigation is pending that involves the tapes, Leahey said, and the housing corporation has “evidentiary obligations” related to the hard drives.
Donald Abbey, a California real estate magnate and alumnus of the chapter, has sued the fraternity, seeking more than $10 million he says he loaned it to renovate the property and help its finances.
Kistler said if the fraternity brothers who voluntarily relinquished the recordings had kept a copy, it would not have been subject to grand jury secrecy rules.