All involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and simple assault charges against the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and members accused in the death of Timothy Piazza were dismissed Friday morning at the Centre County Courthouse.
Piazza, 19, was pronounced dead Feb. 4 at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center after several reported falls at the Beta fraternity house the evening of Feb. 2 and the morning of Feb. 3. He had taken part in a fraternity bid acceptance celebration, during which he had reportedly been made to drink large quantities of alcohol. Fraternity members waited 12 hours before seeking medical attention for Piazza.
After several weeks of investigation by a Centre County Grand Jury, almost 1,100 charges were filed against the Alpha Upsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi and 18 fraternity members suspected of taking part in the bid acceptance night.
District Judge Allen Sinclair, who has presided over the preliminary hearing since June, noted the “monthslong proceeding” on his arrival in the courtroom. He announced he would simply be reading off the name, docket and decision on the charges.
In a flurry of names, Sinclair announced the dismissal of the most serious counts — manslaughter and assault — while binding over many of the counts of reckless endangerment, hazing and alcohol-related charges. Most fraternity members facing single charges, such as tampering with evidence, had them dismissed.
The Alpha Upsilon chapter, fraternity president Brendan Young, Daniel Casey, Jonah Neuman, Nick Kubera, Michael Bonatucci, Gary Dibileo, Luke Visser and Joseph Sala all faced manslaughter charges. With the exception of the fraternity itself, they all also faced aggravated assault and simple assault charges. Ten other members faced charges ranging from reckless endangerment and hazing to tampering with evidence and consumption of alcohol by a minor.
The charges that were bound over now move to the county Court of Common Pleas and toward trial.
Defense attorneys met with the media after the rulings, some noting their clients’ relief that the most serious charges were behind them.
Attorney Michael Engle, who represented Gary Dibileo, said he and his colleges were “thrilled” with the rulings, saying he believed Sinclair made the right call.
“We’re cautiously optimistic about moving on with the rest of the case,” Engle said. “It’s still a long road to go forward.”
While Dibileo was not available for comment, Engle said his client was feeling mixed emotions — having not lost sight that a young man had died in this situation.
Dibileo “doesn’t consider himself a winner in this process,” Engle said.
Attorney Karen Muir, representing Braxton Becker, said she believed Sinclair made the right decision regarding her client, but doesn’t feel like he’s “quite out of the woods yet.”
Muir referred to District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller’s revelation that it is believed video footage from the basement of the fraternity house during the party was deleted from surveillance equipment before it was given to police.
State College police Detective David Scicchitano testified on Aug. 11 that video footage from the basement of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house had existed but was later believed to have been intentionally deleted. Parks Miller later said that the video equipment itself is in the hands of the FBI and a forensic report is expected.
Muir stated that in a separate hearing, it was alleged that the members who were in the house at the time police came for the equipment are believed to be the ones who deleted the footage. This group reportedly included Becker.
Muir said it’s her belief that another charge could be coming down the line.
Becker also has a separate drug case. He was charged with seven counts of manufacture, delivery or possession with intent to distribute and three counts of criminal use of communication facilities, both felonies, after selling drugs to an informant. A search warrant served on the Beta house found drugs, money and paraphernalia. The arrest happened two weeks after Piazza’s death.
Theodore Simon, representing Luke Visser, thanked the court for its “absolute searching inquiry” into the facts of the case, noting that the most serious charges were “absolutely unfounded, unwarranted and unjustified.”
He stated that the court legally and factually “eviscerated” the commonwealth’s claims, saying he will continue to push for the dismissal of remaining charges.
Parks Miller said she plans on refiling the charges, explaining that when the commonwealth feels a magisterial district judge commits an “error of law,” the charges may be refiled to have a different judge hear the case.
She said the FBI is still looking into video evidence, and additional charges are likely to come from that. She declined to comment further, citing that it is an ongoing investigation.
Parks Miller also denied her belief that the charges were an “overreach,” noting that they were developed by a grand jury over the course of the investigation.
The Piazza family declined to make comments, but their attorney, Tom Kline, told the media that the rulings were not “some kind of victory.”
“This case is about when is it going to stop in America — the craziness, the permissiveness, the excessiveness, the debauchery, the depravity — that goes on in a fraternity house like we saw on the video tape,” he said.
The rulings, he said, forward the ability for the video to be seen by a jury. He stated his and the Piazza’s support for the prosecution in the refiling of charges and the importance to see justice is achieved.
“(Seeing) seven individuals charged with recklessly endangering their son’s life gives them no joy,” Kline said. “But what does give them is the satisfaction in knowing that their son’s death can be meaningful, and the meaning can come from seeing justice.
“Justice means more than punishment,” he said. “It means deterrence as well.”