No parent should have to go through this, Jim Piazza says
Three former Penn State fraternity brothers who were charged after a pledge’s death have received jail sentences.
Centre County Judge Brian Marshall set minimum sentences Tuesday ranging from 30 days to three months for Michael Bonatucci, Luke Visser and Joshua Kurczewski, all former brothers of Beta Theta Pi who were investigated after Timothy Piazza’s alcohol-fueled death in February 2017.
Of about one dozen former fraternity brothers sentenced in connection with the matter, only Bonatucci, Visser and Kurczewski have been ordered to serve jail time, although others have yet to hear their sentences. Marshall also sentenced former member Joseph Sala on Tuesday, giving him three months of house arrest.
Defense attorneys wouldn’t immediately comment on potential appeals.
“Today was a significant step forward in the long road to justice for the parents of Tim Piazza with the sentencing of three individuals to prison for admitted conspiracy to haze their son,” Piazza family attorney Tom Kline said.
Jim and Evelyn Piazza both read a statement Marshall before the sentencings. They described the difficulty of living without their son and the “death sentence” that they said was handed down by former brothers.
Jim Piazza said the men were “individual players in a larger cast, but they knew the script,” while Evelyn Piazza said she looks forward to sleeping because her dreams are the only time she can see her son.
Kline said they remain committed to eradicating hazing.
Marshall called Timothy Piazza’s death an “unspeakable tragedy.” The judge also commended the Piazzas for their work against hazing, which he said helps communities better understand the problem.
Kurczewski, a 20-year-old from Erie who attends college in Ohio, pleaded guilty in January to one count of conspiracy to commit hazing, one count of hazing and one count of furnishing liquor to a minor.
He helped set up the beer pong station in the campus fraternity’s basement, carried a case of beer into the room and gave a beer to 10 pledges — including Piazza — Deputy Attorney General Megan Madaffari wrote in her memo filed March 28.
Kurczewski was also present at the bottom of the stairs when Piazza fell and watched as other brothers carried his unconscious body up the steps, Madaffari wrote.
“After witnessing the fall, (Kurczewski) continued to partake in the evening’s activities,” Madaffari wrote. “He was present in the Great Hall and observed several other brothers struggle to put a backpack on a shirtless Piazza. (Kurczewski) stood there for several minutes, watching as other brothers observed and examined Piazza, who was still lifeless on the couch.”
Kurczewski’s active participation and “coordinated hazing” was a clear link to Piazza’s death, Madaffari wrote. She also argued Kurczewski knew Piazza consumed a large amount of alcohol, had fallen down the stairs and was unconscious — and had witnessed the “backpacking” of Piazza — and yet “did nothing.”
“Penn State University devotes tremendous resources to ensuring that all incoming students are fully educated about the dangers of (alcoholic) behavior,” Madaffari wrote. “Kurczewski was provided with everything he needed to know in order to avoid becoming an integral part of the events that proved fatal for Piazza, or to intervene in time to save his life. He chose to do neither.”
Kurczewski’s attorney, Jeffrey Veitch, responded Tuesday by sending his condolences to the Piazza family for an “unimaginable loss.”
He also pushed back at Madaffari’s assertion that the charges to which Kurczewski pleaded guilty had anything to do with Piazza, saying the attorney general’s office was “stuck with the deal they made.”
In the pre-sentence investigation report, Kurczewski admitted to smoking marijuana “a few months ago,” which violated his bail conditions. Marshall said the admission “disturbs me.”
Marshall sentenced Kurczewski to three to nine months in the Centre County Correctional Facility and ordered him to pay a $2,250 fine, serve 100 hours of community service and complete one year of probation.
The jail sentence is scheduled to begin May 17.
Bonatucci, a 21-year-old from Woodstock, Georgia, pleaded guilty in January to three counts of hazing and one count of conspiracy to commit hazing.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Andrew Notaristefano said Bonatucci operated the beer shotgun station with former brother Nicholas Kubera, but also credited him for showing remorse in the letter he wrote to Marshall.
The past two years of Bonatucci’s life were “the most tumultuous and traumatic of my life,” he wrote.
“However, I realize that all the stress and worry that has occurred is entirely my fault,” Bonatucci wrote. “I feel terrible for the burden I’ve brought on to the people closest to me. Nevertheless, I take full responsibility for my conduct and I am truly sorry for my actions.”
Bonatucci’s attorney, Rocco Cipparone, said Bonatucci is the “nicest, kindest and least obtrusive person I’ve ever met.”
In a sentencing memo filed March 26, Cipparone said Bonatucci — who is now enrolled at Kennesaw State University after taking a disciplinary withdrawal from his “dream school” — did not know Timothy Piazza and left before Piazza fell down the fraternity’s steps.
The memo included 12 letters that spoke to Bonatucci’s character. A social services caregiver, the general manager of the pizza restaurant at which Bonatucci works, a corrections officer, family friends and his immediately family were among those to send letters to Marshall.
Parents Nicholas and Barbara Bonatucci wrote in part about the emotional and financial exhaustion brought by the case.
“We are amazed that Michael holds no ill will toward anyone in this process. He possesses a maturity and kindness that neither of us seems able to exhibit,” the Bonatuccis wrote. “At a time when we should be trying to help him, the opposite is true. His quiet grace has been a model for us on how to act. He is showing us the way.”
Marshall sentenced Bonatucci to 30 days to six months in the county jail and ordered him to pay a $1,750 fine, serve 100 hours of community service and complete two years of probation.
Visser, a 21-year-old from Encinitas, California, pleaded guilty in December to six counts of hazing and one count of conspiracy to commit hazing.
Visser’s conduct was “as excessive, outrageous and widespread” as any other former fraternity brother’s, Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Zarallo said.
He argued Visser took “tremendous glee” in tracking down pledges to serve them alcohol. Video was played from the night of the party, which showed Visser taking a photograph of Piazza on the couch.
“It seemed like he was having too much fun to be bothered,” Zarallo said.
Visser’s attorney, Theodore Simon, countered by saying the incident has has “rocked (Visser) to his core.” That has led to depression, atrial fibrillation, moral guilt and education efforts at his former high school, Simon said.
Because of Visser’s mental and physical condition, Simon said a term of incarceration would not be appropriate and worried him that “something really tragic might happen.” Jim Piazza exited the courtroom immediately after Simon’s statement.
Much like Kurczewski, Visser had to answer Marshall’s questions about smoking marijuana. Visser used the substance as a “stress reductor,” Simon said, and it’s legal in California.
Visser apologized to the Piazza family, saying Timothy’s death “crushed me mentally, physically and spiritually.”
Marshall said he did not recall a former fraternity brother with Visser’s remorse. The judge sentenced him to two to six months in the county jail and ordered him to pay $2,500 in fines, serve 100 hours of community service and complete three years of probation.
Sala, a 20-year-old from Erie, pleaded guilty in January to three counts of hazing and one count of conspiracy to commit hazing.
There was no remorse in Sala’s 13-page sentencing memo, said Notaristefano, who rejected Sala’s stated belief that the bid-acceptance night was a university-sanctioned event.
Sala’s attorney — and godfather — Peter Sala said the case was a “travesty and a tragedy.” He said it was a “travesty of justice” that former live-in fraternity adviser and Penn State football athletic trainer Tim Bream was not charged.
The pre-sentence investigation revealed Sala smoked marijuana, which Peter Sala said occurred in Canada, where the substance is legal.
Marshall deemed that to be a bail violation before sentencing him to three months of house arrest and ordering him to pay a $1,750 fine, serve 100 hours of community service and complete two years of probation.