Crime

Trial starts for former Penn State frat brother accused of deleting video from deadly hazing night

Attorney General Josh Shapiro outlines case for charges against Penn State frat members

Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro, on May 1, 2018, discusses differences in charges against former Beta Theta Pi fraternity members being pursued by his office and those originally filed by former Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller.
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Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro, on May 1, 2018, discusses differences in charges against former Beta Theta Pi fraternity members being pursued by his office and those originally filed by former Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller.

About 20 former Beta Theta Pi fraternity brothers have sat in the Centre County Courthouse over the past two years, but the first trial stemming from the investigation into Timothy Piazza’s death started Tuesday.

Former house manager Braxton Becker, 22, is accused of intentionally deleting video from the fraternity’s basement. He is charged with three misdemeanors — tampering with physical evidence, obstructing law enforcement and hindering prosecution.

When police arrived to investigate Piazza’s fall in February 2017, officers asked if there was any video inside the fraternity house. The fraternity’s executive board ushered police toward Becker, who was 100% cooperative, State College police Detective Craig Ripka testified.

Ripka, however, was without knowledge of conversations fraternity members had in the days after Piazza’s death about potentially deleting the video.

Deputy Attorney General Megan Madaffari read to the jurors some of the messages Becker sent to his fellow brothers before police arrived in February, including one that said, “I could see if I could erase last night.”

Police first received two video clips that totaled 21 minutes, Ripka testified. The department wanted more, and arrived two days after Piazza’s death asking for “everything.”

That process could have taken several days, Ripka testified, so the decision was made to disconnect the fraternity’s two DVRs and continue the download at the department.

An unrelated borough police investigation brought officers back to the now defunct fraternity in July 2017. While seeking video for that investigation, officers discovered additional cameras angles in the fraternity basement.

Braxton Becker
Former Beta Theta Pi house manager Braxton Becker, right, arrived at the Centre County Courthouse on Aug. 21 for the first day of the fourth preliminary hearing related to Timothy Piazza’s death. Centre Daily Times, file

Footage was available beginning Feb. 6, 2017, but not from the fraternity’s bid acceptance night that began four nights prior. Madaffari argued the footage was intentionally deleted by Becker because “he knew it was damaging.”

“It was now or never,” Madaffari said during her opening statement. “And he chose now.”

Becker’s lawyer, Karen Muir, countered that neither Ripka nor State College police community relations and crime prevention officer Adam Salyards saw a “Clear All Data” message on the screen as Becker retrieved the video from what resembled a “janitorial closet.”

Ripka and Salyards are “highly trained” to pay attention to details, Muir said during her opening statement, and both testified that a “Clear All Data” message would be cause for concern.

The DVRs were sent to the FBI, which recovered the lost data. The agency’s analysis found that “Clear All Data” was selected at 10:39 a.m., Feb. 6, 2017, “the exact time” that Ripka photographed Becker working with the video system, according to the criminal complaint filed by State College police.

More than a dozen of Becker’s fellow fraternity brothers have pleaded guilty, but those plea agreements were largely for hazing and alcohol violations. Becker and Muir have instead sought a dismissal of the charges against him at every step — of which there were several.

Becker was charged four times throughout the investigation, three of which were for the alleged video deletion. Three different Centre County district judges dismissed the charges initially, but Becker was ultimately sent to trial by District Judge Carmine Prestia Jr. in November.

The trial is scheduled to conclude Friday.

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Bret Pallotto primarily reports on courts and crime for the Centre Daily Times. He grew up in Lewistown and graduated from Lock Haven University.

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