In 2017, a wide, bright spotlight focused on the intersection of two problems happening on college campuses across the country: drinking and hazing.
Centre County became the poster community for the worst outcome when a party turned deadly.
It started on Feb. 2, a Thursday night, when Timothy Piazza, a 19-year-old Penn State sophomore, was invited to pledge Beta Theta Pi, the fraternity university administrators would later say was their example of the best on campus.
Piazza went to a party with other pledges. A grand jury presentment would later detail the night, the 18 drinks in a hazing gauntlet of various alcohols and multiple falls down the stairs.
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The first fall — “hair first” according to texts — happened around 11 p.m. There was 12 hours of speculation, frat-house triage like backpacking him so he wouldn’t roll on his back and choke on vomit and striking him in the abdomen where doctors said he was already bleeding internally. Then there was a 911 call around 11 a.m. Feb. 3.
Piazza would die the next day in Hershey. The coroner ruled it an accident.
The criminal case
Police and the district attorney’s office didn’t leave it there.
The investigation started immediately. State College police were collecting evidence from the Alpha Upsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi’s house at 220 N. Burrowes Road on Feb. 6.
Then-DA Stacy Parks Miller would not confirm initially that the case was being presented to an investigating grand jury she had requested in 2015, although she did hit back at reports other attorneys were making to the media. The final confirmation came May 5, when she announced the charges.
The fraternity was charged with offenses from manslaughter to furnishing alcohol to hazing. A total of 18 members were charged with an assortment of crimes. Two waived an appearance in court. After a preliminary hearing that lasted through the summer, District Judge Allen Sinclair rendered his decision for the others.
Many of the charges were bound over for trial, but four of the fraternity members had their charges entirely disappear, while the most serious for others — manslaughter and assault — were dismissed. Parks Miller vowed to refile and ask for a new judge. She did in November, filing more charges that bring the total number of frat members to 26.
New DA Bernie Cantorna announced he would recuse himself from the prosecution due to unspecified conflicts of interest.
But preliminary hearings have been delayed. A Nov. 27 order by Judge Katherine Oliver on behalf of President Judge Pamela Ruest holds the cases in limbo until another order is filed.
The surveillance video
Video from the Beta house was evidence in the grand jury investigation, establishing the timeline of the party.
The video was turned over on Feb. 6, but a month later, the “housing corporation” — the Alpha Epsilon alumni who managed the house — were suing the police to recover the two DVRs and the surveillance footage.
Parks Miller, who wasn’t named in the suit, pushed back, and for a time, the momentum was on Alpha Epsilon’s side. Judge Thomas Kistler ordered a copy of the footage turned over. Alpha Epsilon said it was incomplete and had been altered after it was taken. They asked for Parks Miller to be held in contempt.
Kistler asked both the prosecution and the fraternity to hire video experts to consult on making copies of the video data for all of the defendants. Before that could happen, though, things changed. Kistler decided the criminal charges made a difference and the surveillance didn’t have to be turned over.
The video came up again when the additional charges were filed in November. Parks Miller said the FBI had helped restore portions of the surveillance, which had been deliberately deleted.
The money man
While the housing corporation was trying to recover the tape, Donald Abbey was trying to recover the house. A Beta and Penn State alumni, Abbey said he put up millions to bring the house back to its former glory after members damaged it and the university suspended it.
According to a lawsuit he filed in Centre County, the amount is between $8 million and $10 million, and also includes expenses to recolonize the fraternity. There was one catch and the lawsuit is built on it: they had to remain a Beta Theta Pi fraternity. They didn’t, being permanently banned by the university in March.
The two sides have met in court twice, with the housing corporation twice coming out ahead as Oliver ruled against Abbey’s motions for preliminary judgment and an injunction to stop the renting of rooms in the house without proper permits.
But now the housing corporation has until Jan. 8 to file a written response to Abbey’s latest move, a motion to compel the fraternity to respond to interrogatories and requests for documents, according to an order from Oliver.
Abbey’s attorneys filed another suit the same day as that motion, one that also involved the video. Abbey is suing the housing corporation directors on behalf of the alumni members, claiming breach of fiduciary duty. Abbey also alleges the housing corporation president Bill Cassidy was behind the deletion of the video.
The university response
The university suspended the chapter immediately, and then took action against the entire Greek community, cracking down on all fraternity and sorority activities for the rest of the semester before ending Beta Theta Pi’s tenure on campus, a history that started in 1988, according to the fraternity’s magazine.
It went beyond that, too. After the charges were announced, President Eric Barron said he was committed to finding a way to address hazing and other fraternity issues.
“I never want to do this ever again,” he said at the Penn Stater before the May trustees meeting.
Less than a month later, the trustees gathered again to vote on and announce a restructure of discipline and responsibility for the Greek letter organizations, with the university taking point instead of the four self-governing student oversight groups, including the Interfraternity Council, which was specifically singled out by the grand jury for its failures.
The university has stepped up its policing of parties and placed limits on how and when fraternities and sororities can recruit.
The effect has been felt by a number of fraternities. Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims said 13 fraternities have been disciplined in the past two years, with a number of them facing suspensions since Beta Theta Pi’s ban, including Sigma Alpha Mu for violations over Parents Weekend.
Penn State, the IFC and the fraternities were the focus of their own round of data released by the grand jury in December. Parks Miller called the IFC “a joke and a catastrophe.”
The future of prosecution
The grand jury report took Penn State to task for failing to increase punishment on habitual offenders. Of the fraternities that have been disciplined, most are not first time rule-breakers.
At the same time, most have also been subject to the Centre County Court of Common Pleas discipline as well as that of the university’s. Of 53 fraternities at Penn State, 34 had faced criminal charges over the past 20 years, with a total of 103 court cases. Beta Theta Pi had been charged three times, all for alcohol violations.
Parks Miller addressed that before she left office Friday.
“There’s no deterrent,” she said.
Under the law, furnishing alcohol is a third-degree misdemeanor. Parks Miller said that means the law is limited in the kind of penalty it can impose, no matter how many times a fraternity might commit the same infraction. Flip through the guilty pleas and sentences for the various houses and a pattern emerges: $500 and one day of community service per member.
“It needs to be changed,” she said.
Increasing the penalties for both furnishing and hazing were also recommended by the grand jury. Parks Miller would like to see it tied to the result, meaning if someone dies as a result of furnishing alcohol at a party or because of a hazing activity, the participants could face felonies.
A national problem
But if Penn State fraternities didn’t necessarily learn their lesson after Piazza’s death, they weren’t alone. Fraternities at three other U.S. colleges also had fraternity-related fatalities in 2017.
In September, Maxwell Gruver, 18, died following a hazing ritual at Phi Delta Theta at Louisiana State. In November, Andrew Coffey, 20, died at a Pi Kappa Phi house party at Florida State.
A few weeks after Coffey’s death at FSU, 20-year-old Texas State pledge Matthew Ellis died following initiation into Phi Kappa Psi.
Both Gruver and Coffey had blood alcohol levels higher than the almost .40 percent that Piazza’s was estimated to have been at the time of his fall.
According to The Economist, more than 200 college students have died from hazing since 1838, a time period 17 years older than Penn State. Forty of those deaths — about 20 percent — have come in the past 10 years.