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Security camera shows Penn State frat pledge’s final hours in hazing ritual
PHILADELPHIA — Penn State sophomore Tim Piazza spent his final hours dragging his bruised and bloodied body across a beer-soaked fraternity house floor, stumbling down stairs into iron railings, and lying drunk and unconscious as head injuries and internal bleeding slowly sapped his life away. All the while, fraternity brothers did little to help him.
They stepped over his body. They slapped, hit, and doused him with water, hoping to rouse him. One, sitting on a couch nearby, documented his struggles for Snapchat.
No one called 911.
Those disturbing scenes — caught on security camera footage and described in agonizing, minute-by-minute detail in a grand jury presentment released Friday — now form the backbone of prosecutors’ case against the 18 members of Pennsylvania State University’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity, charged with complicity in Piazza’s death.
Though the recording does not show the 19-year-old pledge’s fatal falls down a flight of fraternity house steps during a Feb. 2 pledge initiation ritual just off campus, its depictions of the aftermath may be the most crucial piece of evidence in one of the largest hazing prosecutions in the nation’s history.
“It’s unusual to have a crime captured from beginning to end,” said Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller at a news conference announcing the charges last week.
The footage described in the presentment lays out a harrowing account of Piazza’s final hours starting just after 9 p.m., when the fresh-faced sophomore arrived at the fraternity house for what was expected to be one of the final hurdles he would face before being granted full membership as a Beta Theta Pi brother.
Dressed in a blazer, a buttoned-down shirt and khakis, Piazza and the 13 other pledges expected to participate in a hazing ritual known as “the Gauntlet.” One member would later testify that pledges guzzled vodka, shotgunned beers, drank from wine bags, and played multiple rounds of beer pong at a series of alcohol stations, where they downed four to five drinks in two-minute spans.
By 10:30 p.m., Piazza was clearly drunk. According to the presentment, security footage shows at least two other fraternity members trying to assist him as he staggered through the rooms of the house. He stumbled out of the camera’s sightline, but moments later cameras captured another fraternity member pointing agitatedly toward the basement stairs.
The next time Piazza is seen on the footage, the grand jury said, four young men had dragged his limp form back up the stairs, stripped off his shirt, and placed him on a nearby couch. With his head hanging low and his eyes closed, Piazza appeared unconscious and unmoving, a livid bruise growing on his side.
A debate quickly broke out about what to do. Some members sought to wake Piazza by pouring water over his face. Others sat on his legs to prevent him from rolling over, or slapped him, fearing he might lapse into a coma. Even as they argued over the drunken pledge, the presentment reports, another young man could be seen in the background of the video falling down a flight of three stairs.
But nearly a half-hour after Piazza’s fall, Kordel Davis, a newly initiated fraternity member, had had enough. Security footage described in the presentment shows him growing increasingly agitated in his discussions with his fraternity brothers.
He would later testify before the grand jury that he insisted that Piazza needed immediate medical attention. He screamed for someone to call 911, but the others shouted him down.
“In response, (member) Jonah Neuman rose from the couch, shoved Davis into an opposite wall and instructed (him) to leave,” the presentment states.
Davis turned elsewhere for help, but fraternity vice president Ed Gilmartin allegedly told him that he was crazy and that his opinion meant little against those of fraternity members majoring in kinesiology or biology.
By 1 a.m., Piazza was twitching and throwing up. Concerned that he might suffocate in his own vomit, a few fraternity members flipped him on his stomach and pinned him to the couch with a backpack filled with heavy textbooks, to prevent him from rolling over.
Members would later testify that the strategy was one they had used so often with overly intoxicated students, they had a name for it: “backpacking.”
As the hours dragged on, the interest in Piazza waned. Grand jurors described the young men as displaying less and less concern over the unconscious pledge.
At one point, a fraternity member drunkenly tackled another, landing on top of Piazza’s prone form. When Piazza fell off the couch, a group dragged him back up, slammed him down, and smacked his bruised abdomen hard, the presentment states.
Though the party began to die down by 3 a.m., security cameras kept rolling, capturing another four agonizing hours of the ailing Piazza struggling to move on his own.
At 4, Piazza tried to stand from his position curled up on the fraternity house floor, only to fall face-first into the hardwood floor. An hour later, he staggered into the lobby, stumbled, and hit his head on an iron railing before collapsing once more.
Grand jurors recounted other video footage from just after 5 a.m. showing a prone Piazza, clutching at his sides, as a fraternity member steps twice over his body — once on his way to grab a drink of water and again on his way back to his room. Another allegedly pulled out his phone to film the struggling Piazza before heading back to bed.
Sometime after 7 a.m., Piazza fell down the basement stairs again.
It wasn’t until three hours later that fraternity members Daniel Erickson and Kyle Pecci found the ailing pledge lying on his back with his arms clenched tight at his sides, breathing heavily and bleeding from a gash on his face.
Still, they did not call 911, the grand jury recounted. Over the course of 42 more minutes, the video footage shows them hauling Piazza back upstairs, shaking him, and attempting to prop his limp body up on the couch. At one point, the men can be seen trying to dress him, but struggling against the stiffness that had set into his limbs, grand jurors said.
Finally, at 10:48 on the morning of Feb. 3 — 11 hours after Piazza’s first fall down the staircase — fraternity member Ryan McCann called an ambulance.
Piazza would die the next day from a ruptured spleen and head injuries sustained during his bender. At the highest point of his drunkenness, medical examiners would later estimate, his blood alcohol level was nearly 0.40 percent — almost five times the legal definition of intoxication.
In the last moments of footage recounted in the grand jury’s report, fraternity members appeared to realize the fatal mistakes they had made.
With Piazza still on the couch and an ambulance on its way, chapter president Brendan Young and vice president Daniel Casey, both of whom now face charges of involuntary manslaughter, arrived to survey the scene.
Collapsing into a seat, Young held his head in his hands. In an exchange quoted in the presentment, a friend would later text him that he shouldn’t blame himself for what happened.
“How can I not?” Young responded. “He looked f----ng dead.”
©2017 The Philadelphia Inquirer