Penn State frat brothers due in court in pledge’s fatal fall
HARRISBURG — Members of a Penn State fraternity facing charges related to the death earlier this year of a pledge after a night of heavy drinking are due in court Monday for a hearing about whether there’s enough evidence to head to trial.
Prosecutors in the case against the now-shuttered Beta Theta Pi chapter and 18 of its members are leaning heavily on video surveillance recordings made the night 19-year-old sophomore engineering student Tim Piazza was injured in a series of falls at the fraternity after a pledge acceptance ceremony that included heavy drinking.
The defendants face a variety of charges, with eight accused of dozens of crimes, including involuntary manslaughter and felony aggravated assault, while five others are accused only of a single count of evidence tampering.
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller says prosecutors will play video in court, and she expects the hearing to last all or most of the day.
Authorities have said members of the fraternity resisted summoning help until well into the next morning.
A grand jury report described how members of the fraternity carried Piazza’s limp body upstairs, poured liquid on him and even slapped him on the face. When one of them argued to call for medical help, he was confronted and shoved into a wall, the grand jury said.
Piazza, of Lebanon, New Jersey, died at a hospital Feb. 4 from traumatic brain injury and had suffered severe abdominal bleeding. His blood-alcohol measured at a dangerous level.
“I believe this is a case where the defendants have been overcharged by the district attorney’s office,” said defense attorney Michael Engle, whose client Gary DiBileo, 21, faces 56 counts, including involuntary manslaughter. “We hope to develop more information during the preliminary hearing process, and beyond, that will demonstrate that many of the charges in this case are just not applicable to the conduct.”
Engle said DiBileo, a junior from Scranton who recently withdrew from Penn State, was said by a witness to have advocated for calling an ambulance at some point.
“It’s a tragedy, but that tragedy does not necessarily mean that Gary is criminally responsible for that young man’s death,” Engle said.
In a May 18 letter to fraternity members, Beta Theta Pi house corporation attorney Mark Bernlohr said he reviewed the tapes and disagreed “with the vast majority of the factual and legal conclusions” prosecutors have reached. Bernlohr said Piazza tripped over two sorority members, causing him to fall down the stairs.
He said active members and pledges “cared for him as though he was simply inebriated and needed to ‘sleep it off.’”
“We believe that there is significant evidence that will show that drinking was not forced … and that the conduct of the active members did not rise to the level of hazing under Pennsylvania law,” wrote Bernlohr, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Parks Miller said in response that Bernlohr was “ignoring completely the basis of liability under criminal law for recklessly causing a death.”
Other defense lawyers said they have not had access to the video.
“I am anxious to see it, and I believe that the video will be subject to individual interpretations,” said attorney Bill Brennan, who represents Joseph Ems Jr., of Philadelphia, charged with one count of reckless endangerment. He cautioned against a rush to judgment.
The grand jury report said that rush chairman Ems, 20, was seen by a witness near a station where pledges were directed to guzzle beer, and was one of four people to strap onto Piazza a backpack loaded with books to prevent him from rolling over. Ems also participated, with two others, in picking up Piazza from the floor in and then slamming him onto a couch, the report said.
Attorney Peter Sala said the 55 charges against his cousin’s son, Joe Sala, 19, of Erie, “don’t fit the conduct. We’ll leave it at that.”
Lawyers for the other defendants either declined comment or did not return phone messages.
Penn State has permanently banned the fraternity, saying the school found “a persistent pattern” of excess drinking, drug use and hazing.