8 Fraternity Members Charged With Involuntary Manslaughter in Hazing Death of Penn State Student

Penn State students play frisbee in front of Old Main on campus on November 11, 2011 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

A Penn State fraternity and eight of its members were charged Friday with involuntary manslaughter in the hazing death of a student, the local district attorney’s office said.

Timothy J. Piazza, 19, of Lebanon, New Jersey, died February 4, two days after he was injured while pledging the Beta Theta Pi fraternity.

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller announced the charges Friday after a county grand jury investigation. Piazza had toxic levels of alcohol in his body and was badly injured in a series of falls, authorities said.

The fraternity, the grand jury said, “cultivated such a permissive atmosphere regarding excessive alcohol consumption, that Timothy Piazza’s death was not simply an unfortunate accident, but was the direct result of encouraged reckless conduct that demonstrated a reckless disregard for human life, or a reckless indifference to the possible consequences of such conduct.”

Penn State President Eric Barron called the series of events that led to the death “sickening and difficult to understand.”

The eight were among 18 fraternity members who were charged in connection with the case. Hundreds of charges were lodged, the largest number of counts against a fraternity in recent history.

The fraternity president was one of the eight charged with involuntary manslaughter. They were also charged — as were 10 other members — with a range of counts including hazing, reckless endangerment, tampering with evidence, and alcohol-related offenses.

The district attorney said Piazza went through a hazing ritual of running from station to station and drinking alcohol at different stops. Eventually, he fell down a set of stairs.

“He was injured and injuries were visible on his stomach. There were people that viewed injuries to his head. They let him lie on a couch. They hovered over him for a number of hours. And as the night progressed it appeared from video we have from the whole incident that his injuries worsened,” the district attorney said in a news conference.

“Throughout the night, Timothy got up and fell more times. In the morning… this young man fell again down those stairs and he laid at the bottom of those stairs for a number of hours. And when they brought him up this last time, he was in dire … need of help.”

The fraternity brothers appeared to be frightened and some searched on Google about what to do for a head injury.

“They literally delayed getting him help. And when they finally did call for help they did not tell anyone that he had fallen,” Miller said. “When he arrived at the hospital it was too late.”

“Senseless tragedy”

The Penn State Interfraternity Council issued a statement saying its “thoughts continue to lie with the Piazza family as the justice process moves forward.” It stressed the importance of leading change that would “prevent a senseless tragedy like this” again.

“We are committed to addressing the critical issues in our fraternity community head on. We have formed stakeholder working groups tasked with developing increased community standards and enhancing student safety. The best way to shift culture is for students, alumni and the university to work together,” the council said.

National IFC President Jud Horras has been very critical of Penn State’s leadership on this issue, and says the university has not taken the critical steps needed to solve this problem.

“It’s significant, yes, very troubling,” Horras said. “This is a terrible situation. I hope it’s a major wake up call that this behavior can’t be tolerated.”

Horras said he is meeting with the Penn State president next month.

“We have known about concerns and challenges there for quite some time. They’ve had alcohol concerns, hazing concerns, drug abuse. There have been a lot of concerns at Penn State,” he said.

“The challenge is that the solution lies in getting the students to take ownership of the community and govern more effectively. They have to have ownership in the expectations set and their willingness to govern each other.”

“Incredibly disheartening”

Beta Theta Pi International Fraternity described the “nature of those charges” as “incredibly disheartening as the organization and its membership continue to grieve Tim’s passing and the pain experienced by his family.”

It said the investigation showed that the behavior of some of the members “was in direct contradiction of the International Fraternity’s expectations and risk management policies, as well as the International Fraternity’s reputation and commitment to character development.”

The fraternity says members were “well educated” on its policy of not tolerating hazing or alcohol abuse “but they are entitled to the presumption of innocence as they face these charges.”

Penn State permanently banned the fraternity from operating a chapter on campus.