Timothy Piazza (lost footage of Pennsylvania State University student during fatal fraternity hazing ritual; 2017)
On 2nd February 2017, Pennsylvania State University student Timothy Piazza was participating in a hazing ritual imposed by the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. The hazing would end in tragedy, as after binge drinking as part of "The Gauntlet", Piazza died two days later in Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center from a fractured skull and lacerated spleen inflicted during an inebriated and unconscious state. It is known that surveillance cameras had captured Piazza's final hours, and showed that fellow fraternity brothers had contributed towards his death. Further controversy emerged when it was found some brothers had tried to erase a basement surveillance video of them giving Piazza 18 drinks within fewer than 90 minutes. Additionally, a student filmed Piazza in his compromised state before uploading it to Snapchat.
Timothy John Piazza had graduated from Hunterdon Central Regional High School and became a sophomore mechanical engineering student at Pennsylvania State University. He decided to become a pledge of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity after noting two roommates had joined others. On paper, it appeared his most ideal fraternity to join, as Beta Theta Pi saw Piazza as one of their top picks, with many members also studying engineering or biology. Beta Theta Pi was among several Greek fraternities and sororities and was a source of pride at Pennsylvania State University. However, while Beta Theta Pi was deemed to contain some of the brightest students within the Greek system, this fraternity had a controversial history prior to Piazza's pledge, primarily concerning vandalism, hazing, and excessive alcohol consumption. The vandalism was especially concerning to Donald G. Abbey, a Beta Theta Pi alumnus, who had provided $3.5 million in funding to renovate his former fraternity's house from 2005 to 2007. He was aghast when he learned current members were already causing serious damage to the renovated house. With him also concerned with the rising hazing rituals commencing at the fraternity, Abbey decided to install over 14 CCTV cameras across the house to monitor behaviour and enhance emergency responses.
In 2009, Beta Theta Pi was placed on probation. Members were now forbidden to consume alcohol within the vicinity, and so it became known as a "dry" fraternity. However, this did not deter members from conducting illegal binge drinking hazing rituals onto the fraternity's new and underage pledges during recruitment, often ending in serious consequences. For instance, in 2016, Kordel Davis was a pledge at the fraternity. As with other pledges, he was to undergo binge drinking to prove his worth to other members. After becoming severely intoxicated, Davis fell and suffered a gash to his forehead. After being assisted by brothers to bed, Davis was taken to a private care clinic the morning, where he recovered but suffered a forehead scar. The reason he was taken to a private clinic was to avoid the University Health Services becoming suspicious and potentially detecting hazing. This formed part of the criteria to become a member at this fraternity, thus also allowing future drinking-related hazing to commence without suspicion from external parties.
Death of Timothy Piazza
Thus, on 2nd February 2017, Piazza would undergo the same binge-drinking hazing ritual, nicknamed "The Gauntlet". The Gauntlet tasked each pledge to engage in alcohol consumption of various beverages in quick succession, including beer, vodka, and wine. As demanded, Piazza arrived with 13 other pledges at 21:07 to conduct the ritual. It should be noted that he along with 11 others were under the minimum drinking age of 21. Piazza became extremely inebriated within a short time span; not only was he provided 18 drinks within 1 hour and 22 minutes, he also had been taking medication to tackle depression which can worsen the effect of alcohol. It was later found that Piazza may have had a blood alcohol content level of .36. To put into context, one will violate the United States' drink-drive limit if their blood alcohol concentration level is 0.08 or more. The pledges, all clearly intoxicated, then returned to the living room. Piazza was already in a concerning state by this point, staggering in a hunched over position.
After sitting down on the couch, he reluctantly stood up upon being requested to by fraternity brothers. He staggered towards the front door, but his inebriated state prevented him from opening it properly and decided instead to open another door. This door was for the basement, with Piazza not noticing the flight of stairs that led to it. Unbalanced, he fell down the basement stairs, rendering him not unconscious, but also rupturing his spleen that caused blood to pour into his abdomen. Members Luke Visser and Greg Rizzo were the first on the scene, Rizzo immediately realising the severity of the situation. He texted the group "Tim Piazza might actually be a problem. He fell 15 feet down a flight of steps, hair-first, going to need help." Four brothers carried an unconscious Piazza back to the living room, his torso exposed and showing a bruise indicating a damaged spleen. They performed a series of tests to determine the engineering student's status. Whereas Rizzo conducted a sternum rub harnessed by EMTs for determining consciousness, other students were less sophisticated, including throwing beer and a shoe at Piazza. It was clear from the students that Piazza was more than just unconscious.
Other brothers arrived to prevent Piazza from making movements. Jonah Neuman attached a backpack containing several books onto Piazza, also to stop him from potentially choking on his own vomit. However, when Davis appeared and tried to assist Piazza, an angered Neuman threw him against a wall. Davis, realising the situation that he himself was in the previous year, retreated in order to find a club officer. Piazza was now making involuntary movements, and after two students fell on him after engaging in drunken wrestling nearby, he began twitching and vomiting. Daniel Casey and Joseph Ems, the latter frustrated with Piazza, responded by slapping the stricken student, the latter allegedly contributing towards Piazza's spleen becoming "shattered". Piazza would momentarily regain consciousness on a few occasions. In the first, he rolled off the couch and unstrapped the backpack, only for him to fall and slam onto the hardwood floor. By 03:49 am, he awoke completely alone, him clutching his abdomen as he fell once more, leaving him unconscious for another hour. After having regained consciousness once more, he succeeded at reaching his feet and staggered towards the front door. Suddenly he fell onto an iron railing, inflicting further head trauma.
By 6:49 am, Piazza was still unable to leave, and rested in visible pain on the couch. Another pledge, Qobi Quainoo, came in and noticed the engineering student's predicament. Instead of assisting, Quainoo decided to film Piazza for a Snapchat video before leaving. Piazza again managed to stagger around, only to end up falling down to the basement, this time with nobody around to assist him for the next three hours. By the time three brothers arrived, the unconscious Piazza had a bloody face and was struggling to breathe, with him also being unnaturally cold. Fraternity brothers carried him back to the couch. But before they phoned 911, some concerned with the legal ramifications of Piazza's condition decided to clear up evidence by trying (and failing) to dress up the student and unclench his fingers, with another also clearing up blood. A surveillance video was also erased. At 10:48 am, 911 was called, Piazza being taken initially to Mount Nittany Medical Center, only to be sent to Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center for emergency treatment.
Surgeons would determine that Piazza suffered from a ruptured spleen which spilled around 80% of his blood into his abdomen, a class IV hemorrhagic shock and a swollen brain. Despite attempts to save his life, including by removing half his skull to manage swelling, Piazza passed away on 4th February 2017 from unrecoverable brain damage, aged 19. While he was an organ donor, his organs were so badly damaged by the ordeal that only one kidney could be salvaged and donated. A former Hunterdon Central Regional High School football player, Piazza had also received praise for his volunteer work at the Hunterdon Outreach and his school's Teen Prevention Education Program. He was recalled as having an infectious positive personality and humour, with a zest for life and an ambition to make others happy. He was described as "the kind of person everyone strives to be like".
The Trials and Erased Footage
While a coroner report initially deemed Piazza's death accidental, a police investigation would swiftly commence. In May 2017, 18 Beta Theta Pi members were charged with a variety of crimes, including involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, providing alcohol to someone underage, hazing, and for tampering of evidence. For their alleged integral roles in Piazza's death, six were charged on more than 50 counts, including Daniel Casey (201), Young (200), Neuman (79), Lars Kenyon (52), Michelangelo Schiavone (52), and Nick Kubera (over 50). By May 2017, 1,098 charges were filed. Young, as the fraternity's President, had realised the legal consequences he alone could face, texting his girlfriend "I don't think you fully comprehend the situation; he looked fucking dead. At the end of the day, I'm accountable for it all, I'll be the one going to court, paying for attorney, and maybe put in jail." Young would allegedly instruct Casey to conduct evidence tampering, by instructing pledges to clear up the basement and remove any signs of alcohol. Casey also allegedly tasked Kenyon to delete a GroupMe thread to avoid possible screenshots and other evidence from publicly leaking. Prosecutors believed Young, Casey, and Kenyon masterminded a cover-up of the case.
However, the biggest case of evidence tampering came when the State College police and the FBI discovered a basement surveillance video had been manually erased by a Beta Theta Pi member. After the footage was recovered, crucial evidence showing more members providing at least 18 drinks within a short time span was uncovered, as well as other key movements that occurred within the basement that confirmed Piazza was always handed alcohol by the brothers rather than obtaining his own. Thus, a further 12 students were charged on 14th November 2017 for their roles in Piazza's death and the subsequent cover-up. It was believed by prosecutors that Braxton Becker deleted the video, as he was the one responsible for transferring it to the police. A "clear all data" command was apparently logged when Becker was managing the video, but his defence argued there was no evidence of this. He was later acquitted of tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice but was found guilty of hindering apprehension.
Ultimately, after more than 1,098 charges were filed, many would later be dropped. This included all involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault charges, resulting in about 14 members now being charged with a total of 328 counts by November 2017. Hank Nuwer, a prominent anti-hazing campaigner and expert, claimed it was exceptionally difficult to achieve tough sentences for hazing-related crimes. Therefore, it was considered remarkable when Michael Bonatucci, Luke Visser, and Joshua Kurczewski, were all given jail time upon agreeing a plea deal which saw them found guilty of hazing in exchange for dropping more serious counts. Joseph Sala also pleaded guilty and received several months of house arrest. By January 2019, 13 guilty pleas were made, most receiving probation, fines, and community service. Only five defendants, including Young, were still facing charges.
As of 2023, Pennsylvania v. Alpha Upsilon et al. remains ongoing, with two defendants, Young and Casey, having yet to be tried after appealing that evidence on their mobile phones and elsewhere should be suppressed. Civil lawsuits have also been filed by the Piazza family against 42 individuals, 25 having been settled by March 2021. In the State of Pennsylvania, a new law, titled The Timothy J. Piazza Anti-Hazing Law was approved and introduced in August 2021. Now, cases resulting in serious injury or death became a third-degree felony, with those convicted likely to expect a maximum of five years imprisonment and a maximum $15,000 fine.
Some experts believed the case was a crucial turning point concerning fraternities in America, bringing attention to hazing rituals, which are known to have killed at least one student annually since 1959, with a further six alongside Piazza dying in 2017 alone. Pennsylvania State University was accused of turning a blind eye regarding the extent of hazing rituals conducted among its fraternities and sororities, with many former pledges stating the acts occurred behind closed doors. The University imposed several restrictions that saw Beta Theta Pi be permanently banned as a chapter, recruitment moved from fall to spring semester, stricter enforcement preventing underage drinking, and potentially enforcing that all Greek-letter organisations must be completely dry if further abuse occurs.
In total, around 13 hours of Piazza's final moments were recorded. About three would later be shown in court, including the aforementioned 90-minute binge drinking and other videos where he was described as looking "like a corpse". While reports such as from CBS indicated that the tapes' contents could have been publicly released, this has not materialised. Considering the disturbing nature of the footage, the fact it is still influential in ongoing court cases, and out of respect for Piazza and his relatives, the chances of the surveillance footage being publicly released is intensely slim. Nevertheless, courtroom sketches of key highlights were shown in media reports. Additionally, Scicchitano testified that Quainoo's video, while uploaded to Snapchat, was promptly deleted by the latter. It therefore also remains missing.
- The Fierberg National Law Group providing a detailed overview of Piazza's life, Pennsylvania State University's Greek fraternities, and the aftermath. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- The Atlantic providing a detailed account on the events that transpired. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- The Tab's tribute to Piazza. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- 5th May 2017 report listing the charges of those involved and findings of fact concerning the case. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- First Centre County Investigating Grand Jury report concerning the case. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- Pennsylvania State University reporting on Donald G. Abbey providing funding for the Beta Theta Pi's chapter house renovation. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- Penn Live reporting on on a lawsuit being dismissed against the Penn State fraternity house board, and noting Abbey's criticisms of handling of alcohol and hazing. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- Medium noting Piazza had been taking antidepressants. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- Windwardway detailing the effects of mixing alcohol with antidepressants. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- FindLaw explaining the United States drink-drive limit. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- CNN reporting on Schiavone testifying that Quainoo deleted his Snapchat video of Piazza. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- NBC Philadelphia reporting on the FBI recovering an initially erased basement surveillance video, which led to more charges being filed. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- My Central Jersey reporting on 12 more students being charged after a basement surveillance video was recovered. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- Associated Press reporting on the initial charges brought upon in May 2017. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- State College noting that 1,098 charges were filed by May 2017. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- State College reporting on Becker being accused and later acquitted of evidence tampering, although he would be found guilty of hindering apprehension. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- Associated Press reporting on the most serious counts being dropped. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- Penn Live reporting on three members being jailed, and another facing house arrest for their roles in Piazza's death. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- Onward State reporting on 13 guilty pleas being accepted by January 2019. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- My Central Jersey reporting on the guilty pleas being made, and noting only five defendants were still facing charges by January 2019. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- Archived Daily Collegian reporting on defendants requesting that evidence in their trial should be made confidential. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- Penn Live reporting on Young and Casey's trials being delayed after filing an appeal that evidence should be suppressed. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- Penn Live reporting on 42 civil lawsuits being filed, 25 having been settled by March 2021. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- Associated Press reporting on The Timothy J. Piazza Anti-Hazing Law coming into effect. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- CNN reporting on the case being considered a "turning point" for fraternities in America. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- Hank Nuwer Unofficial Hazing Clearinghouse listing confirmed hazing-related deaths in the US from 1838-1999, noting that a death has been recorded annually since 1959. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- Hank Nuwer Unofficial Hazing Clearinghouse listing confirmed hazing-related deaths in the US from 2000-present, including six other deaths in 2017 aside from Piazza. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- Yahoo! News reporting on former pledges claiming that hazing rituals at Pennsylvania State University were occurring behind closed doors. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- Pennsylvania State University imposing several restrictions regarding its fraternities and sororities following the Piazza case. Retrieved 18th Jan '23
- CBS News reporting on the "gruesome" footage and claiming it could have been publicly released. Retrieved 18th Jan '23