Judge tosses most serious charges in Penn State fraternity death

Beta Theta Pi fraternity member Joe Sala arrives for a preliminary hearing at the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte, Pa., on Aug. 31
(Phoebe Sheehan / Associated Press)

A judge on Friday threw out charges of involuntary manslaughter and felony aggravated assault against members of a Penn State fraternity in a pledge’s alcohol hazing-related death, ordering 12 of the defendants to stand trial on lesser counts.

District Justice Allen Sinclair dismissed charges altogether against four of the members of the now-shuttered Beta Theta Pi fraternity. Fourteen fraternity brothers are now headed to trial in the case. Two had previously agreed to waive a preliminary hearing.

Charges remaining range from alcohol violations and hazing to reckless endangerment. The judge bound over hazing and alcohol law charges against the fraternity itself, but dismissed its involuntary manslaughter count.


“Obviously now the teeth have really been taken out of the commonwealth’s case,” said defense attorney Michael Engle, lawyer for Gary DiBileo, 21.

The decision followed a hard-fought, unusually long preliminary hearing in which the defendants and a platoon of defense attorneys wedged into the courtroom fought against allegations that a night of hazing and heavy drinking caused the death of Tim Piazza on Feb. 4.

Centre County Dist. Atty. Stacy Parks Miller said she planned to seek a county judge’s permission to refile involuntary manslaughter charges, and might also attempt to reinstate aggravated assault charges.

She rejected any suggestion she may have overcharged in the case, which was the subject of an investigation by a grand jury that actually brought the charges.

“Was it a grand jury overreach?” Parks Miller said outside the courthouse. “I didn’t make that decision.”

She said she believes that the judge ruled based on an assessment of the defendants’ individual roles, which she called “a huge legal error” in a case she pursued based on a theory of accomplice liability. Sinclair declined to comment about the case after he ruled.

“Sometimes judges get it wrong — that’s why we have an appeal,” she said.

Defense attorneys said they would challenge any effort to restore the dismissed charges, and will work to whittle down what remains.

“We’re going to challenge any of these charges that were bound over that we feel shouldn’t have been,” said attorney Andy Shubin, whose client Nick Kubera, 19, still faces six counts of reckless endangerment, down from 14, as well as hazing and alcohol law allegations.

Leonard Ambrose, lawyer for Joseph Sala, 19, said there was “no basis for most of the charges.”

“She can refile, but obviously we’re going to contest any refiling,” he said. “She had seven days to make her case.”

Parks Miller said a current FBI attempt to recover suspected deleted video from the Beta Theta Pi security system could produce new evidence, and may warrant additional charges.

She had argued that members of the fraternity pressured Piazza and other pledges to drink heavily, plying them with wine, vodka and beer after a ceremony to mark their decision to pledge the organization.

That pressure included running them through a speed-drinking “gantlet” and directing them to collectively drain a large bottle of vodka.

The house’s security video recorded Piazza, 19, a sophomore engineering student from Lebanon, N.J., appearing intoxicated and being led to a couch after 11 p.m. A few minutes later, he fell head-first down a set of basement stairs and had to be carried back up in an unconscious state.

For several hours members of the fraternity appeared to take halfhearted and even counterproductive measures to tend to their injured friend, pouring liquid on him and strapping on a loaded backpack to prevent him from rolling over and choking on vomit.

In the early morning hours, Piazza was pictured stumbling from the couch to other areas on the vast house’s first floor, including falls into a door and onto a stone floor.

He somehow ended up back in the basement the next morning and was again carried back upstairs to a couch. It took an additional 40 minutes for fraternity members to call an ambulance.

Authorities said Piazza had ingested a dangerous amount of alcohol and suffered severe head and abdominal injuries. He died soon after arriving at a hospital.

Piazza’s parents watched the seven-day hearing from the gallery’s front row, and left the courthouse without commenting. Their civil lawyer, Tom Kline, said they planned to return home and consider that their son won’t be at Penn State’s home football opener on Saturday.

“This is no day for celebration for anyone,” Kline said.

Defense attorneys argued that their clients’ roles were minimal or that their actions did not amount to criminal behavior. They argued the students had little reason to anticipate tragic results from a night that also included an alcohol-fueled social mixer with a sorority group.

Piazza’s “tragic death was an accident, and that’s what the judge saw,” said defense attorney Frank Fina, who represents the fraternity president, Brendan Young, 22. He called the defendants’ experience horrible and said they have been demonized.

Four defendants who faced only a single charge had them dismissed: Joseph Ems, 21, of Philadelphia; Ryan McCann, 22, of Pittsburgh; Lucas Rockwell, 21, of Washington; and Braxton Becker, 21, of Niskayuna, N.Y. Ems had been charged with reckless endangerment, the other three with evidence tampering.

“He’s happy to move on with his life, which has been on hold for about a year,” said Ems’ lawyer, William Brennan. He said Penn State has been “aggressive in their discipline” related to the case.

“Let’s just say he won’t be returning in the fall,” Brennan said.