Death at a Penn State Fraternity
Tim Piazza fought for his life for 12 hours before his Beta Theta Pi brothers called 911. By then, it was too late.
At about 3 p.m. on Friday, February 3, Tim Piazza, a sophomore at Penn State University, arrived at Hershey Medical Center by helicopter. Eighteen hours earlier, he had been in the kind of raging good health that only teenagers enjoy. He was a handsome, redheaded kid with a shy smile, a hometown girlfriend, and a family who loved him very much. Now he had a lacerated spleen, an abdomen full of blood, and multiple traumatic brain injuries. He had fallen down a flight of stairs during a hazing event at his fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, but the members had waited nearly 12 hours before calling 911, relenting only when their pledge “looked fucking dead.” Tim underwent surgery shortly after arriving at Hershey, but it was too late. He died early the next morning.
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Every year or so brings another such death, another healthy young college man a victim of hazing at the hands of one of the nation’s storied social fraternities. And with each new death, the various stakeholders perform in ways that are so ritualized, it’s almost as though they are completing the second half of the same hazing rite that killed the boy.
The fraternity enters a “period of reflection”; it may appoint a “blue-ribbon panel.” It will announce reforms that look significant to anyone outside the system, but that are essentially cosmetic. Its most dramatic act will be to shut down the chapter, and the house will stand empty for a time, its legend growing ever more thrilling to students who walk past and talk of a fraternity so off the chain that it killed a guy. In short order it will “recolonize” on the campus, and in a few years the house will be back in business.
The president of the college or university where the tragedy occurred will make bold statements about ensuring there is never another fraternity death at his institution. But he knows—or will soon discover—that fraternity executives do not serve at the pleasure of college presidents. He will be forced into announcing his own set of limp reforms. He may “ban” the fraternity from campus, but since the fraternity will have probably closed the chapter already, he will be revealed as weak.
The media will feast on the story, which provides an excuse to pay an unwarranted amount of attention to something viewers are always interested in: the death of a relatively affluent white suburban kid. Because the culprits are also relatively affluent white suburban kids, there is no need to fear pandering to the racial bias that favors stories about this type of victim. The story is ultimately about the callousness and even cruelty of white men.
The grieving parents will appear on television. In their anger and sorrow, they will hope to press criminal charges. Usually they will also sue the fraternity, at which point they will discover how thoroughly these organizations have indemnified themselves against culpability in such deaths. The parents will try to turn their grief into meaningful purpose, but they will discover how intractable a system they are up against, and how draining the process of chipping away at it is. They will be worn down by the endless civil case that forces them to relive their son’s passing over and over. The ritual will begin to slow down, but then a brand-new pair of parents—filled with the energy and outrage of early grief—will emerge, and the cycle will begin again.
Tim Piazza’s case, however, has something we’ve never seen before. This time the dead student left a final testimony, a vivid, horrifying, and inescapable account of what happened to him and why. The house where he was so savagely treated had been outfitted with security cameras, which recorded his long ordeal. Put together with the texts and group chats of the fraternity brothers as they delayed seeking medical treatment and then cleaned up any traces of a wild party—and with the 65-page report released by a Centre County grand jury, which recommended 1,098 criminal charges against 18 former members and against the fraternity itself—the footage reveals a more complete picture of certain dark realities than we have previously had.
Once again, a student is dead and a family is shattered. And all of us are co-authors of these grim facts, as we grant both the fraternities and their host institutions tax-exempt status and allow them to carry on year after year with little change. Is it time we reconsidered what we’re doing?
In 2004, a Penn State alumnus from the class of 1970 named Donald Abbey visited his old fraternity house, Beta Theta Pi. He had been a star fullback in the early years of the Joe Paterno era, and gone on to become a billionaire real-estate investor and builder in California who remembered the Beta house as a central part of his college experience. But when he visited, he was shocked—it was, he recalled, “repulsive,” and he felt compelled to bring his experience in “repositioning properties” to bear on 220 North Burrowes Road. He would spend a total of $8.5 million on what would be the most extensive renovation of an American fraternity house in history.
Abbey’s taste does not run to the economic or the practical. One of the mansions he built for himself in California, in the San Gabriel Valley, has an underground firing range; a million-gallon, temperature-controlled trout pond; an oak-paneled elevator; and “Venetian plaster masterpieces throughout.” Similarly, his vision for the refurbished Beta house was like something out of a movie about college. (Exterior: the frat where the rich bastards live.) The bathrooms had heated floors, the two kitchens had copper ceilings, the tables were hand-carved mahogany imported from Colombia. At the entrances were biometric fingerprint scanners.
Abbey seems not to have considered why the house might have become so “repulsive” in the first place. A simple trip through the archives of The Daily Collegian might have revealed to him that the Alpha Upsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi was hardly the Garrick Club. This was an outfit in which a warm day might bring the sight of a brother sitting, with his pants pulled down, on the edge of a balcony, while a pledge stood on the ground below, his hands raised as though to catch the other man’s feces. At the very least, this might not have been the crowd for anything requiring a fingerprint.
The renovations were largely complete by the winter of 2007, and almost immediately the members began to trash the house. Abbey was justly furious, and at some point he had at least 14 security cameras installed throughout the public rooms, an astonishing and perhaps unprecedented step. The cameras were in no way secret, and yet the brothers continued to engage in a variety of forbidden acts, including hazing, in clear view of them. In late January 2009, the national fraternity put the chapter on probation. But the young men continued to break the rules. A few weeks later, the chapter’s probation was converted to the more serious “interim suspension.” Incredibly, with the pressure on and the cameras still recording, the behavior continued. By the end of February, the chapter had been disbanded.
The public often interprets the “closing” of a fraternity as a decisive action. In fact, it is really more of a “reopening under new management” kind of process. The national organization grooms a new set of brothers—a “colony”—and trains them carefully so that the bad behavior of the previous group will not be replicated. The first few years typically go very well. Indeed, not two years after the Penn State chapter of Beta Theta Pi reopened in the fall of 2010, it won a Sisson Award, one of the highest honors the national fraternity can confer. But just as typically, the chapter reverts to its previous behavior. Alumni visit their old house and explain how things ought to be done; private Facebook groups and GroupMe chats are initiated among brothers of different chapters, and information about secret hazing rituals is exchanged. This time, when the brothers of the newly reconstituted Beta chapter reverted to type and started hazing, the national organization did not intervene.
I wanted to learn more about the cameras, and also about something called the “Shep Test,” so in June I called the North-American Interfraternity Conference, the trade association for social fraternities, which is located in Carmel, Indiana. I asked to schedule an interview with the CEO, Jud Horras, who was also a Beta, a former assistant secretary of the fraternity’s national organization, and someone who had been intimately involved in the disbanding and recolonization of the Penn State chapter.
In 1998, a year after Tim Piazza was born, Beta Theta Pi launched something it called Men of Principle, intended to be a “culture-reversing initiative.” What culture was it seeking to reverse? This was best answered in the four planks of the campaign. The first was administrative: create “a five-person trained and active advisory team.” The other three were the crux of the matter: commit “to a 100% hazing-free pledge program,” institute “alcohol-free recruitment,” and eliminate the “Shep Test,” which it described as “the rogue National Test.”
The last one caught my attention, so I Googled around to find out what it was. Most fraternity secrets—their handshakes and members’ manuals and rituals—have gone the way of everything else in the time of the internet, and even those customs that members want to hide aren’t too hard to track down. But there really wasn’t anything at all about the Shep Test—except for this, from the national Beta organization:
Some chapters conduct the “Shep Test.” If Francis W. Shepardson, Denison 1882, one of the greatest leaders in our great and good fraternity knew that this practice was named after him he would be disgraced. This act is in direct violation of our third principle and second and third obligations. It contradicts everything Beta Theta Pi stands for.
It seemed to me—based on the fact that I could find nothing else about it—that the Shep Test had truly been eliminated. Or so I thought, until I read the grand jury’s presentment of the Piazza case. Text messages from members’ cellphones had been entered into evidence, and included this exchange between two brothers at the time of the fall 2016 initiation:
casey: We were setting up
torrye: Setting what up?
casey: Like the shep test and the fake branding
casey: I in charge of administering the shep test
torrye: What happens first
casey: Fake branding
And from the next night:
casey: It starting … We have them wait in the boiler room after the shep test until we set up paddling
As people have since explained it to me, the Shep Test itself is little more than a quiz about Beta Theta Pi history, but it’s one part of a night of mind games and physical punishments. A former Beta told me that pledges were held down on a table as a red-hot poker was brought close to their bare feet and they were told they were going to be branded. With pillowcases over their heads, they were paddled, leaving bruises and, on at least one occasion, breaking the skin. They were forced to eat and drink disgusting things, denied sleep, and terrorized in a variety of other ways.
Jud Horras called me back and proposed something surprising: He would fly to Los Angeles for a day to meet with me in the lobby of an airport hotel. I said it was a pity to come all that way and not see the beach, so I would pick him up and take him to breakfast at Hermosa Beach, where he couldn’t shake me if my questions got too difficult. He was coming out to show that he had nothing to hide, but I knew he was not prepared for the hardest question I had for him, which I would return to over and over again: Why hadn’t Beta Theta Pi taken the simple, obvious steps that would have saved Tim Piazza’s life?
Jud Horras is a young man with a wife and a small son and daughter, and if Tim Piazza were alive and well—if he’d gone home to his apartment that night plastered but with a story to tell—I would have fully enjoyed my time with him. He grew up in Ames, Iowa, and spent summers working on a farm—rare for fraternity members, who are more often suburban kids of relative affluence. His parents divorced, and he lived with his father and brother; by his own estimation, he “made mistakes” in high school. When he began at Iowa State, he was a lost young man, arrogant and insecure. But Beta Theta Pi turned his life around. He learned—via, of all things, a college fraternity—how to exert self-control. Mentors—among them Senator Richard Lugar, a fellow Beta, who brought him to Washington as an intern the summer before his senior year—took him under their wing, and Horras’s gratitude to these men is immense. He loves his fraternity the way some men love their church or their country.*
Horras was eager to walk me through a list of talking points that he had written on a yellow legal pad during his flight. He wanted me to understand that changes were coming to the fraternity industry, that the wild drinking could not go on indefinitely. In many regards, our conversation was like other such conversations I’ve had with fraternity executives over the years. He was willing to acknowledge problems in the fraternity, but not to connect certain of its customs to any particular death. At the national level, all fraternities vehemently prohibit hazing, and spend tremendous energy and money trying to combat it. But according to the most comprehensive study of college hazing, published in 2008 by a University of Maine professor named Elizabeth Allan, a full 80 percent of fraternity members report being hazed. It’s not an aberration; it’s the norm.
I asked Horras why no one at Beta Theta Pi had done anything about all the bad behavior those cameras must have recorded over the years since the reopening of the chapter. He said that no one could be expected to watch every single minute of film. He said that at some point, you have to trust young men to make the right decisions. What Beta Theta Pi had done for him as a young man, he suggested, was allow him to make some poor decisions until he started to turn around and become the man he wanted to be. Giving members the freedom to do that was part of what the fraternity was about. If they screwed up and got caught—well, that was on them. As for the death of Tim Piazza, while it constituted “a tragedy for him and his family,” it would provide the industry with the impetus needed to make some necessary reforms. In fact, his death was a “golden opportunity.”
Then I asked Horras about the Shep Test, and why it endured, despite the effort that had gone into eradicating it. He interrupted me: “Wait a minute. That test doesn’t happen anymore. We have testimonials instead, where pledges can—”
“But it’s in the presentment,” I said, and he looked at me, baffled. “One kid asks where the pledges were, and the other one says they’re waiting in the boiler room after the Shep Test.”
It was clear in that moment—and as he affirmed in a later email—that Horras hadn’t read the presentment very closely.
In my notebook, I wrote:
Finally he said, with consummate feeling, “I’m fucking mad that that stuff is going on.”
And then I realized why Horras was able to see the torture and death of a 19-year-old kid as a golden opportunity: He didn’t really know that much about it. I started to ask him another question, but for a few moments he seemed lost.
“Am I just fighting for a bunch of idiots?” he asked.
I visited Jim and Evelyn Piazza on a lush New Jersey evening in July, when a summer rain was falling on the wide lawns and large houses of their neighborhood in Hunterdon County, one of the wealthiest areas in the United States.
Jim and Evelyn, who are both accountants, had been at work. Jim is tall and balding and was still dressed for the office, in shirtsleeves and trousers. Evelyn, who is petite and has long, ringleted hair—a lighter shade of red than Tim’s—was in shorts and a T‑shirt. Their house, where Tim had grown up since the age of six months, was silent and immaculate. We sat around their kitchen table with bottles of cold water and talked.
A fraternity death is, in some ways, like any other traumatic death of a young person. There is the horrifying telephone call, the race to the hospital, the stunned inability to comprehend basic information. (During cellphone calls on the two-hour drive, the doctor kept telling Evelyn that her son was “a very sick boy.”) But a fraternity death also brings multiple other levels of shock: The young person was killed because of something his friends did to him; his own university quickly backs away from any responsibility for his death; his parents become pariahs to the other members’ parents as they seek justice for their lost son.
In an effort to learn more about fraternities, the Piazzas— who had not taken part in Greek life when they were college students—had attended an information session while at a Penn State parents’ weekend in the fall of 2014 for their older son, Mike, who was then a freshman. Evelyn recalled that a university official told the crowd of parents that there was no hazing at the university. An uncomfortable silence followed, until one by one, parents informed the man that their sons were currently being hazed.
When I tried to confirm this incident with Penn State, the university denied, in a series of baffling phone calls and emails, that it could have happened. “We don’t doubt the Piazzas’ sincerity,” one of the exchanges begins, before heaping doubt on their assertion. I brought up all of this at the Piazzas’ table.
“We got a letter from another parent who was there,” Jim said. “He remembered it just the way we did.” I now have a copy of that letter, and have spoken with the parent who wrote it; the account verifies everything the Piazzas remember and identifies the man who made the remarks as the university’s then-head of Greek life, Roy Baker.
This is what the past nine months have been like for the Piazzas as they try to get justice for their son: simple requests for information and action on their part, the strangled responses of a massive, inelegant, and transparently self-protecting bureaucracy in reply. When Jim Piazza met with Penn State President Eric Barron a week after Tim’s death, he slid the program from his son’s funeral across the desk: “Since no one had the time to come,” he said.
The Piazzas are still easily unraveled by memories of their son. When I asked whether a spare car in the driveway had been Tim’s, Jim said yes and then suddenly struggled for composure; he had driven it back to the house after Tim’s death. Evelyn told me about a time, not long before Tim died, when the two of them were alone in the house at dinnertime, and he suggested that they go to a restaurant. They did, and they had a typically fun time together; when the check came, Tim reached over and picked it up. “I thought he was kidding around,” Evelyn told me. “But he said, ‘I think I can afford to take my mother out to dinner.’ ”
The Piazzas and I talked for close to an hour. As they walked me out, I thought of the Catholic funeral that Evelyn had so carefully planned for her son, and the grace with which both had withstood this horror.
“You must have a very strong faith,” I said, and Jim winced a little and glanced at his wife.
“They stole my son,” she said. “And they stole my faith.”
Jim opened the front door for me. It was full night now, and the rain had stopped. The leaves and grass were wet, and soft lights illuminated the trees. I walked out onto the porch, and then Jim took a sudden step toward me. I thought he was going to ask me something, or tell me one last thing.
“Be careful on the street,” he said. At my puzzled look, he explained that there were deer in the area and that they were hard to see at night. And then I got in my car, armed with a father’s good counsel about avoiding the dangers that hid in an ordinary night.
When I talked with people about Tim Piazza’s death, many brought up an earlier Penn State crisis, the Jerry Sandusky scandal, in which the longtime assistant football coach was convicted for a decades-long practice of sexually abusing young boys, and the university’s head coach, Joe Paterno, was abruptly fired. Both cases gestured to a common theme: that of dark events that had taken place on or near the campus for years, with some kind of tacit knowledge on the part of the university. There is also the sense that at Penn State, both the fraternities and the football team operate as they please. To the extent that this is true, the person responsible is Joe Paterno.
It’s hard to think of a single person with a greater influence on a modern university than Paterno, who died in 2012. Because of his football team—which he coached for half a century—Penn State went from an institution best known as a regional agricultural school to a vast university with a national reputation. He was Catholic, old-school, elaborately respectful of players’ mothers—and eager to wrest their sons away and turn them into men, via the time-honored, noncoddling, masculine processes of football.
To say he was a beloved figure doesn’t begin to suggest the role he played on campus. He was Heaney at Harvard, Chomsky at MIT. That he was not a scholar but a football coach and yet was the final authority on almost every aspect of Penn State life says a great deal about the institution. He was also a proud Delta Kappa Epsilon man and a tremendous booster of the fraternity system, and—as was typical for men of his generation—he understood hazing to be an accepted part of Greek life.
In 2007, he gave the practice his implicit endorsement. Photographs had surfaced of some members of the wrestling team apparently being hazed: They were in their underwear with 40-ounce beer bottles duct-taped to their hands. “What’d they do?” he asked during an open football practice that week. “When I was in college, when you got in a fraternity house, they hazed you. They made you stay up all night and played records until you went nuts, and you woke in the morning and all of a sudden they got you before a tribunal and question you as to whether you have the credentials to be a fraternity brother. I didn’t even know where I was. That was hazing. I don’t know what hazing is today.” He wasn’t upset that the wrestlers had engaged in hazing; he was scornful of them for doing it wrong.
Looking back at the past two decades at Penn State, we see a university grappling with its fraternity problem in ways that pitted concerned administrators against a powerful system, and achieving little change. In 1997, five members of a fraternity showed up at University Health Services with what the physician there strongly suspected were hazing injuries; in the ominous phrase of the director of Health Services, the injuries had been caused by “something that someone else was doing to them.” The president of the university at the time, Graham Spanier (who is currently fighting a jail sentence resulting from his role in the Sandusky scandal), became involved. “We will not tolerate hazing at Penn State,” he said. Yet an investigation into the fraternity resulted in its complete exoneration, most likely because the pledges refused to report what the brothers had done to them, which is typical. The episode, which was covered in the student newspaper, reinforced a message that would have tragic consequences for Tim Piazza: that seeking medical help for an injured pledge invites scrutiny and perhaps serious trouble.
In 2004, the university initiated a program it called Greek Pride: A Return to Glory, which was intended “to eliminate negative behavior within Greek organizations.” Many meetings were held, but nothing much seems to have come of them. Then, in 2009, after a freshman named Joseph Dado got so drunk at a fraternity party that he fell down a set of concrete stairs and died, the university’s student-run Interfraternity Council made what seemed to be a game-changing decision. It contracted with an outside security firm called St. Moritz. The firm would send employees to fraternity parties for unscheduled checks to make sure that they were in compliance with various safety policies. It was a system that should have saved Tim Piazza’s life. Two checkers arrived minutes before he fell down the stairs, and inspected a house rife with policy violations, yet no alarm was raised, and the night raged on.
Who were these checkers, and how could they have missed the obvious violations that were taking place? The IFC claims that neither it nor St. Moritz retains any records from that night. Nor will it comment on a fact that The Daily Collegian reported: that the checkers were not full-time security guards, but Penn State kids who were working part-time for St. Moritz. (The company declined to comment.) In the words of Stacy Parks Miller, the district attorney who brought the charges against the Beta brothers, the whole system was an elaborate “sham,” one that was exposed only after Tim Piazza died.
In 2015, a former pledge of Kappa Delta Rho’s Penn State chapter, James Vivenzio, made national news. He told police that his fraternity had kept a secret Facebook page where members could post naked pictures of female students, some of whom were unconscious or being sexually assaulted. He also said that he had been severely hazed two years earlier, and had reported the hazing to the Office of Student Conduct. Danny Shaha, the head of that office, took the report seriously enough to visit Vivenzio in his Virginia home. Tellingly, his fraternity was the same one that had been investigated after the five injured students went to Health Services 18 years earlier. Yet Vivenzio claims that Student Conduct did not investigate his allegations until he went to the police.
Vivenzio is currently suing both the fraternity and the university. His suit describes the hazing he endured: cigarette burns; “late-night line-ups that featured force-feeding bucketfuls of liquor mixed with urine, vomit, hot sauce and other liquid and semi-solid ingredients”; being told to “guzzle hard liquor without stopping until vomiting was induced.” (Penn State claims that it could not address Vivenzio’s hazing because he declined to provide documentation or pursue a formal disciplinary process, an assertion Vivenzio’s attorney disputes. After he went to the police, the university suspended the fraternity for three years.)
Another piece of ongoing Penn State litigation involves a student at the Altoona campus named Marquise Braham, who pledged Phi Sigma Kappa as a freshman in 2013. His parents’ civil suit describes what he experienced:
Among other things, being forced to consume gross amounts of alcohol, chug bottles of Listerine, swallow live fish, fight fellow pledges; being burned with candle wax, deprived of sleep for 89 hours, locked in a room with other pledges, alcohol, and a trashcan to catch their vomit; having a gun held to his head; and being forced to kill, gut, and skin animals.
Braham had texted with his residence-hall adviser, a young woman, desperately seeking help in understanding what was happening to him, but she only endorsed the system. “Yes it will get worse,” she wrote. “I’m sorry to say hahaha but it will.”
He made it through the hazing, but the next semester he was expected to haze other pledges, which broke him. He went home to New York for spring break, saying that he needed to see a priest. At lunch with his mother the day before he was to return, he excused himself from the table, climbed to the top of a nearby building, and jumped to his death. A grand jury found no link between his death and the hazing he had endured. Penn State suspended Phi Sigma Kappa’s charter for six years.
After Tim Piazza fell, four fraternity brothers carried him, unconscious, to a couch. He was in obvious need of medical attention, yet the fraternity brothers treated him with a callousness bordering on the sadistic. They slapped and punched him, threw his shoes at him, poured beer on him, sat two abreast on his twitching legs. Precious minutes and hours passed by, the difference between Tim’s life and death.
Two hours into the nightmarish security footage, something extraordinary happens. A young man walks into the frame and approaches the couch where Tim is lying, still unconscious. This is Kordel Davis, a recently initiated freshman brother and the chapter’s only black member at the time. According to the presentment, he “leans over Timothy’s head. Davis then turns to the Beta brothers near Timothy and becomes very animated, again pointing at his head and then at Tim.”
The presentment states that when the brothers told Davis that Tim had fallen down the basement stairs, he became
even more concerned—now for Timothy’s life. He stressed to them that Timothy needed to go to the hospital since he could have a concussion. Davis told them that if Tim was sleeping they needed to wake him up and call 911 immediately. He screamed at them to get help. In response [Beta brother] Jonah Neuman rose from the couch and shoved Davis into the opposite wall. Neuman instructed Davis to leave and that they had it under control.
Davis then sought out Ed Gilmartin, the vice president of the chapter: “The camera captures Davis gesturing once more, referring repeatedly to his head and pointing at Timothy.” Davis testified that Gilmartin told him he was crazy and “claimed the other brothers were kinesiology and biology majors,” so Davis’s word “meant nothing to him when compared to theirs.”
I sat with Kordel Davis this summer in the cacophonous food court in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, and we talked about that moment. “They made you doubt yourself,” I said, and—in as pure an expression of teenage-male anguish as I’ve ever seen, tears welling in his eyes—he said, “Like I’ve doubted myself my whole life.”
Kordel was born to a 16-year-old single mother in Reading, Pennsylvania, and was removed from her care and placed in two successive foster homes. At age 3, he was adopted by a white couple who had already adopted 9-year-old white twins from foster care, and who would adopt a black infant the next year; they divorced soon after that, at which point family life was further complicated by frequent moves, and the eventual introduction of new stepparents and stepsiblings. Kordel attended a majority-white high school, where he made good friends and had many caring teachers, and where he found a mentor in the football coach. Yet he also says that he was hazed as a freshman on that team, including by an older white player who beat him in front of others, and that he was called a racist nickname by his teammates. When the nickname came to the attention of a teacher and his coach, the other players claimed that it was meant to be affectionate.
“After all that,” I asked him, “why would you join an all-white fraternity with these privileged kids?”
“Because I’ve been around kids like that all my life,” he said. “I know how to handle them.”
Or at least he thought he did.
The story of black members of historically white fraternities is a complex one. Although the clubs started opening their ranks to African Americans in the 1950s and ’60s, they have few black members; nationally, only 3 percent of Beta Theta Pi’s members are black, for example. There is reason to believe that official membership policy and actual practice diverge. In 2015, cellphone video of some Sigma Alpha Epsilon members from the University of Oklahoma singing a fraternity song became public:
There will never be a n— SAE
There will never be a n— SAE
You can hang him from a tree
But he’ll never sing with me
There will never be a n— SAE
Any hope that this was the local custom of one rogue chapter disappeared when authorities discovered where the brothers had learned the lyrics: on a 2011 “national leadership cruise” that brought together hundreds of active and alumni members.
When Kordel Davis was interviewed by a police detective after Tim Piazza’s death, he had a scar on his forehead, which was still there when I met with him over the summer. It was from an injury sustained during his own bid-acceptance night the previous semester, when he, too, had fallen after drinking heavily. “My shirt, my phone—they were covered in so much blood,” he told me. His fraternity brothers put him to bed, he survived the night, and the next morning they took him for medical care—at a privately owned urgent-care clinic instead of University Health Services, where hazing might have been suspected. Keeping that incident secret was one of the costs of membership. Yet after Kordel was initiated, he did not seem to have the full measure of brotherhood that the others enjoyed. Once, he brought some friends to a party—to which other brothers had also brought guests—but was told he was not allowed to have guests, and so he had to leave, embarrassed, with his friends.
Kordel seemed rootless when I talked with him over the summer. “I lost my future,” he told me. He was seized by remorse over what had happened to Tim, and he had decided not to return to Penn State, although he had loved it there and had been awarded a significant financial-aid package. He’d read enough on online message boards to know what fraternity members on campus thought of him: that he had ratted out his brothers by talking so openly to the police, and thereby ruined Greek life for everyone.
I thought about the summons he had received from the police department, about the day he had gone there, alone, a 19-year-old black kid in a county that is 90 percent white, to report on events surrounding the death of a white college student. Still, the police were kind to him. They had a nickname for him, based on his actions on the tape: the Good Samaritan.
When I dropped Kordel off at his father’s home, I wondered whether this experience would indeed cost him his future. But he is resilient, incredibly so. By summer’s end he had been accepted at Rutgers, and had taken out student loans to pay his tuition. Perhaps he won’t have to pay them back himself. I asked a lawyer with extensive knowledge of fraternity litigation whether Kordel might have his own civil claim against Beta Theta Pi, and he affirmed that—given the hazing he had experienced as well as the scarring—he could indeed have a “deep-six-figure claim.”
In late May, shortly after the grand jury’s harrowing presentment was released to the public, Jud Horras appeared on CBS This Morning. In a conversation with Gayle King, Charlie Rose, and Norah O’Donnell, he was measured, calm, and so ungraspable—always separating the thugs of one rogue chapter from the larger entity of the fraternity industry—that midway through the interview, O’Donnell lost her patience and interrupted him.
“There have been 60 deaths over eight years involving fraternity activities,” she said angrily. “There should be zero tolerance. There should be immediate action on this. It is unacceptable. This is murder.”
Her sentiment was one shared by many people when they learned about what had happened to Tim Piazza, but it revealed a common misunderstanding: Fraternities do have a zero-tolerance policy regarding hazing. And that’s probably one of the reasons Tim Piazza is dead.
For most of their long history, fraternities pretty much did as they pleased. But in the 1980s, parents of injured and dead children began to fight back: They sued the organizations and began to recover huge sums in damages. Insurance companies dropped fraternities en masse. Because of this crisis, the modern fraternity industry was born, one that is essentially self-insured, with fraternities pooling their money to create a fund from which damages are paid.
The executives realized that even if they couldn’t change members’ behavior, they had to indemnify themselves against it, which they did by creating an incredibly strict set of rules, named for a term of art in the insurance industry: risk-management policies. These policies forbid not just the egregious behaviors of hazing and sexual assault, but also a vast range of activities that comprise normal fraternity life in the majority of chapters. You can’t play beer pong in a fraternity house. You can’t have a sip of alcohol if you’re under the age of 21, or allow anyone else who’s underage to have a sip of alcohol. During a party, alcohol consumption must be tightly regulated. Either the chapter can hire a third-party vendor to sell drinks—and to assume all liability for what happens after guests consume them—or members and guests may each bring a small amount of alcohol for personal use and hand it over to a monitor who labels it, and then metes it back to the owner in a slow trickle.
In an emergency, when the police and an ambulance show up, the national organization will easily be able to prove that the members were in violation of its policies, and will therefore be able to cut them loose and deny them any of the benefits—including the payment of attorneys’ fees and damages—that come with the fraternity insurance the members themselves have paid for.
Fraternity members live under the shadow of giant sanctions and lawsuits that can result even from what seem like minor incidents. The strict policies promote a culture of secrecy, and when something really does go terribly wrong, the young men usually start scrambling to protect themselves. Doug Fierberg, a Washington, D.C., lawyer whose practice is built on representing plaintiffs in fraternity lawsuits, told me that “in virtually every hazing death, there is a critical three or four hours after the injury when the brothers try to figure out what to do. It is during those hours that many victims pass the point of no return.”
All of these dynamics came into play the night Tim Piazza was fatally injured. The chapter president, Brendan Young, was—get this—majoring in risk management. He fully understood that officers of the fraternity face greater liability than do regular members. He became the president in November 2016, and shortly before rush began, in January 2017, he texted Daniel Casey, the pledge master: “I know you know this. If anything goes wrong with the pledges this semester then both of us are fucked.” He wasn’t suggesting they scrap hazing; he was reminding his subordinate that they had better not get caught doing it. (Young’s lawyer declined to comment.)
Even a full day after Tim died, some members were, amazingly, still focused on the consequences that could befall them. “Between you and me,” a member texted Young, “what are the chances the house gets shut down?”
“I think very high,” Young replied. “I just hope none of us get into any lawsuits.”
“You think they are going to sue?” asked the brother, to which Young responded in a way that is chilling and that reveals a sophisticated knowledge of how such events play out: “It depends if they want to go through with it, or just distance themselves from us all together.”
In fact, Jim and Evelyn Piazza have not chosen to distance themselves from the men who hazed their late son and left him to a fate that Jim compares to a crucifixion. They attended every day of the pretrial hearings that determined which of the charges against the brothers would go to trial, a grueling process that—with its many continuances and breaks—lasted the entire summer.
It ended, finally, with what looked like a significant defeat: The most-serious charges—of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault—were dropped. In the courtroom, the 16 fraternity brothers (two had waived their right to a preliminary hearing) backslapped one another and exchanged fist bumps. The Piazzas quietly left.
Still, 14 of the Beta brothers will face a total of 328 criminal charges—jury selection is scheduled to begin in December—and the Piazzas also plan to file a civil suit after the trial ends. (When asked for comment, the national Beta fraternity stated that members of the Penn State chapter had not met its “expectations of friendship and brotherhood” and that it had “moved to close the chapter in February and expel men charged in the case.” An attorney for the chapter did not respond to a request for comment.)
The university has responded to the crisis with some significant steps: It has wrested discipline of the fraternities from the IFC, a group run entirely by frat brothers, and put it firmly in the hands of the Office of Student Conduct; checks on fraternity parties will be conducted not by St. Moritz, but by university employees. It has also permanently banned Beta Theta Pi from campus. The motivation behind these changes may lie as much in an earnest desire for reform as in a panicked need to contain what could become an ever-widening scandal, one with the potential to be as newsworthy as the Sandusky scandal.
At the end of the Piazza presentment, the grand jury issues a stunning condemnation of Penn State’s fraternity culture:
The Penn State Greek community nurtured an environment so permissive of excessive drinking and hazing that it emboldened its members to repeatedly act with reckless disregard to human life … Timothy Piazza died as a direct result of the extremely reckless conduct of members of the Beta Fraternity who operated within the permissive atmosphere fostered by the Pennsylvania State University Interfraternity Council.
The grand jury is now investigating the broader issue of hazing at Penn State and may recommend criminal charges. It is also reviewing the James Vivenzio and Marquise Braham cases. The presentment that could emanate from those horrific cases will surely be the subject of intense media scrutiny.
As for the university’s permanent ban of Beta Theta Pi from campus, a week after the most-serious charges against the former brothers were dropped, Beta alumni received an email inviting them to stay at their beloved house during football weekends this fall.
The Greek system has powerful allies at Penn State. After Tim Piazza’s death, several prominent trustees of the university vouched for fraternities, which they felt should be reformed but not hobbled. Their logic was sometimes tortured. William Oldsey told The Philadelphia Inquirer in May that the story of Tim Piazza—whose parents he pitied mightily—offered not an indictment but an endorsement of Greek life: “This is a good-enough system that it attracted a kid of the high caliber and character of Tim Piazza.”
So let us now imagine all the forces arrayed against 19-year-old Tim Piazza as he gets dressed in his jacket and tie, preparing to go to his new chapter house and accept the bid the brothers have offered him.
He is up against a university that has allowed hazing to go on for decades; a fraternity chapter that has hazed pledge classes at least twice in the previous 12 months; a set of rules that so harshly punishes hazing that the brothers will think it better to take a chance with his life than to face the consequences of having made him get drunk; and a “checking system” provided by a security firm that is, in many regards, a sham. He thinks he is going to join a club that his college endorses, and that is true. But it is also true that he is setting off to get jumped by a gang, and he won’t survive.
So here is Tim, reaching for his good jacket—in a closet that his mother will soon visit to select the clothes he will wear in his coffin—a little bit excited and a little bit nervous.
“They’re going to get me fucked up,” he texts his girlfriend, and then he pulls closed the door of his college apartment for the last time.
He has been told to show up at exactly 9:07. Inside, the 14 pledges are lined up, each with his right hand on the right shoulder of the one in front of him, and taken into the living room, where they are welcomed into the fraternity with songs and skits. And then it is time for the first act of hazing in their pledge period: quickly drinking a massive amount of alcohol in an obstacle course, the “gauntlet.” Court documents and the security footage provide excruciating detail about what comes next.
About an hour after the gauntlet begins, the pledges return to the living room, all of them showing signs of drunkenness. At 10:40, Tim appears on one of the security cameras, assisted by one of the brothers. The forensic pathologist will later describe his level of intoxication at this point as “stuporous.” He is staggering, hunched over, and he sits down heavily on the couch and doesn’t want to get up. But the brother encourages him to stand and walks him through the dining room and kitchen and back to the living room, where he sits down again on the couch. And then Tim tries to do something that could have saved his life.
He stands up, uncertainly, and heads toward the front door. If he makes it through that door, he may get out to the street, may find a place to sit or lie down, may come to the attention of someone who can help him—at the very least by getting him back to his apartment and away from the fraternity. He reaches the front door, but the mechanism to open it proves too complicated in his drunken state, so he turns around and staggers toward another door. Perhaps he is hoping that this door will be easier to open; perhaps he is hoping that it also leads out of the fraternity house. But it is the door to the basement, and when he opens it—perhaps expecting his foot to land on level ground—he takes a catastrophic fall.
On the security footage, a fraternity brother named Luke Visser points toward the stairs in an agitated way. Greg Rizzo clearly hears the fall and goes to the top of the steps to see what’s happened. Later, he will tell the police that he saw Tim “facedown, at the bottom of the steps.” Jonah Neuman will tell the police that he saw Tim lying facedown with his legs on the stairs.
Rizzo sends a group text: “Tim Piazza might actually be a problem. He fell 15 feet down a flight of steps, hair-first, going to need help.” (Rizzo, who was not charged with any crimes, told the police that he later advocated for calling an ambulance.)
Four of the brothers carry Tim up the stairs. By now he has somehow lost his jacket and tie, and his white shirt has ridden up, revealing a strange, dark bruise on his torso. This is from his lacerated spleen, which has begun spilling blood into his abdomen. The brothers put him on a couch, and Rizzo performs a sternum rub—a test for consciousness used by EMTs—but Tim does not respond. Another brother throws beer in his face, but he does not respond. Someone throws his shoes at him, hard. Someone lifts his arm and it falls back, deadweight, to his chest.
At this point, the brothers have performed a series of tests to determine whether Tim is merely drunk or seriously injured. He has failed all their tests. The next day, Tim’s father will ask the surgeon who delivers the terrible news of Tim’s prognosis whether the outcome would have been different if Tim had gotten help earlier, and the surgeon will say—unequivocally—that yes, it would have been different. That “earlier” is right now, while Tim is lying here, unresponsive to the sternum rub, the beer poured on him, the dropped arm.
A brother named Ryan Foster rolls Tim on his side, but has to catch him because he almost rolls onto the floor. Jonah Neuman straps a backpack full of books to him to keep him from rolling over and aspirating vomit. Two brothers sit on Tim’s legs to keep him from moving.
This is the moment when Kordel Davis arrives and attempts to save Tim’s life, only to be thrown against the wall by Neuman. Davis disappears from the video, in search of an officer of the club. By now Tim is “thrashing and making weird movements,” according to the grand-jury presentment.
Daniel Casey comes into the room, looks at Tim, and slaps him in the face three times. Tim does not respond. Two other brothers wrestle near the couch and end up slamming on top of Tim, whose spleen is still pouring blood into his abdomen. Tim begins to twitch and vomit.
At this point, Joseph Ems appears “frustrated” by Tim, according to the grand jury. With an open hand, he strikes the unconscious boy hard, on the abdomen, where the bruise has bloomed. This blow may be one of the reasons the forensic pathologist will find that Tim’s spleen was not just lacerated, but “shattered.” (Ems was originally charged with recklessly endangering another person, but that charge—the only one brought against him—has been dropped.) Still, Tim does not wake up.
Forty-five minutes later, Tim rolls onto the floor. The heavy backpack is still strapped to him. He rolls around, his legs moving. He attempts to stand up, and manages to free himself from the backpack, which falls to the floor. But the effort is too much, and he falls backwards, banging his head on the hardwood floor. A fraternity member shakes him, gets no response, and walks away.
At 3:46 in the morning, Tim is on the floor, curled up in the fetal position. At home in New Jersey, his parents are sleeping. Across campus, his older brother, Mike, has no idea that Tim is not safely in his bed.
At 3:49 a.m., Tim wakes up and struggles to his knees, cradling his head in his hands; he falls again to the hardwood floor. An hour later, he manages to stand up, and staggers toward the front door, but within seconds he falls, headfirst, into an iron railing and then onto the floor. On some level he must know: I am dying. He stands once again and tries to get to the door. His only hope is to get out of this house, but he falls headfirst once again.
At 5:08 a.m., Tim is on his knees, his wounded head buried in his hands. Around campus, people are beginning to wake up. The cafeteria workers are brewing coffee; athletes are rising for early practices. It’s cold and still dark, but the day is beginning. Tim is dying inside the Beta house, steps away from the door he has been trying all night to open.
Around 7 o’clock, another pledge wanders into the living room, where Tim is now lying on the couch groaning, and the pledge watches as he rolls off the couch and onto the floor, and again lifts himself to his knees and cradles his head in his hands, “as if he had a really bad headache.” The pledge lifts his cellphone, records Tim’s anguish on Snapchat, and then—while Tim is rocking back and forth on the floor—leaves the house. A few minutes later, Tim stands and staggers toward the basement steps, and disappears from the cameras’ view.
The house begins to stir. Some fraternity members head off to class, and in the fullness of time they return. And then, at about 10 a.m., a brother named Kyle Pecci (who was not charged) arrives and asks a pledge, Daniel Erickson (who was also not charged), a question that seems to both of them a casual one: Whatever happened to that pledge who fell down the stairs at the party? They come across Tim’s shoes, and realize that Tim must still be somewhere in the house, so they look for him. The search reveals him collapsed behind one of the bars in the basement. He is lying on his back, with his arms tight at his sides and his hands gripped in fists. His face is bloody and his breathing is labored. His eyes are half open; his skin is cold to the touch; he is unnaturally pale. Three men carry him upstairs and put him on the couch, but no one calls 911.
Fraternity brothers with garbage bags appear in the footage and start cleaning up the evidence. Brothers try to prop Tim up on the couch and dress him, but his limbs are too stiff and they can’t do it. Someone wipes the blood off his face, and someone else tries, without luck, to pry open his clenched fingers. Clearly the brothers are trying to make this terrible situation appear a little bit better for when the authorities arrive. But they do not use their many cellphones to call 911. Instead one brother uses his phone to do a series of internet searches for terms such as cold extremities in drunk person and binge drinking, alcohol, bruising or discoloration, cold feet and cold hands.
Where is Tim right now, as his body lies on the couch? Are his soul and self still here, in the room, or have they already slipped away? He has put up a valiant, almost incredible fight for his life, but by now he has lost that fight. When he was a little boy, he used to make people laugh because he got so frustrated with board games; he didn’t like playing those games, with their rules and tricks. He loved sports, and running, and playing with his friends at the beach. But his body is cold now, his legs and arms unbending.
Finally, at 10:48 a.m., a brother calls 911—perhaps realizing that it would be best to do so while the pledge is still technically alive—and Tim is delivered from the charnel house. Soon his parents will race toward him, and so will his frantic brother, who has been searching for him. They will be reunited for the few hours they have left with this redheaded boy they have loved so well, and at least it can be said that Tim did not die alone, or in the company of the men who tortured him.
On February 7, the Facebook page of the Beta Theta Pi national organization will report that “Tim Piazza, a sophomore at Penn State who had recently accepted an invitation to join the Fraternity, has passed due to injuries sustained from an accidental fall in the chapter house.” Flags at the fraternity’s administrative offices in Oxford, Ohio, will fly at half-mast for eight days, “representative of the eight young men of Tim’s same age who founded the Fraternity.” The Facebook post will encourage collegiate members around the country to “conduct Beta’s official Burial Service” on Friday evening, from 4 to 8 o’clock. And with those final rituals of the fraternity, Tim Piazza’s 28-hour membership in Beta Theta Pi will come to an end. “Rest in peace, Tim Piazza,” ends the post. “Rest in peace.”
* The print version of this article incorrectly identified Senator Lugar as an Iowan. We regret the error.