Inside Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi: The fraternity that killed Tim Piazza
His frat brother describes his final hours
Tim Piazza wasn't supposed to die after a night at the Penn State Beta Theta Pi house. He wasn't supposed to get too drunk to stop himself stumbling 15 feet down a flight of stairs. He wasn't supposed to fall, again and again, lie on a couch, bleeding internally, and slowly die while his new brothers watched, laughed and did nothing.
Nothing that night was supposed to happen.
In an exclusive interview with The Tab, a brother of Beta Theta Pi, who spoke on condition of anonymity, reveals how changes to the frat in the weeks prior contributed to Tim's death.
He begins by describing how when he started at Penn State, he didn't have any desire to join a frat.
"But when I went to Beta, things were different. It was better vibes, it didn’t feel like a frat, it was just a community of good people that would look out for each other."
Taken in by the fact that Beta was tied to the Penn State establishment, he joined, pleased that it seemed above a lot of the behavior exhibited by other Greek life organizations.
"I knew the Paternos loved Beta, I knew that the administration supported them, it just felt like the right place to be."
Beta's place as an intrinsic part of Penn State is well documented. In 2007, the Beta house underwent a $3.5 million renovation. Fitted with rare stained glass windows designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, dining room chairs replicating those in the White House and hand-carved mahogany desks, Beta was transformed.
The man behind the renovation was Don Abbey, a Penn State booster who has given nearly $10 million to Beta. At the time, his donation was described as "the largest single donation to a fraternity nationwide and has funded the largest house renovation in the history of fraternities."
Rumors circulate in the frat from time to time about serial child rapist Jerry Sandusky's interest in Beta. According to the brother I spoke to, alumni of Beta recalled visits by Sandusky to the Beta house in the early 2000s.
And if you looked at Beta at Penn State this time last year, you would see just another model chapter with long ties to the university. Since coming back to campus after a suspension in 2009, they received awards from nationals, revamped their house with a promise to be alcohol-free and even received a Chapter of the Year award from Penn State, exactly a year before the night Tim Piazza died.
"They didn’t haze at rush like some frats did and people knew if you rushed Beta, the pledging wouldn’t be hard at all," the Beta said.
"The brothers always tried to handle themselves well. If someone was harming the pledges, there was always someone sticking up for them. "
But it wasn't a totally frictionless process. Towards the end of pledging, during the frat's Hell Week, things became a bit darker.
The brother told me: "They became just like any other Penn State frat: they dropped their model frat image entirely, the hazing was tougher. I didn't think much of it until later, during the fall E-board elections."
He points to these elections as the turning point in Beta. A new freshman class, with new ideas came to the fore in the house.
"Suddenly everything changed. They wanted to rise on GreekRank, they wanted to rise socially. They wanted to move up a tier, have better sororities over at events – They wanted to be the best. "
They seemingly lost respect for the systems and the institutions that held them up as the example of a model frat.
"They would lie to Tim Breame, our advisor. They would tell him events would only have two other Greek organizations over, but then really have eight. I could tell we were going down a bad road," he said.
"When the cameras in our house were fixed, the repairmen were told not to fix the cameras in the basement. That's where they did the lineups and anything else sketchy.
"People saw from the outside the same model frat but I could tell right away that the respectability was gone because when this new E-board came in they didn’t handle situations properly."
The social media buzz around Beta picks up in November 2016. They're noted for trying harder, described as "working their way back up."
The brother said: "During spring rush, there were more people, the parties were bigger. They didn’t have parties before, just get-togethers with the brothers. This time they were throwing parties for the rushes, they were working with more social capital.
"On the night everything happened, I found out they were doing the gauntlet and I immediately became uncomfortable. I felt like it could go wrong. I had never seen anything like it, it was just insanity to me. The atmosphere in the house was threatening, it was hostile, they were barbarians. It just didn’t seem real that these guys were acting like this."
Thanks to the cameras in the Beta House, we know most of what happened next.
After running "The Gauntlet", an intense drinking challenge that involved 10-second pulls on a handle of cheap vodka, shotgunning Natty Light, and slapping a bag of wine, Tim Piazza fell down a flight of stairs into the basement.
Camera footage viewed by the grand jury shows how the brothers reacted the next few hours. As previously reported, they slapped him, they took off his clothes, they Jansported him. They hit him, they stepped over him to get glasses of water. What they didn't do was help him.
Kordel Davis, a recent initiate, was the only person to speak up. The grand jury report details how he tried to convince two brothers, Jonah Neumann and Ed Gilmartin, to help Tim around 20 minutes after he fell.
According to the findings of the grand jury: “He screamed at them to get help. In response, Jonah Neuman rose from the couch and shoved Davis into the opposite wall.”
According to the Beta brother I spoke to, from the moment of Tim's injury, members of the frat displayed a callous attitude towards him.
While he lay in the hospital bed, Gilmartin and another brother, Greg Rizzo, posted messages in the group chat announcing the diagnoses as they came in, as if they were football scores.
"It was like 'ruptured spleen, just confirmed' and the reactions would be like 'wow' 'no way'."
There was still no sympathy, even as he lay dying.
As soon as his death was announced, and it became clear that Beta was going to be in serious trouble, the mentality became one of self-preservation.
"There was a slogan after Tim's death: 'think about Beta, think about Beta.'
"They said it at the meetings, I didn’t get it at the time, I was like 'what the hell is this? What does it mean?' I wanted to stand up and say, 'what about thinking about Tim, what about thinking about the Piazzas?'"
The next few days, things became a lot more real for everyone involved. As tributes to Tim flew around social media, and vigils were held by members of Greek life, the family mourned their son and brother.
No-one from Penn State or Beta attended the funeral. Back at the house, the atmosphere was one of self-preservation.
"There were meetings with nationals, the exec, Tim Bream, a whole circus of people," the brother said. "Execs told us 'nationals are investigating, you do what they say. You do what we tell you to do.' It was a damage control thing. Originally the group chats were deleted because the brothers were worried about nationals, they had no idea it would end up with the police."
As the new sanctions were announced, social media reactions of some in Greek life display anger, disbelief and shock that Penn State would limit their fun for something as asinine as the death of a fellow student.
"The response from Greek life at first was to hold vigils, to act like they cared about Tim. But very quickly, it became annoyance that their parties would be stopping. They just wanna see this going away, they just want to get back to partying, they want Barron to lift the sanctions, to let them have day-longs again," the brother said.
Greek life, making up nearly a fifth of the student body at Penn State, wields a huge amount of power. From parties in State College to spots in THON, for many students, the only way to thrive is in a fraternity or a sorority.
As Beta's history shows, you can be kicked off campus time and time again and still be welcomed back with open arms. And it's in these invincible communities that recklessness thrives.
"I’ve seen so many drunk people with alcohol poisoning before, that was always one of my concerns. I’ve seen it happen at Penn State, I used to see it all the time," the brother said.
"When someone gets too drunk, they’re throwing them in cold showers, throwing beer in their faces, putting backpacks on people, thinking there are 'college student methods' for college student drinking that will work better than in the real world.
"The cohort of Penn State, the average age is like 20, there are no adults, there’s no one to learn from, they’re learning from each other. When the school runs the town, the students are in charge of University Park. They think their methods are better than anything else. And they just don't work."
Beta Theta Pi proudly describe their brothers as "Men of Principle." Their official literature and website paints a picture of "a shining example for all that is good and true when men come together." Alumni of the fraternity include a Pulitzer Prize winner, a handful of Nobel Laureates, congressman and even a Vice President.
And like many other frats, Beta occasionally has an incident at a school, usually hazing or alcohol related. Since 2012, they've had six chapters suspended by nationals for violations including harming pledges, sending sexually explicit pictures of a fellow student and furnishing alcohol to minors. Not innocent by a long shot, but more or less par for the course for a national frat with over 10,000 members.
But they've never had an incident like this.
So what was it that killed Tim Piazza? The actions of Betas in the months leading up to his death? Or was it a systemic problem at Penn State that allowed them to get away with it for so long?
According to the grand jury report, Tim 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 Penn State IFC."
But according to the brother I spoke to, it goes bigger than the IFC. He said: "You have to look at the culture of Penn State.
"It’s its own world. You have Pennsylvania and then you have PSU in the middle by itself. It’s a separate entity, it can thrive by itself, it needs no one else outside of Penn State.
"There are people who will defend Penn State no matter what. I met a lady this summer, and I told her I was at Penn State. She said 'oh Penn State, my son went there, no matter what happens, I love Penn State – we are! Who cares what anyone else thinks?'"
So far, based on what's happened to the brothers whose negligence killed a 19-year-old sophomore, Penn State certainly doesn't care.
The brothers that were in the house that night are still enrolled at Penn State, the live-in advisor who claims not to have witnessed the horrors of that night is still employed by Penn State . The most serious charges have been dismissed.
— The Daily Collegian (@DailyCollegian) May 5, 2017
One statistic that often gets thrown around is that approximately 1 in every 200 graduates in the US comes from Penn State.
Its alumni contribute hundreds of millions of dollars a year. When the Sandusky scandal broke, donations went up. They are a huge school with huge influence, that doesn't need the rest of the world and doesn't care for the opinions of outsiders.
The brother describes a "secret society mentality" at Penn State. "I once saw someone with alcohol poisoning who was puking black vomit and someone had called a taxi and the taxi driver said 'he needs the hospital.'
"He called the ambulance and when the brothers found out an ambulance was coming, they said 'no no no no.' They drove the kid to his dorm room before it got there to avoid anything else – it was lucky, that kid turned out fine.
"The fact that this happened at the model frat, that's what scares me. Who are these 'model students'? Who are they really?"