The preliminary hearing for 12 defendants charged in relation to the hazing death of Penn State student Tim Piazza continued in the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte on Thursday.
Prosecutors continued their effort in building the case against the former fraternity brothers, who face charges ranging from reckless endangerment to hazing and furnishing. The charges were filed based on security footage of the basement of the fraternity house. The FBI recovered it after it was allegedly deleted.
State College police detective David Scicchitano detailed on Thursday how he came to speculate that the security footage in the fraternity house basement was manually deleted after Tim Piazza’s tragic incident occurred.
Scicchitano said, he was initially led to believe the cameras in the basement didn’t work and the security video of the upstairs spaces was all there was. However, when another State College police detective investigated an unrelated case at the same fraternity, Scicchitano said he saw camera angles on the footage his colleague examined that he did not recognize at all.
After obtaining necessary warrants, he says he discovered that the footage from the basement was manually deleted.
Braxton Becker, house manager of the fraternity and “sole operator” of the security cameras, according to Scicchitano, is charged with tampering, obstruction and hindering apprehension.
Scicchitano also testified that forensic extraction of Becker’s phone showed that Becker received a text that said, “Erasing the camera could be the look if no one found out.” To which Becker replied, “I think the exact same thing.”
Becker’s attorney, Karen Muir, argued that her client believed some of the cameras in the house didn’t work and had been in contact with the manufacturer for repairs.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Andrew Notaristefano from state Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office led the questioning. He showed compilation of security footage clips documenting each defendant’s actions on the night of bid acceptance of the now shuttered Beta Theta Pi fraternity in February 2017.
Scicchitano testified and meticulously narrated the activities in the fraternity house.
In the clips shown in court, the brothers could be seen during the drinking obstacle course that Tim Piazza and 13 other pledges had to go through, and many brothers gave alcohol to the pledges.
Ryan Burke, vice president of recruiting at the time, is accused of reckless endangerment, hazing, furnishing and unlawful acts relative to liquor. He allegedly gave Piazza a handle of vodka in the basement after the bid acceptance and the obstacle course. Piazza died suffering brain injuries and a ruptured spleen after he fell down a flight of stairs later that night.
Burke’s lawyer, Philip Masorti, raised objections multiple times to Scicchitano’s description of the footage, saying he made subjective characterizations. Masorti argued that, at least in one instance, Burke didn’t give a bottle of vodka to one of the pledges, but rather, the pledge took the bottle voluntarily.
The detective, who has been the key witness in the case since the preliminary hearing started last June, responded to the defense lawyer during cross-examination.
“You’re wrong,” Scicchitano said. “It did show him giving the bottle.”
Five of the brothers, Joshua Kurczewski, Ryan Burke, Jonathan Kanzler, Bohan Song and Aiden O’Brien, are each charged with reckless endangerment, after Josh Shapiro dropped more severe charges. Eleven of the defendants face multiple counts of hazing, furnishing and unlawful acts relative to liquor.
Cross-examination continues on Friday, and closing statements are expected. District Judge Steve Lachman will likely decide whether the 12 defendants go to trial after hearing the arguments. Previously, Judge Allen Sinclair cleared the most serious charges for 14 others in this case, but the attorney general is appealing some of those.