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Questions swirl about live-in adult adviser's role in Piazza death

Beta Theta Pi's 56-year-old adviser is believed to have been at the frat house on the night that a pledge died.

Athletic trainer Tim Bream (right), the 56-year-old live-in adviser at Penn State's Beta Theta Pi fraternity, escaped the district attorney's scrutiny in the death of Tim Piazza.
Athletic trainer Tim Bream (right), the 56-year-old live-in adviser at Penn State's Beta Theta Pi fraternity, escaped the district attorney's scrutiny in the death of Tim Piazza.Read moreMark Wallheiser / AP Photo

As the saga surrounding the death of Pennsylvania State University fraternity pledge Tim Piazza continues to unfold, a key question lingers.

What responsibility should be assigned to Tim Bream, the 56-year-old athletic trainer and live-in fraternity adviser who was, by all accounts, at the Beta Theta Pi house the night prosecutors say Piazza was forced to drink himself to the point of stumbling incoherence, a state that led to his death in a series of falls.

While Bream has escaped criminal charges in the case, Piazza's parents and defense lawyers for some fraternity members say it defies logic that Bream was unaware of the drinking, including a "gauntlet" through which students raced from station to station consuming alcohol.

And if he didn't know, they ask, as adviser to the fraternity, shouldn't he have?

"If he didn't know that there was a party going on, he's either incompetent or incredible," said William J. Brennan, a lawyer for Joseph Ems Jr., a Philadelphia student who has been charged with reckless endangerment in the case. "It's reminiscent of the scene in Casablanca where authorities are shocked that there's gambling at Rick's Cafe. It certainly would seem to warrant further investigation."

Skepticism from other defense lawyers came earlier this month during a preliminary hearing for 18 fraternity members charged in Piazza's death.

Frank Fina, lawyer for fraternity president Brendan Young, noted a text message included in the grand jury presentment that said it was "Tim's idea" to delete an online chat about the pledge event, where a drunk Piazza plunged down stairs at the fraternity house and was left to languish for nearly 12 hours before members called for emergency help.

Also at the hearing, Steven Trialonis, a lawyer for pledge master Daniel Casey, questioned Bream's knowledge of the Feb. 2 party and other alcohol events at the fraternity.

Neither Fina or Trialonis returned calls to elaborate.

Bream, a 1983 Penn State graduate and a Beta Theta Pi fraternity alumnus, declined to comment, citing the advice of his lawyer.

"It has always been the belief of the Piazzas that Tim Bream is a culpable party and shares responsibility for the death of their son," said Tom Kline, the lawyer for Jim and Evelyn Piazza, accountants from Lebanon, N.J. "Our knowledge of his role continues to evolve as questions are asked."

Centre County prosecutors have said Bream, a former Chicago Bears head trainer, bears no criminal culpability in Piazza's death, though he was in the large, rambling fraternity house the night of the party. District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said when announcing charges in May that Bream reported he was in his room, a suite on the second floor, during the alcohol part of the event.

Bream does not appear on video surveillance footage obtained from the house, the prosecution has said. Prosecutors also said there was no evidence that fraternity members consulted him about Piazza's condition.

Douglas E. Fierberg, a Washington-based lawyer who has been involved in litigating fraternity cases, questioned how Bream could be unaware, given the duration of the event.

"Having undertaken those types of responsibilities, it's too cute by half to stick your head in the sand and say over such an extensive period of time when misconduct was taking place I neither knew of the circumstances nor had a reasonable opportunity to inform myself about what was going on, such that I could have intervened and saved this young person's life," Fierberg said. "Otherwise, it's pathetic for a 56-year-old to be living in a fraternity house."

The prosecution's lack of interest in Bream has not dissuaded Kline and the Piazzas, who have asked Penn State to fire Bream as assistant athletic director and head trainer for the football team.

He remains employed.

"The university is investigating all aspects of what occurred at the Beta Theta Pi house," university spokeswoman Lisa Powers said. "Student conduct and personnel matters are confidential."

Bream's advisory role with Beta Theta Pi was not connected to his job at Penn State, Powers said. Rather, it was a private arrangement with the fraternity's housing corporation alumni board.

Michael Leahey, who represents the fraternity's housing corporation, declined to comment on Bream's employment or responsibilities.

Powers said Bream, a Gettysburg native who was with the Bears for nearly 20 years, took the adviser job in fall 2016. He was hired by Penn State in 2012.

A spokesman for the national Beta Theta Pi fraternity office said it was not involved in employing Bream.

Penn State officials have said they were unaware of similar situations in which older adults lived in fraternity houses. But Heather Kirk, chief communication officer for the North American Inter-fraternity Conference, said it does happen elsewhere.

"Many fraternities have live-in advisers, [who] are sometimes referred to as house directors, house mothers/fathers, or residential advisers," she said. "Their roles range from overseeing meal plans to managing facility maintenance to mentoring."

Responsibilities of live-in advisers vary from campus to campus, said Ryan O'Rourke, executive director of the Fort Collins, Colo.-based Association of Fraternal Leadership and Values, which provides training to adults serving as advisers or directors.

Live-in advisers, while not responsible for student behavior, sometimes have a role in "attempting to have influence on student behavior," he said.

Kline said the Piazzas hope that the district attorney will consider charges against Bream as more information becomes available.

Fina's questioning about Bream centered on events after emergency workers took Tim Piazza, a sophomore engineering major, to the hospital on Feb. 3. Piazza later died of a head injury, a ruptured spleen, and a collapsed lung. The lawyer referred to a text message included in the grand jury presentment from fraternity member Ed Gilmartin III to member Lars Kenyon concerning deleting GroupMe chat groups about the bid party.

"It's just so people don't get screen shots or anything that could leak to the media," Gilmartin wrote to Kenyon. "Tim's idea, as a precaution."

Fina asked State College Police Detective Dave Scicchitano whom "Tim" referred to, and Scicchitano said Kenyon believed it to be Bream.

"If those facts bear out, then he aided and abetted in the cover-up," Kline said, referring to Bream.

Parks Miller did not return a call for comment, but she told Penn Live after the hearing that she considered the text message "double hearsay."

"We have other evidence that he [Bream] told them [the Beta brothers] to cooperate fully with the police," Parks Miller told PennLive, "so to us there was no basis to believe there was probable cause liability there."

On the third day of the hearing, Trialonis asked Scicchitano whether Bream had told him that Casey, his client, had asked Bream for permission to hold the pledge party or that fraternity members commonly asked Bream for permission to hold events where drinking occurred. Scicchitano answered "no" to both questions.

Kline and the Piazzas maintain that Bream had to have known about the alcohol parties and the pledge event that led to Piazza's death.

"He couldn't be living in that house without knowing," Kline charged. "The logical inference from the facts already known and the representation made by the defense counsel for Casey is that he turned a blind eye to it."