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Judge halts Penn State hazing death hearing as questions swirl over adviser

Since proceedings against the fraternity brothers began in May, their lawyers have sought to shift the blame for 19-year-old Tim Piazza's death onto Tim Bream, who the defense has painted as the ultimate authority for what went on in the fraternity house that night.

Defense lawyers for 18 Pennsylvania State University fraternity members charged in a hazing-related death attempted to subpoena Tim Bream (center).
Defense lawyers for 18 Pennsylvania State University fraternity members charged in a hazing-related death attempted to subpoena Tim Bream (center).Read moreAP Photo

BELLEFONTE, Pa. – Lawyers for 18 Pennsylvania State University fraternity members charged in the hazing death of a pledge sought Friday to compel testimony from an adult adviser living at the frat house, who they say condoned and tried to cover up the booze-fueled party in February that ended in tragedy.

Tim Bream, who is also a university-employed athletics trainer, has not been charged in the case of Tim Piazza's death and was not in the Centre County courtroom despite defense attempts to subpoena him as a witness.

His absence — and a debate over the relevance of his testimony — brought the fifth day of a key pretrial hearing for members of the now-shuttered Beta Theta Pi fraternity to a halt as court staff scrambled to decide how to ensure his appearance in court.

After a break, District Judge Allen Sinclair dismissed the proceedings for the day, saying he had issued an order for Bream to appear at a contempt hearing Aug. 30 to explain what defense lawyers have described as his efforts to duck their subpoena.

The decision is likely to drag what has become a marathon hearing into a third month. Sinclair said Friday that he hopes to rule in September on whether to allow the case — which has sparked debate over fraternity culture, hazing, and reckless college drinking — to proceed to trial.

Earlier Friday, prosecutors concluded their presentation as State College Police Detective David Scicchitano, the lead investigator in the case, left the witness stand after a grueling 37 hours of testimony over five court days.

Since the start of the proceedings in June, lawyers for the fraternity members have sought to minimize their clients' roles in the 19-year-old Piazza's death, with some appearing to treat what is normally a perfunctory proceeding as a test venue for arguments they hope will sway a jury should the case move forward.

Either way, Bream, 56, the head trainer for Penn State's storied football team, is certain to play a central role.

At the very least, the lawyers say, he is equally culpable for creating the alcohol-drenched environment that left Piazza so drunk that he sustained fatal injuries while stumbling and falling around the fraternity house the night of the party.

At worst, said defense lawyer Leonard G. Ambrose III in court Friday, Bream may be complicit in a cover-up.

"Tim Bream was in the house in a position to stop this," said Ambrose, who represents Joe Sala, 19, of Erie. The 18 charged students "operated under the assumption that this was condoned behavior."

Prosecutors say the fraternity brothers pressured Piazza, a sophomore engineering major from Lebanon, N.J., to become dangerously drunk during an initiation ritual Feb. 4 and then left him as he tumbled down stairs, stumbled into doors, and was beaten and taunted — events caught on harrowing security camera footage from the fraternity house that night.

Piazza died two days later of a head injury, a ruptured spleen, and a collapsed lung.

But Ambrose and other lawyers have alleged that Bream met weekly with the fraternity's executive board, was informed of upcoming parties, and had "personally approved" an alcohol-chugging obstacle course for the initiation night party.

On Friday, Ambrose also highlighted a text message exchange between two of the defendants that suggests Bream may have encouraged them to delete evidence from their phones as authorities and the media began to scrutinize Piazza's death.

"Tim was thinking of a way to carry out the cover-up and prevent people from viewing their texts," Ambrose said.

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller has frequently expressed frustration with this line of argument. She reiterated Friday that whatever Bream's own culpability might be, it did nothing to absolve each of the charged fraternity members for their share of the blame.

"I barely know what to say to this idea that Mr. Bream is some sort of magic wand to legal behavior," she said. "Did Mr. Bream approve? Even if he did, it does not excuse the rest."

Bream's attorney, Matthew D'Annunzio, did not respond to requests for comment Friday, although Parks Miller said that she had spoken to the lawyer and that he denied allegations that his client was trying to duck defense subpoenas. Still, she said, D'Annunzio intends to fight any attempt to have Bream testify Aug. 30.

Prosecutors have said their investigation into Piazza's death continues and additional charges could be filed.

The fraternity members facing the most serious charges — involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault — are: Sala; Beta Theta Pi fraternity president Brendan Young, 21, of Malvern; pledge master Daniel Casey, 19, of Ronkonkoma, N.Y. Luke Visser, 19, of Encinitas, Calif.; Gary DiBileo, 21, of Scranton; Nick Kubera, 19, of Downingtown; Michael Bonatucci, 19, of Woodstock, Ga.; and Jonah Neuman, 19, of Nashville.

Ten others face lesser charges, including hazing, recklessly endangering another person, furnishing alcohol to minors, and tampering with evidence.