Evelyn Piazza, if she had one last chance to speak to her son, would tell him his family loves him — and “Don’t go.”
Don’t go, that is, to the party that killed him a year ago at Penn State University’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity house. There, Tim Piazza, was served 18 drinks in roughly an hour and a half during a pledge initiation called “The Gauntlet.”
Tim Piazza, 19, would fall several times, including down a flight of stairs, causing him numerous traumatic injuries. Members didn’t get him medical attention until the next morning. He died on Feb. 4, 2017.
” It doesn’t get better,” Evelyn Piazza said. “It hurts just as much now as it did a year ago.”
Evelyn’s husband Jim said fraternity brothers chose not to save their dying son. It was a death deemed accidental, yet it’s remained so significant.
Last year was a historic one for American fraternities. Piazza’s death was the first of four pledge deaths across the country, prompting changes at those schools. A handful of other large universities placed bans on Greek life and fraternities related to hazing, sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse issues.
These blanket shutdowns — imposed by both students and administrators — never happened before, explained Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has studied hazing deaths for decades. He said it’s an indicator administrators, fearful of blowback, are on their heels and students are taking notice of dangerous fraternities.
It’s also pushed the Piazzas to the forefront of the anti-hazing movement. Their redheaded son’s name is now synonymous with tragedy and, like so many parents before them, they’ve picked up the torch.
“We didn’t have a choice, but now we really feel obligated to speak out and make sure this doesn’t happen again so that Tim saves lives,” Evelyn Piazza said. “Clearly, this situation has put us into a spot where we have to carry this burden and we have to see it through.”
But their son’s death hangs over them still.
On what would have been their younger son’s 20th birthday, the Piazzas tried to distract themselves with friends and family. On Christmas Day, they didn’t open presents until the afternoon. “We just didn’t care,” Jim Piazza said.
While the grief hasn’t worn off, there’s resolve in the parents from Hunterdon County, New Jersey.
“This is an incredible pain. It’s an incredible way for your child to die and if we don’t speak up then we leave it to the next person,” Evelyn Piazza said. “There shouldn’t be a next person.”
‘We feel like we failed’
Months after their son’s death, Jim and Evelyn experienced what other parents felt before. The sad realization it keeps happening.
On Sept. 14, Max Gruver, 18, died following a pledge event at Louisiana State University’s Phi Delta Theta fraternity.
Then, on Nov. 14, 20-year-old pledge Matthew McKinley Ellis was found dead in an apartment following an off-campus Phi Kappa Psi event at Texas State University.
“It’s very deflating and disappointing,” Evelyn Piazza said. “We feel like we failed in getting our message out because obviously those people weren’t listening.”
At least one couple did listen: Stephen and Rae Ann Gruver, who told their son Max the story of Tim Piazza as he headed into his first semester at LSU.
Max Gruver, from Roswell, Georgia, lasted barely a month before he died a similar way as Tim Piazza. During an initiation called “Bible Study,” senior fraternity members instructed Max and other pledges to chug 190-proof Diesel liquor. He died with a blood-alcohol level of .496, more than six times the state’s legal driving limit.
“Now, I wish we’d done more,” Rae Ann Gruver said. “I wish other people, the school had done more.”
Ten people were charged in the death of Max Gruver. His parents still don’t know exactly what happened and await facts from a grand jury.
“It’s very confusing and very surreal and you’re just numb,” said Stephen Gruver, explaining his son’s death. Sometimes, his wife says, it’s like Max is still away at school. “I don’t know when that reality sets in,” Stephen Gruver said.
The two families have become close. Speaking of Max Gruver, the Piazzas, like worn skeptics, quickly lay out the power dynamic between pledge and member.
“You’re convinced that this is what you’re supposed to do and these other individuals will have your back and you fall victim to their plan,” Jim Piazza said. Evelyn finished his thought, “And you’re so naïve that you have no idea that they don’t.”
The families have no doubts their sons’ deaths played a role in changes across the nation.
“I don’t think any of that stuff would have happened if we didn’t have Tim’s situation and these other situations,” Jim Piazza said. “This has made a difference. Unfortunately, at our expense.”
‘It’s a joke’
Jim Piazza takes a long pause when asked about those charged in the death of his son.
“I’m not happy with those individuals,” he said “They did bad and illegal things that killed our son. So, it’s really difficult to feel anything other than very negative about them.”
Prosecutors have charged 26 people, plus the fraternity, with criminal charges in Tim Piazza’s death, with some facing counts of manslaughter and aggravated assault. In November, 12 were charged after prosecutors uncovered surveillance footage they said had been deleted before State College (Pa.) Police seized it.
The Piazzas said they haven’t watched the fraternity house’s surveillance video, but have encouraged Penn State officials to view it.
The investigation is now in the hands of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro after the new Centre County (Pa.) District Attorney Bernard Cantorna announced he had a conflict.
At least two of the defendants have claimed they were oblivious to Piazza’s condition that night. In August, attorney Frank Fina said his client, chapter president Brendan Young, “wasn’t there through the whole night.”
Leonard Ambrose, who represents 19-year-old Joe Sala, a former Beta Theta Pi member, said his client didn’t know anyone had fallen down the stairs.
“He believed that this pledge acceptance was permissible because, if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t go on,” he said.
Every one of the defendants played a role, claims Tom Kline, the family’s attorney.
“There were a lot of people involved who had pieces to this larger puzzle,” he said. “Each one of them knowing and understanding that they were involved in hazing.”
Aside from placing a permanent ban on Beta Theta Pi, Penn State announced sweeping changes to its Greek system after Piazza’s death, including moving all Greek disciplinary actions under the university. Previously, such actions were handled by the independent and student-run Interfraternity Council.
On Thursday, Penn State President Eric Barron announced the university will host a gathering of university leaders in April to “explore ideas for cooperative action” regarding fraternities.
“Much remains to be done,” Barron wrote. “The memory of Timothy Piazza deserves nothing less than our collective action.”
But Jim Piazza doesn’t have faith the university has implemented all of its promised changes.
“It’s a joke,” he said. “They’re a lot of talk. They’ve done some good things, but there’s a lot more for them to do.”
Beta Theta Pi Executive Director Jeff Rundle said it will announce the fraternity’s commitment to initial strategies to “confront these realities” in the coming days . He said the conduct by the PSU Beta Theta Pi members contradicted the organization’s teachings.
“They shine a light on the stark effects of alcohol in chapter houses, and what happens when new member education is twisted into something it was never meant to be,” Rundle said.
For Jim Piazza, universities and national fraternal organizations need to take more forthright oversight roles over local chapters. He said state laws need to be strengthened so that hazing becomes a deterrent.
Tim Piazza’s older brother Michael, still attends Penn State, and the family said the student community there has been supportive of him. Since his death, the Timothy J. Piazza Memorial Foundation has raised more than $250,000 for scholarships and children and soldiers in need of prosthetics. Recently, the foundation cut its first check to pay for a prosthetic foot for an 8-year-old boy.
“At the end of the day, we’re simply looking for justice for what happened to Tim that night,” he said. “Those individuals put him in a very bad place and had an opportunity to save his life after they put him in a life-threatening situation, and they chose not to. And that is one of the most disturbing things that I think about every day, is that they made a decision not to save his life.”
Follow Sean Rossman on Twitter: @SeanRossman