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Penn State Fraternity Death: Parents of Timothy Piazza Leave as Video of Tragic Night Played in Court

by Gabe Gutierrez and Daniella Silva /  / Updated 
Image: Timothy Piazza, Evelyn Piazza, James Piazza
Timothy Piazza (C) with his parents Evelyn Piazza (L) and James Piazza (R) during Hunterdon Central Regional High School football's "Senior Night" at the high school's stadium in Flemington, New Jersey on Oct. 31, 2014. Prosecutors in Pennsylvania are set to announce on May 5, 2017, the results of a grand jury investigation into the death of the Penn State student, Timothy Piazza, who fell down steps Feb. 4, during an alcohol-fueled pledge ceremony.Patrick Carns / AP

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BELLEFONTE, Pa. — A security video showing the final hours of a Penn State University student’s life was at the center of a court hearing on Monday, as the victim’s grieving parents left before the footage began to play.

Timothy Piazza, 19, died following a Feb. 2 pledge event at the Beta Theta Pi frat house after falling down basement steps during a night of heavy drinking, authorities have said.

Authorities claim that despite Piazza’s injuries, it took 12 hours before a member of the fraternity called 911. Piazza died in the hospital on Feb. 4.

A slew of fraternity members are accused of failing to render appropriate aid to Piazza, and some are alleged to have physically assaulted him while trying to wake him.

Eighteen young men now face charges related to Piazza’s death ranging from involuntary manslaughter and felony aggravated assault to tampering with evidence.

"A lot of people were involved," District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller told NBC News. "We have ample evidence for every single one of them."

State College Police Detective David Scicchitano said during emotional testimony on Monday that Piazza “looked dead” in the surveillance video, describing what those in court were about to see.

Piazza’s parents were in the front row bench of the preliminary court hearing, and his father, Jim, rocked in his seat as he listened to the detective’s testimony.

Family attorney Tom Kline told NBC News outside court that this was an tough day for Piazza's relatives, some of whom walked out just before the video started playing.

"This was an extraordinarily difficult day for the Piazza family," he said. "It was most difficult to hear the gruesome, horrific details of their son's death spelled out by a detective who investigated this horrible matter."

Before the three hours of surveillance footage began playing, Scicchitano said it showed that sometime after Pizza’s initial fall, fraternity members picked him up and slammed him on his back on a couch.

Image: The eight defendants charged with manslaughter in the frat house pledge death of Timothy Piazza sit in court
The eight defendants charged with manslaughter in the frat house pledge death of Timothy Piazza sit in court.Art Lien

At one point, some of the members sat on his legs, the detective said, and Piazza was moving around, trying to twist and turn.

Related: Penn State Frat Members Have First Hearing in Pledge's Death

He said Piazza at one point appeared in pain and got into the fetal position.

“He looked dead. He looked like a corpse,” he said.

But the boys still did not call 911, he said.

The video showed the members talking among themselves and trying to dress Piazza before calling authorities, he said.

Scicchitano said Piazza’s legs were eventually stiff and he had “lost all color.”

Piazza’s parents left courtroom as the video began to play.

Family attorney Kline said Jim and Evelyn Piazza were "grieving" and wanted to remember their son as they knew him, and not how he looked in his final moments.

"The Piazzas made a decision that it was incompatible with their mental health to sit and watch this video," he said. "They want to remember their son as the bright, young handsome man who he was — not a man who they know from the grand jury written report was left to struggle bare-chested on the floor in the middle of the night."

The two would return to court after the video was over, Kline said.

Piazza's father told the TODAY Show last month that while he could not bear to watch the video as a parent, he could summon the strength needed to view it with school officials since they could make decisions that would make a difference.

Related: Penn State Pledge Was Treated Like 'Road Kill': Grieving Family

"I don't wanna see it as a parent, because I feel like it's gonna be incredibly painful," Jim Piazza said. "And the last memories of my son will be him being abused for 12 hours and dying a slow and painful death."

Image: Jim Piazza reacts to photo of his son Timothy Piazza in ICU.
Jim Piazza reacts to photo of his son Timothy Piazza in ICU.Art Lien

In the minutes leading up to his fall down the stairs, Piazza can be seen lurching through the rooms of the frat house, appearing very intoxicated.

The detective and the prosecutor said that about half an hour after the boy's fall, a group-text-app message was sent to frat members reading, "Tim Piazza might actually be a problem. He fell 15 feet down a flight of stairs, hair first. Going to need help."

Sixteen of the accused and a representative of the Alpha Upsilon Chapter of Beta Theta Pi were present on Monday in court, as two of the accused had waived their right to a preliminary hearing.

Ryan Foster and Edward Gilmartin, who were not present, were charged with tampering with evidence.

Penn State shut down the Beta chapter permanently after an investigation, and the Beta Theta Pi International Fraternity suspended the group.

Earlier this month, the university’s board of trustees voted on a set of reforms, including taking more control of fraternity discipline, tightening restrictions on social events and pushing back recruitment until later in the school year.

At the start of Monday's hearing, an attorney for one of the accused stood up to argue that the court appearances should be severed,” meaning that they should happen separately so the judge could rule on the individual merits of each case.

Other attorneys quickly stood up and made the same argument, but the prosecutor strongly objected, and the judge ruled against the defendants.

Michael Bonatucci, 19, is among those facing the most serious charges, including aggravated assault.

His lawyer, Rocco Cipparone Jr., said Bonatucci never handed any alcohol to Piazza that night and was not involved in the discussions of whether to call for help.

"It's a tragic situation, but just because somebody is deceased and it's sad doesn't mean that everyone who was even in any room at any time should be held criminally accountable,” Cipparone said.

Image: Sketch of PSU Frat House Death
CCTV of injured and dying Piazza, very pale, with frat members.Art Lien / NBC News

The charges against another fraternity brother, Joseph Sala, include involuntary manslaughter. His attorney, Leonard Ambrose, denies Sala had any contact with Piazza that night and he said the chapter adviser — a Penn State employee — should be held more responsible.

"[The chapter adviser] obviously was involved in having knowledge of the social agenda, what was going on at various times,” Ambrose said. “He was in the house. At no time did he ever say, 'You can't do this, this is improper.'"

District Attorney Parks Miller told NBC News that the charges came down to personal responsibility.

"This attempt to blame somebody who had no hand in what happened is just proof of how some of these defendants are going to go to try and exonerate themselves," she said.

Gabe Gutierrez and Bill O'Reilly reported from Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, and Daniella Silva reported from New York.

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