First guilty plea in Penn State frat hazing death of Timothy Piazza

Ryan Burke "decided to step forward at his earliest opportunity to acknowledge and accept his responsibility," his attorney said.

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By Phil Helsel

A former Penn State fraternity member pleaded guilty on Wednesday to charges stemming from the hazing death of student Timothy Piazza, who died last year after falling down a flight of stairs at a fraternity house.

Ryan Burke, 21, became the first person in the February 2017 death to plead guilty, in a case in which 26 people have been charged, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement.

Piazza's death and other incidents have thrown a spotlight on fraternity practices and alcohol abuse and hazing. Piazza, a 19-year-old sophomore from Lebanon, New Jersey, died at the Beta Theta Pi house. Prosecutors have said he was served 18 drinks over 82 minutes.

"Mr. Burke decided to step forward at his earliest opportunity to acknowledge and accept his responsibility," Burke's attorney, Philip Masorti, said outside court.

"We didn’t ask for a plea agreement; none was offered. We didn't think that was appropriate," Masorti said. "We came to court, we acknowledged responsibility, and he’s prepared to be sentenced."

Burke pleaded guilty before Judge Brian Marshall in the Centre County Court of Common Pleas in Bellefonte on Wednesday to four counts of hazing and five counts relating to unlawful acts involving liquor, Shapiro's office said. Sentencing is scheduled for July 31.

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"Tim Piazza's death was a terrible tragedy," Shapiro said in a statement. "My office is committed to seeking justice on behalf of Tim Piazza and his family and holding every responsible individual accountable for their actions, consistent with the law and the evidence in this case," he said.

An attorney for the Piazza family, Tom Kline, said the family was happy with the plea.

Timothy Piazza with his parents, Evelyn and James Piazza, at the Hunterdon Central Regional High School stadium in Flemington, New Jersey, on Oct. 31, 2014.Patrick Carns / AP file

"We are pleased to see one individual take responsibility and encourage others to follow in his steps," Kline told NBC affiliate WJAC of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Piazza was at a Beta pledge event on Feb. 2 when police said he fell down basement steps during a night of excessive drinking. First responders were not called until almost 12 hours later — after various brothers tried unsuccessfully to give him meaningful assistance, prosecutors alleged.

Piazza died two days later. A coroner ruled his death accidental and said he sustained multiple traumatic injuries from the fall.

Shapiro said that Piazza and other pledges had to run a "gauntlet of drinking games and an obstacle course," and that Burke and other fraternity members "pushed, served and poured drinks onto pledges as they ran through the obstacle course."

Following the gauntlet, Burke walked around with a vodka bottle and made underage fraternity pledges, including Piazza, drink from it, Shapiro said.

Penn State shut down the Beta chapter permanently after an investigation into Piazza's death and after the Beta Theta Pi international fraternity suspended the group.

Besides Burke, 25 other former Beta brothers have been charged, mostly for conspiracy to commit hazing and unlawful acts related to minors. The ex-Beta members have denied all charges.

A judge previously threw out the most serious charges, including involuntary manslaughter, against some defendants.

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A spokesman for Shapiro said the attorney general’s office is seeking to refile charges of involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment against eight defendants in the case.

Masorti, Burke’s attorney, expressed condolences to Piazza’s family Wednesday and said Burke accepts responsibility for his actions.

“This is a tragedy, and he is anxious to make amends,” Masorti said outside court.