By David DeKok
BELLEFONTE, Pa. (Reuters) - Members of a Pennsylvania State University fraternity spent more than $2,000 on alcoholic beverages for four membership events that culminated in the death of a 19-year-old student in February, a police detective said on Monday.
Detective David Scicchitano of the State College Police Department testified about the purchases at the continuation of a preliminary hearing for 16 of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity who are charged in the death of Timothy Piazza.
Eight of the accused face felony aggravated-assault charges that could put them in prison for many years. The rest are charged with various misdemeanor offenses, including involuntary manslaughter.
"They were obtaining a lot of alcohol," Scicchitano said, "A very large amount."
Most of the alcohol was intended to get the prospective new members, known as "pledges," intoxicated quickly, the detective said, citing conversations with the accused students and a review of their phone texts.
The activities were illegal under state law and violated university policy, in part because the pledges were under the legal drinking age of 21 in Pennsylvania.
Piazza suffered severe head injuries and injuries to his spleen on Feb. 4, leading to his death two days later.
A surveillance video shown at the start of the hearing on June 10 showed the student staggering through the fraternity house and repeatedly falling down.
Scicchitano said receipts show the $2,000 was spent at two state liquor stores and a beer distributor.
The pledge events at the fraternity included a beer and cigar night, a "crate race" in which teams of pledges competed to finish off bottles of beer and vodka, and boxes of inexpensive wine. An event called "the gauntlet" required pledges to participate in more heavy drinking.
Scicchitano's testimony at the June 10 hearing established that Piazza's blood alcohol was above 0.30 percent at one point in the evening, or nearly four times the legal limit for drivers of 0.08 percent.
Scicchitano, the only prosecution witness at the hearing, is expected to be cross-examined by lawyers for the accused on Monday afternoon.
Magisterial District Judge Allen Sinclair will decide at the conclusion of the hearing whether the 16 defendants, and two others who waived preliminary hearings, will have to stand trial on the charges in Centre County Court of Common Pleas.
(Reporting by Frank McGurty; Editing by Richard Chang)