Grand jury to reconsider charges in Penn State pledge’s suicide after alleged hazing

Posted at 4:54 PM, Aug 10, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-10 16:54:52-04

A state grand jury in Pennsylvania will take a second look at whether criminal charges should be filed in the 2014 suicide death of an 18-year-old Penn State student who allegedly had been hazed at his fraternity, CNN has learned.

The death of Marquise Braham is getting a fresh look by a new set of investigators in light of allegations that Penn State University for years has mishandled reports of hazing. Marquise’s parents, who recently spoke with CNN, insist officials turned a blind eye to the psychological distress their son’s fraternity experience imposed, which Penn State disputes.

The Braham case resurfaced this year after another student, 19-year-old Tim Piazza, died after his first night pledging Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity at the main campus in State College.

Piazza repeatedly fell down inside the fraternity house following an induction ritual involving alcohol, police said. Video surveillance from inside the house shows him struggling for 12 hours, yet police have said no one called for help.

Piazza died the next day, and 18 members of the fraternity now face charges ranging from reckless endangerment to involuntary manslaughter. All have pleaded not guilty. Piazza’s parents have called the system governing fraternities at Penn State “criminal.”

Now, the grand jury that convened to investigate Penn State and Piazza’s death has expanded its scope, and will examine at least two other Penn State fraternity misconduct allegations that never resulted in criminal charges.

In addition to the Braham case, the grand jury will look at reports from James Vivenzio, who has told CNN he documented hazing in 2012 and 2013 at Penn State’s Kappa Delta Rho chapter. Vivenzio has said he reported his findings to Penn State officials but never heard back, and in 2015 he sued the university, the fraternity and others over his experience. Penn State has disputed his story; the university in 2015 issued a three-year suspension to Kappa Delta Rho, which expelled 38 members.

‘It didn’t make any sense’

Braham’s story has mostly flown under the radar.

The fact that his death was a suicide and that he left a note saying, “I saw this coming since I was a child, so I apologize to those of you who are surprised by this,” have left some skeptical of whether his fraternity experience led to his death. A grand jury looked at the case in 2014 and determined there was “no link.”

Marquise died March 14, 2014, on the last day of spring break, which he spent at his family’s home in Queens. After finishing lunch with his mom, Maille, Marquise told her, “I’ll be right back.” He left the restaurant, went to a nearby hotel and jumped 10 stories from the roof.

“It didn’t make any sense to us,” Rich Braham, Marquise’s father, told CNN. “It makes more sense to us now.”

The Brahams’ have sued Penn State, two of its employees, fraternity brothers and Phi Sigma Kappa, which Marquise pledged at the university’s satellite campus in Altoona. In an interview with CNN, Mallie and Rich Braham said information they’ve gathered for the lawsuit has convinced them that their son’s death was preventable.

An internal investigation by Penn State following Marquise’s death revealed that a week before his suicide, several high-ranking employees knew that Marquise and a pledge were involved in hazing at Phi Sigma Kappa, and that Marquise was in psychological distress because of it. Marquise had signed a waiver form allowing Penn State officials to notify his parents in case of a medical emergency.

“They said nothing,” Rich Braham said. “We have suffered. This entire family has suffered. Because of Penn State. What Penn State knew and what they didn’t do.”

Parts of Penn State’s investigation, which a judge ruled should be kept confidential, were read in open court during a hearing related to the family’s lawsuit.

“They did that to keep it from us seeing it,” Rich Braham said. “How evil is that? How evil must you be to do something like that? To let us suffer when you know what’s going on. You know what the cause is. You knew when he was alive. That is evil, what they’ve done to us.”

Penn State told CNN it repeatedly has offered support to the Braham family. The university “disputes the family’s characterization of these matters” and cannot comment further because of the pending litigation, it said in a statement.

Phone captures frat rituals

In the days after Marquise’s death, his family began to piece together what they believed happened.

They learned that Marquise, who had been a devoted Catholic, told his hometown priest that he had been “marked” by his fraternity, his parents said.

Beyond that, “Marquise’s phone revealed a lot,” Rich Braham said.

Marquise had taken pictures of the alleged rituals, capturing apparent signs of dangerous forced drinking; his parents showed the images to CNN. Written on one piece of paper was the instruction, “Total drinks for the night should be 20-25 beers per pledge.”

Another photo showed a pledge with a gun to his head, while still another showed a dead squirrel that Marquise, in a later text, said he’d been forced to kill.

On his phone, the family also found a video of pledges fighting, as well as text messages indicating that at one point, Marquise worried he had a concussion from being forced to fight other pledges.

When his parents cleaned out Marquise’s dorm room, they found alcohol bottles with numbers and pledges’ names on them, they said. The university, Rich Braham said, later discarded those bottles.

“Penn State threw them out,” he said. “A member of their legal team sent a letter back to my previous counsel and said that those bottles were discarded. … And I’m like, Discarded? They had pledge names and numbers on them! Discarded? Penn State threw them out.”

Penn State told CNN: “Any claim that the University somehow interfered in law enforcement’s investigation of this matter is patently false.”

‘Locked in’

The Brahams also learned that pledges at Phi Sigma Kappa had to participate in a ceremony called “locked in,” during which they were forced to drink alcohol until they got sick, then fill garbage pails with vomit, they told CNN.

The “locked in” ceremony had been a ritual at Penn State’s Phi Sigma Kappa at least a decade before Marquise’s death, a former pledge told CNN under the condition that his name not be used.

“‘Locked in’ was one of the worst rituals that Marquise was subjected to,” the Brahams’ attorney, Douglas Fierberg, said.

Phi Sigma Kappa’s national leadership said in a statement: “Despite the claims made in the pending civil lawsuit, Marquise’s tragic suicide had nothing to do with his involvement with the fraternity.” It also noted that the fraternity rituals described in the suit, “if true, are in direct violation of the fraternity’s standards and expectations.”

“The death of Marquise Braham has never fully been considered in the context in which it should be,” Fierberg said. “People initially thought, well here is the young man who committed suicide. He must’ve decided for long-standing reasons to take his own life. And that simply is not true. This was directly related to hazing. And finally we’ve been able to start get the facts out.”

‘Yes it will get worse’

Perhaps the most telling evidence the Brahams found on Marquise’s cell phone was text messages their son exchanged in the weeks before his death with his resident assistant, according to the Brahams’ lawsuit.

“I feel like I’ve done so much that it can’t get any worse but it always does lol,” Marquise wrote to her, according to message records the Brahams shared with CNN.

She replied: “Yes it will get worse. I’m sorry to say but it will.”

For weeks, she stayed in contact with Marquise, sending messages including: “keep chugging along boo … stay strong little buddy. you’re almost done and you’ve been so strong.”

By March 2014, Marquise had been made a brother in the fraternity, expected to participate in the induction of new pledges. Nine days before his death, Marquise texted his resident assistant: “I just never thought I would get to the point where I need counseling.”

“I’m worried about you,” she replied.

She then alerted her supervisor, and the information made its way up Penn State’s chain of command — but never to his parents, Fierberg has said in court. Phi Sigma Kappa was suspended from Penn State in 2014 for six years following findings of hazing, Penn State has said.

“He was looking for brotherhood, for friendship. Memories!” Rich Braham said. “Marquise had memories, and he hated them. He hated those memories so much that he felt he had to die for what he had done, … which is why he jumped off of the roof of a hotel, so he wouldn’t have to go back to school the next day.

“And I’m sure that there were things that he was doing that he knew were just wrong. And he just couldn’t continue doing them. That’s why Marquise is dead today. He died of a guilty conscience.”

“I can’t handle it,” Maille Braham said. “You go to the movies, and there are all these shots, skyline shots. And what do you think comes to my mind? I can’t recall what we were watching, but it had someone in the closet. And immediately I thought about that. I mean, it’s like, Gosh, this must be terrible. You’re in the dark, in the closet. You’re ‘locked in.'”