NISKAYUNA — A Niskayuna man and Penn State fraternity house manager intentionally deleted crucial video that showed events leading up to the death of a fraternity pledge earlier this year, a Pennsylvania prosecutor said Monday.
Authorities have since recovered the video, and it is now the basis for a host of new charges related to the February death of Timothy Piazza.
Braxton Becker, 20, a 2014 Niskayuna High School graduate, deleted video taken in the fraternity's basement as police were in the house, and apparently while officers stood next to him, according to prosecutors speaking during a Monday news conference to announce the new charges.
"Braxton Becker is the individual that was charged for deleting of the basement video," District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said.
Becker now faces three charges: tampering with physical evidence, obstructing administration of law and hindering apprehension, according to the prosecutor's office.
In all, 17 fraternity members face new charges based on the basement video evidence, including five for involuntary manslaughter. Charges against Becker are limited to the tampering, obstructing and hindering counts.
Becker's attorney could not be reached for comment Monday.
Police in State College, Pennsylvania, first learned of the existence of the video during a court hearing last summer, and an investigator ultimately turned to the FBI for help in recovering the images from the recording device.
Investigators used the video to determine fraternity members gave Piazza at least 18 drinks over the course of about 90 minutes, the prosecutor said.
Prosecutors previously had video from elsewhere in the house, but not the basement. Defense attorneys for fraternity members charged previously in the case used the absence of basement video to question what really happened in the house.
As house manager, Becker was in charge of the house's camera system, Miller said.
"As you can read from Braxton Becker's complaint, while (police) were there to get the video from the fraternity brothers, a series of commands — deliberate commands — were entered into the system," Miller said. "It was manually deleted from certain menus."
"We know exactly the time it was deleted, and police were indeed in the house," Miller said.
She referenced evidence from a previous hearing at which Becker and another person talked about deleting the video.
Asked by a reporter during Monday's news conference to clarify whether Becker took advantage of the situation to delete the video before it was retrieved, Miller referred to Becker's affidavit and said that was "generally right."
The affidavit was not available later Monday.
All three new charges against Becker are misdemeanors, which in Pennsylvania carry possible punishments of up to two years in jail. Standard guidelines would call for punishment of probation, though Miller said a judge can take into account the impact of the case.
The new tampering count against Becker is separate from an earlier count filed by prosecutors and then tossed in September by a judge.
The September ruling focused on eight fraternity members who had been charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with Piazza's death.
Piazza died after he fell during an alcohol-fueled party, about 12 hours before a fraternity member called 911 to report Piazza's injuries, according to court documents.
In all, 18 members of the fraternity were initially charged in connection with the death. Five of the 18 faced only a single evidence-tampering count, Becker among them.
Becker also was charged in mid-February with selling large amounts of marijuana. The investigation into the marijuana sales began in November, nearly three months before Piazza's death, the Centre Daily Times of State College reported. That case appears to be pending.
In that case, Becker faces multiple felony charges, as well as misdemeanors, the Centre Times wrote.
Becker was an undergraduate majoring in material science and engineering.
Before heading to Penn State, Becker won a $5,000 leadership scholarship from the Schenectady Foundation. That award was announced in August 2014.