No charges in death of Cornell freshman hazed at frat party
No criminal charges will be filed in the mysterious death of a Cornell University freshman whose body was found in a gorge after attending a frat party that allegedly consisted of seven different rooms for various drinking events.
Cornell University Police Department announced Monday that a yearlong investigation into the death of 18-year-old Antonio Tsialas produced no evidence of foul play and was accidental.
“Cornell Police investigators conducted approximately 150 interviews and followed up on nearly 100 other individual leads in an attempt to determine how and why Tsialas died,” the statement read. “CUPD did not identify any evidence or reason to suspect foul play at that location, and the death remains an accidental death due to a fall from a height as classified by the medical examiner.”
The statement said that in lieu of evidence, the Tompkins County District Attorney’s Office, which oversees the case, will not file any criminal charges in connection to the incident. The Tompkins County District Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to request for comment Tuesday evening when contacted by NBC News.
On the evening of Oct. 26, Tsialas’s dead body was discovered in the Fall Creek gorge, a natural ravine near Cornell University’s campus in upstate New York. Police said Tsialas had been last seen two days earlier attending a frat rush party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity in which freshmen had allegedly been hazed with drinking games.
“The investigation found that Tsialas had attended and participated in an unregistered and clandestinely planned recruiting event at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house on the evening of October 24, 2019,” the statement read. “During this event, members of the fraternity hosted Tsialas and other potential new member invitees, provided them with alcohol, and encouraged them to participate in a variety of drinking games, violating a number of Cornell policies.”
The death of the teenager garnered national attention last year and ignited conversation around hazing practices at college campuses, especially as Tsialas’s parents, Tomasello and John Tsialas, began to publicly question the role the fraternity and the Ivy League school played in their son’s death.
While Cornell University Police did not suspect foul play at the time, the teen’s parents offered a $10,000 reward to anyone with information about his death and months later sued the fraternity, Cornell University, and several Phi Kappa Psi members, alleging negligence and premise liability.
NBC News reached out to Phi Kappa Psi’s national organization on Tuesday evening but did not immediately hear back.
According to the parents’ lawsuit, the night of the frat party, Tsialas had dinner with his mother, who was visiting for the university’s annual parents’ weekend. He promised to meet his mother the next morning after leaving her to join other freshmen for a Phi Kappa Psi event, not knowing what the event was about, the suit alleged. After arriving at the fraternity’s chapter house, Tsialas and other freshmen were brought to the house’s basement where they were told no phones, video, or pictures would be allowed. Then they were divided into groups and escorted by fraternity members into different rooms throughout the house, each with their own “planned drinking events,” the suit said. Tsialas was under the legal drinking age at the time of the event.
The lawsuit alleged there was a room called the “Tropical Room,” in which freshmen had to limbo under a stick while alcohol was poured down their throats. In the “Santa Claus Room,” freshmen sat on the lap of someone dressed as Santa Claus, who told whether they were naughty or nice, determining what type of alcohol they had to drink. “Before leaving Santa’s room, each group was given a ‘Christmas gift’ consisting of a full bottle of New Amsterdam vodka and they were told that they could not leave the room until they finished drinking the entire bottle,” the suit alleged.
“The activities in the rooms were focused on a series of drinking events where the freshmen were induced, encouraged and coerced to drink large quantities of alcohol,” the suit claimed. “Sometime after the drinking games ended, Antonio Tsialas was allowed to leave the fraternity house intoxicated or was taken from the fraternity house while intoxicated with no efforts by any of the defendants to stop him or get him safely back to his dormitory.”
“From the time that he was seen at the party and then the space of which he was discovered at the location afterwards, no one has said anything,” John Tsialas told NBC News last year. “No one has acknowledged anything. It’s just very baffling, confusing.”
Following the death of Tsialas, Cornell University revoked the fraternity’s recognition and banned it from operating within the university’s Greek community. In addition, 31 students were referred to the university by police for their involvement in the matter, although the university will not release their identities due to privacy laws, according to Monday’s statement from CUPD. A hazing website from the university said these referrals have resulted in “suspensions from Cornell, deferred suspensions, probation, reflection exercises, and written reprimands.”
Michael Levine, an attorney for the Tsialas family, told NBC News in a phone interview Tuesday that the decision to not bring criminal charges in the death of Tsialas is disappointing.
“New York has criminalized hazing. That’s the law in the state of New York. Under that statute it’s hard to imagine that the facts uncovered by Cornell University PD do not give rise to criminal charges for hazing,” Levine said. “So, it’s very surprising that the District Attorney would not press charges against anybody or convene a grand jury.”
Levine said the Tsialas family and Cornell University reached a monetary settlement tied to the lawsuit on Nov. 27, although he would not disclose details. David Bianchi, another lawyer on the case, said the suit is now “over and done with.”
“One of the goals of this lawsuit is to prevent these types of tragedies from ever happening again,” Levine said, adding that as a part of the settlement the university has set up a scholarship in memory Tsialas to be awarded to an incoming freshman each year and has invited Tsialas’s parents to partake in a hazing prevention week, also in honor of Tsialas.
Cornell University’s Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina did not confirm any details of a settlement to NBC News, but said the loss of Tsialas “left an indelible void that continues to be felt across our campus today.”
“Our students, faculty and staff who had the pleasure to know [Tsialas] speak of the impact that he had on their lives, inspiring those of us who never had an opportunity to meet him,” Malina said. “He was a remarkable young man who was taken from the world far too prematurely. We welcome the resolution of the case and the programmatic actions Cornell is implementing through which Antonio’s memory will live on at Cornell, helping to promote the safety and well-being of our current and future students and, hopefully, bringing some solace to his family for their enduring loss.”
On the university’s hazing page, the university said the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity will never be eligible for university recognition again.