Cornell Settled Hazing Lawsuit With Student’s Family Amid Lingering Questions About His Death

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Cornell University has paid an undisclosed amount of money to the family of Antonio Tsialas, the Cornell freshman who died last year after attending a frat party, as part of a legal settlement, the family’s attorney said.

The settlement concluded the civil lawsuit that claimed a Christmas-themed hazing ritual played a role in Tsialas’ death. Authorities found his body in a gorge at Fall Creek in Ithaca two days after the Oct. 24, 2019 party at Phi Kappa Psi.

A perpetual scholarship in the memory of Tsialas will also be awarded to one incoming Cornell freshman each year as part of the settlement, according to David Bianchi, the attorney representing the parents from Miami.

Despite the civil case ending, however, many of the family’s questions about the circumstances surrounding Tsialas’ death, and potential criminal wrongdoing, remain unanswered, Bianchi said.

“We just passed the one-year anniversary of his death, and we still don’t know what happened to him,” Bianchi said in a phone interview Monday.

“We believe there’s students out there who know something, but they won’t talk and there is this conspiracy of silence and as a result we don’t have the information about how and why Antonio died,” Bianchi said.

Cornell University Police have said they don’t suspect foul play and declined to discuss details of their investigation.

New details, however, show Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten has declined to pursue criminal charges related to the death, including charges for hazing and providing alcohol to minors under age 21, according to police documents obtained by USA TODAY Network New York.

New details in law enforcement probe of Tsialas’ death

During a September meeting, Cornell University Police discussed the findings of their investigation into Tsialas’ death with Van Houten, police records show.

At the meeting, Van Houten “indicated he did not believe the case met the elements of a hazing charge,” records show, and he decided to allow the university to punish any students involved in serving alcohol to minors.

As for potential charges against the fraternity as a corporation, Van Houten “indicated he did not feel that such charges would be in the interest of justice,” records show, adding he noted the likelihood the university would ban the fraternity was appropriate.

The case was closed without criminal charges following the Sept. 14 meeting with the district attorney, police records show.

The tipster suggested a Cornell student “had direct knowledge or was directly involved in concealing the death of (Tsialas) by ‘throwing his body into the gorge,’” police records show.

Cornell police interviewed several Cornell students about the tip, including the student in question who denied wrongdoing, police records show.

Responding to a USA TODAY Network New York email about the records, Van Houten on Monday wrote he was unavailable to discuss the investigation and referred the inquiry to Cornell University.

Cornell University Police didn’t immediately respond Monday to questions about the status of the case or its investigatory files, which were released to the family as part of the civil case settlement, according to Bianchi.

Bianchi on Monday said he has urged Van Houten to convene a grand jury to compel students to provide testimony about the case.

“It is done all of the time in criminal investigations when you are faced with witnesses who do not want to talk,” Bianchi said, adding “for some reason that is not being done in this death investigation.”

Addressing the police investigation of the recent tip, Bianchi said he has “no idea if there is any truth to that but it seems to me that the allegation should be aggressively investigated, and it does not seem like that was done here.”

What Cornell says about the Tsialas settlement

In addition to the payment to the family, which was not made public, and the scholarship, Cornell agreed to name its hazing prevention week activities in honor of Tsialas, Bianchi said.

His parents will also be invited to attend the event each year and participate in guiding content.

Cornell University issued a statement Monday in response to USA TODAY Network questions about the matter.

“The tragic death last year of Antonio Tsialas left an indelible void that continues to be felt across our campus today,” said Joel Malina, vice president for university relations.

Tsialas “was a remarkable young man who was taken from the world far too prematurely,” he added.

Malina noted Cornell welcomed the resolution of the civil case and other actions it 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.”

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