(Photo provided by Cornell Police)

ITHACA, N.Y. –– The parents of Antonio Tsialas, the 18-year-old Cornell freshmen who was found dead at the bottom of Fall Creek gorge on Oct. 26, 2019, have filed suit seeking answers to how and why their son died.

Tsialas was last seen alive two days prior, at an unsanctioned Phi Kappa Psi fraternity rush event on Cornell’s campus. 

The lawsuit names Cornell University, Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and several Cornell students as defendants. 

Andrew Scherr, Shane Rohe, William Granath, Ryan Berman, Nolan Berkenfeld, Pietropalazzolo Russo and Felipe Hanuch are all members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and named in the suit. Scherr is the chapter president, Granath is the Vice President and Berman is the secretary of the organization.

Another man, John Jacobs was named in the suit, and was the “chapter advisor” for Phi Kappa Psi.

According to the lawsuit that was filed in the Tompkins County Supreme Court, Antonio was invited to attend a rush party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house on the Cornell campus with thirty-five other freshmen. The event was called “Christmas in October” and had seven Christmas themed rooms set up where the freshmen were hazed and pressured to drink large amounts of alcohol. 

According to the lawsuit, fraternity leaders announced at the beginning of the event, “if you are ever asked, you were never here. No phones. No video. No photographs.”

The lawsuit alleges that after partaking in the heavy drinking, Antonio became intoxicated and then disappeared. 

Despite a $10,000 reward offered by the family in November,  no one has come forward with information about why he left the fraternity house or whether he left alone or with others.

Cornell President Martha Pollack issued a public statement acknowledging that the unauthorized “dirty rush” took place, that Antonio Tsialas was in attendance and that alcohol was illegally served. She also informed the community that the event occurred the day after the Phi Kappa Psi chapter appeared before a university disciplinary body because of misconduct involving a different unauthorized event. 

In Dec. Pollack issued a statement to the campus community, saying that the University would work to reform their Greek Life policies to crack down on dangerous drinking behaviors and create a more inclusive environment. 

“Regrettably, this is not an isolated incident. We have on this campus, as do many of our peers on their campuses, a persistent culture of misconduct in the Greek-letter system,” Pollack said. “A pattern that dates back years, if not decades, and one that I have witnessed during my two-and-a-half years as Cornell’s president.”

The new policies, effective this semester, include independent event monitors for all Greek Life gatherings, and for large events a chapter must, “retain third-party vendors for both alcohol service and security.”

Additionally, a “university-staffed, roving security team will be deployed nightly to undertake random spot-checks of on- and off-campus properties for potential violation of event management policies or the law.”

Violations of these rules are accompanied by immediate interim suspension, with all chapter activities put on hold pending the outcome of a Greek judicial proceeding. If chapters are found guilty of violating safety policies, a final sanction could range from a minimum of a three-year suspension to permanent dismissal from university recognition.

In terms of new inclusivity measures, Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi and his staff will work with Greek leadership, “to design an entirely new recruitment process, one that promotes inclusion, reduces competition and advances the positive aspects of the Greek life system.” That new process is set to be unveiled in the next academic year. 

Effective immediately, all formal and informal recruitment and new member education activities must be entirely substance-free, and no recruitment activities can take place after 8 p.m. 

Failure by any chapter to adhere to these inclusivity guidelines will result in immediate removal from the recruitment and new member process, with no new class recruited that year.

“The arrogance of these fraternity officers and members is shocking,” said David W. Bianchi, the Tsialas family attorney from Miami who specializes in fraternity hazing cases. “They apparently believe that the rules don’t apply to them and while we still don’t know exactly how Antonio died we do know that had this totally unauthorized and illegal hazing ritual not taken place, Antonio would be alive today.”

The Tsialas family is frustrated by the lack of information about what happened to their son. 

“We have patiently waited for three months for answers about what happened to our son and no one will tell us anything,” said John Tsialas, the father of Antonio Tsialas. “The fraternity members will not talk to us, Phi Kappa Psi fraternity has not reached out or tried to help us in any way and the Cornell University police department will not let us see any part of their investigation. As a result, we have had to hire our own investigators, offer a $10,000 reward for information and file this lawsuit to hold those responsible for the events of that night accountable.”

In the lawsuit, the Tsialas family is, “seeking compensation for the injuries and mental and physical pain, suffering and anguish suffered by their son Antonio Tsialas prior to his death, compensation for Antonio Tsialas’ fear of impending death, and compensation for the consequences to John Tsialas and Flavia Tomasello from the death of their son, Antonio Tsialas, including, but not limited to, past, present and future economic losses and compensation for their mental pain and suffering caused by his death.”

There are several counts of negligence and liability charges filed against the defendants in the suit. 

At the time he was found, Antonio was wearing the same clothes that he had worn to dinner the night of the hazing event except that the white polo shirt he had been wearing under his sweatshirt was found in a bush up the side of the gorge. The polo shirt had vomit and a footprint on it. His keys and wallet were found on his person, but his phone was not recovered. 

An autopsy confirmed that Antonio was intoxicated at the time of his death and had sustained multiple injuries to his body.

The lawsuit was filed by David W. Bianchi of the Stewart Tilghman Fox Bianchi & Cain, P.A. law firm in Miami, Florida and E. Stewart Jones of the Jones Hacker Murphy law firm in Troy, New York. 

Cornell Chief of Police David Honan said they are actively investigating the case, and is therefor unable to comment.

It is unclear when the case will move forward.

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com