NEW YORK – Antonio Tsialas, 18, a Greek-American freshman at Cornell University
and Miami native was found dead by Fall Creek Gorge two days after he went missing
following a frat party on October 24, 2019. His parents, Flavia Tomasello and John Tsialas have offered a $10,000 reward for information about their son’s death.
The family made their plea through two full-page ads in the Ivy League school’s student
newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun, the family’s lawyer, David Bianchi told CNN at the time, and the devastated parents also released a plea for information on Facebook on November 11.
The New York Times followed up on the investigation into what happened to Tsialas in an article on March 13, noting that Tsialas’ mother “was overwhelmed by the smell of alcohol as she made her way into the Cornell University fraternity house where her missing son had last been seen.”
She was supposed to have met her son at the campus bookstore during parents’ weekend, but he never appeared, the Times reported, adding that “by 10 PM, he still wasn’t answering his phone” and “his friends hadn’t seen him all day.”
“The night before, fraternity brothers had driven dozens of freshmen to the brick frat house on the Ithaca, NY, campus and ushered them through seven rooms, each of which contained its own alcohol-fueled challenge: shots in one, beers in another,” the Times reported, noting that “in one room, the recruits had to down a bottle of vodka among them. Some vomited and blacked out.”
Tsialas was among the freshmen at the Phi Kapp Psi party, the Times reported, noting that “in just a few weeks at college had played with a club soccer team, begun taking finance classes and already found a job as a campus tour guide.”
“Another freshman later told the police that a young woman had approached Tsialas at the frat party, declared that he was not drunk enough and poured vodka down his throat,” the Times reported, adding that “the Phi Kappa Psi brothers did not mention that to Ms. Tomasello when she arrived on Friday evening looking for her son.”
“Instead, the fraternity brother who had invited Tsialas to the party said he had caught only the end of the party himself, having spent much of the night at the library,” the Times reported, adding that “the fraternity’s president suggested that Mr. Tsialas had gone to another party afterward,” and “neither claim turned out to be true, investigators later said.”
As Tsialas’ mother “pleaded with the fraternity brothers for clues that night in October 2019, her son was lying in a shallow pool of water at the bottom of a vast ravine nearby, his skull fractured, his ribs broken and enough alcohol in his blood to indicate that he was drunk when he died,” the Times reported, noting that “more than a year later, his parents are still trying to understand what happened.”
“Their search for answers has been stymied, they say, by fraternity brothers who will not talk, a campus police department unprepared to investigate and a university that seemed eager to label their son’s death as not suspicious,” the Times reported.
The grieving mother said recently, “I’m just a mother wanting to know what happened to her son. We don’t care about anything else other than knowing what happened to Antonio so that it does not happen again,” the Times reported.
“In November, more than a year after Tsialas died, the chief of the Cornell University Police Department announced that he was closing the case, though few of the central questions surrounding Tsialas’ death had been resolved,” the Times reported, adding that “the local prosecutor said he would not bring charges against any fraternity brothers.”
“Joel M. Malina, a Cornell vice president, said in a statement that he stood by the Cornell Police Department’s investigation and that the university had been aggressive in making fraternities safer in recent years, including by suspending or limiting the activities of 28 Greek letter organizations since 2017,” the Times reported, noting that after Tsialas’ death, “Cornell officials found Phi Kappa Psi guilty of hazing, saying the fraternity had made it clear that the recruited freshmen were ‘expected’ to drink excessively, and the university handed down a range of punishments to 39 students tied to the party, including at least one suspension.”
The Times “pieced together this account of Tsialas’ last night and the investigation into his death by reviewing photographs, emails, text messages and hundreds of pages of other records, including the campus police department’s 158-page investigative file,” adding that “these documents, along with interviews with more than a dozen people tied to the case, show how members of the fraternity withheld information about the party, making it difficult for the police to determine what happened.”
For Tsialas’ parents, their son’s death “is a nightmarish example of the risks posed by the culture of ritual, secrecy and privilege that pervades many American fraternities, and it came amid a series of troubling fraternity-related deaths across the United States in the fall of 2019 — the last full semester before the coronavirus altered student life,” the Times reported, noting that “at Cornell, the grief that erupted on campus quickly turned to anger at Phi Kappa Psi, one of more than 50 fraternities and sororities at the university” and “Cornell eventually kicked the fraternity off campus, citing the illicit party that Tsialas attended, and changed some of its Greek life policies.”
The medical examiner “attributed Tsialas’ death to ‘a fall from height,’ and it is categorized on his death certificate as an accident,” the Times reported, adding that “how he got to the edge of the gorge and plummeted to the bottom remains a mystery.”
“As many as 100 people were at the Phi Kappa Psi house, but none said they saw him leave,” the Times reported, noting that “Cornell officials say Tsialas most likely left the party and managed to walk to a secluded area overlooking one of Ithaca’s famous gorges, about a 10-minute walk from the fraternity and away from any path to his dormitory.”
“Between him and the gorge was a waist-high stone wall, with the rushing sound of a waterfall on the other side,” the Times reported, adding that “his white polo shirt was found at the top of the ledge he fell from, stamped with what appeared to be a shoe print and stained with vomit. Curiously, he was still wearing a black sweatshirt. His phone was never recovered.”
Tsialas’ parents “still struggle to grasp how, in just a few days, they went from being thrilled about their eldest child thriving at a prestigious university to identifying his battered body in a hospital,” the Times reported, noting that “they want to know why he was at the edge of the steep ravine, how he fell to the rocks below and whether someone was with him or saw him on his way there.”
The police “have given no indication that any of the fraternity brothers have the answers, but if any did, they are not talking,” the Times reported, adding that “many fraternity brothers’ parents hired lawyers who prevented the police from talking to their sons.”
“Those who did talk offered scant information,” the Times reported, noting that “in some cases, investigators say, they lied.”
Matt Van Houten, the Tompkins County district attorney, said in an interview that “the fraternity brothers’ silence had infuriated him, even though they are within their rights to not speak with the police,” the Times reported.
“It seems to me that all these kids who lawyered up just had a complete moral failure,” he said, the Times reported. “That instinct of covering your own ass at the expense of these parents who are devastated, losing their oldest son and losing a child in that way, it’s so incredibly selfish.”
Tsialas’ parents say that “it was premature to assume a tragic accident or a suicide, and they fear that the Cornell Police also operated under that assumption, leading to errors in the investigation,” the Times reported, adding that “after discovering dirt marks that looked like a shoe print on Tsialas’ shirt, the police did not try to match them to anyone, although they do not believe they match the shoes Tsialas was wearing.”
“It’s inexcusable, for a major university in charge of a death investigation, that they wouldn’t do even the most basic things,” said Bianchi, the lawyer for Tsialas’ parents, the Times reported, noting that “he had pushed for the Ithaca Police Department to take over the investigation, given that Tsialas’ body was found on city property and that the city police have historically investigated unusual or suspicious deaths even when they happen on Cornell’s campus. In this case, they played only an ancillary role.”
Van Houten, the district attorney, said that “there was not enough evidence to bring charges against the fraternity brothers under the state’s misdemeanor hazing law, which would require him to prove that they had ‘intentionally or recklessly’ done something while initiating Tsialas that put him at risk,” the Times reported, adding that “legal experts agreed it would have been tough for Van Houten to win a conviction, and he said he had no interest in charging the students with low-level alcohol crimes.”
One way Van Houten might still be able to compel the students to talk is to summon them before a grand jury, the Times reported, pointing out that “in New York, people summoned before a grand jury may be compelled to testify, but only if they are given broad immunity.”
Van Houten said that “convening a grand jury without suspecting anyone of committing a felony would be an ‘abuse’ of the process, and because grand jury proceedings are largely secret, the testimony might never become public anyway,” the Times reported.
For Tsialas’ parents,”anything is better than giving up,” the Times reported, adding that “as part of the settlement in their lawsuit against Cornell, the university created a scholarship in their son’s name.”
Tsialas’ parents “have also been pursuing a mission of trying to prevent college hazing, all while holding out hope that someone can tell them about Antonio’s last moments,” the Times reported, noting that they still “have a standing offer of $10,000 for leads.”
“We don’t want to see these kids in jail. We tell you from the bottom of our heart, we don’t. But we would like to know more,” Tsialas’ mother told the Times.