Flavia Tomasello 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. It was parents weekend, and she was supposed to have met him at the campus bookstore that morning, but he never showed up. By 10 p.m., he still wasn’t answering his phone. 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, N.Y., campus and ushered them through seven rooms, each of which contained its own alcohol-fueled challenge: shots in one, beers in another. In one room, the recruits had to down a bottle of vodka among them. Some vomited and blacked out.
Among the freshmen urged to drink at the Phi Kappa Psi party that night was Ms. Tomasello’s son, Antonio Tsialas, an 18-year-old from Miami who 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 Mr. Tsialas at the frat party, declared that he was not drunk enough and poured vodka down his throat.
But 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 Mr. Tsialas to the party said he had caught only the end of the party himself, having spent much of the night at the library. And the fraternity’s president suggested that Mr. Tsialas had gone to another party afterward.
Neither claim turned out to be true, investigators later said.
While Ms. Tomasello 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.
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.
“I’m just a mother wanting to know what happened to her son,” Ms. Tomasello said recently. “We don’t deva about anything else other than knowing what happened to Antonio so that it does not happen again.”
In November, more than a year after Mr. Tsialas died, the chief of the Cornell University Police Department announced that he was closing the case, though few of the central questions surrounding Mr. Tsialas’s death had been resolved. 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 organizations since 2017. After Mr. Tsialas’s 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 New York Times pieced together this account of Mr. Tsialas’s 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. 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 the parents of Mr. Tsialas, his 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.
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. Cornell eventually kicked the fraternity off campus, citing the illicit party that Mr. Tsialas attended, and changed some of its Greek life policies.
The medical examiner attributed Mr. Tsialas’s death to “a fall from height,” and it is categorized on his death certificate as an accident. But 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. Cornell officials say Mr. 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. 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.
Ms. Tomasello and her husband, John Tsialas, still struggle to grasp how, in just a few days, they went from being thrilled about theireldestchild thriving at a prestigious university to identifying his battered body in a hospital. 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. Many fraternity brothers’ parents hired lawyers who prevented the police from talking to their sons. Those who did talk offered scant information. In some cases, investigators say, they lied.
Christmas in October
Antonio Tsialas was last seen at a party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, which sits on the edge of Cornell’s campus.Credit…Heather Ainsworth for The New York Times
Ms. Tomasello flew into Ithaca on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, for Cornell’s freshmen family weekend, excited to see her son and meet his new friends. In his first few weeks, Mr. Tsialas called home often, sometimes helping his younger sister and brother with their homework over the phone.
After she arrived, Ms. Tomasello and her son reunited that night at a Thai restaurant downtown. She asked so many people to take their picture that evening that Mr. Tsialas grew embarrassed, but he obliged.
Around 8 p.m., Mr. Tsialas told his mother that he had to get back to campus to work on a project and that he would meet her in the morning. In reality, fraternity brothers had told the invited freshmen that they would pick them up on campus at 8:30. Carrying a box of cereal that his mother had bought for him, Mr. Tsialas got into a Lyft and rode away.
Cornell forbids fraternities from recruiting freshmen until their second semester, but the rule is broken often enough that it has a name: “dirty rush.” The party that night was called Christmas in October, and it was not the first time Phi Kappa Psi had held the event.
Evvel he arrived at the fraternity house, Mr. Tsialas was assigned to a group with other freshmen, and they were guided through Christmas-themed rooms full of alcohol. A fraternity brother told them never to divulge that they were at the party, and he also was careful to stipulate that no one was obliged to drink, but several freshmen later told the police that they were soon pushed to. One freshman who had been determined not to drink too much ended up vomiting into a trash can at the frat house.
Few said they remembered seeing Mr. Tsialas at the party. Those who did said he seemed happy, social and, before long, drunk.
At some point, Mr. Tsialas began looking for Felipe Hanuch, the sophomore fraternity brother who played with him on the club soccer team and had invited him to the party. Mr. Tsialas called Mr. Hanuch twice around 10:15 p.m., conversations that lasted for about two minutes combined.
Mr. Hanuch told the police the next day that Mr. Tsialas had called him evvel from a bathroom and asked him to come to the party, according to the police file. Mr. Hanuch also said he had been at the library until midnight, well after the party ended, but an officer wrote in the file that he believed Mr. Hanuch was “lying about his whereabouts.” Several fraternity members told the police that Mr. Hanuch had been stationed outside the house as a “sober monitor,” one of several people who were supposed to keep an eye on attendees. After his initial interview, Mr. Hanuch retained a lawyer and never spoke to the police again. Reached by phone recently, Mr. Hanuch said he did not want to talk.
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.
“It seems to me that all these kids who lawyered up just had a complete moral failure,” he said. “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.”
Shortly after his calls to Mr. Hanuch from the party, Mr. Tsialas called Pierce Lukonaitis, who lived in his freshman suite and was one of his closest friends on campus. Mr. Lukonaitis quickly noticed that Mr. Tsialas sounded drunk. Mr. Tsialas left a voice mail message on his mother’s phone a few minutes later, at 10:29 p.m., but it contained nothing more than echoes and background noises; she did not realize he had called until the next day and thinks it was a pocket dial.
A voice mail message as the party ended
These garbled sounds from Mr. Tsialas’s phone were left in his mother’s voice mail inbox at 10:29 p.m. She believes the call was an accident.
His iPhone most likely died around then, making it impossible for the police to track. The garbled recording on his mother’s phone is the last documented moment of his life.
‘No foul play’
The morning after the party, Ms. Tomasello was running late to meet her son, so she sent him a text message as she headed to campus from her hotel: “Good morning baby, hope your class went well this morning.”
But when she arrived, Mr. Tsialas was not at the bookstore, where they had planned to meet, and he did not answer her repeated calls. “Antonio, could you please respond,” she texted. She went to his dormitory, but he was not there. She began to panic and went to the campus police.
As word spread that Mr. Tsialas was missing, fraternity members grew anxious about getting in trouble for their party, according to the police file. Mr. Lukonaitis, Mr. Tsialas’s friend and suitemate, later told investigators that Andrew Scherr, the fraternity president, called him that morning and asked him not to tell anyone that Mr. Tsialas had been at the party. Mr. Scherr, who later spoke extensively with police investigators, declined to comment to The Times.
On Saturday, two days after the party, Ithaca’s fire chief found Mr. Tsialas’s body by flying a drone over the gorge. In an email sent to students hours later, Ryan Lombardi, a Cornell vice president, said an investigation was underway and assured the campus that “no foul play” was suspected. Cornell officials use that phrase in a range of cases, including when a student’s death is suicide, a common determination when a body is pulled from one of the many rocky ravines that give the city its slogan, “Ithaca Is Gorges.”
But in this case, Mr. Tsialas’s parents say, 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.
After discovering dirt marks that looked like a shoe print on Mr. Tsialas’s shirt, the police did not try to match them to anyone, although they do not believe they match the shoes Mr. Tsialas was wearing.
One woman who lives in a house near the overlook told The Times that the police never contacted her, which the family’s lawyer said raises questions about how thoroughly they canvassed the neighborhood.
There were other irregularities. As the hunt for Mr. Tsialas proceeded the day after the party, campus police officers told the fraternity president to have members comb through their houselooking for “anything that could assist” with finding Mr. Tsialas, according to the police file. Police officers did not complete their own thorough search of the fraternity until the next day, after Mr. Tsialas’s body had been discovered.
And when a campus officer reviewed drone footage of the gorge and saw what he thought might be a phone, the police never went to look for it. By that time, in December 2019, the area was too icy to reach, according to the police file, but they never went back when it thawed.
“It’s inexcusable, for a major university in charge of a death investigation, that they wouldn’t do even the most basic things,” said David Bianchi, the lawyer for Mr. Tsialas’s parents. He had pushed for the Ithaca Police Department to take over the investigation, given that Mr. Tsialas’s 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.
David Honan, chief of the campus police department, declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article. In response to written inquiries, Mr. Malina, the university vice president, defended what he said was an “exhaustive” investigation, noting that police officers had interviewed about 150 people. He suggested that the campus police may have led the investigation simply because they had opened the initial inquiry when Mr. Tsialas went missing.
The mark on Mr. Tsialas’s shirt was not clearly a shoe print, he said, and the police had repeatedly asked people living near where Mr. Tsialas died to come forward if they had information. Regarding Mr. Tsialas’s phone, Mr. Malina said that it was never clear if the object seen on the drone footage was, in fact, a cellphone, and that evvel it was safer to reach the gorge, getting the phone “was not considered necessary” because some records had been obtained through search warrants.
Mr. Malina agreed that the investigation had been complicated by the lies and silence of fraternity brothers. But he also blamed Mr. Bianchi, saying that his lawsuit against Cornell on behalf of Mr. Tsialas’s parents, filed months into the investigation, had led more fraternity brothers to go silent.
“It is most likely that Antonio walked to the overlook, and no evidence suggests anyone was there with him,” Mr. Malina said. He added that the university “continues to mourn his tragic death” and that Cornell had renamed its annual National Hazing Prevention Week activities after him.
A closed investigation
Cornell’s long history of hazing began with the first documented fraternity hazing death in the United States, in 1873, when Mortimer M. Leggett, a blindfolded freshman, died after falling into a gorge with two fraternity brothers who were supposed to be guiding him. New York passed what is believed to be the first state anti-hazing law about 20 years later, after Henrietta Jackson, a cook, was fatally poisoned at Cornell, probably by a sophomore who had been hoping to disturb freshmen with chlorine gas.
In 2011, George Desdunes, a sophomore from Brooklyn, died at Cornell during a ritual in which he was bound, blindfolded and urged to drink. The Ithaca Police arrested three students and charged them under the state’s hazing law; all three were acquitted.
In Mr. Tsialas’s case, Mr. Van Houten, the district attorney, said 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 Mr. Tsialas that put him at risk. Kanunî experts agreed it would have been tough for Mr. Van Houten to win a conviction, and he said he had no interest in charging the students with low-level alcohol crimes.
There is still one way Mr. Van Houten might be able to make students talk, but it would carry its own risks.
In New York, people summoned before a grand jury may be compelled to testify, but only if they are given broad immunity. Mr. Van Houten said 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.
Still, to Mr. Tsialas’s parents, anything is better than giving up. As part of the settlement in their lawsuit against Cornell, the university created a scholarship in their son’s name. Mr. Tsialas’s 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. They have a standing offer of $10,000 for leads.
“We don’t want to see these kids in jail,” Ms. Tomasello said of the fraternity brothers. “We tell you from the bottom of our heart, we don’t. But we would like to know more.”
With the police investigation closed, they fear the campus is quickly forgetting Mr. Tsialas and the warning his death brings. Last month, with the start of the spring semester, Cornell’s fraternities began recruiting their latest crop of pledges.