Thursday, May 31, 2012

Former Football Coach Faces Accusers

Story first appeared in USA Today.

Their accounts of horrific child abuse shattered the idyllic facade of a prestigious university.

Since November, their identities have been masked by simple numerals in reports by a Pennsylvania grand jury — markers spanning a period of 15 years during which they were allegedly victimized by a local icon.

Next week, as many as eight of the 10 alleged child victims of a former Penn State University football coach will prepare to step from the shadows and, for the first time in public, recount a litany of offenses that have shaken the state's largest university and surrounding community. Four top university administrators, including its former president, have been ousted in the past six months. The most convulsive period in the university's history did not spare even its most revered figure: the college football legend and public face of Penn State, was unceremoniously asked to leave. He died just two months later, shortly after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

The dizzying series of events is only a prelude to a trial set to open June 5 with jury selection in nearby Bellefonte, where the defendant is scheduled to face 52 criminal counts in what promises fresh trauma for the place long known as Happy Valley.

There is a curiosity, an anxiety about what else might be coming.

Prosecutors have said it could take two weeks to present its case to a jury, whose members will be drawn from the same region where the defendant was long viewed as one of its unshakeable pillars.

The legal drama, set to unfold in nearby Bellefonte, has already thrust the quiet borough studded with Victorian homes into the sometimes uncomfortable national spotlight. For the December preliminary hearing appearance, Bellefonte traffic was rerouted away from the courthouse, some streets were closed and security officers were positioned on neighboring rooftops. Under Pennsylvania rules, the trial will not be televised. The presiding Judge however, issued an order Wednesday that will allow reporters to text, tweet and e-mail dispatches directly from their seats in the ornate, second-floor courtroom as developments unfold. He also denied a renewed request from the defense to delay jury selection.

A Penn State finance professor and one of many collegiate football stars who under the defendant's tutelage helped forge the program's reputation as "Linebacker U," said the trial is likely to inflict much more "pain."

For the school's more than 40,000 students, the trial represents a chance for basic accountability, say Doylestown Criminal Lawyers.

The defense lawyer, has said there are no plans to seek a plea deal that would avert the upcoming courtroom confrontation between his client and the children — now young men — he took in as the trusted founder of a local charity for at-risk kids. He has filed a motion for dismissal that the judge has not ruled on. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

In an interview with USA TODAY before the judge issued an April 9 order barring the defense and prosecution from talking about the case, the defense lawyer said that the defense will "aggressively" challenge each of the accusers. Many of them, the attorney said, are seeking to "destroy" the former coach as part of a strategy to win potentially lucrative civil lawsuits against university officials and the institution.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General, who is overseeing the prosecution, has repeatedly declined to comment on the case. But following a court appearance last month, before the judge issued the sweeping gag order, the Senior Deputy Attorney General tersely characterized the defense lawyer's claims as part of a "pointless escapade" designed to divert attention away from the heart of the state's case.

Public airing of the details

For years, some of their attorneys say, the alleged victims of the defendant had been haunted by events so lurid that they were rendered mute.

Now, they are ready to speak.

Prosecutors, family attorneys, psychologists and therapists have been guiding the witnesses through a delicate process that began more than two years ago in halting interviews with law enforcement officials.

Those initial interviews, according to court documents, led state investigators to a string of additional alleged victims and witnesses who told their grim stories to a state grand jury meeting secretly in a Harrisburg, Pa., conference room. While access to the victims has been closely guarded since the first allegations were revealed in November, the trial will require that their troubling accounts be shared in public — and in person.

In a bid to at least partially shield them from "overwhelming publicity" surrounding the case, attorneys for at least five of the alleged victims petitioned the judge earlier this week to assign them pseudonyms so that their actual identities could be protected. A decision on that request was pending late Wednesday.

A Harrisburg attorney who represents a 27-year-old man identified by prosecutors as "Victim 4," one of the witnesses seeking to block his name from being publicly disclosed. said that his client is eagerly looking forward to putting this chapter behind him.

Victim 4's allegations are among the most detailed of those outlined by the grand jury. It is a ghastly account of his association with the defendant, whose initial mentorship allegedly veered into a dark period of sexual abuse in which the witness, beginning at about age 12, was subjected to oral sex, fondling and attempted anal assault.

Like virtually of all of the alleged victims, Victim 4 is expected to speak of a pattern of behavior in which young boys, according to the state grand jury report, were picked by the coach from the pool of participants in the Second Mile program. The defendant founded the organization in 1977 for, as its website states, "children who need additional support and who would benefit from positive human contact."
Many of the children associated with the Second Mile, which last week announced a plan to shutter operations, were the recipients of unusually generous gifts — from clothing to computers — before the encounters allegedly turned abusive.

The pattern, which also included frequent showers with the coach following workouts, is strikingly similar to the account provided by the witness designated by the grand jury as "Victim 1."

Victim 1, while not the first alleged victim, ignited the investigation. After enduring nearly four years of alleged abuse, the teenager and his mother met with authorities in 2009, according to the grand jury report. Victim 1 told grand jurors that his association with Sandusky started with gifts, trips and cash and then moved to "uncomfortable" encounters.

The defense told USA TODAY that his client is "absolutely worried" about how jurors might react to the coach's previous admissions in media interviews that he frequently showered with some of the alleged victims. But the attorney maintains that "nothing sexual occurred."

The lawyer for the defendant did concede that his client continued to shower with children even after he was warned not to by authorities investigating a 1998 abuse allegation involving a shower incident.

He was not charged then, but state prosecutors have included the allegations from that witness, designated as "Victim 6," as part of the current case against the coach.

Most important to the defense, are the charges related to alleged victims, designated as "Victim 2" and "Victim 8," both of whom have yet to be found by prosecutors.

The defense's main target has been the former Penn State football assistant, who told grand jurors that he saw the defendant abusing a young boy, known as "Victim 2," in the showers of the football locker room.

Although the grand jury report directly states that he saw the boy being sodomized by the defendant, he testified in a related case in December that he didn't actually see the boy being raped. And this month, prosecutors said the date of the alleged incident involving Victim 2 was actually Feb. 9, 2001, and not March 1, 2002, as stated in grand jury report.

The incident involving Victim 2 also is at the heart of related perjury charges against the former Penn State athletic director and the former university senior vice president. The two are accused of lying to the same grand jury about what the former assistant told them about the incident and for failing to report the matter to law enforcement authorities.

Both men have denied any wrongdoing and are awaiting trial.

'A much more sober community'

In the place that once seemed immune from such taint, the postcard-quaint college town that once lived for celebratory football weekends has lost much of that innocence, at least for now.

One of the former star linebackers, said the past seven months have thrust Happy Valley into a state of "suspended animation."

A lot of people have been scarred, probably unfairly. He does not harbor such sympathy for his former coach.

At the house on the edge of town where much of the abuse is alleged to have occurred — a modest monument to suburbia at the end of a quiet cul de sac — there is no escaping the outrage that the criminal allegations have unleashed. The defendant, under house arrest, has an unencumbered view of his neighbors' front yards and the carefully positioned signs planted in the grass that urge child victims to report sexual abuse.

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