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"The Betrayal of Joe Paterno" Chapter One: It Begins

CHAPTER ONE: IT BEGINS

In the spring of 1998, while in a Penn State shower with a boy who would later be known as Victim 6, Jerry Sandusky, still then the highly respected defensive coordinator for the Nittany Lion football team, bear-hugged the almost twelve-year-old Second Mile kid from behind while naked. The boy was clearly upset about it and made it obvious to his mother that something weird had happened. The mother immediately complained to authorities and an investigation, which would eventually involve just about every possible governmental agency, was commenced.

During the course of this month-long inquiry there was a “sting” operation at the home of the boy and Sandusky was heard apologizing to the mother reportedly saying, “I wish I were dead” (Sandusky told me he isn’t sure that is what he actually said and indicates he just felt badly that he had caused a problem). Two different “expert” reports were issued (neither one had any actual contact with Sandusky) with one concluding that he likely was a pedophile and one claiming that he probably was not. Eventually, no charges were filed and Sandusky received a notice in the mail saying that the allegations against him were declared “unfounded.”

One of the most shocking elements of my interview with Sandusky was just how remarkably unaffected by the 1998 investigation he really was. Whether out of convenient memory, radical rationalization, or because that is how he really saw it, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Sandusky now views that whole event as truly no big deal (interestingly, long-time Penn State Board of Trustee Member Al Clemens told me that, while he had no contemporaneous knowledge of that investigation, he has a very similar impression of what transpired in 1998).

Sandusky remembers the entire affair as encompassing little more than a meeting with the mother, a phone call, and a surprise interview with two investigators in the weight room. Sandusky remembers lead investigator Jerry Lauro telling him that they hear about much worse allegations “every day” and that the entire affair shouldn’t be a major problem. I got the very strong sense from Sandusky that he is almost angry at the investigators for not making a more serious issue out the episode so that he would have taken it all as a stronger “warning” (or, perhaps, that they didn’t capture the “evil” Jerry before he completely destroyed the “good” Jerry).

Like so much in this case, in retrospect, the 1998 investigation looks like a complete debacle, so much so that it is ripe for being misinterpreted as the beginning of a giant conspiracy. For many of the more “creative” thinkers in this realm, the “conspiracy” includes the mysterious, but I believe totally unrelated, 2005 disappearance/ death of District Attorney Ray Gricar who apparently ultimately decided to not press charges against Sandusky despite famously lacking any affinity for Penn State. However, based on the nature of the information they had at the time, I think that the ultimate result of the investigation was actually rather sound (Penn Stater Ray Blehar has done extensive work showing that the investigation in 1998 was shoddy and is far more optimistic than I that new PA AG Kathleen Kane will prosecute the corruption which caused that, but I am only referring here to the final decision not to pursue charges against Sandusky based on what was known at the time).

Not only was there no allegation of overt sexual activity (I am not diminishing the significance or inappropriateness of the allegation, but rather only putting it in the context of what was known at the time), but this was also the very first known accusation made against Sandusky, who was universally thought of as something like the Saint of State College.

Just as importantly, Sandusky was not only a local legend but also someone who famously had close contact with hundreds of at-risk kids because of his founding of the Second Mile charity. He also had been given state approval for numerous adopted and foster children who had been in the care of him and his wife Dottie for many years without incident.

All of this understandably gave him an enormous amount of benefit of the doubt or plausible deniability (after all, logically, if Sandusky really was a pedophile and he was dealing directly with all of these young boys for so long, how could this, relatively minor, offense really be the first public allegation?).

If that wasn’t enough to create doubt in the minds of investigators, Sandusky was also someone who was known as a goof ball with physical boundary issues. Also, the football locker room tends to create a culture of nudity and horse play that most people would find foreign from what they are used to, especially in today’s world.

All of this, combined with the fact that the stakes of falsely accusing a football legend who founded a massive and highly respected children’s charity were incredibly high, created a very compelling rationale for not pursuing the case criminally. This was especially true thanks to a report from “expert” counselor John Seasock concluding that Sandusky didn’t fit the pattern of a pedophile actually making it to investigator Lauro, while the far more damning statement from Dr. Alycia Chambers was somehow lost in the shuffle (likely because the Department of Child & Youth Services had to give over the case to the Department of Public Welfare due to an apparent conflict of interest with the Second Mile charity). Lauro essentially ended up concluding that Sandusky had “boundary” issues, which, at the very least, was obviously exceedingly true.

As I often ask the critics of what was done in this case (and never seem to get a legitimate answer), what exactly were they supposed to do differently in this situation?

The authorities officially had only one victim (there was apparently at least one other potential/eventual victim who was contacted at this time but their accusations were apparently never definitive) saying that Sandusky’s penis may have touched him while being hugged from behind in the shower. When this case would eventually go to trial 14 years later, Victim 6 would describe the scene in the shower as “uncomfortable.”

While technically an illegal act, it would have been considered a relatively minor accusation on which to effectively take down such a large public figure (to be clear I am not suggesting famous/powerful people should get more “slack” in such situations, only that authorities need to make rational decisions about the nature of potential criminal cases). It was also the only solid allegation they had and the consequences for a false charge would have been dire to many more innocent people (for instance, those who relied on the Second Mile charity) than just Sandusky.

But frankly, the best evidence that the authorities made the “right” call (again based on what they knew at the time) was what ended up happening with that particular boy and his mother.

One of the many things that get lost (thanks largely to the horrendous and lazy media coverage of this case) in the blizzard of numbered victims in the Sandusky case is that the perception of what occurred here rarely matches the reality of the evidence. I am quite confident that most people, even those who have followed the case closely, presume that Sandusky originally “raped” Victim 6 in 1998 and, either abused for years after that, or that the mother kept him away from her son all of that time until his arrest because she was sure that the authorities had let an obvious pedophile go free. Despite what the mother implied to an all too accepting local reporter Sara Ganim for a narrative-setting article two days before Joe Paterno was fired, this is just simply not the case.

The real story of Victim 6 and his mother is very different and, like most of this case, far more complex. The reality is that Victim 6, with the full knowledge and acceptance of his mother, maintained a very close relationship with Sandusky right up until his arrest. Incredibly, just over a year after the investigation concluded, his mother (who twelve years later would be extremely outspoken in blaming Penn State and Joe Paterno for not stopping Sandusky back in 1998) frantically waved Sandusky down on his way to his final home football game and begged him to get her son into the stadium, which he did.

As late as 2010 (during the grand jury investigation which would finally result in indictments in the original 1998 case) Victim 6, now as an adult, was still sending extremely positive text messages to Sandusky such as: “Happy Thanksgiving bro! I’m glad God has placed U in my life. Ur an awesome friend! Love ya!” (November 27, 2009) and “Hey jerry just want 2 wish u a Happy Fathers Day! Greater things are yet 2 come!” (June 20, 2010). Importantly, there was never any allegation that Sandusky ever did anything criminal with Victim 6 after the 1998 incident.

So while the mother of Victim 6 voiced (thanks to Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Sara Ganim) by far the loudest public grievance against Penn State/Paterno, she actually had zero legitimate complaint.

There is no evidence Penn State had anything to do with the 1998 case being dropped, thanks to legal restrictions on the dissemination of such allegations the administrators there (including Paterno) apparently had very limited if any real knowledge of its details, she herself approved of her son maintaining a close relationship with Sandusky, and there were no more “episodes” after that first one in the shower (Sandusky told me that this was the only situation where he made a concerted effort to not get himself in a compromising situation with a particular kid, mostly because he did not trust the mother, whom he considered to be both insane and out for money).

Now, as far as what exactly Penn State and Joe Paterno did know about the 1998 investigation, this seems to me to be one of the great mysteries of the entire saga as the known evidence appears to create roadblocks for any sensible scenario.

Most people, especially those in the media, find it just impossible to believe that Joe Paterno, the all-knowing God/Mafia Don of Happy Valley, could have his defensive coordinator investigated for sexually abusing a child and not have any idea that this had ever even happened. At first, I completely sympathized with, and mostly shared, this view.

However, like so much in this incredibly complex case, the closer you examine the details the more a very different portrait begins to emerge from underneath the façade of initial perception.

First of all, as I already mentioned, Sandusky himself gives the very strong impression that the entire investigation was far less serious than all the paperwork it produced (now seen in the light of exponentially more evidence that a very serious problem indeed existed then) implies.

Secondly, it would have been, rightly, illegal for Joe Paterno, as Sandusky’s boss at the time, to know any of the details of an investigation involving the alleged sexual abuse of a minor. Importantly, absolutely no one has ever publicly said that they discussed the 1998 investigation, at least at the time, with Paterno.

Thirdly, Athletic Director Tim Curley was known as a very detail-oriented and “by the book” administrator (former Penn State President Spanier described him to me as a “boy scout”) who, despite his reputation as Paterno’s “lackey,” would have likely adhered to such a well intentioned law. He would have logically done so as to protect a potentially innocent staff member from the incredibly devastating stigma which obviously forever haunts anyone even accused of such a horrible crime as child sexual abuse. The documentary evidence also strongly suggests that he himself was kept largely in the dark about the details.

So, because Paterno insisted many years later that he had no real knowledge of the 1998 incident (though his very vague grand jury testimony did leave open the possibility that he had heard a “rumor”), I would tend to believe that he was telling the truth. I come to this tentative conclusion not just because of Paterno’s rather famous reputation for honesty, but also because the only reason for him to lie here would be if there really was a massive cover-up. That is a scenario, as I will later illustrate, which is contradicted by an enormous amount of evidence and logic.

However, there is the matter of the two infamous emails in the Freeh Report in which Curley appears to be referencing Paterno when he says that he “touched base with the coach” and “coach is anxious” for an update on what appears to be the 1998 Sandusky investigation.

Now, in a court of law, Freeh’s use of these two emails to “prove” that Paterno was lying as part of an effort to cover up for Sandusky’s crimes would be probably literally laughed at. Paterno’s name is not mentioned in the body of either e-mail and it is not even 100% certain that the Sandusky investigation is even the real subject of those emails. Plus, there have been very legitimate questions raised about whether “coach” could actually be referring to Sandusky himself and not, as Freeh presumed, Paterno.

With all of that said, I do think these emails do raise important questions and I’m not sure exactly what the answers to them are.

The first time I read the emails I thought that “coach” could easily have been referring to Sandusky. After all, wasn’t he far more likely to be “anxious” about such an investigation than Paterno? Plus, one of the emails even had “Jerry” as the subject line (one of the many layers of absurdity in trying to interpret emails without even speaking to the people involved is that the chain could have easily started on a subject completely unrelated to the content of the last email). However, my interview with Sandusky did not yield the results I was expecting in this area.

In fact, Sandusky went almost comically out of his way to close off this entire area of speculation. He says that he was never informed of the investigation at its very start (when the Curley emails appear to begin) and that he is very sure that he never asked Curley for any sort of an update on its status because, as previously mentioned, to him it was almost over before it began and he never got a chance to be “anxious” about it.

Sandusky even contradicts the belief, which has become almost an article of faith among Paterno supporters, that he himself always liked to be called “coach” while Joe preferred to be referred to by his first name by people like Curley (I found this, though frustrating, to actually enhance Sandusky’s credibility as it was abundantly obvious that he was not interested in telling me what I wanted to hear, but rather what his best recollection was telling him what actually happened).

Of course, there are other possible explanations for all of this that do not include Paterno consciously lying about having significant knowledge of the 1998 investigation (for the record, I do acknowledge that if Paterno really did tell Curley he was “anxious” about this matter, it is difficult to understand how he could have simply forgotten about the situation entirely). For instance, Curley could have been seeking information for himself (he asked several times without getting much of a result) and may have implied that he was asking on behalf of Paterno in order to help get an answer. It is also very plausible that Curley did “touch base” with Paterno, but that the “anxious” description was made up to create a greater urgency on the other end of the correspondence.

But the more I have thought about this issue the less I think it really matters very much in the end.

After all, if Paterno was indeed told in some way about 1998, what exactly would he have known? At most, he would have learned that law enforcement investigated Sandusky for something and decided not to even charge him (again, the context of Sandusky being around troubled kids all the time would have made it very easy to discard such a situation as an inevitable false allegation). In the extremely busy life of Joe Paterno this limited level of knowledge of the case would have hardly been an earth shattering event and could have easily eluded his quickly fading 84-year-old memory when he was asked about it 13 years later. 

Now, it is indeed beyond question that both Curley and Gary Schultz did in fact have at least some, if only rudimentary, knowledge of the 1998 investigation, but, again, what did they know exactly? (Freeh produced another “exculpatory” set of emails on this matter where the Penn State police sent Curley a clearly redacted version of the decision that the investigation had been closed, which is exactly in keeping with the law protecting full disclosure of unfounded allegations involving children.)

At most, they only could have known that the allegation was rather benign and that it was determined to be “unfounded.” I actually believe that, counter intuitively, this knowledge ended up working against them when the very similar sounding McQueary allegation came to them three years later when Sandusky was no longer their employee. (It is interesting to note that both Jerry and Dottie Sandusky are absolutely positive that Curley’s young son Tanner attended Sandusky’s football camp after Tim knew of these allegations, though Tim himself, through an intermediary, says that is not accurate. Unfortunately, thanks to the incredibly toxic nature of this case, something like this which could have easily been verified was not because the people Dottie tried to contact to do so would not respond to her.)

It is at this point in the saga where the almost omnipresent “Perfect Storm” (or bad luck) element of this Greek tragedy begins to become chillingly clear.

We now know for sure (ironically from the Freeh Report, which was misused by numerous entities to destroy the Paterno legacy) that the process for Sandusky’s eventual retirement from coaching at the end of the 1999 season was actually begun by Paterno several months before the 1998 allegation. Unfortunately for Paterno, when the earthquake hit in November of 2011 and the news media was piecing together their crackerjack narrative based on little more than a basic Google search and an intense desire to create a great storyline, the “retirement” of Sandusky in 1999 seemed just too coincidental to not have been “forced” by the 1998 investigation.

Even before Freeh’s revelation (which is based on Paterno’s own notes and other documentary evidence) I have always found this “thinking” on the part of the media to be particularly slothful and moronic. Yes, to a fourth grader, it may appear that a criminal investigation in 1998 and a retirement in 1999 might be directly connected. However, this theory, like so much of the “cover up” narrative, flies in the face of even basic common sense.

How is it that the media decided that it is even remotely logical that, in spring of 1998, Joe Paterno “learns,” contrary to the results of a law enforcement investigation, that Sandusky is a pedophile and then decides to “retire” him but to not do so immediately? At that moment there would have still been plenty of time to find a replacement for the 1998 season (which the media apparently didn’t realize came in the fall that particular year) and yet Paterno figured it was a good idea to stick with him? And if that wasn’t enough, Paterno also decided to keep him around another entire season in 1999?! And then he maintains a close relationship between his program and the Second Mile charity for years after that?!

Seriously?!

Then there is another “red herring” issue of Sandusky’s retirement package being rather lucrative and including him having “emeritus” status. In the world of the media simpletons this was somehow seen as further proof of something sinister going on, when in reality it was evidence of exactly the opposite.

How in the rational world would a known pedophile have any leverage to force Penn State to give him just about everything that he wanted (and, by the way, what known pedophile would have the confidence/gall to be making any demands in such a situation?)?

The reality is that Penn State was offering special incentives for retirements at that time and what Sandusky got was perfectly normal for someone of his years of service and achievements. Ironically, the person who signed off on Sandusky’s retirement package was none other than Rodney Erickson, who, twelve years later as the brand new president of Penn State University, would also sign the NCAA’s consent decree agreeing to severe sanctions (which, partly due to Sandusky’s retirement, bizarrely begin in 1998). Good luck trying to come up with a remotely rational cover-up theory which includes that little factoid.

The “Perfect Storm” of misperception continued when the next major data point in the bogus media narrative occurred at the end of 2000 when Sandusky interviewed for his only major job after “retiring” from Penn State, but “mysteriously” got passed over at the last moment.

The job was the head coaching position at the University of Virginia and the real story of what actually happened there goes about as far as anything else I have learned in this case to destroying the notion that Sandusky was a “known” pedophile at this time. 

First of all, there were numerous ties between the Penn State and Virginia coaching staffs (for instance, Jay Paterno was once a graduate assistant at Virginia and his wife is a graduate) and so if there was indeed some sort of “whisper campaign” effectively blackballing Sandusky, then the Cavaliers would have been the among the very first to be protected. Sandusky certainly never would have gotten a well-publicized second interview and he wouldn’t have been handed an actual agreement for him to sign if he decided he wanted take the job.

Secondly, after speaking with Sandusky extensively about this topic, I am completely convinced that the reason that Sandusky didn’t get the job in the end had absolutely nothing to do with concerns he was a pedophile (He never signed the agreement he was handed because, at first, he was uncertain about whether a Second Mile chapter could be created in Charlottesville. The contract he was given did not include the specifics regarding the ability to continue being involved with the charity which he had anticipated. The delay this confusion caused ended up allowing for new circumstances to arise which dramatically altered the equation.)

Instead, it appears far more likely that what really happened here was a classic example of the “domino effect” of life, especially in the highly interconnected world of college coaching.

Sandusky remembers quite vividly, and Dottie Sandusky verifies, that his second interview (on what he says was December 28th, 2000) began extremely well and that it seemed as if Virginia was convinced that he was the right man for the job. Then, in the middle of the meeting, he remembers the interviewer leaving the room to take a phone call. When that person returned, Sandusky says he could feel the figurative temperature in the room dramatically change. When he left Charlottesville for home he figured something was amiss. A day and a half later, Virginia announced that Al Groh would be their new head football coach.

Now, the conspiracy theorists will tell you that this is all consistent with Virginia somehow learning (very belatedly) about “red flags” concerning Sandusky and that they dodged the “pedophile bullet” at the last second. However, as is so often the case with the Sandusky story, that perspective would require one to be completely blind to what was transpiring on the other end of this equation.

On December 24th, 2000, Al Groh was finishing his first season as the head football coach of the New York Jets who were one win away from making the NFL playoffs. They ended up losing their third straight game that day and just barely missed the postseason. Groh even got into a heated exchange with a reporter after the loss, an incident which made headlines in New York.

Groh was also an alumnus of the University of Virginia and, according to Sandusky, was on the search committee to find a new coach (indicating that, at least at first, he didn’t have an interest in the job for himself). It seems quite probable that what really happened here was simply that Al Groh realized that his days were numbered with the Jets and that he wanted to hit the ejection button to the safety of his alma mater before he got fired and that opportunity passed, perhaps forever.

Sandusky strongly believes that the reason that his interviewer left the room that day was to accept a call from Al Groh telling Virginia that he was now interested in taking the job himself. The timeline backs him up perfectly in this assertion. Groh “interviewed” for the position the very next day and was officially hired right after that meeting.

Had Virginia really been dead set on hiring Sandusky and then suddenly gotten very late word of “red flags” about him (why has this mystery informant never been identified?), there would have been no need to hire someone else less than 48 hours after meeting with him. It was still early enough in the hiring season to start over and, according to a UVA beat writer I spoke to, Jim Caldwell, who Sandusky had proposed as his assistant head coach, would have been the frontrunner (ironically, former Penn Stater and New York Jet, Greg Buttle was going to be an assistant coach as well).

Instead, it is far more in keeping with the way the real world works, as well as the facts of the situation itself, that Sandusky’s version of events here is very accurate and that Groh was simply hired because he had deep ties to the school and became suddenly available after the Jets unexpectedly lost the last three games of the 2000 season. He clearly would have wanted to get the deal done quickly before the Jets fired him and the whole situation took on a very different light. But there is absolutely no evidence that it had anything to do with rumors of Sandusky being a pedophile. In fact, this story proves that there were no such rumors at that time.

CHAPTER TWO: THE McQUEARY EPISODE