STATE COLLEGE, Penn. (Reuters) - Until a few days ago, Jerry Sandusky’s face smiled down on students from a mural in downtown State College, the home of Penn State University, where football players and coaches are treated like royalty.
On Wednesday, the creator of the mural painted over Sandusky. The former assistant football coach was charged a few days earlier with sexually abusing eight boys over more than a decade.
“I got an email yesterday from one of the victim’s mothers saying simply, ‘Michael, can you please take Sandusky off the mural,’” said Michael Pilato, a local painter who created the “Inspiration” mural in 2001.
It will not be so easy to wipe out the stain on Penn State’s reputation from the alleged abuse and what critics see as a cover-up by university officials who were told that Sandusky was seen raping a young boy in a shower in 2002.
Sandusky, who played football at Penn State and then coached for 32 years at the school, has denied the charges and has been released on bail.
The case has drawn comparisons to the child abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church, whose top officials are also accused of covering up child abuse over decades.
In this tight-knit town where the university is everything, Sandusky was known as a church-going family man and a philanthropist. “Jerry was just held in very high regard. It’s definitely a shock to hear something like this. This has kind of blindsided everyone in town. He was the definition of Penn State,” said Nick Savereno, who grew up in the university town, attended Penn State and now owns a sandwich shop near campus.
That the alleged abuse continued even after university officials were alerted to specific allegations has raised questions about the power and influence of the football program and its coaches — especially Joe Paterno, one of the most revered figures in American sports.
The football program at Penn State was so sacrosanct as to be almost untouchable. “We just had this empire all by itself, reporting to nobody,” said one member of the university’s board of trustees.
Pennsylvania State University used to be a sleepy engineering school, but it was turned into a national powerhouse with the money raised by its marquee football program. In 2008, the last year for which data is available, Penn State was one of the 20 largest recipients of federal research dollars in the country. It has fostered what is now the world’s largest dues-paying alumni association.
Now, the university is in turmoil. When the Sandusky news broke last weekend, at least two board members found out from television news rather than from the university. That probably helped seal the fate of university president Graham Spanier, said the trustee.
Spanier was fired on Wednesday, along with Paterno, the 84-year-old coach who was known simply as JoePa and who had won more college football games than any coach in history.
In a statement earlier this week, Paterno said: “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
Spanier said after he was dismissed: “I was stunned and outraged to learn that any predatory act might have occurred in a university facility or by someone associated with the university.”
Two other officials, former athletic director Tim Curley and former finance official Gary Schultz, have been charged with failing to report an incident of abuse and lying to the grand jury, which detailed the allegations against Sandusky in a 23-page report (Available on the Pennsylvania attorney general’s website here: here)
Lawyers for Curley and Schultz have denied the charges.
The grand jury report, and dozens of Reuters interviews with people in State College and connected to the case, indicate there were key moments when the alleged abuse was suspected or witnessed - and might have been stopped.
During the period documented in the report, from 1994 to 2008, the first occasion authorities were alerted to possible abuse was in 1998.
According to the grand jury report, “Victim 6,” then 11 years old, told his mother he had showered with Sandusky in a locker room on the Penn State campus, and the coach had lathered the boy’s body and squeezed him in a bear hug.
The boy’s mother complained to campus police, who launched an investigation, during which they discovered there was a second boy who had a similar experience.
A detective from the campus police and an investigator from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare met with Sandusky, who admitted to the shower. They extracted a promise from the coach that he would not do it again.
The investigation ended when the Center County District Attorney at the time, Ray Gricar, decided not to press charges. Some seven years later, while still in office, Gricar went missing under mysterious circumstances; his body was never found. There is no indication of any connection to the child abuse case, but his disappearance means he can provide no answers as to why the case was dropped.
A year after the investigation, in 1999, Sandusky retired as Penn State’s defensive coordinator. At his last home game he received a standing ovation from nearly 100,000 fans crammed into the Nittany Lions’ stadium. But at a farewell gala held for Sandusky at around that time, several attendees said they were struck by Paterno’s absence.
Requests for comment from Paterno, directed through his son, were not answered.
Sandusky’s memoir titled “Touched” was published in 2000. His daughter, Kara Sandusky Werner, wrote in the introduction: “We were always proud of the things he did for kids.”
In the book, Sandusky confesses an inability to grow up. “I had always professed that someday I would reap the benefits of maturity, but my lifestyle just wouldn’t let me,” he wrote, later adding that “the times when I found myself searching for maturity, I usually came up with insanity.”
With more time on his hands after retiring, Sandusky shifted his focus to the Second Mile, the foster home-turned-charity for kids from broken homes he started in 1977, the year after taking the defensive coordinator job at Penn State.
Second Mile was an integral part of Sandusky’s life. He was its chief fundraiser and best cheerleader and even drew a salary, though he had no operational authority.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, in fiscal 2010 the charity had income of $2.2 million and assets of just under $9 million.
It has also had a huge presence on campus. Its board is a veritable Who’s Who of State College. The charity’s annual golf fundraiser is attended by some of the university’s famed alumnae, including professional football players.
Bob Hill, a stock broker and former board member who ran the golf event for 17 years, is one of the State College locals who says everyone bought into the Sandusky mystique. “Before all this came out, if you were going to line up 100 guys and say which was the nicest guy, it would have been Sandusky. I never heard one person say anything negative about him,” he said.
According to the grand jury, the Second Mile was also where Sandusky found his victims.
As one former Second Mile employee remembers, Sandusky seemed at times to prioritize the charity over his coaching duties, and was frequently seen with his arms around children or putting them in a playful headlock.
The charity issued a statement earlier this week expressing shock and sadness. “To our knowledge, all the alleged incidents occurred outside of our programs and events,” the statement said. Officials from the group have declined further comment.
According to the grand jury report, another opportunity to stop Sandusky’s alleged abuse came and went in 2000, when a janitor said he saw the man performing oral sex on a young boy.
Fellow janitors told the grand jury that the witness, Jim Calhoun, approached a colleague in tears and related what he had seen. He was so upset by what he saw that they feared he might have a heart attack.
The other janitors decided their jobs might be at risk if they reported the incident to authorities, according to the grand jury report.
They convinced Calhoun to tell his supervisor, who told Calhoun how to report the incident if he wanted to. The grand jury found there was no report, no follow-up, and the identity of the boy remains unknown.
The eyewitness, Calhoun, is now in a nursing home with dementia and not competent to testify. The supervisor could not be reached for comment and a second janitor declined comment.
An alleged incident in March 2002 is particularly shocking.
Despite his retirement, and despite the 1998 probe, Sandusky still had privileges on campus, including access to gyms and locker rooms.
Late in the evening of March 1, 2002, a Friday before the university’s spring holiday, a graduate assistant on the football team entered the main football building’s locker room to the unexpected sound of showers running, according to the grand jury report. It said he heard “rhythmic, slapping sounds” which he believed to be the sound of sexual activity.
The graduate assistant found Sandusky sodomizing a boy of about 10 years old, the grand jury report said. Rather than calling the authorities, though, he called his father.
The next morning, at his father’s urging, he called Paterno and told him a version of what he had seen - exactly how much detail he gave is not clear from the grand jury report. Paterno - whose stature among sports fans is hard to overstate - did not call police either.
The graduate assistant was later identified as Mike McQueary, a red-headed former Penn State quarterback who has since risen to the ranks of assistant coach.
McQueary, who was described in the grand jury report as a “credible” witness, has not commented since the charges were brought. Requests for comment via his father and brother were declined. On Friday, he was put on administrative leave by the university.
A full day after Paterno spoke to McQueary, the head coach told his boss, athletic director Tim Curley, that a graduate assistant had seen Jerry Sandusky “fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy” in the team showers, the grand jury report said.
Nearly 10 days later, McQueary met Curley and Gary Schultz, the Penn State vice president, and told them he had witnessed “what he believed to be Sandusky have anal sex with a boy” in the showers, the grand jury report said.
Curley denied to the grand jury that McQueary had reported anal sex and described the conduct as “horsing around.”
The grand jury report said McQueary was never interviewed by police, even though he had reported what he saw to Schultz, who ran the campus police department. Schultz later told the grand jury he was surprised to learn there was a long report in the police files from the 1998 investigation.
The reporting of the 2002 incident went all the way to Graham Spanier, the university’s president since 1995 and a sociologist and family therapist by training.
Spanier testified to the grand jury that he was told of an incident in 2002 - though he said the sexual aspects were not part of the report - and that he was also told there were no plans to inform law enforcement or child welfare officials.
“The records reveal that the 2002 incident was never reported to any officials, in contravention of Pennsylvania law,” the grand jury report said, adding that no effort was made to identify the child in question.
Curley and Schultz have been charged with lying to the grand jury. They have denied the charges through their lawyers.
Sandusky was banned from bringing children into the football locker room and the Second Mile charity was advised of an incident involving Sandusky and a child in the shower.
The Second Mile said in its statement this week that Curley had told them only that “an individual had reported to Mr. Curley that he was uncomfortable about seeing Jerry Sandusky in the locker room shower with a youth.” The statement added: “At no time was The Second Mile made aware of the very serious allegations contained in the Grand Jury report.”
It was through Second Mile that Sandusky allegedly found a new victim in 2005 or 2006 - a boy who was 11 or 12. Their relationship began with frequent gifts and massages in the basement of Sandusky’s home, escalating into repeated incidents of oral sex, according to the grand jury report.
In early 2008, while the boy was in his first year of high school, he cut off contact with Sandusky.
But before that happened, the boy and Sandusky used to routinely meet in a conference room at the boy’s school where Sandusky was a volunteer football coach. School administrators would pull the boy out of study sessions for the meetings.
The school’s assistant principal, Steven Turchetta, said Sandusky had a “very controlling” relationship with the students he mentored, the grand jury report said. Turchetta declined to comment for this story.
The mother of the boy in question eventually called the school to report the alleged abuse. Sandusky was immediately barred from the school and it was reported to authorities.
The Second Mile said in this week’s statement that Sandusky told the organization in November 2008 he was under investigation over the boy’s allegations.
But the Pennsylvania Attorney General did not contact the charity until early 2011. In the interim period, it appears investigators were working on building their case, which was taken up in 2009 by Pennsylvania’s then attorney general, Tom Corbett, who has since been elected governor.
Corbett, an ex-officio member of Penn State’s board, told reporteweek he supported the firing of Paterno and Spanier. “When it comes to the safety of children, there can be no margin of error,” Corbett told a news conference. He said he was “disappointed” in the two men for their lack of oversight.
The Harrisburg Patriot-News, citing five sources, reported in March 2011 that a grand jury had been meeting for at least 18 months to consider child abuse allegations against Sandusky.
Last weekend, Sandusky was charged with sexually abusing eight boys between 1994 and 2008.
Through the long investigation, Sandusky himself remained a fixture on campus. As recently as this summer, he was seen using the football players’ weight room several times a week.
Sandusky was also seen at a Second Mile golf fundraiser, and several attendees said he appeared up-beat.
“I saw him this summer. He seemed relaxed, which I was surprised by given the investigation. He was pretty much his normal self,” said John Skorupan, a former professional football player who has known Sandusky since the 1970s.
“To know Jerry you wouldn’t believe it, because of the type of guy he is,” he added.
This week, a police car guarded access to the Sandusky property in State College and he was nowhere to be seen.
Edith Honan and Kristina Cooke reported from State College; Ben Berkowitz and Janet Roberts reported from New York; editing by Claudia Parsons and Martin Howell