LOCK HAVEN, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - For the better part of a decade, Jerry Sandusky was a fixture in this small, blue-collar community nestled in the Appalachian mountains: a volunteer football coach and eager mentor to some of its disadvantaged young boys.
But with the former assistant Penn State University football coach now accused of sexually abusing eight boys, the Lock Haven area finds itself with unwelcome notoriety as the home of the boy whose allegations sparked the Pennsylvania attorney general’s investigation.
Many here are now second-guessing their interactions with a man known as a legend in college football and asking the unthinkable question: if the allegations against Sandusky are true, could someone they know have been sexually abused?
Sandusky has denied the abuse charges, although he told NBC News he did sometimes shower with boys, which he now regrets.
Lock Haven is a town of about 10,000 on the banks of the Susquehanna River, surrounded by forests and hills. Most of the homes are modest and trailers dot the landscape. Wal-Mart is the place to catch up with neighbors, and the unpretentious downtown hosts a handful of restaurants and shops.
“There honestly isn’t much to do,” one local youth said. “Most kids just play videogames. A lot of kids get into drugs. Mostly just hang out, listen to music, smoke pot and party. Or they lift weights. And hang out at the gym.”
Bud Yost played football alongside Sandusky as a linebacker at Penn State in the 1960s and later as Clinton County commissioner helped Sandusky set up a chapter of the Second Mile charity here. He now says he feels “betrayed” and no longer considers Sandusky a friend.
“An awful lot of people were hurt by the things that are going on, a lot of people who shouldn’t have been hurt,” said Yost, who is now retired. The kids “were betrayed by someone they trusted and believed in. I’m just feeling terrible.”
The economy of Lock Haven, just under an hour’s drive from Penn State, has long been driven by the area’s natural resources, particularly timber. A quarter of the population works in manufacturing. The area has been doing a bit better lately due to the natural gas boom in western Pennsylvania, which has brought jobs and new hotels. On any given morning, gas industry trucks barrel along the county’s highways.
Before the allegations became public, Sandusky was a hero in this part of Pennsylvania — the former assistant to Joe Paterno, who helped build one of the most storied teams in college football, turning Penn State into “Linebacker U.”
When he retired from coaching in 1999, Sandusky said he intended to devote himself more fully to the Second Mile, a mentoring program he had set up for disadvantaged youth. Prosecutors now say Sandusky used the Second Mile to prey upon young, vulnerable boys from broken homes.
It was through that charity that Sandusky in 2005 or 2006 first came into contact with a Lock Haven-area boy who is identified as Victim One in a grand jury report. It said the relationship began as a mentorship and escalated to regular sexual abuse, including multiple counts of oral sex.
After Sandusky became a volunteer coach at Central Mountain High School, he would routinely meet with the boy during school hours in a conference room, the grand jury report said. He also took the boy to football games, gave him gifts and hosted sleepovers at his home in State College.
The boy’s mother became suspicious after he started acting out and she asked school officials to talk to her son.
After the boy accused Sandusky of molesting him, prosecutors say the high school acted appropriately by immediately alerting authorities. The boy’s mother tells a different story, saying school officials at first cautioned her against calling the police.
“They said I needed to think about the ramifications of what would happen if I did that,” she told CNN this week.
David Lindsay, the school district’s lawyer, said the school had been cooperating fully with the investigation and would continue to do so.
The Lock Haven area is now under particular scrutiny as it is the only community aside from Penn State itself that is readily identifiable from the grand jury report.
Lock Haven is home to exactly the demographic that prosecutors say Sandusky targeted. The median income is about $27,000 and a third of its residents, who are almost exclusively white, live in poverty.
“It was easy to show the need here for Second Mile, and the idea was to help as many kids as we possibly could,” said Yost. “It’s important that young people who are in need of guidance have some place to go.”
Parents say they are angry Sandusky was allowed to have contact with local children, especially given allegations from prosecutors that there were numerous missed chances to stop him in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“I think somebody should have done more somewhere along the line. It just doesn’t seem right,” said George Skibba, whose son played football the year Sandusky was a volunteer coach.
Skibba called his son, a passionate Penn State football fan who is now a college senior, as soon as he heard the news. “I knew he’d be upset.”
Yost said he did not see Sandusky at the many official Second Mile events here. But over the years, Sandusky became heavily involved in the lives of a handful of local boys.
According to the grand jury report and interviews with people who know the boys, Sandusky would often single out kids he knew through the Second Mile for special treatment: trips to sporting events, outings to work out and new clothes.
Donna Santucci, a local counselor who worked as a psychologist at Central Mountain High until 2009, said school officials never alerted her to allegations against Sandusky, but she said she remembers seeing him around the school. “I knew he had taken some of the boys under his wing,” Santucci said. “He would take them places and buy them new clothes.”
The grandmother of one boy known to be close to Sandusky described the former coach as “friendly, outgoing and sociable,” and said she had not suspected anything amiss. “It does sound like the classic old thing, denial. You don’t want to think about it, you want to think it’s all good,” she said.
Over the past two years, as prosecutors built their case, investigators visited the houses of several young men who had been involved with the Second Mile in the Lock Haven area.
“To have it be in your community, possibly, you’re shocked,” said John Allen, the head coach at Lock Haven University, a local college that hosts Second Mile events.
This is not the first time Lock Haven has been traumatized by a sexual abuse scandal. In 2001, a local doctor was accused of hosting alcohol- and drug-fueled sex parties involving minors in the area. He pleaded guilty to some of the charges. The victims are known as the “Bender Boys.”
Some questioned why Sandusky picked this community to volunteer as a football coach. Eric Fetter, a linebacker who graduated in 2008, said when Sandusky coached the high school team practices were more competitive, with players all trying to impress Sandusky because of his college football links.
“Anybody in Pennsylvania wants to play at Penn State,” said Fetter, who is now 21. He said he never witnessed Sandusky doing anything inappropriate.
There is also regret here that Second Mile, an organization viewed as putting so many lives back on track may have to close its doors. One person close to Second Mile said this could happen as early as its next board meeting in December.
Editing by Claudia Parsons and Todd Eastham