By Ben Simmoneau
BELLEFONTE, Pa. (AP) — A sleepy country town better known for fly fishing than courtroom drama takes center stage Tuesday for a face-to-face encounter between a disgraced Penn State coach and the young men who say he sexually assaulted them as children in showers and campus locker rooms.
Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State, will confront at least six accusers who claim that he violated their innocence and preyed on their weakness, using a charity that was inspired by a biblical parable.
Sandusky, 63, is charged with more than 50 counts of child sex-abuse involving 10 boys he met through the children’s charity he founded. A judge will decide if prosecutors have enough evidence to send the case to a trial.
The defense often waives preliminary hearings, although it can also use the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and explore their credibility.
But Sandusky’s lawyer, Joe Amendola, said Monday his client welcomes the hearing.
“We plan to proceed with Jerry’s hearing, and Jerry is looking forward to the opportunity to face his accusers,” Amendola said. He said there had been no plea negotiations before the hearing.
He would only say, “Maybe,” when asked if he would call Sandusky to testify.
The drama will unfold in a quiet, central Pennsylvania town of just over 6,000 with Victorian homes and fly fishermen, in a courthouse framed by 26-foot columns built in the 1830s. Lawyers, probation officers and clerks went about their business on Monday while an official numbered spots on the sidewalk outside court for network news vans. Barricades were piled neatly on the courthouse lawn, while lighting equipment was stored behind the veterans’ memorial nearby.
A lawyer for one of the teenagers scheduled to testify bristled at Sandusky’s description of the encounters as childplay, or “horsing around.”
“My client said, ‘There’s nothing fun about what happened with me,’” Slade McLaughlin said last week, adding that he believes the Penn State scandal has unleashed “a watershed moment” in the understanding of child sexual abuse.
Ben Simmoneau (@bensimmoneau) December 12, 2011
At least six of the accusers are expected to testify at the hearing, which could last two days.
Last month Sandusky told NBC’s Bob Costas and The New York Times that his relationship to the boys who said he abused them was like that of an extended family. Sandusky characterized his experiences with the children as “precious times” and said the physical aspect of the relationships “just happened that way” and didn’t involve abuse.
Sandusky retired as Penn State’s longtime defensive coordinator in 1999, a year after the first known abuse allegation reached police. Penn State fired football coach Joe Paterno last month, saying he didn’t do enough to investigate allegations against Sandusky.
In 1998 a mother told investigators Sandusky had showered with her son during a visit to the Penn State football facilities. Accusations surfaced again in 2002, when graduate assistant Michael McQueary reported another alleged incident of abuse to Paterno and other university officials.
The grand jury probe began only in 2009, after a teen complained that Sandusky, then a volunteer coach at his high school, had abused him.
Sandusky first groomed him with gifts and trips in 2006 and 2007, then sexually assaulted him more than 20 times in 2008 through early 2009, the teen told the grand jury.
The two university officials charged with perjury and failure to report abuse — former Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and former university vice president Gary Schultz — face a preliminary hearing Friday in Harrisburg.
Prosecutors may need to call McQueary — and perhaps Paterno — to lay out those allegations.
In Bellefonte, about 10 miles northeast of Penn State, officials geared up a case that has attracted more attention than any other in memory.
Centre County Sheriff Denny Nau plans to close streets around the courthouse starting Monday night. He said no other case in the county has been this much of a spectacle in his 20 years as sheriff.
“We’ve never done anything like this before,” said Jim Koval, communications director for the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts. “The scope of this is beyond any of our imaginations.”
Koval said 100 reporters will be in the courtroom, and another 100 will have seats in a separate courtroom watching on closed-circuit TV. No video or still cameras were allowed in the courtroom, although court officials are allowing the media to electronically relay reports of the testimony in real time.
Businesses in Bellefonte prepared for the crush of spectators.
Brother’s New York Style Pizzeria planned to open at 7 a.m. — four hours earlier than usual — to serve breakfast pizza and coffee.
“Tomorrow, some people say with ‘This thing that’s going on downtown, we’re not going to go anywhere close to there,’” said pizzeria owner Armando Maldonado. “It’s the courthouse, it has to happen here. For the food business, it’ll be better as long as we have people here.”
One block down, Mitch Bradley, the owner of the Victorian House Antiques & Artisan Gallery, planned to arrive early to take his own pictures of the spectacle.
“I think a lot of people are going to come to town, just curious onlookers,” said Bradley, a Penn State graduate wearing a gray, hooded Penn State sweatshirt.
He said he hoped that once the visitors had taken a look at the courthouse, they might go shopping around town.
“But I don’t know,” he said, “nothing like this has ever happened here.”
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