In court a witness for the defense called the coach a ‘father figure.’ But behind the scenes, he was confronted about a Facebook message that alluded to abuse. Diane Dimond reports.
As Jerry Sandusky awaits a sentencing that will almost certainly put him behind bars for the rest of his life, a previously unrevealed exchange in court last week illustrates the ways in which his case will never be fully resolved.
The Daily Beast has learned that one of the defense’s key witnesses in the sexual-abuse case against the former Penn State coach—a young man who called Sandusky a “father figure” and a wholly positive influence on his life—may have reached out just days earlier out to a victims’ support group, using language that would suggest he may be a survivor of abuse himself. In an extraordinary behind-the-scenes meeting in the presence of the trial judge, the witness was apparently confronted about what appeared to be his confession, but the message was ultimately never presented as evidence.
The young man, whom The Daily Beast has chosen not to identify, provided supportive testimony for the Sandusky defense team. He said he couldn’t understand why police had contacted him several times to ask about sexual abuse; he felt they were strong-arming him into saying things that weren’t true, he told the jury. Under questioning from defense attorney Karl Rominger, the young man testified about all the good things Sandusky had done for him—helping him with schoolwork, buying him a gym membership, helping him land an after-school job. Sandusky, he said, had never touched him inappropriately.
In contrast to the eight accusers who described chilling stories of molestation at the hands of Sandusky, this witness was apparently meant to help the defense advance their claim that police had forcefully sought negative comments out of children at Sandusky’s Second Mile charity in order to further the Commonwealth’s case.
Under cross-examination by lead prosecutor Joe McGettigan, the young man appeared flustered, sometimes stammering, but continued to attest to Sandusky’s good character. “Did anything inappropriate ever happen?” McGettigan prodded. The young man looked up at him, and then quickly back down at the floor. “No,” he said timidly.
Unseen at the time was a Facebook message, obtained exclusively by The Daily Beast, that had been sent to Voices 4 Victims, a victims’ advocacy group established by Penn State student and sexual-abuse survivor Matt Bodenschatz.
The Facebook message carried the name and picture of the young man in question. It was sent on June 15, 2012—five days before he took the oath, sat in the witness chair, and said that nothing bad had ever happened between him and Coach Sandusky. The private message was sent only to Bodenschatz, the Facebook page’s administrator, but was directed at the eight young men who had testified for the prosecution:
“Thank you to the victims to come forward (sic), I am very proud of you. You are the voice for some of us who have been so badly damaged. And stay strong not to let our violators win. Stay STRONG. You have my support!”
Bodenschatz was taking a lunch break at a Dairy Queen near the courthouse when he read the message. A genial, barrel-chested man, he had faithfully attended every day of the Sandusky trial—often neglecting to check the page’s inbox for days. He was shocked to read the message so shortly after the young man’s testimony, and despite reservations about possibly “outing” someone who may be a struggling victim of sexual abuse, he knew he had to share it with prosecutors. “I was acutely aware of the impact of what was in my hands and on my [computer] screen,” Bodenschatz told The Daily Beast. “But despite that sincere understanding, I was still burning inside as I thought about what his apparent dishonesty could do to the case and the integrity of those eight who had come there to tell the truth,” he said, if indeed the witness had written the message.
Rushing from the Dairy Queen, and with his laptop in tow, Bodenschatz quickly sought out lead prosecutor Joe McGettigan on a nearby street corner, and the two rushed back to court. The message was copied onto a government computer and McGettigan instructed him to sit in the court’s front row and await possible swearing-in as a witness. The attorneys headed back to see Judge John Cleland.
The defense witness was then summoned back to the courthouse, The Daily Beast has learned, where prosecutors apparently confronted the young man with the Facebook message bearing his name, photograph, and the words that seemed to directly contradict his testimony. An exact account of his response cannot be confirmed—neither the jury nor anyone else in the court ever learned about the Facebook message.
Defense attorney Karl Rominger expressed surprise when told of the incident. “I’m shocked that one of our witnesses might have been detained like that,” he told The Daily Beast. “We will do what we can to determine what happened.” The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office has declined to comment on the conversation, and multiple efforts to contact the young witness in question went unanswered.
Back in the courtroom, after the lengthy and unexplained break, McGettigan made a beeline for Bodenschatz, still nervously sitting in the front row. According to Bodenschatz, the prosecutor whispered, “He denies it. Says it’s not him.”
After a two-week trial, Sandusky was ultimately found guilty of 45 of the 48 child molestation charges against him. Several known accusers of Jerry Sandusky, including his adoptive son Matt—who first alleged that he was abused by his father just after the jury began deliberations—were not included in this trial’s charges.
Dr. Judith D. Bralove of Cambridge, a licensed independent clinical social worker and professor in the School of Psychology and Counseling at Cambridge College, has worked extensively with patients who have histories of abuse. Although she has not treated the witness who may have sent the Facebook message, she speculates that he may be a Sandusky victim who has not yet come to that realization. If in fact the witness wrote the Facebook post, outsiders, she says, “may see the witness testimony as lying, but that assumes he knows the truth of his situation … A lot of victims have to come to terms with their own part in it before they fully grasp what happened to them,” she says. “They need to understand why they kept going back. It’s really one of those tangled webs they need to figure out a piece at a time.”
Matt Bodenschatz, a survivor of abuse himself, also believes that, if the witness was really the sender of the Facebook message, the young man may be struggling to come to terms with an abusive past. He likens keeping such a secret to straddling a rickety wall. “If I were to have the chance to talk to this young man … I’d want him to see how similar he is, in some ways, to Matt Sandusky,” Bodenschatz said.
“Matt recently took ownership of his situation … Matt chose a side,” Bodenschatz said. This young man, Bodenschatz believes, may be in a similar situation. “He can and should find someone to help him come down off of the wall,” if in fact he was the sender of the message.
Bodenschatz hopes the author of the message reaches out to him again, so he can help.