Long before he stood trial for child sex abuse, Jerry Sandusky was the hometown hero who grew up in his family’s youth recreation center in Washington, a small town in southwest Pennsylvania, and later founded a youth charity of his own.
Now a jury three hours away will decide the fate of Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach who’s charged with sexually abusing 10 boys over a period of 15 years. Eight of those young men testified against him in court last week.
But Sandusky might not stand a better chance of acquittal in his birthplace: Many residents in and around this working-class city 30 miles south of Pittsburgh who have been following the trial say their former favorite son is guilty, no matter what the jury decides.
“He’s probably been doing this for a long time,” said Jason Lowe, who lives in nearby Canonsburg and works in government. “He should have to pay for it.”
Sandusky’s late parents were well-known and well-liked in the community. It’s where he met his future wife, Dottie. Many of his childhood friends still live in the area. But even to them, those connections don’t mean he’s innocent.
If convicted, Sandusky, 68, likely will spend the rest of his life in prison. But Lowe said that no verdict could give the alleged victims back what they lost.
“It’s sad either way,” Lowe said, sipping a cold Red Bull on a hot summer afternoon. “What’s happy about this?”
Others said that Penn State should have to answer, too. According to prosecutors, Sandusky brought some of his alleged victims to the campus, where they testified that he assaulted them in locker room showers. One incident led to a police investigation; another was brought to the attention of head football coach Joe Paterno and other university officials, but neither resulted in any charges against Sandusky.
“He just had a lot of people fooled, it seems,” said Josh Wells, who lives in Washington.
Uma Satyavolu, a teacher, said that institutional denial let the alleged abuse go on for years. “It seems pretty damning,” she said as she walked her dog in the evening.
She faulted a “sacrosanct” culture that put the reputation of the university’s football program ahead of the safety of children. “Mostly, it seems like they’re from the wrong side of the tracks,” she said of the alleged victims. “Who stands up for them?”
For many years, Jerry Sandusky’s family did.
Sandusky’s parents, Art and Evie, ran a youth recreation center at a century-old brick building in a low-lying neighborhood west of downtown Washington. Jerry Sandusky grew up in the apartment just above it. It’s still there, and Art Sandusky Field is still next door. An elevated expressway bisects the neighborhood, where the paint peels from older houses. It’s strikingly similar to the struggling communities where Sandusky’s alleged accusers are from.
Sandusky hasn’t lived in his hometown for 50 years. But he never forgot the youth center and the children it served. He started his own youth charity, The Second Mile, in 1977. Sandusky met all of his accusers through the organization. Most came from low-income homes and many didn’t have a father in their lives. Prosecutors told jurors that Sandusky filled that void – and gave them nice things they wouldn’t get at home: gifts, meals, football tickets and trips.
But, prosecutors said, Sandusky’s affection came at the price of repeated sexual abuse – in locker room showers, hotels and even in Sandusky’s home.
“I couldn’t let a man do that to me,” said Wells, who took refuge from the heat under a large tree on the campus of Washington & Jefferson College.
At 23, Wells is the same age as some of the young men who testified against Sandusky. He said it may not have been possible for them to fight him off when they were barely teenagers.
“You never know how aggressive he could be. He’s a big guy,” Wells said of Sandusky. “These kids were probably scared for their life.”
Lowe said it was predictable that Sandusky’s defense attorneys tried to persuade jurors that the accusers made up or embellished stories of abuse for financial gain, their attorneys poised to sue Penn State for tens of millions in damages.
“These are troubled kids,” he said. “Most people wouldn’t believe them.”
“Maybe they weren’t the best citizens in the world, but this happened when they were kids,” said Shari Anderson of Washington, a mother who said she worked with mentally disabled children for nearly 20 years.
Lowe said he wasn’t impressed with the money defense.
“This is America,” he said. “We always go after money.”
A recent energy boom has brought new jobs and wealth to Washington County, drilling wells to tap the vast stores of natural gas trapped in shale rock formations. Yet Sandusky’s hometown closely resembles the hometowns of his alleged victims. A quarter of its 13,000 residents live in poverty – twice the state average, according to U.S. Census data. Only 13 percent of residents have at least a bachelor’s degree. The median household income is $20,000 less than Pennsylvania’s overall.
Floyd Work, a disabled Vietnam veteran who said he’s had his own run-ins with the law, said he thought the odds were stacked against the accusers.
“He’s a big-time coach,” Work said of Sandusky. “He’ll walk.”
Anderson said Sandusky “should’ve been sitting in jail while this was going on.” But after less than two weeks of testimony, it’s up to the jury.
“I’m praying for them to make the right decision,” she said.