Sandusky case stunner: Ex-Penn State officials plead guilty, Spanier to face trial alone

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(From left) Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz and Tim Curley.

HARRISBURG – After five years of maintaining their innocence, two former Pennsylvania State University administrators pleaded guilty Monday to child endangerment charges for not reporting Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse of children.  

In return for the pleas, prosecutors dropped the more serious felony charges of conspiracy against ex-athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz.

The pleas marked an unexpected turn in a lingering case that has divided the Penn State community for years -- over who may have ignored or missed a chance to stop a serial sexual predator once deeply embedded in the university's exalted football program. As important, they narrowed the spotlight onto the remaining defendant, former university president Graham B. Spanier, a once-highly regarded administrator who led Penn State for 16 years.

Jury selection for his trial is slated to begin Monday. It was unclear if Schultz's and Curley's pleas will require them to cooperate with prosecutors or testify against Spanier, or if doing so could win them lighter terms when they are sentenced by Judge John Boccabella. Each pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor that carries a maximum term of five years in prison.

All three men were accused of failing to inform police or child welfare investigators of a 2001 report by Mike McQueary, then a football program graduate assistant, that he had seen Sandusky, a former assistant coach, sexually assault a boy in a locker-room shower.

Curley, 62,  and Schultz, 67, were charged at the same time as Sandusky in November 2011. Prosecutors waited another year to bring charges against Spanier. Now 68, he has maintained his innocence.

“As I have stated in the clearest possible terms, at no time during my presidency did anyone ever report to me that Jerry Sandusky was observed abusing a child or youth or engaged in a sexual act with a child or a youth,” he wrote in a 2012 letter to the trustees.

Spanier was not present at Monday’s hearing. His lawyer, Samuel Silver, did attend and ducked into the judge's chambers afterward. Silver, prosecutors, and the lawyers for Curley and Schultz all declined to discuss Monday's hearing or its impact. Sources familiar with the case said the pleas were unlikely to delay Spanier's trial.

Monday's proceeding, in a room packed with reporters and lawyers, lasted less than an hour.

Curley and Schultz each answered routine questions from Boccabella, a senior judge from Berks County. Two deputy attorneys general, Laura Ditka and Patrick Schulte, laid out the crimes they said they had been prepared to prove if the men opted for trial.

The prosecutors said the evidence would have shown that the defendants became aware of two incidents – one in 1998 and the other in 2001 – in which Sandusky was caught with boys in showers. In both cases, the men allegedly shared the information with Spanier. After the second, they met with Sandusky and ordered him not to bring boys onto campus.

But the prosecutors said the men made no effort to investigate or find the boy from the 2001 incident or to enforce the campus ban against Sandusky -- and thus endangered other children.

After hearing the details, Boccabella addressed the defendants.

“You understand the possible consequences of what you are doing today?” he asked Curley.

“Yes.”

Minutes later, he repeated the exercise with Schultz. The judge ordered them sentenced within 90 days.

Curley and Schultz initially were charged on the same day a grand jury indicted Sandusky on allegations that he sexually abused boys on and off campus. At the time, Spanier quickly issued a statement in strong support of the then-athletic director and vice president.

In the ensuing months, Spanier and head football coach Joe Paterno lost their jobs, Paterno died, Sandusky was convicted, and former FBI Director Louis Freeh issued a damning, university-commissioned report faulting the head coach and the three administrators for covering up Sandusky’s crimes. Months later, prosecutors charged Spanier. 

The case has hinged on what exactly McQueary, a former Penn State quarterback hoping to join the coaching ranks, told first Paterno — and later Curley and Schultz — about what he saw in the shower in 2001. He described that scene in 2012 to the jurors who ultimately convicted Sandusky of sexually assaulting multiple boys. 

In trips to the witness stand in related proceedings, McQueary has asserted that he made clear to Paterno and administrators that Sandusky’s conduct with the boy was “way over the line and extremely sexual.”

In their own grand jury testimony, Curley and Schultz said McQueary failed to convey the seriousness of the incident, leaving both under the impression that he had merely witnessed questionable “horseplay.” They also testified that that was how they described the incident to Spanier.

But a series of 2001 emails — key to the government's case — show that the men at least considered the situation serious enough to warrant contacting police. They ultimately rejected the idea, opting instead to bar Sandusky from bringing children on campus, to urge him to submit to counseling, and to inform his children's charity, the Second Mile, of the allegations.

"The only downside for us is if the message isn't 'heard' and acted upon," Spanier wrote, signing off on the decision. "We then become vulnerable for not having reported it."

All three men had been informed in 1998 about another investigation led by Penn State's campus police into a report that Sandusky had showered with and potentially abused a different boy. That case never led to charges, but Curley and Schultz corresponded frequently with then-Penn State Police Chief Thomas Harmon about the progress of his investigation. Spanier was copied on at least two of those exchanges.

Schultz kept his handwritten notes on the 1998 investigation in a locked file that investigators found years later. "Other children? Is this opening of Pandora's box?" he had written.

The current prosecution dragged largely due to a dispute about the legal representation the men received from Penn State's then-chief counsel, Cynthia Baldwin, during their 2011 grand jury appearances. 

Since then, the original judge overseeing the case has died after an illness and five state attorneys general have cycled through the office. Several original charges against the defendants, including perjury and obstruction of justice, were tossed out by a Superior Court panel.

Sandusky is serving a term of up to 60 years, and continues to appeal his conviction. 

Penn State in many ways has moved beyond the scandal, hiring an officer to ensure compliance with the federal crime-reporting law, training thousands of employees on the law, instituting programs to fight sexual assault and misconduct, creating new jobs focused on the issue, overhauling its board governance, and establishing a hotline.

But the case continues to divide the community, especially over what role if any Paterno  had in even indirectly allowing Sandusky to target or victimize children. Paterno was never charged with a crime.

Now, the focus will be squarely on Spanier, a marriage and family therapist by training and a family sociologist who said he suffered physical abuse at the hands of his father, which left some of his supporters incredulous that he would conceal or ignore Sandusky’s attacks.

Born in South Africa — where his father had fled from Nazi Germany — Spanier joined Penn State’s faculty in 1973. After a dozen years climbing the administrative ladder at other  schools, he returned to Penn State as president in 1995.

He has continued to live in the State College area and frequently is spotted at Penn State events and community gatherings. As part of his employment agreement, he continues to hold the position of professor at Penn State. He does not teach, but draws a $600,000 salary.

Several alumni-elected trustees, who have criticized the university’s handling of the scandal and supported Curley, Schultz, and Spanier, said last week that they planned on attending the trial.

For Penn State loyalists — who say prosecutors and the public unfairly maligned the university, its past leadership, and Paterno’s legacy — acquittal would offer overdue vindication.

Maribeth Roman Schmidt, a spokeswoman for Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, which has been highly critical of the university’s response to the crisis, said the attorney general’s decision to drop conspiracy charges against Curley and Schultz raises questions about how Spanier could still be accused of conspiracy.

In an interview last week, Schmidt said prosecutors had wasted "millions of dollars in state resources slow-playing a bogus case that relies on a falsely -exaggerated grand jury presentment.”

Karen Langley of the Harrisburg bureau contributed to this article.

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