Sex-abuse case shatters Hershey School
DERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. - The Milton Hershey School, the wealthy and nationally acclaimed free boarding school for disadvantaged children, quietly paid $3 million earlier this year to compensate for the sexual abuse suffered by five former students, The Inquirer has learned.
The school confirmed the payments in an interview Wednesday, but it would not disclose the number of recipients or the amount. Those details were provided by two sources, one of them a high-ranking school official.
"We believed what the individuals were alleging. We found it to be true, and we wanted to remediate it," said Connie McNamara, the Hershey School's spokeswoman.
The school was "brokenhearted by what happened here," McNamara said. "Frankly it's devastating. . . . We're sorry it happened. It shouldn't have happened. We have everything in place to make sure it's not happening."
The $3 million payout was discussed at the school's Board of Managers meeting in February and finalized about the same time Charles Koons 2d, a 40-year-old factory worker, pleaded guilty in Dauphin County Court.
He ultimately pleaded guilty to molesting 17 local boys in the last decade in the blue-collar towns south of Harrisburg, and a Hershey School student in 1989. Koons is serving a 35- to 100-year sentence.
The school's board is headed by LeRoy S. Zimmerman, the former two-term state attorney general. The settlement was disclosed to the board by James Sheehan, the school's vice president of legal affairs.
Koons had extraordinary access to the students at the Hershey School. His mother, Dorothy, was a relief house parent in the school's residences between 1985 and 2008, typically working every other weekend. Her son, beginning in his teenage years, accompanied her to the campus.
Koons stayed in residences supervised by his mother, watched TV with the boys, and played in the backyard with them, according to police and court documents.
The official court record and the decision by the school's leadership to pay the abused former students, or their families, are the latest major developments in an alarming course of events that stretched over more than two decades. Yet they tell only part of the story.
Koons could not be prosecuted for a Hershey School student he confessed to molesting after he was in police custody. That is because the boy had died from a drug overdose in college, said Detective David Sweitzer of the Middletown Borough Police Department, the lead investigator in the case.
Three other Hershey School students told police they were molested by Koons, but the attacks happened too long ago to be prosecuted, police and a district attorney said.
Having a serial pedophile with access to its students is a shattering blow for a 100-year-old school that considers itself a haven for children from impoverished backgrounds. The school, for prekindergarten through 12th grade, is financed by profits from the Hershey Co., and it has $7 billion in assets.
The Hershey School was the dream of company founder Milton S. Hershey and his wife, Catherine. Its campus spreads over several thousand acres and contains more than a hundred family-style student group homes supervised by house parents.
Whatever security measures the school employed, they did not prevent Charles Koons from gaining easy access to the residences when his mother was there.
Several boys complained to regular house parents about Koons in the 1980s, according to police documents. The mother of one of those boys sent a sworn statement to the Derry Township Police Department about a molestation in 1998. An investigation was launched in March 1998, and the school was contacted, according to an internal police report of the investigation.
But the case was dropped in April 1999, with a scant reference in the report to a detective and an official at the school planning to set up a meeting.
McNamara, the Hershey spokeswoman, said the school had tightened its security measures and reports all abuse allegations to police. House parents face a battery of state, federal, and private background checks when they are hired, and then periodic checks during their employment at the school.
Adult children of house parents are not checked, she said. House parents have to inform their supervisors when they have adult children - as Koons was - staying with them in a student group home, McNamara said.
The school did not have records on how often Koons accompanied his mother to the Hershey School, or complete records of the mother's work history in the 1980s and 1990s, McNamara said.
When the school learned the police were investigating her son, Dorothy Koons was "immediately placed on leave and later terminated," McNamara said.
Efforts to reach Dorothy Koons were unsuccessful.
Investigating Charles Koons did not begin at the Hershey School. He came to the attention of authorities in central Pennsylvania in April 2007, when a mother complained to the Middletown Borough police about a gangster-pose photo of her son that Koons had posted on his MySpace Internet page. The photo wasn't illegal, but police were concerned.
In October 2007, a different boy disclosed to the county's children services that a man had molested him. Sweitzer, the lead investigator, showed the boy a photo lineup. The boy identified Koons.
Based on that boy's testimony, Middletown police arrested Koons at a Hummelstown factory in April 2008. In custody, Koons quickly confessed to molesting eight boys, one of whom he knew to have died of an overdose, Sweitzer said. At the time, Koons still was not linked to the Hershey School in the investigation.
Police also seized Koons' personal computer, which contained 12,000 pornographic images obsessively cataloged, and dozens of faded snapshots kept in his bedroom.
As Sweitzer investigated the cases, he learned more about Koons and his behavior around the boys. They called him Chuck and buddied around with him. Koons let them shoot off fireworks. He drove them in a Buick to campgrounds and fishing holes and molested them in his car, a hotel, a park, under a bridge, and at his apartment, according to court documents. Koons chose boys with single mothers, boys who might be in need of a father figure, Sweitzer said.
There appeared to be many potential victims, and learning their names was a problem. Police had names of some boys in the digital images. But they had no names from the faded snapshots from Koons' bedroom. In some of them, Koons had his arm around boys. There was a picture of a boy in a Batman costume. There was a photo of just a boy's genitals. There was not much to go on.
A break came when another detective working the case, Mark Hovan, noticed tile work in the background of one photo. He had worked in Middletown's canine unit. Several years earlier, he had swept through the Hershey School's group homes with a dog. He recalled the bathroom tilework in the Koons photos from the training exercise.
Sweitzer contacted the school, which arranged for teachers to look at Koons' snapshots. They put some names with faces. One was a boy who had overdosed. Sweitzer said the boy was molested in the 1990s, when he was a student.
Working from a list of names provided by the school, Sweitzer tracked down former students in Indiana, Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania for interviews. None of the boys said he had been molested.
The investigators' second big break came June 26, 2009, when a Maryland man phoned the Middletown police in the early morning. Sweitzer thought he sounded drunk, but the caller said he had read about Koons on the Internet. The former student said Koons had molested him in his student home, known as Revere on the Hershey campus, in 1989.
The boy's mother had supplied the Derry Township Police Department with a sworn statement in 1998 of the molestation in 1989. She had waited so long because it wasn't until a therapy session that her son had disclosed the incident.
"I asked why he never told me that this was happening to him. His response was that he didn't want me to feel guilty about sending him there [to Hershey] in the first place," the mother said in the statement.
The mother later called the Derry police on the status of the investigation. "She was extremely upset that nothing has been done and asked where the notarized statements were she had sent up here," a Derry Township detective wrote in December 1998. The investigation would end, without a resolution, four months later.
She did not respond to a request to call The Inquirer that was placed in her mailbox at her Maryland home on May 12.
A Derry Township police officer did not return a phone call on Wednesday.
As part of his interview with Sweitzer, the Maryland man told the detective of three other Hershey students who were molested by Koons: a boy in Philadelphia and two brothers in the Dallas area.
Sweitzer spoke with the Philadelphia man last August. He said that Koons had awakened him and sexually abused him. The boy was in the third or fourth grade. He told the police he could remember there were two incidents.
Investigators estimated the attacks happened between 1987 and 1989.
When contacted by the newspaper, the man said he was in the campus residence, and he had read about Koons on the Internet, but he denied being molested. He hung up the phone.
The brothers in the Dallas area are identified in police documents as B.T. and M.T. Both describe being abused by Koons, one of them during a scavenger hunt organized by Koons' mother in the summer of 1988 or 1989.
In the police report, the child does not mention telling anyone about the incidents. But he said that he was pulled from class one day and asked by a "dark-haired detective and some school officials" questions regarding sexual abuse.
As part of his investigation, Sweitzer has questioned - or has attempted to question - 19 Hershey School students whose names were found on neatly folded pieces of scrap paper in Koons' wallet. There were a total of 31 names. Koons told Sweitzer the list was a reference sheet for when he first saw the boys' private parts.
"How many kids did this guy molest?" Sweitzer asked in an interview in his office. "What is the bottom line? Instinctively," he said, answering himself, "I can tell you it's more than what I have."
Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or firstname.lastname@example.org.