STATE COLLEGE — Police Chief Tom King on Monday called the timing of last Wednesday’s Penn State board of trustees news conference “difficult,” saying his department received notification of the event only about an hour beforehand.
“I received word probably about the same time the public did, 9 or 9:15 (p.m.),” King said.
Although he wasn’t told what would be announced, King, who was out of town at the time, said he immediately contacted police Capt. John Gardner and the department began mobilizing police from around the county.
At the press conference, held shortly after 10 p.m. at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel, the board announced it had fired university President Graham Spanier and head football coach Joe Paterno from their positions. Earlier that day, Paterno had announced he would retire at the end of the season.
The decisions came several days after former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was arraigned on 40 charges related to the alleged sexual abuse of eight boys over a 15-year period. Two top university officials are charged with failure to report one of those alleged incidents to authorities. Paterno and Spanier, who do not face charges, face criticism for not doing more to see it was reported.
After the board’s announcement, 4,000 to 5,000 people flooded downtown streets. The resulting riot damaged borough property, vehicles and caused minor injuries as people threw rocks.
Police from Penn State, Bellefonte, Patton and Ferguson townships assisted, as well as state police, which provided support all week, and possibly other departments. County staff also were present.
Borough Manager Tom Fountaine, and other borough department heads and public works employees, also were present downtown that night. While Fountaine said he learned of the news conference 10 to 15 minutes ahead of time, his staff was in contact with Penn State officials throughout the week.
“Not that we had any information ahead of time, but we had anticipated that there might be the need to have some additional staffing, so we had people on alert and also maintained higher staffing than normal throughout the week,” he said.
King said a morning press conference could have allowed time to prepare.
“We would have a lot of daylight, we would have sober people, and we would have more resources,” he said. “Whether it was preventable, I don’t know.”
Penn State spokesman Bill Mahon pointed to the dozens of reporters present as pushing the issue, “demanding” to know the board’s decision at the conclusion of Wednesday night’s meeting.
“We organized the press briefing on short notice and most of the media I talked to that night were frustrated the briefing did not start even faster,” Mahon said by email. “I’m not sure how we could have done it any other way, but we would have liked to if circumstances had been different.”
The rioting caused about $20,000 in damage downtown, said public works Director Mark Whitfield. That doesn’t include the cost of staff overtime. King said his department is still tallying the overtime, but it would amount to more than that.
The borough lost about a dozen street signs, a couple of parking meters that were damaged beyond repair, and 10 street lights. No trees or shrubs were damaged. Several vehicles also were damaged, and police are still receiving those reports.
A WTAJ-TV news van was tipped on its side, resulting in a gas spill. Whitfield said it was a challenge getting fire crews in to clean the spill, as people flicked cigarettes into it, as well as getting a vehicle downtown to remove the van. Police said they have one suspect identified in that incident.
“There was a lot of toilet paper, a lot of paper,” Whitfield said. “In terms of damage, it was not as bad as the ’98 riots. It terms of people, there were a lot more.”
About 1,500 people caused damage and set fires downtown in 1998, at the end of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts.
A 44-year-old Carbon County man is the first person to face criminal charges stemming from the riot.
State College police said Patrick M. McLaughlin, of Albrightsville, lit a shirt and garbage on fire on the 200
block of East Coll ege Avenue ar ound 11:30 p.m. Nov. 9. He’s charged with causing or risking a catastrophe, a felony, and misdemeanor disorderly conduct. He also was issued a citation for dangerous burning, a summary offense.
Police said they spotted McLaughlin walking along East Beaver Avenue the evening after the riot, and an officer noticed his white hooded sweatshirt was the same as one in a photo they were sent of a man starting a fire.
He was taken into custody and admitted to lighting the shirt on fire, police said. He is now in jail in lieu of $25,000 bail.
Police said 23 people who participated in the melee have been identified and the Centre County District Attorney’s Office is reviewing possible charges against them. Police Lt. Keith Robb said anyone appearing in photos that police are making public in order to identify suspects should turn themselves in.
Over the weekend, police cited Mason Fornwalt, 22, of Everett, with public drunkenness and disorderly conduct for yelling an obscenity at police after the riot.
During Monday’s Borough Council work session, King and council members praised student leaders for Friday’s candlelight vigil and for speaking to students. The borough’s student representative, Brendan McNally, addressed the council.
“On behalf of the vast majority of students, I would just like to apologize to the borough for what happened,” he said. “The vast majority of students thought that what they were doing was ridiculous and were trying to get them to stop.”
Councilman Peter Morris said he attended the vigil and called it a “wonderful experience.”
“(It) kind of washed the bad taste of Wednesday night out of my mouth,” he said, calling the riot “very disheartening and depressing.”
Councilman Don Hahn said the vigil set an example for the community.
“I think, in many ways, it’s a reminder to focus on what’s really important,” he said.
King said the increased police presence the rest of the week wasn’t needed because of student leaders’ actions.
“It really shows what students can do to impact other students,” he said. “That student- led vigil, you could just see the tone coming off campus. The tone was set for the entire weekend.”
Fountaine said a group of students helped clean up after the riot and the borough plans to thank them.
Moving ahead, Fountaine said he doesn’t have concerns about the borough’s partnership with Penn State.
“This was a very difficult and challenging week for everybody in the community, and I’m not prepared to draw any conclusions on the relationship based on the circumstances of this week,” he said. “The notification was not reflective of the relationship as it was an indication of how quickly events were unfolding and decisions were being made.”
CDT staff writer Mike Dawson contributed to this report.