STATE COLLEGE — A critical break in the investigation of Jerry Sandusky came via a posting on the Internet: a random mention that a Penn State football coach, years before, might have seen something ugly, but kept silent.
Investigators with the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office had by 2010 already come to the conclusion that Sandusky, the longtime defensive coordinator for Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions, was a serial molester, according to two people with knowledge of the case. But what had started with a complaint of sexual assault from a high school freshman had grown to include another matter altogether: whether Penn State had acted to cover up Sandusky’s behavior, even crimes.
Working off the mention on the Internet, according to the two people with knowledge of the case, investigators narrowed their list of likely coaches to have seen something to Mike McQueary, then an assistant coach and the football program’s recruiting coordinator.
State College is a close-knit community. A Penn State coach meeting with investigators would get around. So investigators set up a meeting in an out-of-the-way parking lot, according to those with knowledge of the case.
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There, one day a little over a year ago, McQueary unburdened himself, the two people said. He needed little prompting.
He told of a horrific scene he had stumbled upon as a graduate assistant one Friday night in March 2002: a naked boy, about 10, hands pressed against the locker room wall of the Lasch Football Building, being raped by Sandusky. McQueary was explicit and unequivocal, the people said. He had told Paterno, the team’s longtime and widely beloved head coach, about the incident the following day, but he was filled with regret that nothing had happened.
“This had been weighing on him for a very long time, and our guys felt he was relieved to get it off his chest,” one law enforcement official said. “When he had the opportunity to make it right, he told the truth.”
Sandusky, in his first public statement this week, acknowledged that he “horsed around” with boys in the shower but insisted there was no sexual intent.
But for investigators, the identification of McQueary, and the account he would ultimately tell under oath, was pivotal. In the coming months, investigators uncovered other alarming facts.
Officials at the Second Mile, the charity for at-risk children that Sandusky founded and that prosecutors say he used to target victims, reported that several years of the organization’s records were missing and perhaps had been stolen. The missing files, investigators worry, may limit their ability to determine if Sandusky used charity resources — expense accounts, travel, gifts — to recruit new victims, or even buy their silence, according to two people with knowledge of the case.
And in 2002, after McQueary had reported what he had seen to the university’s senior officials, those officials not only never told the police, but they also never even informed the university’s top lawyer. That lawyer, Wendell Courtney, said in an interview this week that he would have been duty bound to report any allegations of inappropriate conduct by Sandusky toward children to law enforcement officials.
Most disturbingly, investigators continued to identify possible victims — young men who had been boys when Sandusky befriended them through his foundation for troubled youngsters.
Those young men were not eager to tell their stories, the two people with knowledge of the case said. They were not convinced that that the attorney general’s office had the will to go after a case that could rewrite the storied history of the university’s football program. And they asked: If the case went forward, who would believe them over a revered figure like Jerry Sandusky?
It was a question investigators had asked themselves. But with McQueary, they had what they regarded as an impartial witness, and one from within the ranks of Penn State itself.
Accusation but no charge
Penn State was shaken by the Nov. 5 arrest of Sandusky, the indictment of two university officials on charges that they had perjured themselves and failed to report Sandusky’s alleged crimes, and the ouster of both Paterno and the university’s president, Graham Spanier.
But back in 2009, when the case first landed in the office of the attorney general, no one knew where it would lead. The mother of a Clinton County freshman called the local high school to report that her son had been sexually assaulted by Sandusky. Sandusky was barred from the school, where he had served as a volunteer coach, and the matter was reported to authorities.
The Clinton County teenager — Victim 1, as he would become known in the grand jury report made public this month — alleged that he first met Sandusky through the Second Mile when he was 11 or 12. Sandusky had indecently fondled him and performed oral sex on him, the boy said.
But prosecutors, lacking physical evidence of an assault, worried about the fortunes of a case that might end up with little more than competing claims — by the boy and by Sandusky.
“You can charge it, but getting a conviction is going to be difficult,” said one person with direct knowledge of the deliberations among prosecutors. “And getting a conviction in State College against someone of Jerry Sandusky’s stature is going to be 10 times more difficult.”
To make a charge stick, they concluded, they needed to explore whether one boy’s claims were merely one among others, maybe many.
Looking in old files
The answer to their question, it turned out, lay in a voluminous police report sitting for a dozen years in the old case files of Penn State police. Investigators for the Attorney General’s Office had heard rumors that Sandusky had come to the attention of law enforcement sometime in the past, but they were not sure when or where.
The investigators, according to those with knowledge of the case, began calling around to nearby police departments; they received a hit when they reached the campus police.
In 1998, an 11-year-old boy, now known as Victim 6, had come home with wet hair and told his mother he had showered with Sandusky at Penn State’s athletic complex. She immediately reported it to the university police, according to the grand jury report.
As investigators leafed through the old report — it ran to close to 100 pages — they came to think that the campus police officers had truly wanted to make a case against Sandusky, according to people with knowledge of the current investigation. The officers had gone so far as to set up a sting operation in which the boy’s mother called the coach, and, with police listening in, confronted Sandusky.
He admitted to showering with her son and another boy, said he did not think that his private parts had touched her son, but acknowledged that what he did was wrong. “I wish I were dead,” he said, according to the grand jury’s findings.
Ultimately, former Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar decided against taking the case to trial, a decision that, years later, the attorney general’s investigators could well understand. According to people with knowledge of the current Sandusky case, the district attorney’s decision in 1998 was a close call, even with the evidence the campus police had.
But what most struck the investigators, according to people with knowledge of the current case, was that the university itself seemed to have done nothing in the wake of the substantial police investigation. Whether that is because other senior officials at Penn State did not know of the investigation or because they did know of it but chose to do nothing is a central question for investigators today.
Prosecutors have said that Gary Schultz, the university official charged with overseeing the campus police, said under oath that he recalled being aware of some kind of incident involving Sandusky and a boy showering together, and the subsequent investigation.
Others, including the university president, said they were not told about it.
A profile emerges
With the discovery of the 1998 report, the investigation took on a greater sense of urgency, those involved in the case said. Investigators now had evidence that Sandusky might have molested at least two boys.
According to people involved in the case, Sandusky was never placed under extensive surveillance. Instead, they began poring over the records of Sandusky’s charity, the Second Mile, and interviewing people who had been through the program.
As additional suspected victims were located, a profile began to emerge, according to people with knowledge of the investigation.
Sandusky engaged in what experts in child predators call “grooming” behavior, law enforcement officials asserted this month, making his first approach when children were 8-12 years old. He tended to choose white boys from homes where there was no father or some difficulty in the family, investigators said, and he drew them in with trips to games and expensive gifts such as computers.
Touching progressed incrementally. “Lots of them reported that he’d first put his hand of their thigh while driving,” one person involved in the inquiry recalled. The shower was where he most often initiated more overtly sexual behavior.
The testimony of one victim who said he was forced to put his hand on Sandusky’s erection when he was 8-10 years old particularly outraged investigators. “The poor kid was too young to even understand what an erection was,” one said.
When first approached about testifying before the grand jury, many did not want to get involved, the people involved in the case said. If Sandusky was indicted and the case went to trial, their names and what had happened would become public.
But prosecutors were able to compel their testimony with grand jury subpoenas, and one boy led to another.
Meanwhile, investigators served numerous subpoenas on the Second Mile, according to people with knowledge of the inquiry. Not only did they want the names of children who had been through the program, they also demanded all of Sandusky’s travel and expense records.
Much of the older paperwork was stored at an off-site records facility. The travel and expense records, for instance, had been sent over several years earlier. But select members of the charity’s board of directors were alarmed to learn recently that when the records facility went to retrieve them, some of those records — from about 2000 to 2003 — were missing.
The attorney general’s office was notified of the missing files, people with knowledge of the case said. Subsequently, the foundation was able to locate apparently misfiled records from one of the years, but the rest seem to have disappeared.
Lynne Abraham, a lawyer for Second Mile, did not return a call requesting comment. A spokesman for the attorney general declined to comment, citing the continuing grand jury investigation.
“It could be that they are just lost, but under the circumstances it is suspicious,” one law enforcement official involved in the case said of the missing files.
Some investigators said they were convinced that the idea that Sandusky had an inappropriate interest in, and relationships with, young boys was a fairly widely held suspicion around and even outside Penn State’s football program over the years.
“This was not the secret that they are trying to make out now,” one person involved in the inquiry said. “I know there were a number of college coaches that had heard the rumors. If all these people knew about it, how could Sandusky’s superiors not know?”
In fact, according to McQueary, at least a few did.
When McQueary met with investigators last year, he immediately told them that he had witnessed Sandusky raping the boy in the showers on a Friday night in 2002 and then had gone home and talked to his father about what he should do. Together, they decided he needed to tell Paterno. Before becoming a graduate assistant, McQueary had played for Paterno. The coach was a mentor, and a friend.
Still, for years, McQueary questioned whether he did the right thing. Under the law, McQueary was obligated only to tell a superior at the university. It is the duty of university administrators to inform the police. Besides, as one investigator put it, “on that campus, telling Joe Paterno is like telling God.”
Paterno, by his own account to the grand jury, met with Tim Curley, the university’s athletic director the next day and told him of McQueary’s account, saying the assistant had seen Sandusky “fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy.”
McQueary, who by then had been elevated from graduate assistant to an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator, laid out for investigators what happened next. It took a week and half, a time lapse that investigators find deeply troubling, for Curley and Schultz to call him to a meeting. He told investigators, and later the grand jury, that he had explained to the two men in graphic detail what he had witnessed.
Curley and Schultz gave different accounts of what transpired in that meeting, with Curley saying McQueary saw “inappropriate conduct” that he termed “horsing around” between Sandusky and the child, and Schultz saying that he had “the impression that Sandusky might have inappropriately grabbed the young boy’s genitals while wrestling.”
In either event, no one notified the police. And once again, before deciding what to do, no one consulted the university’s lawyer, according to Courtney, Penn State’s general counsel. Courtney was called in to advise Second Mile’s board of directors in 2009 after Sandusky informed it of the Clinton County freshman’s allegations, but Courtney said that was the first he had heard of Sandusky’s alleged inappropriate behavior.