A legal spectacle takes shape in Happy Valley
BELLEFONTE – The circus came to town Monday.
BELLEFONTE – The circus came to town Monday.
Hundreds of reporters from news outlets from across the country, dozens of interested attorneys, and run-of-the-mill gawkers descended on this small Victorian hamlet for one of the most highly anticipated legal spectacles the community has ever hosted.
With the preliminary hearing of former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on sex abuse charges set for Tuesday morning, news vans and satellite trucks lined the streets, the local coffee shop posted special "hearing hours" and police readied barricades to block off what are expected to be the most heavily trafficked areas.
Residents of this community of 6,000 talked of little else, wishing each other "Good luck, tomorrow," as they passed each other in the streets.
Up and down High Street – one of downtown Bellefonte's main two main arteries -- local businesses were readying to capitalize by Monday afternoon, many boasting extended hours or special deals to out-of-towners.
"I'm going to be here. I can't afford not to be here. It's exposure," said Valerie Owens-Echols, who opened a clothing resale shop just blocks from the courthouse a few weeks ago and hopes tomorrow's expected foot traffic will give her new venture an extra boost in sales.
At the courthouse, employees covered windows to prevent the wandering eyes of passersby from distracting from Tuesday's proceedings.
"I heard they're going to have snipers on the roof of the YMCA," said a waitress at the courthouse staple Jim's Italian Cuisine, pointing to a building across the street in the sightlines of the court's front steps. "I'm scared."
The preliminary hearing is here because Bellefonte is the county seat for Centre County, which includes Penn State, which about 10 miles away.
Borough police declined to comment on specific security measures they may have in place. But James Koval, spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, described preparations in epic terms.
"It's our O.J. trial," he said.
Sandusky, 67, stands accused of molesting 10 boys between the mid-'90s and 2009. According to a grand jury report released last month, he met them all through The Second Mile, a charity for troubled youth he founded in 1977.
The case has tarnished the national reputation of Penn State and led the dismissal of the school's renowned football coach, Joe Paterno.
On Friday, two top Penn State administrators are scheduled to face their own hearings on perjury charges in Harrisburg. The grand jury alleged former university Vice President Gary Schultz and Athletic Director Tim Curley of lying about what they were told regarding a 2002 incident in which a graduate assistant said he saw Sandusky raping a boy in the locker room showers.
While Sandusky's case has received extensive coverage since his arrest, Tuesday's hearing is expected to offer a number of firsts: The first time Sandusky will appear before a judge to face all 50 counts against him at once. The first time many of his accusers are set to testify publicly. And the first chance the world will have to weigh their testimony based on more than the disturbing descriptions included in a 23-page grand jury report.
State prosecutors must convince a judge that there is enough evidence of alleged abuse to hold the case over for trial. They are expected to call a number of Sandusky's alleged victims to the stand. Although a spokesman for Attorney General Linda Kelly has declined to comment on exactly who will be called, attorneys representing several of the alleged victims said they were advised to ready their clients' for court.
For Sandusky's defense, the hearing offers an opportunity to confront the coach's accusers in court.
That chance was one of the primary reasons Sandusky's lawyer – Joseph Amendola – decided to go through with the hearing, he said. Often, defendants in high profile criminal cases waive their preliminary hearings – the results of which are often seen as foregone conclusions -- to avoid the added publicity.
"It's the first time we will be able to get a look at witnesses and get names," Amendola said. "Jerry feels like he knows who most of these alleged victims are, but we don't officially know." And for Bellefonte – better known for its Victorian houses and the natural spring from whence it takes its name – the hearing, for a short time at least, will put it on the map.
It's not that its courthouse – built in 1805 – hasn't seen its share of attention-grabbing proceedings. There was the 1910 trial of merry-go-round operator Albert Delige who killed his boss over $7 in back pay, only to be hanged in front of a crowd a year later. More recently, locals paid rapt attention to the 1971 trial of John Tressler convicted of fatally shooting a police officer feet from the courthouse steps.
But this – said Ashley Kelley, general manager of Governor's Pub, as she readied the restaurant for a 17-hour day Tuesday – this is different.
"It's a little intimidating," she said. "We're under a microscope."
Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @inqmontco on Twitter.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.