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How child-porn case led to Hershey School

William Charney Jr. walked into the federal courthouse in Harrisburg 10 days ago and was sentenced to more than seven years in prison. The charge: possession of almost 700 images and 40 videos of child pornography.

After his sentencing to prison for possession of child pornography, William Charney Jr., former house parent and home-life administrator, walks near the Harrisburg courthouse. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
After his sentencing to prison for possession of child pornography, William Charney Jr., former house parent and home-life administrator, walks near the Harrisburg courthouse. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)Read more

William Charney Jr. walked into the federal courthouse in Harrisburg 10 days ago and was sentenced to more than seven years in prison. The charge: possession of almost 700 images and 40 videos of child pornography.

A vile crime in any circumstance, it is particularly chilling in the case of Charney. The 43-year-old, married and the father of two children, was responsible for the residential life of about 800 teenage students and was living on the campus of the Milton Hershey School for impoverished children. Between 2001 and 2008, Charney and his wife, Mollie, were the house parents for about a dozen boys, living in student homes with them.

Tipped off by America Online, the FBI had cause to move quickly when it first became aware of Charney in late 2009. "Let me know if you ever want to make it happen with one of my boys, they're always available," said one e-mail sent to Charney, who used an alias screen name.

Charney is the second child-sex offender uncovered at the Hershey School in recent years and the latest in a string of sexually charged issues to confront the school's administration and its Board of Managers. It comes as the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office is investigating multimillion-dollar expenditures by the school of funds meant to sustain the institution and expand its enrollment.

Before the Charney case, the most publicized of the sexual improprieties was the school's decision in 2010 to settle the claims of five former students who said they had been sexually abused by Charles Koons 2d, a serial molester who gained access to the campus through his mother, a part-time house parent. Though a mother of a boy warned the school about Koons in the late 1990s, Koons continued to visit the campus.

In 2007 and 2006, two teachers, one male and one female, were prosecuted in separate cases for having sexual relations with students.

On a matter of sex among students, a 2005 letter became public this month in a federal lawsuit that described an incident in which four students were caught engaging in sex during a school-sponsored vacation to an amusement park in Ohio. A year after the 2004 incident, the vice president for residential life, Peter Gurt, is said to have joked about the situation during a school social event.

Gurt, now the school's chief operating officer, referred to a boy as having had "the best ride in Ohio" with the girl, the letter said. The letter called the comment shameful. It was signed by a group calling itself "Concerned Employees" and sent to the Board of Managers in 2005. The letter was contained as an exhibit in the lawsuit by former student Cosme Cesar Escudero-Aviles, who contends he was unjustly expelled in unrelated incidents.

The free school is the nation's biggest and wealthiest boarding school for needy children, with $7.5 billion in assets and 1,850 students. It is about 90 minutes west of Philadelphia and enrolls students from throughout the United States, with many of them from Pennsylvania.

The crimes of Charney and Koons and the other incidents raise questions about student safety and the quality of oversight at a school that markets itself as an enriching boarding-school experience for impoverished children. Hershey spends about $110,000 a year per student, according to its nonprofit IRS tax filing, more than the nation's most expensive and elite prep schools.

Hershey School spokeswoman Connie McNamara said the institution vigilantly protects the children and "as soon as the School became aware of the allegations against Mr. Charney, we took immediate action. We cooperated fully with authorities and we received assurances that our students were not involved."

She said that none of the pornographic images involved Milton Hershey School students and that Charney took a lie-detector test that confirmed what the government had told the school.

McNamara said the school has policies for both staff and students that prohibit inappropriate use of the Internet. "We have Internet filters in place, and anything categorized as pornography is blocked on our network," she said.

The school's Board of Managers issued a statement in response to questions: "Milton Hershey School is a safe place for children. No school is without isolated instances of problems and they are heartbreaking when they occur. We do everything humanly possible to prevent them and we learn from them if they do occur. But those isolated instances are not the story of the Milton Hershey School. The story of the Milton Hershey School is the story of a safe environment for children to grow and learn.

"Student safety is of paramount importance to our staff, our administration, and this Board," the statement said. "It is at the heart of what we do, and we take that responsibility seriously. While we continually assess our practices, we are confident that we have the most stringent protections in place."

The managers said they had the "full faith and confidence in the School's leadership."

Under investigation

The matters being investigated by the attorney general include the institution's 2006 purchase of a private, money-losing golf course north of Hershey for $12 million, two to three times the course's appraised value.

Although the Hershey School said it purchased the golf course in part as "buffer land" for student safety and future expansion, it opened the golf course to the public and built a $5 million restaurant/bar on it.

James H. Lytle, professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, said unexpected events were bound to happen at a large boarding school. However, he said, "I'm not comfortable with the number of incidents, and I am particularly uncomfortable with the comments on senior night."

The remark attributed to Peter Gurt, Lytle said, was "close to cause for dismissal for me, or at the least a lengthy suspension without pay." He said the comment would be "way beyond the bounds of appropriate behavior. . . . It indicates a wink-and-a-blink culture at the school."

F. Frederic Fouad, president of the nonprofit group Protect the Hershey's Children Inc., which has criticized the institution, said: "The problem with this school is a leadership that does not prevent these incidents in the first place and then is forced repeatedly to react on the latest outrage. There's no doubt that the well-being of the Milton Hershey School children is not being optimally protected."

McNamara, the spokeswoman, said that all staff at the school undergo state and federal background checks upon hiring and that the checks are repeated periodically throughout an employee's tenure.

School officials, she said, are confident they are "following - and exceeding - best practice in the area of student safety after having benchmarked other residential schools. We have continued to review our practices in recent years."

The century-old Hershey School was founded by Milton and Catherine Hershey as an orphanage and school, and is financed by profits from Hershey chocolate bars and Reese's peanut butter cups. It is governed by four interlocking boards, the most powerful of which is the board of the Hershey Trust Co. that controls its finances.

LeRoy S. Zimmerman, a state Republican heavyweight and a political ally of Gov. Corbett, now heads the Hershey Trust Co. board. Zimmerman is a former two-term attorney general, the first of an unbroken string of elected Republican attorneys general in Pennsylvania who have regulated the Hershey charity since the early 1980s.

Zimmerman joined the charity in 2002 with the support of then-Attorney General Mike Fisher and has earned $1.9 million in compensation through director fees on Hershey-related boards.

The Attorney General's Office is now headed by Corbett appointee Linda Kelly. Nils Frederiksen, spokesman for the office, did not return e-mails and a phone call last week asking how the Charney case might affect the ongoing investigation into the charity's financial dealings.

Heidi Havens, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, said there was no evidence from its investigation that Charney victimized students in his role as a house parent or later as the school's associate director of home life for the senior division.

Charney's attorney, Dennis E. Boyle of Camp Hill, said the school was concerned that Charney might have molested its students and asked him to submit to a lie-detector test. Boyle said in court documents and at the sentencing that Charney passed the test. McNamara said in an e-mail that Charney volunteered for the lie-detector test and the school accepted the offer.

Delayed action

Before the Charney case, the most recent experience for the school in a sex-related case was that of Koons.

Although he was not arrested until 2008, Koons was brought to the attention of the school and the Derry Township police in the late 1990s when the mother of a former student said in an affidavit that her son had been molested in the 1980s.

A police and school investigation was launched in 1998 but abandoned without explanation in April 1999. Koons was eventually nabbed by the police in Middletown Borough.

Koons was prosecuted for cases that did not involve Hershey School students. Nonetheless, Hershey paid $3 million to settle the claims of five former students. McNamara said the molestations were at least 20 years old.

The Hershey School employee assigned to look into the Koons allegations in the late 1990s, Beth Shaw, has not explained why the investigation was dropped, allowing Koons to continue to visit the school. Shaw remains one of the institution's highest-paid administrators as executive director of student support, according to the school's latest IRS tax filing.

In a two-year span, there were two cases of teachers having sex with students.

In 2007, part-time drum instructor Michael T. Culp, 30, admitted having consensual sex with a 16-year-old Hershey School female student he was driving to her home in New Hampshire, according to a police report. The two stayed overnight at a Days Inn in Windsor, N.Y. Court records in New York show Culp was charged with disorderly conduct, sexual misconduct, and endangering the welfare of a child and fined $250. The school fired him.

In 2006, Derry Township police arrested English teacher Brianna K. Said, 30, and charged her with having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old male student. After she pleaded no contest to a charge of corrupting a minor, a Dauphin County judge sentenced her in September 2006 to two years of probation and a $500 fine, according to court records. The school said it terminated Said's employment after learning of the relationship.

Peter Gurt's purported remarks date to 2005 but resurfaced with the recent lawsuit, filed in the same courthouse in which Charney was sentenced.

In 2004, a group of Hershey School students and staff traveled to the Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio for a school-sponsored vacation. While at the park, four students - three males and one female - were caught engaging in sexual activity, according to the letter in the federal lawsuit filed by Escudero-Aviles.

Students, teachers, and staff on the tight-knit campus heard about the incident, and a year later it became the topic of conversation at Senior Recognition night, an annual convivial gala for graduating students. In a speech at the alumni house, Gurt told the group of seniors that one of the boys in the class who participated in the foursome had "the best ride in Ohio," according to the letter that the Concerned Employees group e-mailed to the Board of Managers on May 26, 2005.

"Women are offended! 'You had the best ride in Ohio' is no way to describe a sexual act with a woman," stated the letter, which contained other accusations of inappropriate behavior.

A 2005 graduate who witnessed Gurt's comment said that he didn't consider it disrespectful because "everyone knew what was going on" at the park and Gurt was implying that those caught were "knuckleheads. . . . We laughed hysterically about it because some of the kids involved were in our class."

On Friday, school spokeswoman McNamara said the Board of Managers "took this allegation very seriously and hired an outside attorney to conduct a thorough investigation of the matter. Beyond that, we do not comment on personnel matters."

Gurt did not return a phone call or e-mail for comment.

McNamara said the Board of Managers received another letter "during this same time period, signed by more than 50 house parents at the Milton Hershey School who contradicted these allegations."

In the Hershey organizational structure in 2005, the house parents were managed by Gurt. According to the school's latest nonprofit tax filing with the IRS, Gurt earned $314,295 a year.

Case against Charney

Charney might not have been caught if it had not been for a new federal law, the Protect Our Children Act of 2008, that provided for Internet operators to report child pornography on their networks.

In late November 2009, AOL flagged suspicious e-mail communications between two e-mail users in Pennsylvania, one of whom used the screen name

The first of the e-mail exchanges was Nov. 27, 2009, when wrote: "Nothing here but it is exciting to hear about your endeavors. You have any pics of the two new ones? I often think about ryan and wish I had followed through On our plan for you and him to come to hershey. Maybe some day this summer I can Get away and travl your way."

The Inquirer is withholding the screen name of the second e-mailer because of the graphic images associated with it on a Google search.

Two days later, the second e-mailer wrote to "Sure, here you go, i think i've already shown you zack's pics, right? these are the two new ones. let me know if you ever want to make it happen with one of my boys, they're always available."

Less than an hour later, the second e-mailer added that he might need to trade for pictures. responded: "i am up for trading." The traded pictures were graphic and contained images of young boys engaged sexual activity, according to court documents.

AOL informed the online CyberTipline, and the FBI eventually located Charney on the Hershey campus. One piece of evidence leading the FBI to him was his Hershey School e-mail.

The FBI raided Charney's campus home Feb. 12, 2010. A year later, the U.S. Attorney's Office in central Pennsylvania announced it was charging Charney with one count of receiving and distributing child pornography, and he pleaded guilty this April. Hershey spokeswoman McNamara has said the institution removed Charney from his positions when it became aware of the investigation in early 2010.

Boyle, Charney's attorney, wrote in the Oct. 14 sentencing memo that Charney was a decorated military veteran, family man, and a victim of sex abuse as a child. Charney secretly began viewing homosexual pornography five or six years ago and advanced to child pornography, according to the memo.

Charney was suicidal when he was caught and he is remorseful, Boyle said, noting that his wife has stuck by him. "It's a difficult case because Mr. Charney is truly a good man," the attorney said in court. Boyle said Charney had a compulsion and would download the images and then delete them.

Daryl F. Bloom, the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, said Charney had cooperated in a government investigation. Parts of the case remain sealed. The U.S. Attorney's Office would not comment on the second e-mailer.

Federal Judge Sylvia Rambo told Charney at his sentencing Oct. 20 that there were factors that contributed to leniency but that she was troubled by a check that Charney wrote to meet a teenage boy. Boyle said in court that the meeting was never held.

Speaking to the judge, Charney said: "The shame was overwhelming and I didn't know what to do about it. . . . I apologize for my actions. I wish there was something more I could do."

Charney must report to a federal prison Nov. 29 to serve his time.

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