BELLEFONTE, Pa. — Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky stunned a packed courtroom and backed out of a preliminary hearing at the last minute Tuesday, avoiding a face-to-face confrontation with accusers who his lawyer said were just trying to cash in by making up stories of child sex abuse.
Sandusky pleaded not guilty and vowed afterward to “stay the course, to fight for four quarters.”
His lawyer, Joe Amendola, then took the defense to the courthouse steps and spoke before dozens of news cameras for an hour, saying some of the 10 men who accuse Sandusky of molesting them as children were only out to profit from civil lawsuits against the coach and Penn State.
A prosecutor said about 11 witnesses, most of them alleged victims, were ready to testify at the hearing.
An attorney for one called Sandusky a “coward” for not hearing his accusers’ testimony and derided the arguments that they were out for money, saying many were too old to sue Sandusky under Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations.
“It makes my blood boil,” said Harrisburg lawyer Ben Andreozzi, who read a statement by his client, identified in a grand jury report as Victim 4, who was said to have become a fixture at one point in the Sandusky household.
“All the money in the world isn’t going to bring them back to where they were before the sexual assaults.”
Sandusky, 67, faces 52 criminal counts for what a grand jury called a series of sexual assaults and abuse of 10 boys dating back to the 1990s, in hotel swimming pools, the basement of his home in State College and in the locker room showers at Penn State, where he coached football until his retirement in 1999.
The charges devastated the university and its storied football program and led to the departures of coach Joe Paterno and the university’s president and charges against two administrators accused of lying to a grand jury and failing to report the suspected abuse.
Amendola told reporters Tuesday that Sandusky is an emotional, physical man — “a loving guy, an affectionate guy” — who never did anything illegal. The lawyer likened Sandusky’s behavior to his own Italian family in which “everybody hugged and kissed each other.”
The lawyer accused the unidentified victims of seeking to cash in through false accusations and said the preliminary hearing would not have allowed him to delve into the witnesses’ credibility.
Amendola said he decided to waive the preliminary hearing late Monday after concluding that the evidence would be one-sided, and after prosecutors agreed to give early warning of any further charges and to keep Sandusky’s bail at $250,000.
A spokesman for the prosecutors said Sandusky’s bail conditions were adequate, but made no other promises.
“Sandusky waived his rights today. We waived nothing,” said Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for the stateattorney general’s office.
Amendola and state prosecutors confirmed that no one had started plea bargain talks.
“There will be no plea negotiations,” Amendola said. “This is a fight to the death.”
Sandusky also waived a January arraignment and requested a jury trial, his lawyer said. A pretrial conference was set for March.
“If he wants to change his mind at the last minute, that’s his prerogative,” senior deputy attorney general E. Marc Costanzo said.
Veteran Pittsburgh defense attorney Patrick Thomassey said waiving the hearing was not surprising — because the prosecution’s burden of proof is much lower than at trial, and because the longer a witness waits to testify, the more cynical a jury might be.
“It’s like, ‘Why didn’t you tell anybody about that sooner?'” Thomassey said. “That’s why I want them to answer my hard question for the first time in front of a jury.”
Some lawyers for alleged victims said they were disappointed they didn’t testify, after steeling themselves to face him.
“It would have been apparent from watching those boys and their demeanor that they were telling the truth,” said Howard Janet, a lawyer for a boy whose mother contacted police in 1998 and said her son had showered with Sandusky.
Sandusky was accompanied to court by his wife, Dottie, some of their adopted children and alumni of The Second Mile, an organization that he founded in 1977 to help struggling children. The grand jury report said he used the charity to meet and lure his alleged victims.
The first known abuse allegation was in 1998, when the mother told police Sandusky had showered with her son.
Accusations surfaced again in 2002, when then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary reported another alleged incident of abuse to Paterno and other university officials.
The grand jury probe began only in 2009, after a teen complained that Sandusky, then a volunteer coach at his high school, had abused him.
The teen told the grand jury that Sandusky first groomed him with gifts and trips in 2006 and 2007, then sexually assaulted him more than 20 times in 2008 through early 2009.
Amendola on Tuesday attacked McQueary by citing a Sunday report in The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa., that claimed he changed his story when speaking to a family friend.
The defense attorney said McQueary’s conflicting account would derail the prosecution.
“McQueary was always the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case,” he said.
The newspaper report cited a source said to be familiar with the testimony of the family friend, Dr. Jonathan Dranov.
The Associated Press was unable to reach Dranov at his home and office for comment. No answered the door at McQueary’s home Tuesday. His father, John, declined comment to the AP.
Lawyers for Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz issued a joint statement Tuesday about the newspaper report.
“If this information is true, and we believe it is, it would be powerful, exculpatory evidence and the charges against our clients should be dismissed,” said the lawyers, Thomas Farrell and Caroline Roberto.
Curley and Schultz face preliminary hearings on Friday in Harrisburg. They have denied the allegations against them. Curley was placed on leave and Schultz returned to retirement in the wake of their arrests.
Meanwhile, officials at another Pennsylvania school said Tuesday that Sandusky insinuated himself into the school’s football program last year, despite being denied an official position because he failed a background check.
Sandusky had sought a volunteer coaching position at Juniata College in May 2010, more than a year after a high school where he volunteered began investigating his contact with a student there.
Sandusky attended Juniata practices and games despite the athletic director’s directives to the then-head coach that Sandusky couldn’t associate with the team, school spokesman John Wall said.