MERCER COUNTY Judge sentences ex-coach
Authorities said Votino used his position to isolate and seduce three female students.
By HAROLD GWIN
VINDICATOR SHARON BUREAU
MERCER, Pa. -- The young woman sat in the front row of the courtroom, silently rocking forward and back, seemingly oblivious to those around her until Joe Votino walked into the room.
Her eyes riveted to him as she stared intently, at times appearing to wipe a tear from her eye.
Minutes later the young woman, identified by authorities as one of three victims in the case, broke into loud sobs as Judge Michael Wherry of Mercer County Common Pleas Court told Votino he would have to spend 1 to 2 years in a state prison for corrupting the morals of a minor.
Votino, 44, of Syme Street, Masury, former dean of students and basketball coach at Kennedy Catholic High School in Hermitage, was handcuffed on the spot and led off to county jail by a deputy sheriff.
The young woman and members of her family and others from Kennedy Catholic were ushered out of the courtroom moments later.
Penalties: Votino's attorney, David Acker, had asked for probation, but Judge Michael Wherry decided Votino will have to serve at least one year before he can apply for parole.
Wherry also ordered Votino to pay $950 in legal costs incurred by each of the three young women in the case and to pick up the cost of their ongoing counseling.
"I thought it was an appropriate sentence," said James Epstein, county district attorney. He had asked that Votino be sent to prison.
Votino could have received a maximum 21/2 to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
"My sincere apologies to all the people that I have hurt," Votino said in a brief statement before sentencing.
"I never intended to cause pain," he said, apologizing to the young women involved, their families, his family and the school.
Downfall: Votino, a fixture at Kennedy Catholic for nearly two decades, led the boys basketball team to six state championships, including four in the last four years.
His life began to unravel quickly, however, after a caller to a child abuse hot line informed authorities March 30 that Votino was having sexual relations with at least one of the school's students.
He at first denied any wrongdoing, but the school suspended him April 9 and fired him May 18.
Authorities said he engaged in sexual relations with three Kennedy female students, all of whom were 17 at the time, between spring 2000 and April of this year.
An investigation turned up one more possible victim, but the statute of limitations had expired in that case.
However, should other victims surface, new charges can be filed, Epstein said.
Votino pleaded guilty to a single count of corrupting the morals of a minor in a plea bargain, admitting having sex with the girls either at his home or at a location in Sharon, which was never named.
Epstein said he accepted the plea to bring a quick end to the case and to avoid making the young women testify in open court.
Judge's statement: Wherry, making note of Votino's accomplishments and suggesting he showed "genius" in his coaching, told him, "You're not all bad and you're not all good, like anybody else."
But, for some reason, Votino turned to sexual gratification with impressionable and vulnerable students, the judge said.
"You set them up," he told Votino, accusing him of violating his position of authority and trust and subjecting three young women to public humiliation.
Epstein said a court-appointed psychologist, Dr. Robert Craig, had recommended state prison time for Votino, suggesting he can get appropriate counseling as a sex offender in prison.
Acker, expressing little confidence in the state counseling system, said Votino could get better treatment if he were placed on probation and ordered to undergo counseling.
"Mr. Votino has lost everything he's ever worked for," Acker told the court, urging that he be given "a chance to rebuild everything he has lost."
He said Votino has been offered a job by a local company selling industrial equipment.
Praise for teens: Epstein said Votino advised the young women to lie to authorities about their involvement with him. He credited four other young women with coming forward to tell what they knew about their friends' being victimized, calling their decision to challenge a person as powerful as Votino courageous.
He did some good, but in the end he betrayed the trust of his positions as dean of students and basketball coach, using them to select, isolate and seduce the students, Epstein said.
Where Votino will serve his sentence is unknown. He will go to the state minimum security prison at Camp Hill, Pa., for evaluation and assignment and will likely serve at least part of his term in a prison in the eastern part of the state, Epstein said.