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KENNEDY CHRISTIAN Official: Probe found other possible victims



Published: Wed, June 27, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The district attorney said seven young women, three of them victims, were ready to testify if this case had gone to trial.

By HAROLD GWIN

VINDICATOR SHARON BUREAU

HERMITAGE, Pa. -- The names of more than three possible victims surfaced in the investigation of allegations that the former boys basketball coach and dean of students at Kennedy Christian High School had sexual contact with female students, authorities said.

Hermitage police filed a charge of corruption of the morals of a minor Monday against Joseph Votino, 44, of Syme Street, Masury.

Plea agreement: Votino signed a plea agreement with the district attorney's office admitting his involvement with a young women and agreeing to plead guilty to a single count of corruption of the morals of a minor.

He was arraigned on that charge this morning before District Justice Ruth French in Mercer. He waived his right to a preliminary hearing, and she released him on his own recognizance pending an appearance in common pleas court.

Votino's attorney, David Acker of New Castle, tried to enter a plea of innocent to the charge today, but Justice French refused to accept it because pleas in such cases aren't taken during arraignment at the district justice level. Acker said later that he attempted to enter the plea for "administrative purposes" and that the plea agreement with the district attorney's office still stands.

Votino was fired by the school board May 18 in the wake of this investigation.

School officials learned of the matter after a March 29 telephone tip to a child abuse hot line got the Mercer County district attorney's office involved.

James Epstein, Mercer County district attorney, said that investigators had one victim's name when the probe began April 2 but that others began to surface.

Whittled down list: As the rumors spread and more names came up, the investigators had to weed through all of those reports and track down potential victims and witnesses, some of whom no longer live in this state.

In the end, the prosecution had three clear victims, all of whom reported having extended sexual liaisons with Votino while they were 17 and students at Kennedy Christian, Epstein said.

Some others who had been identified as potential victims denied any involvement with Votino and others declined to speak with investigators, he said.

Another potential case was discovered but it was beyond the five-year statute of limitations for this type of crime. Epstein declined to speculate on how long Votino may have been involved in this behavior.

Epstein said he approved the agreement because Votino confessed his guilt and responsibility in the matter, vindicating the reputations of the three young women, and it permanently removes Votino from any high school or middle school coaching position. It also means the victims won't have to testify in court, he said.

Epstein said his office will push for jail time for Votino. The maximum penalty in this case is 2 1/2 to 5 years in a state prison but could go as low as probation, he said.

The case is expected to be resolved before classes resume for the 2001-2002 school year, he said.

Epstein added that two of the young women in the case were victims this spring and the third was victimized a year ago.

At least two of them were reluctant to speak of their link to Votino, and court documents filed in the case said Votino asked all three girls to lie about their involvement with him.

Epstein said they decided to tell what they knew after being counseled by a clergyman. He didn't identify that person.

Prepared to testify: The district attorney praised seven unidentified young women who he said were prepared to testify if this case had gone to trial. Three are the victims and the other four are friends of two of the victims. The friends first stepped forward to tell school officials what was going on, he added.

Epstein also said Kennedy Christian officials cooperated fully with the criminal investigation, allowing investigators to speak with all administrators, faculty and staff members at the school.

In addition, about 25 other potential victims and witnesses were interviewed, he said.

The plea agreement covers only the three victims listed in this case. If other victims surface, additional charges could be filed, Epstein said.

gwin@vindy.com




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