They called him Victim 1.
But many in his community knew exactly who Aaron Fisher was and what he was saying long before he let the world know that he was the first of Jerry Sandusky’s victims to come forward. As Fisher waited years for an arrest, he felt acutely that it was him, and not the popular Penn State assistant coach, who had earned the community’s deepest disapproval.
“Because of who he was and what he created and what he did in his lifetime, pretty much Sandusky was a god on earth for people,” said Fisher.
To this day, despite Sandusky’s convictions on 45 counts of child molestation and despite the appalling inaction and cover-up at Penn State, there are some who look for the villain and see Fisher.
“There are still naive people in my community,” he said. “Whenever they said something, whenever they bashed on me for something, said I was a liar, they never apologized and still say I’m a liar.”
Fisher was in Spokane this week, speaking at the Children’s Justice Conference. He and his mother, Dawn Daniels Hennessy, and psychologist Michael Gillum wrote a book about his experience, “Silent No More: Victim 1’s Fight for Justice Against Jerry Sandusky.” Fisher said that, whatever the reaction in his hometown of Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, his decision to speak out has brought support from all over the country.
“I am satisfied with what I did,” he said. “I stand behind what I did because I know it’s right.”
Without the efforts of Fisher, Gillum and Hennessy, the Sandusky case may not have come to light. A longtime assistant football coach at Penn State, Sandusky also had a reputation as a benevolent force for needy kids through his charity, The Second Mile.
Fisher was 11 when he was recruited into that program in 2005. He considered Sandusky a kind of father figure, who took him to ball games and on overnight trips out of town; by the time Fisher was 12, Sandusky was sexually assaulting him. Sandusky volunteered at Fisher’s high school, where school officials would pull Fisher from class at Sandusky’s request.
By the time he was 15, he told his mother. At her urging, they went to his high school principal.
“The school said Jerry Sandusky has a heart of gold,” Gillum said. “He would never do that to anyone.”
Hennessy then took her son to children’s protective services officials, where he met with Gillum. They then approached police. Gillum said it was apparent immediately that Sandusky’s celebrity was going to present major problems.
Instead of the state patrol’s sex-crimes investigator interviewing Sandusky right away, two higher-ranking troopers interviewed him three weeks after the initial report, Gillum said. From there on, the case proceeded in fits and starts; they were repeatedly told an arrest was forthcoming, and nothing would happen. But Fisher, Hennessy and Gillum would not let it drop.
Hennessy described their mindset this way: “We’ll go to somebody else and we’ll go to somebody else and we’ll go to somebody else and we won’t stop.”
They had given investigators some leads on other possible victims associated with The Second Mile and Sandusky’s “pet circle,” Gillum said. And then investigators came across the major break – a former Penn State assistant who said he saw Sandusky raping a boy in the showers.
“When they interviewed him and he said, ‘Yeah, I told (former Penn State head coach) Joe Paterno about it and nothing was done,’ ” Gillum said.
The shower incident happened in 2002.
Three years before Fisher met Sandusky.
Eventually, prosecutors filed 52 charges on behalf of 10 victims in 2010. Sandusky was convicted on most charges and sentenced to between 30 and 60 years in prison. Perhaps worse was the major cover-up, dishonesty and willful ignorance exhibited by the leadership at Penn State; Paterno and the athletic director were fired, the university president quit, and several other top officials faced perjury charges or were fired.
The former head of the FBI, Louis Freeh, issued a damning report on the cover-up, saying university officials had “enabled” Sandusky’s abuse for years and had shown “total disregard” for the welfare of his victims. Since the criminal prosecution, around 30 victims have come forward, as part of a lawsuit against the university.
Though the circumstances of the Sandusky case are unusual, Gillum said there are many ways in which it illustrates the overall social failures that often accompany the sexual abuse of children. Because the act itself is horrible, talking about it has been stigmatized and people want not to believe it. Because child sex offenders always have more power and status than their victims, and often come from within a trusted circle of family and friends, it can be impossible for kids to even understand how they should respond.
Fisher said his experience was the “worst thing ever – the worst altogether of anything.” And the worst of it was not what Sandusky did, he said. It was everything he went through in the years between that and Sandusky’s conviction – the investigation, the delays, the “broken promises,” the long months where it seemed that he had gone through it all for nothing, the failure of almost everyone in his community to believe him.
“That was the hardest,” he said. “One hundred percent.”