#parent | #kids | ‘The Mayor of Maple Avenue’: Chapter 1 transcript


This transcript of chapter 1 of “The Mayor of Maple Avenue” is provided for those who need assistance following along with the episode. We encourage you to listen to the episode. It can be found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. Please refer to the corresponding audio before quoting it in a story.

Sara Ganim: Piecing together the life of an addict is hard. As addiction reaches a certain level, a once stable life begins to fray at the seams. Everything becomes delicate, unbalanced, insecure. It’s lonely. Difficult to track. They’re never in one place for long. The people around them are always new and hardly reliable. For a journalist this means that most information comes in tiny flashes… fragments of time collected in an effort to develop a fuller picture. Each day, each week, that passes in an addict’s life is fast and fleeting. It’s only before the descent – when hope springs eternal – and after, when the grip of addiction has loosened… that the pace slows down enough to dig deeper.

Since the death of her youngest son Shawn, such moments of reflection – which were once scarce – have been piling up for Marianne Sinisi.

Marianne Sinisi: To me, gardening is probably one of the only things that have kept me from losing my mind for all these years is no matter how stressed out I could go out there. I could chop something to bits if I wanted to. I could sit and look at the beauty of something. I could dig in the dirt, rearrange things, and have it be the way I wanted when I couldn’t have control of anything else in my life.

Sara Ganim: Since the 1990′s, the Sinisis have lived in the same house, in the same town, on the same suburban street called Maple Avenue. In what can only be described as an ordinary house that Marianne took extraordinary care to make whimsical.

She painted her front door lime green, and built a fenced-in garden with planters and wind chimes, scattered little places to around the yard with benches and arches to enjoy what she’d created.

Before the grief. Before the addiction. Before Jerry Sandusky… there was the garden.

But as clouds gathered overhead on the morning of Shawn’s memorial in 2018, Marianne felt tense.

Marianne Sinisi: It started to rain that morning and I was thinking, “Oh God, why couldn’t it have just been a nice day?”

Sara Ganim: The weather felt like an omen. Just a few days prior Marianne had given her family the news that she and her husband Mike did not want to have a funeral of any kind for Shawn — not even the event that was about to take place.

Marianne Sinisi: It was just too painful for both of us. We just couldn’t imagine doing that.

Mike Sinisi: It’s too painful. I didn’t want to be put through all of that.

Sara Ganim: From their perspective, the experiences of Shawn’s brief life and the emotions surrounding his tragic death were moments that they weren’t ready to relive. Not everyone in the family felt the same way. Shawn’s siblings and some of the larger family wanted a service to grieve and to celebrate the Shawn that they wanted to remember. There were so many memories. Shawn was an addict, but that wasn’t all that he was. Marianne remembered the garden.

Marianne Sinisi: I said, “As I sit on this deck and I look down over the yard and stuff, Shawn loved this house.” He joked all the time said, that he was going to put us in an old age home and this would be his house. And when we’d say anything I’d say, “At the house or at my… He goes, “No. You mean my house?” And I say, “Yeah, your house.”

Marianne Sinisi: So I just said, “If that’s what they want, I will agree to do something but I want to do it right here. This is the place he loved the best.

Sara Ganim: So few days later, as the clouds separated and the sun shone through, the family congregated in the Sinisi’s backyard to share their favorite stories — stories that helped paint a portrait of Shawn’s life before addiction… and perhaps provided some dignity in death to a man who did not often experience it in life.

Josh Sinisi: He was always happy, always laughing, smiling.

Sara Ganim: That’s his brother, Josh

Josh Sinisi: He used to call the UPS man, the UEPess man, so that would always make us laugh. Anytime there was a package outside, he’d be like, “The UEPess man’s here. UEPess…” He was definitely a very happy kid. Into sports and mostly outdoor stuff though, more of the ATVs, and the fishing and hunting and doing that kind of stuff.

Marianne Sinisi: He always loved to be outside I’d have to make him come in, but Josh would be ready to come in. He liked to be in doors much more in play video games where that wasn’t Shawn. He was always outside and didn’t really have the focus to want to sit and watch TV or he always wanted to do something.

Nick: We grew up together. I mean, we were basically, at one point, as close as brothers can be.

Sara Ganim: That’s Shawn’s cousin, Nick

Nick: I mean, our parents hung out basically every Friday to Saturday night, so we did spend a lot of time together. He would stay over on Saturday night, and we would go to church on Sunday. My dad would take us to Galactic Ice to go ice skating. And then, after that, we went to Donut Connection to get donuts and gumballs.

Mike Sinisi: He was just like the happiest go lucky kid in the neighborhood.

Sara Ganim: That’s Shawn’s dad, Mike.

Mike Sinisi: He had to be a part of everything. He had to know everybody in the neighborhood and he was super friendly.

Tim Kliener: With Shawn, everything was always exciting

Sara Ganim: Tim Kliener, one of the Sinisi’s neighbors, remembers when his kids thought Christmas tree shopping was too boring… they adopted Shawn for the day and took him along instead

Tim Kliener: I think we ended up going to probably four or five different places. It was going on longer and longer and I think we ended up going on probably a 50 square mile area. But with Shawn, just his temperament and everything, that way, he didn’t care if we went to eight or 10 of them, he was just happy and content the whole time.

Everybody just enjoyed his company and everything. I was a professional firefighter, and even the guys in at work took to Shawn. Shawn just had that personality. And that personality earned him a nickname.

Marianne Sinisi: …called him the mayor of Maple Avenue. We had a T-shirt made up for him because he just flitted from house to house with the people in the neighborhood. Always trying to help people with something, you know.

Josh Sinisi: He always knew everybody’s business, what was going on, in a positive way because everybody enjoyed having him around, and would share things with him.

Tim Kliener: Everybody knew Shawn. And he was like that ultimate boy next door.

Sara Ganim: From Advance Local and Meadowlark Media, I’m Sara Ganim… and this is The Mayor of Maple Avenue.

CHAPTER 1

Sara Ganim: The Sinisis were the typical 1990s working class family in small town Pennsylvania… when rust belt small towns were still a really great place to be.

They settled in the town called Altoona…. Surrounded by a lot of family, and lots of other working class folks like themselves…. They were comfortable. And happy.

Although Marianne tried to keep the house looking different, the family inside was as normal as it gets.

Mike drove a truck.

She cleaned houses.

And they had two sons, Josh and Shawn.

She surprised herself a little bit at how much she enjoyed having two boys.

Marianne Sinisi: My husband really wanted to have children. I was actually a little reluctant to have children.

Sara Ganim: Marianne had been reluctant because at 16-years-old, she gave up a baby girl for adoption.

Marianne Sinisi: So having children for me was something that I thought I shouldn’t do because I was I guess in my own mind. I was sorta maybe punishing myself for giving her up.

But, um, you know, after we got married and were married for at least probably a year or more, he really, really wanted children. So he persuaded me to go ahead and get pregnant. So we had our first child, which was Josh. Josh was an extremely active kid…

Sara Ganim: Four years later, in 1992, came Shawn.

In those days, Marianne never felt like she had to worry about Shawn. It was Josh who had been diagnosed with ADHD and was catching all the attention.

Marianne Sinisi: And so we had been working with a um, counselor on that to help, you know, have the family be a little more united

Sara Ganim: Because of the different personalities of the kids, the challenges involved in Josh’s ADHD, and Mike’s long hours as a truck driver, Marianne was overwhelmed.

Marianne Sinisi: The counselor at one point had suggested to get involved with this Second Mile program because she felt like it would be good for both of them and it would also be good for my husband and I so that we could have a little bit of a break.

Sara Ganim: The counselor suggested the boys attend summer camps at place called The Second Mile. The organization founded in 1977 by beloved Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. The program provided support for underprivileged and at risk youth in Pennsylvania.

Marianne first dropped off her boys for a weeklong camp in July 2000. Josh was 12. Shawn was only 8.

Marianne Sinisi: He was pretty young and that, you know, I was, believe me, that I was a nervous wreck cause I kept thinking, Oh my gosh, should we be doing this? But she kept saying, no, you need this too because it’s, you know, you just have this constant, um, you know, kids all the time. You don’t get a break and like I said that the ADHD was, was not easy

And you know, she just felt that it would be good for all of us.

Sara Ganim: By all accounts, Josh and Shawn had a great time that first summer. And so they went back again for the next…

At the end of the 2001 camp, Shawn was awarded “most supportive,” “leader of the pack,” “early bird” and “team spirit” awards by his counselor. He was also given another for being the “best pool buddy.”

Marianne Sinisi: It was pretty quick that he sort of singled us out and got in touch with us to participate in one of his fundraiser dinners.

Sara Ganim: Not long after the 2001 summer camp, Mike and Marianne got a phone call from Jerry Sandusky himself, inviting them to be his personal guests at one of his major fundraisers, a casino night gala where the top prize was a $20,000 check.

Marianne Sinisi: And that was like a $200 dinner that we would’ve never been able to go. And he said, Oh, you don’t have to worry about the cost. No, you just come. We kind of felt a little flattered to go,

Sara Ganim: The gala was in early November 2001. Mike and Marianne attended the dinner as his guests. The program listed the “evening speaker” as “Joshua and Shawn Sinisi with Jerry Sandusky.”

The local paper even took a picture of the boys.

They felt like celebrities.

Josh Sinisi: It felt good though, obviously, to be singled out

I just looked at it as, I was actually special. Shawn was special.

Sara Ganim: What the Sinisis didn’t know… what nobody knew at that time, was that Second Mile – with all of its charitable ambitions was actually a facade. An elaborate ruse concealing Jerry Sandusky’s true intentions.

Archived news footage: …an organization so good as the Second Mile can be run be a serial pedophile.

When he was arrested, prosecutors alleged that Sandusky built the Second Mile for the sole purpose of grooming young boys…convincing their parents and the larger community that he was a do-gooder, helping disadvantaged kids…when he was really targeting the most vulnerable victims.

Archived news footage: Second Mile, no matter what its reported purpose was for the defendant, a victim factory — an assembly line for adolescent children to be abused, sodomized and raped by this defendant.

Sandusky had the perfect setup. His charity was connected to a community primed for his targeting and his position was protected by a football program that had achieved almost mythological status.

Archived news footage: I think Penn State was one of the first places to have a lot of signs. I feel that it’s the best atmosphere—big game atmosphere in the country. Tomorrow morning we’ll see what Happy Valley brings to the table so we’re excited about this.

Sara Ganim: Penn State University sits almost smack dab in the middle of Pennsylvania, in a town called State College, in a place known as Happy Valley.

Being part of Happy Valley is not just about football culture, or fan pride…it’s more like a state of mind.

And anyone who has been to Penn State’s campus knows that when you’re there, it’s easy to get caught up in the hoo-rah around you. Everyone’s livelihood is tied to the university. Everyone’s always patting each other on the back.

When you’re there, you feel transported. To a place where the outside world doesn’t seem to penetrate…and in a way, it doesn’t.

The Appalachian Mountains create a physical barrier that has allowed Penn State to isolate itself for many years. The university is wedged into a valley created by Mount Nittany. It’s not easy to get there…it’s 3 hours from any major city, and there’s really just one road in and one road out.

It’s isolated in another way, too.

Central Pennsylvania is an interesting place — demographically

That infamous James Carville quote about Pennsylvania being Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Alabama in the middle. That’s true. With one exception: Happy Valley

The University is very much its own bubble… a wealthy oasis in the middle of the Rust Belt

And it was in the shadow of this bubble, in Altoona, Pennsylvania, that Marianne Sinisi and her husband Mike were raising their boys.

By the mid-to-late-2000s, towns outside the bubble… towns like Altoona .. were succumbing to the ills of an economic downturn .. and at the same time … a budding prescription drug crisis. As a Rust Belt city in decline, with lots of people out of work or doing manual labor, many Altoona residents were getting pain prescriptions. Like so many other places, those prescriptions were heavily abused, and opioid medications were being sold because they were so popular.

It provided Sandusky with an opening — he often targeted children from single family homes, or boys whose parents had addiction issues or criminal records. And while the Sinisis didn’t fit those descriptions…they were vulnerable.

Marianne Sinisi: I would have to say that we were targeted, I know that we weren’t like some of the families, the more single parents and stuff, you know, we had each other and had the boys together and stuff and we’re still a family unit, but we didn’t have the money to pay forvacations and stuff and his football camps that he did.

Sara Ganim: Even though they were just miles away from Happy Valley, kids like Shawn and Josh could never have dreamed of going to a Penn State game, let alone an expensive camp. Throw in a jersey. A day of play on the field. Access to a big star like Sandusky…it was really appealing

So when the counselor originally recommended them to The Second Mile, of course the Sinisi boys were excited.

Soon, the boys began to get regular invites from Sandusky to go with him to Penn State and Steelers football games.

And then, in the summer of 2002, he extended another invitation: instead of returning to his Second Mile camps, he invited the boys to attend his football camps. Those camps cost $500 per kid and would have been way out of the Sinisi’s budget.

Marianne Sinisi: And I said, I’m sorry , that’s great. I’m glad you thought of us, but we can’t afford that. And he goes, Oh no, no, your, your kids will go for nothing. It’s fine and you can bring them to me. And so we would typically drop them to his home and then he would drive down. I don’t know how, whether he had a team of guys or vans or what, but he always had counselors and whatnot. So yeah, we trusted and took them.

The football camps kind of just made me laugh because Shawn was so young and Josh wasn’t a football player. He was more interested in soccer pretty much for the most part. But he wanted to go because Jerry really bragged him up and he just convinced us that it was a good thing to do.

Sara Ganim: This relationship between Sandusky and Josh would last through high school. Sandusky became a mentor — a father figure — the kind of person Marianne would call when she needed help getting her son back on track.

But that was not the case with Shawn.

Unlike his brother, Shawn’s interest in anything related to Sandusky came to an abrupt end in the middle of one of the sleep-away football camps he was attending with his brother in the summer of 2004. Shawn was going into 7th grade. He was 12 years old.

Marianne Sinisi: And that’s the one where they did not share a dorm.

Sara Ganim: After four years of attending various Sandusky camps and bunking together, the brothers weren’t allowed to share a room this time.

Marianne Sinisi: Jerry had told me that that wasn’t possible because he actually had asked Josh if he could help be a coach and that would mean he had to be in the other dorms with the other coaches

Josh Sinisi: I was not roomed with Shawn. Jerry put me away from him.

Marianne Sinisi: I think it was only a day, maybe two. And we got the call from Shawn he didn’t, he didn’t want to stay. He wanted to come home.

Sara Ganim: Shawn called home and begged Marianne and Mike to come get him.

Mike Sinisi: We were very shocked, uh, because I knew that wasn’t Shawn in any sense of his being, because he was the mayor of Maple Avenue? And he was happy go lucky. And he looked forward to doing the camps and going to the Second Mile and everything. And so when we got that call, I immediately didn’t. I thought something has to be, you know, something’s not right because it’s not, it’s not Shawn.

Sara Ganim: And did he say why?

Marianne Sinisi: He did not. I mean he just kept saying, you know, I tried talking him into staying cause it, like I said, it was like a three hour drive for us and that wasn’t his typical, he’d spend the night anywhere. He was Mr. Social, we thought, well you know, he’s not the greatest at sports.

Maybe he’s just not really into it because he’s separate from Josh. But we still tried to persuade them to stay, but he just insisted that he wanted to come home. He kept saying he was homesick, he wanted to come home, which again we thought was an odd statement cause that kid would go anywhere.

Sara Ganim: What did, did he sound upset when he called you? Was he like emotional at all?

Marianne Sinisi: He was convincing enough that we decided we needed to go. So we got ourselves together and we made the trip down to pick him up. And I remember when we got there, not really thinking a whole lot of it, but in hindsight I thought now I’m looking back and think how strange it was that they were all out on the field practicing. So he, they kind of just didn’t really stop the practice. But Jerry came across the field, and he just said, Hey, he can, you know, put his hands up in the air and said, I tried to convince him to stay, but he won’t. He can show you where his stuff is.

Sara Ganim: Sandusky went back to practice and left Mike and Marianne with Shawn

Marianne Sinisi: We tried talking to him a little bit there and he said no, he was definitely coming home. He was home sick and so we packed the stuff up and you know, said goodbye to Josh that we’d see him in a few days and took, took the trip home.

Sara Ganim: Shawn didn’t say much to his parents on the car ride home from that camp.

Mike Sinisi: Once he got in the car, uh, he got, he was in the back seat and I asked him, what was the matter? I said, what’s the matter, Sean? Well, what happened? He said nothing that I just, I just, I just felt home sick. I just wanted to come home. I missed you guys, you know,

Excuse me.

Yeah. It just didn’t make sense to me whatsoever.

Sara Ganim: It wasn’t long before Marianne and Mike started noticing behavioral changes in their normally easy-going kid.

Shawn’s friend circle abruptly changed…in a bad way

Josh Sinisi: People that I’d be like, “No, they’re bad. I wouldn’t go near them.” Just because of maybe the rumors and stuff about drugs or just drinking under age and doing more than reckless teenager things, just taking it a little too close to the line for my liking, but he started to hang out with those people and broke away from his friends that were definitely more positive on him

Sara Ganim: They caught him with cigarettes, and then alcohol. Marianne was surprised, this wasn’t something they’d gone through with their older son, Josh.

So she and Mike grounded Shawn as a punishment. But by age 14, as Shawn started high school, they were starting to become genuinely concerned about his emotional state.

Marianne Sinisi: The terrible, you know, mood swings that we think, why, I mean, there was a time where he was so angry that he punched a hole in his wall in his bedroom, which was so not him.

Cause he never had a temper. I mean Josh had the temper because of the, the ADHD, but Shawn did not have the temper and he was so forgiving.

I mean, it was really disheartening to see the change in him. And, and he, I think he felt real remorse and he would write you the letter and how sorry he was. And he didn’t know what happened to him and why he did that.

And then you would think everything is okay and it’s going back to normal and you know, you just, the grounding is over and you move on and then till the next thing would happen, you know, then there was a time that he actually broke them the window in his bedroom. And I just, I just, you know, we were just dumbfounded like, what is going on here? So I did start getting him to go for some counseling and he, he’d go and, you know, he kind of balked at it because he just would be like, well it’s just, it’s just a waste of time. And I don’t know if that’s because I had to drag him to all this stuff before with his brother or if it’s just that he just was so locked down at that point that he wasn’t open to it. That eventually the counselor just said to me, look, he’s a good kid. He knows right from wrong. He’s either gonna walk down the street like he should or he’s going to go down the alley.

Sara Ganim: Shawn went down the alley.

His grades in school plummeted.

His parents didn’t know it at the time, but he transitioned from alcohol to prescription pills. It was easy for Shawn to get his hands on pills, they were readily available. He was downing benzos and Oxycodone that he could get off kids who were swiping them from their parents’ medicine cabinets. Marianne told me … even parents were dealing pills – that’s how much of a grip the crisis had on their town.

By 15 years old Shawn was using hardcore drugs. By 18, he had started using heroin.

He was still successfully hiding his drug abuse from his parents, who didn’t find out for years, but he couldn’t hide everything.

Sara Ganim (in interview): When was the turning point in which you realized this is really bad. This is not teenage experimentation or a little bit of rebellion. He’s going down a path from which he’s going to need serious help.

Marianne Sinisi: Yeah, senior year. That’s, that’s when it really like, wow. That really just was, it was a struggle because he just was so different and didn’t seem to care about school at all. He even talked of dropping out and we kept saying, you’re not doing that.

Sara Ganim: Shawn’s senior year was tumultuous outside the classroom, too. In spring of 2010, months before he was supposed to graduate…he was arrested for having marijuana while hanging out at the local shopping mall.

Marianne Sinisi: And he didn’t seem to think that it was much of a big deal that, you know, everybody does it and it helps me.

Sara Ganim: Was it a big deal to you?

Marianne Sinisi: Oh yeah. It was a big deal to us. We were, you know, I know it’s not a big deal now. You know, people, you know, they’re legalizing it. But to us it was just not him. He didn’t need a substance to be happy.

And this was just such a, a different person.

Sara Ganim: She was desperate. She didn’t understand what was happening. Shawn wasn’t talking about it, the counselor had failed. Her last resort was to turn to the person who she turned to when she was having trouble connecting to her older son, Josh.

And that was Jerry Sandusky.

After all, Sandusky was still a hero in the Sinisi household. He had helped Josh get a scholarship to go to college. He was the guy who seemed to be able to step in and make things right when she couldn’t.

Marianne Sinisi: And he did it. It would work. Josh would get picked up. His spirits were, “I can do this.” But when Shawn was failing senior year and it was just turmoil I called him and said, “Do you think you can call Shawn?” And he just said, “Well, I don’t know if he’ll listen to me.” And I just said, “I have to try Jerry. I mean, we’re losing him.”

He said, “Well, I don’t even have his number.” I said, “Well, I’ll give it to you.” He said, “Well, I can’t promise you, but I’ll try.”

Jerry called me back pretty quickly and he said, “I’m sorry. I tried, but he just won’t talk to me.” And that was it. So I don’t even know to this day if-

Sara Ganim: If he actually did-

Marianne Sinisi: … if he really called him. Yeah. Yeah. Because Shawn and I never talked about it. He just didn’t really want to talk about him.

After that camp that he came home from, he really didn’t have a relationship and he didn’t talk about him. He didn’t know go to anything anymore. It was like he didn’t exist for him.

Sara Ganim: Josh and Shawn had always been different kids…but as 2010 wore on their paths kept pulling further and further in opposite directions.

Josh had graduated from college. The poster child for what Sandusky and Second Mile could do. And in gratitude, giving quotes in the local paper — The Altoona Mirror — in praise of Jerry Sandusky as he announced his retirement from his Second Mile Charity in September 2010.

He said …

“He provided an enormous amount of time and effort into making sure I grew up into the successful young man I am today,”

Josh told the newspaper that Sandusky was his mentor and described him as “kind, loving, caring, generous, strong, positive, successful.”

And Marianne followed up with quotes of her own:

“Jerry is the definition of ‘a great man.’ Whatever you ask him to do or be there for you, he will do it without any hesitation,” Sinisi said. “Jerry is, well, Jerry – one of a kind.”

And this is where my world, Marianne’s, Shawn’s and Sandusky’s were all orbiting around each other in ways we wouldn’t understand for years.

In the fall of 2010 I was a young journalist working in central Pennsylvania, working on a story about the grand jury investigation into Sandusky.

A teenager from several towns over had been testifying about years of prolonged sexual abuse at the hands of Happy Valley’s community hero. Sandusky’s retirement, it turned out, was forced. And the article Josh and Marianne were quoted in, defending Sandusky, that was a case of some good ol’ fashioned spin. It was a somewhat successful attempt to keep hush-hush about the fact that Jerry Sandusky was under investigation.

Meanwhile…

Shawn kept getting into more and more trouble.

And the charges were getting more and more serious.

After that drug charge in the spring, Shawn was arrested two more times — on much more serious counts.

Marianne Sinisi: It was a very, very dark period. I could just, like I said, as if he wasn’t slipping enough and just experimenting.

Sara Ganim: In October 2010, 18-year-old Shawn was charged with rape. His accuser was a 17-year-old girl he knew. The incident happened at a house party four months earlier. Shawn was adamant that it was consensual. But both he and the victim were drunk, and Pennsylvania law states that you cannot consent when under the influence of alcohol.

After nearly a year of fighting the charge, it was dropped in August 2011 – except for one summary citation for disorderly conduct. Eventually, all of the chargeswould be expunged from Shawn’s record — meaning if you go looking for it you will not find any mention or evidence of it. I only know about this charge because Marianne was honest and shared the documents with me.

I tried to find the woman who made this accusation against Shawn, but tracking her down proved difficult, and I never reached anyone with her name.

Shawn was arrested again in December of 2010, two months after the rape charge, This time, for theft. That charge, too, would eventually be dismissed and expunged.

I’m not here to relitigate charges that the court ultimately took off Shawn’s record. Or to absolve him of anything. No matter how these charges had played out, the very existence of them and the accusations leveled against Shawn had a massive impact on the Sinisi family.

Marianne and Mike couldn’t seem to figure out what was going on with their son — why he always seemed to slip further and further away the harder they tried to reach him.

My first story about the investigation came out in March 2011. It was big news in central Pennsylvania…but at this point it was all allegations, there were no charges, the public didn’t have details of exactly what was being said to the grand jury.

After his retirement, many people still saw Sandusky as this selfless, caring, magnanimous man. A guy who gave up his coaching career to help kids. There were people who simply did not believe these allegations could be true…including Marianne and Josh.

At that point, Marianne was caught somewhere between denial and disbelief.

Here was this man, who had done so much good for her older son, Josh – how could he possibly be abusing children?

At this point, things had gotten so bad, she and Mike had resorted to tough love and kicked Shawn out of the house. He was hopping around from place to place…making money by selling dope.

So it might not have been a surprise for Shawn to hear that a drug cop was looking for him.

The call came into Marianne’s house.

She texted Shawn and told him he could come home and have some privacy for the meeting.

The cop’s name was Anthony Sassano

Sassano had spent most of his career on high profile drug cases. Not cartels, per se, but regional drug rings with lots of people and moving parts.

But that’s not what Detective Sassano wanted to talk to Shawn about.

Sassano had been given a different kind of assignment: the investigation of Jerry Sandusky.

Sassano had a list of Second Mile kids who were close to Sandusky, and he was reaching out.

Marianne remembers that it was a nice, late spring day. It was starting to get warmer. They’d just opened up the pool for the season.

She left to go flower shopping, to give Shawn privacy.

Sassano sat with Shawn on the porch in front of the lime green front door, and they just talked, for a good hour. When Marianne returned, Sassano told her that Shawn said nothing happened.

Jennifer Storm: Disclosure of childhood sexual violence is not the norm, right?

Sara Ganim: Jennifer Storm is a longtime advocate who has worked for state prosecutors. She’s a victim herself .. and she worked with Sandusky victims, so she has intimate knowledge of this case.

Jennifer Storm: I’ve spoke to some of these survivors. I remember them saying, “I wasn’t about to talk to this guy. I wasn’t going to disclose to this person.”

It’s probably a case study in what not to do in terms of garnering cooperation.

They didn’t have trained appropriate investigators. And they did what we often see investigators do with people with substance use disorders is, they send in the drug cops because they know those people have information that they want and they manipulate it using their addiction. Then they get what they need out of them. So of course, they were going to send the drug cop in because that’s the biggest threat. That’s the fear. They tried to use fear as a tactic for disclosure.

And all it did was their hypervigilance was 150% activated. They were scared, all their trauma started coming back up because now somebody knew, right? Somebody knew and the person they hated the most, right? In Shawn’s instance, the guy that can put them in jail now knows this, what does he want from me?

These were young boys.

When you are a child and you are being victimized, there is an incredible amount of shame, a lack of understanding and guilt. And so that’s all the stuff that you as the victim are feeling layer on top, that your offender knows that, and your offender is speaking directly to those emotional pockets that you have and is using them to groom you, is using them to silence you, and is using them to threaten you.

A drug cop knocking on your door is going to put every guard up that you have, every wall up that you have. And then, they’re going to try to come and say, oh, but we want to talk to you about this other thing. And they expected them to be kind and to just disclose this information, it’s unrealistic and they probably did more harm than good to these survivors.

And I mean, it eventually worked, but I mean, how many times did those guys slam doors at investigator’s faces and went and sought out their own attorneys because they needed help. They were scared.

Sara Ganim: There is another layer though to Shawn’s initial denial.

Marianne Sinisi: Why would anybody believe him? I mean, who’s Shawn? He’s somebody that’s just using drugs and getting in trouble. So who would ever believe that coming from him?

Sara Ganim: At this point in his life, at this point, you and Josh are staunchly defending Jerry Sandusky

Marianne Sinisi: That does still break my heart because I feel like I should have not been such a defender, to such a monster, and then maybe he would have felt comfortable telling us.

I’m sure that he was very tormented by that, thinking that his own family maybe wouldn’t believe him if he said it.

Sara Ganim: In November 2011, the grand jury handed down its indictment of Jerry Sandusky.

Archived news report: Was charged on Saturday with 40 counts of sexual abuse. He maintains his innocence. Lots of people sitting in jails all across this country who are innocent. Are you sexually attracted to young boys to underage boys?

Archived news report: If I say no, I’m not attracted to boys. That’s not the truth Because I’m attracted to young people, boys, girls. I enjoy spending time with young people. I enjoy spending time with people.

Marianne Sinisi: I can remember exactly where I was when I heard.

When they called me, they really caught me off guard.

I was out in my garden cleaning up, doing fall cleanup, and I got the phone call from the Altoona Mirror saying that. And I just was like, no.

Into total denial. That’s not true. There’s no way this man could have done that. And probably stayed that way for a while anyway.

Sara Ganim: The local newspaper, the Altoona Mirror, broke the news of Sandusky’s arrest to Marianne. Both she and Josh were quoted in the next day’s paper…defending Jerry Sandusky again.

She said: “I don’t believe it. I think he is a good man, and they are railroading him,”

And Josh was quoted saying: “I don’t think it is true at all. It makes me pretty upset. I don’t understand it. I just went to a Penn State game with him a few weeks ago (Iowa). I think it is ridiculous. I don’t believe the charges are true at all,”

Sara Ganim: When you said, “I don’t believe it. I think he’s a good man and they’re railroading him.” What was the context in which you were looking at this man? Was it the lens of what he had done for Josh, like you were looking at him through that lens of the benefactor that he was to your family?

Marianne Sinisi: Absolutely. Offering to pay for all the stuff that he did, the camps, just even the psychologist that referred us said what a great man he was and how he’d adopted all these children. And so I was just basing it, I guess, on that. And the other factor was, at that point, Shawn had already started to get into some trouble. So I saw the judicial system as not so fair in my eyes, I guess. So it was kind of like, nah, this can’t be. Denial. Total denial.

Sara Ganim: At this point, Shawn had never said a single negative word about Sandusky to his parents or his brother, but Marianne looked at her two boys…one on the path to a successful life, and the other, spiraling out…and couldn’t help but wonder…why the Mayor of Maple Avenue went to camp that year, and came back a different person.

Marianne Sinisi: We did question them, both of them when it happened, because that same psychologist who referred us had called me like pretty much the day after Jerry … Well, a couple of days after and said, I am so sorry that I ever got those two involved with this man.”

I was still in somewhat of denial when she called and I said, “So you believe it?” Because I wanted confirmation from somebody that I felt like was a lot smarter than I was.

And she said, “Yes, Marianne. I absolutely believe it. And I just feel horrible that those two were caught up in this.”

Sara Ganim: Wow.

Marianne Sinisi: Yeah. So…

Sara Ganim: It wasn’t easy for Marianne or Josh to accept the truth about Sandusky. To reimagine the man who had done so much good for their family…as the monster they were learning him to be.

Josh Sinisi: When I first saw it, I think part of me was just, and this is just what’s wrong with society nowadays, myself included, I was just like, Oh, okay, there’s no way that this happened. People just want money. You know what I mean?

This amazing man who everybody looks up to in Penn State football, which I was huge into, taking me to all these games, Eagles games and meeting players, Steelers games, all that stuff, buying me things and spending one-on-one time with me and Shawn, and I just looked at it as, I was happy. and there were times that… not that I want to give the man credit at all, but

There was a point where I was going to quit college and he egged me on and talked to me and got me through it. So looking back on it still, I’m just so unbelievably angry at him for being that kind of a person and doing that sort of thing. This way for one, and then being a monster on the other side.

Sara Ganim: But even for a Sandusky sympathizer like Josh, reading the details of the grand jury report left little room for defense of his one time mentor

Josh Sinisi: The more and more you paid attention to what was being done and what was being said and the amount of people coming out about repeating the same sort of the situations all in the same similar, you know, area of the second mile and doing certain things.

Sara Ganim: Josh started to look back with a more critical eye and remember…

Josh Sinisi: Putting hand on laps and stuff and I could see now as an adult, that it was attempts

He would tickle us and stuff and wrestle with us on a bed or on the floor

Like again that was a little bit odd. It shouldn’t have happened that way. It wasn’t playful.

He was great at being a monster, He made the people like me who are successful in doing things with their lives and try to defend that and be like, no, there’s no way this person could have been. Then there’s people that are, unfortunately on the flip side that are already looked upon by society that, oh they’re fuck ups or they’re wastes of life, which, and all this other stuff. And they’re just bombs. And they’re the ones saying it, so who are you going to believe? Somebody on this side or this side? And I think he meant to do that. And that’s probably why he chose his targets, the way that he did it.

Sara Ganim: Josh burned everything he owned that came from Jerry. Every jersey, every gift…

Josh Sinisi: I felt just like disgusted that I even had possession of it, despite no matter what it was, you know, articles that I wrote about or you know, that we were in the paper together or any medals, anything like that. Anything, pictures with him, everything, we burned them,

Sara Ganim: He did do good things for Josh. I mean, do you separate that time period in your mind at all? I mean, when you look back on it, do you separate the good he did for one son from the bad that he did for the other son?

Marianne Sinisi: I would like to say I could do that, but I can’t because I just see it as an evil manipulation of both of them. I mean, I think he just knew which one he could manipulate and the other one he felt like he was doing good for so he could play him and use the other one. So no I see it as very calculating and evil at this point.

Sara Ganim: After Sandusky was arrested and charged, Central Pennsylvania was consumed by the story. The media frenzy was like something out of a movie. It was nonstop. The fallout threatened to topple Penn State. Debate over who knew what, and when. A constant conversation about the details of what Sandusky had been accused of doing.

To kids like Shawn.

It would have been impossible for Shawn to have avoided this news. To have avoided constant reminders…of the thing he was still trying to forget happened to him, that he still hadn’t found a way to admit to or articulate.

And as this media storm raged throughout the winter of 2012, Shawn was still bouncing from place to place, still without a job or sense of direction. And still selling drugs.

In fact, the week that Sandusky was arrested … Shawn was hanging out at a local Applebees, selling cocaine. He was surviving on drug money and favors … from unfavorable people.

And is was about to catch up with him in a big way.

Marianne Sinisi: I was actually going to have something at the dermatologist, a cyst removed or something that morning and they show up here knocking wanting him. And I just, you could have just knocked me over with a feather. I had no idea.

Sara Ganim: May 2012

Two more police officers show up at Marianne’s door.

Someone Shawn had sold drugs to — twice — was working with police as a confidential informant. This is a tactic called flipping, where cops start with lower-level street dealers and work their way up to the big fish–that’s the theory, anyway. But it doesn’t always go down like that.

A lot of the time… people who get caught just turn over rival drug dealers, or people they have a beef with .. or someone they simply know is dealing as well out of desperation to reduce their own sentences.

Court documents show that someone Shawn had been hanging around with .. set him up for a few of these controlled drug buys. In one of them, the stuff wasn’t even cocaine, it was just baking powder, but in the eyes of the law, it didn’t matter.

Shawn served 8 days in the county jail before he was released on bail.

When he got out, a police officer was asking to speak to him.

It was Sassano again. Not about drugs. But about Sandusky.

Prosecutors were sureing up their case, getting ready for an early summer trial.

Jennifer Storm: So basically what the attorney general’s office was doing was making sure that if the prosecution failed, if they got a not guilty, that they had another group of survivors teed up and ready to prosecute.

Sara Ganim: Here’s Jen Storm again

Jennifer Storm: And so yes, they were constantly combing for additional stories. They were interviewing people constantly.

Sara Ganim: So even though they’re really close to going to trial, they’re still working the case?

Jennifer Storm: Absolutely.

Sara Ganim: Sassano and Shawn went to a church rectory for some privacy

Marianne Sinisi: He was still in trouble with the law and whatnot but he did open up a little bit more

Sara Ganim: Marianne asked Sassano what happened, and she says he indicated that Shawn was probably being groomed for abuse — that Shawn was still reluctant to talk about it — and anyway, he told her …it wouldn’t be a good idea to go down this path with Shawn, putting him on the stand, when his brother had publicly praised Sandusky.

Marianne Sinisi: He said ‘I just think he’s a good kid. We have enough for the trial. So why put two different kids on the stand with two different versions is what I was told.

Sara Ganim: Two different kids with two different experiences. Detective Sassano declined to talk to me for this podcast, so we don’t know exactly why he decided not to use Shawn as part of the criminal case. But we do know that Josh had been on the record defending Sandusky. Marianne, too. It’s pretty clear the defense would have jumped at that, and would have pitted the two brothers against each other. If the uncomfortable reality of that stood out to investigators and prosecutors…we can only imagine how much it stood out to Shawn, too. Plus, Shawn was still having a hard time talking about it.

Of course, Shawn wasn’t the only victim police interviewed that didn’t end up being part of the criminal case. Jennifer Storm explains why.

Jennifer Storm: What ended up happening obviously was probably, and I will still say this, one of the most successful prosecutions of a serial predator that we’ve ever seen. Right?

I mean, it was just done well and they got the outcome that they needed. And so unfortunately, that shut it down. What they then did is they turned on their heel and said to all of these young men that they teed up for trial and charging and said, now we’re good. He’s in jail for the rest of his life. We don’t need you. They were used in a sense but not in a sense that’s not uncommon. But certainly could be incredibly retraumatizing. When you think you’re on the heels of justice and then that’s taken from you, that’s really hard.

Sara Ganim: Once Sandusky was convicted and sent off to prison for a de facto life sentence, the job of the prosecution was done. He would never abuse another child. And in the eyes of the justice system – and our public imagination – justice had been served.

But that line, ‘justice has been served’ – that’s a cliche we toss around a lot. But the reality is that the criminal system is not really designed to ‘serve justice’ … it’s designed to punish the perpetrator for his crimes.

Serving justice implies that victims are cared for, or made whole. And they are typically not.

Victims like Shawn are often left behind, without the infrastructure that they really need.

It is a nearly impossible situation and the first of many failures Shawn would endure.

At this point, to Marianne … A lot of Shawn’s behavior seemed like he was he was crying out for help, that we was trying to tell his parents. He just was unsure of exactly how to do it.

Marianne Sinisi: There was one time, I guess in particular when Josh was here visiting And Shawn came by and wanted to talk, and so I was outside in the driveway with him

And I can remember Shawn breaking down and crying and asking me what’s wrong with him? And I just said, “I don’t know, but you have to tell me.” And then he just, he pulled back. I mean, he let loose for a little while, but then he pulled back.

Honestly, in that driveway that day, I just felt this overwhelming sense of, this is it. This is the key. How do I get him to get it out, to let it out?

Sara Ganim: With the news of Sandusky’s arrest, members of the extended family kept saying things to Marianne like:

Don’t you remember that camp?

Don’t you think that was weird?

Something happened. He changed.

Marianne and Mike didn’t know what to do.

But everyone around Shawn could see his addiction was escalating. He looked bad — sickly.

And then the final straw happened in early August. Shawn fell down the stairs of his parents’ house, and ended up in the emergency room.

Marianne Sinisi: He was very much into to self-medicating. we just said, “Something needs to be done differently and you need to go and try to heal yourself one way or another, or you’re going to end up dead or in jail.”

Sara Ganim: Marianne, who is self-described as not very computer literate, enlisted the help of her sister and they sat down together at the computer and typed a letter to the district attorney and to the judge

Marianne Sinisi: Dear Judge Sullivan,

We are writing this letter in an effort to save our son, Shawn Sinisi, (begin fade out) a lost soul at the age of 20…

Sara Ganim: Marianne asked for Shawn to be allowed into a program known as “drug court” where sentences include mandated rehabilitation programs tailored to addicts like Shawn.

Marianne Sinisi: We know the court system is underfunding and overloaded with thousands of Shawns. But Shawn is our son and we want to help him.

All who know Shawn once knew a boy who was kind, gentle, loving and fun.

Knowing that Shawn makes it so much harder for us to watch and understand this 2012 Shawn…hard, angry, foul… – hard, angry, foul …mouth, lying, lack of respect for anything and anybody, no motivation, no job, no vehicle. He has lost everything over the last three years.

Our son is lost right now, and at times, we wonder if we will ever get our loving son back.

Or did more happen than what Shawn has said during time spent with Jerry Sandusky? Shawn has been questioned several times by the case investigators and has denied, and continues to deny that anything happened. But it is difficult these days to know when Shawn is telling the truth.

We are asking you and the court to consider Shawn be given an option of a court-ordered in-house drug treatment program.

We understand that a jail sentence may also be necessary. We also understand that Shawn has not really earned the right to have an option.

Watching your child self-destruct in front of you is so heart breaking. Please try to find a way to force Shawn into treatment in order to give him a fighting chance.

Shawn is loved and missed terribly by his family. And with help he could be…

He has such potential if he would give himself a chance. Please help us in our effort to save shawn. in our effort to save Shawn. Thank you for your time in reading this plea from us. Sincerely, Mike and Marianne Sinisi.



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