The Herald, Sharon, PA Published Wednesday, June 27, 2001


Ex-coach Votino arraigned in court
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Corruption of minors case proceeds

By Tom Fontaine
Herald Staff Writer

Joe Votino, wearing a maroon-and-gold basketball tie and one of his six championship rings, sat alone at a courtroom table this morning, shaking his head as he waited for his arraignment on a corruption-of-minors charge.

The 44-year-old Votino, the former boys basketball coach and dean of students at Kennedy Christian High School in Hermitage, is charged with having sex with three female Kennedy students during the last two academic years.

The girls were 17 when the physical relationships began. He has signed a plea agreement with the Mercer County District Attorney's Office indicating he will plead guilty.

Votino's arraignment today before District Justice Ruth M. French, Mercer, begins the former coach's journey through the criminal justice system. He waived a preliminary hearing on the charges to Mercer County Common Pleas Court, where a judge can accept his guilty plea.

In response to a barrage of questions from reporters, Votino simply said: "No comment."

The case can't be decided by Mrs. French. Corruption of minors, a first degree misdemeanor, is among the most serious non-felony offenses and beyond the realm of a district justice, who can accept pleas only to lesser third-degree and unspecified misdemeanors.

Defense attorney David Acker of New Castle confirmed that Votino has agreed to plead guilty and gave police a statement "consistent with the charge he faces."

Mercer County District Attorney James P. Epstein said Votino's case will be "on a fast track" to county court. Epstein hopes the case will be resolved, from a legal standpoint, before college classes for the three alleged victims begin later this summer.

Votino, 44, of 503 Syme Street, Masury, remained free on his own recognizance Wednesday. Esptein said Votino, who is single, has roots in the community and is not considered a flight risk.

Corruption of minors carries a maximum sentence of 2 1/2 to 5 years in jail.

Epstein said he will "advocate incarceration" when the case reaches common pleas court.

Epstein said he is pursuing one count instead of three to bring faster closure to the case and to protect three victims numbered in the complaint, four "courageous" girls who came forward with information during a 10-week probe, their families, the school and the community. Epstein said the families are "unequivocally satisfied" with the plea agreement.

Votino would have fought three charges, which would carry a maximum sentence of 15 years. The seven girls likely could have been called to the witness stand and a jury would hear the case. There would be no guilty plea entered on the record and Votino would not have to testify at trial.

"I think the kids deserve to hear him (Votino) say it. And I think it allows our community to move forward," Epstein said.

The guilty plea assures that any school considering hiring Votino would spot the conviction on a background check, according to assistant District Attorney Robert Kochems, who handles child abuse prosecutions.

"I can't see him getting another job in education anywhere," Epstein added.

Epstein said his office would pursue future allegations against Votino, if there are any. "We would pursue any name and any person who came to our attention. If others come forward, we welcome it," Epstein said. The statute of limitations is five years.

A criminal complaint against Votino and the plea agreement he signed were filed Monday afternoon at the Sharon office of District Justice James E. McMahon.

In the plea agreement, Votino said he had numerous sexual encounters, some of them on school property during school hours, with three female students at Kennedy between January 2000 and the first week of April. The encounters included intercourse, most often at Votino's Masury home.

Votino also told investigators that he knew the girls were 17 when the physical relationships began, there was "illegality" in his behavior and he flirted with and seduced the girls before the physical relationships began.

The DA's office told Votino it would charge him with one count of corruption of minors and not refer the case to the U.S. Attorney's Office or the Trumbull County Prosecutor in exchange for a guilty plea.

In March, Votino's Golden Eagles won a record-tying fourth straight state title and their sixth during his 19-year tenure. At that time, according to the complaint, Votino was sexually involved with two students at the school.

The school and the DA's office and Hermitage police launched investigations April 2 after allegations surfaced regarding Votino's sexual misconduct with a female student.

The school's ended a week later. It suspended Votino and handed its files over to the DA's office and police.

On May 17 the school fired Votino from his dual roles as coach and dean of students. The school issued a three-sentence statement on the firing and said school and Erie Diocese policies prohibited it from saying anything more. School officials didn't say anything else publicly until earlier this week. They said the DA's office and police asked school officials not to comment on the pending investigation.

"Unfortunately the silence imposed on the school and the (Erie) Diocese was misinterpreted by some," said Peter Iacino, school president, in a letter issued to parents.

Kennedy officially changes its name to Kennedy Catholic July 1. Bishop Donald W. Trautman, the ranking clergyman of the diocese, last month said Kennedy and three diocese schools would remove Christian from their names and replace it with Catholic.

Either Judge Michael J. Wherry or Judge Thomas R. Dobson will sentence Votino. President Judge Francis J. Fornelli has recused himself from the case because of his ties to the school.

Votino was arraigned by Mrs. French in Mercer because she was holding down the fort for Shenango Valley district justices who were out of town at a DJ's conference.

District Justice Henry J. Russo, Hermitage, would have handled the case, but he had been off since Monday. District Justice James E. McMahon, Sharon, took Russo's cases Monday and Tuesday. Mrs. French inherited the case while McMahon was at the conference this morning.

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