JEFF PEARLMAN

Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

On Matt Sandusky and the worst guy I’ve ever dealt with

So yesterday morning Bleacher Report published a piece I wrote on Matt Sandusky, the adopted son of Jerry Sandusky. Here’s the link.

Of the thousands of stories I’ve written through the years, this may well have been the most difficult. A. Because spending weeks upon weeks thinking about pedophilia (especially as the father of two kids) is more brutal than one might imagine; B. Because there are just tons upon tons of documents, papers, articles, briefs to sift through; C. Because of John Ziegler.

If you have yet to read the story, or you’re not one who listens to C-level podcasts, Ziegler is a former radio personality who has dedicated much of his existence to proving Jerry Sandusky’s innocence. And, I believe, he’s doing so out of a genuine desire to bring forth the truth. Ziegler has no doubt (literally, zero) that Jerry Sandusky is wrongly imprisoned, and that his accusers are liars. Again, I don’t doubt Ziegler’s sincerity, and if you read enough of his website (props for the throwback design scheme) you’ll find yourself starting to wonder, “Hmm … maybe this whole thing really is a setup.” There are endless posts defending Jerry Sandusky while also tackling the sincerity and truthfulness of those who oppose him. It’s an interesting read.

And yet … in 20-plus years as a journalist, I’ve never encountered a bigger tool bag than John Ziegler. I actually think Ziegler might agree with that take; like, he might actually nod and say, “Yeah, I am a tool bag. So?” He oozes anger, and is the kind of guy who’ll freely, casually, ruthlessly call you (well, in this case, me), an idiot, a moron, an asshole. I first spoke with him, via phone, while sitting in the lobby of a Hampton Inn, and I actually ended the conversation by hanging up on him. I later apologized, but that doesn’t mean I find him any more digestible.

Worse than his personality, though, is his methodology. When I started this research, I knew little of Matt Sandusky and nothing of John Ziegler. In fact, Matt was the one who first mentioned him—and I immediately thought, “Ah, now that’s interesting.” So I reached out to Ziegler, spent a shitload of time on his website, started to think that maybe, just maybe, Matt was exaggerating/lying about his alleged history of abuse. I mean, his story changed a lot. Perhaps it was all a money ploy. Perhaps he was milking the system. Perhaps …

Those thoughts lasted for a few days. Then three things happened that changed my perspective quite a bit:

1. I chatted at length with Matt’s wife, Kim—a soft-spoken woman who struck me as extremely sincere and decent. I told Kim how critics like Ziegler questioned Matt’s decision to take the Penn State money. She said that he truly did not want to; that it was his belief people would see him receiving dollars and turn skeptical. She said, ultimately, she convinced him that—after what he’d been through—he was entitled to it. When he’s asked why he accepted the dough, he never mentions his wife. She says she hates that.

2. I spoke with myriad experts on child molestation—all of whom independently agreed that the vast majority of victims adjust their stories numerous times. That the norm is to change your story, not stick to one. Ziegler does not allow this as an argument. In fact, he seems to hate it.

3. I started digging deeper into Ziegler and his work.

Actually, this is the part that fascinates me. Ziegler, who loathes the media, has been, ahem, a member of the media for more than 25 years. He was fired from multiple talk radio positions for what can best be described as a proclivity for poor taste (or, he would probably argue, a refusal to cave to political correctness). In the April 2005 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, writer David Foster Wallace focused upon Ziegler—at the time a late-evening host on KFI 640-AM in Los Angeles—in a lengthy piece on the inner-workings of American talk radio. The story was detailed and largely complimentary, yet Ziegler did not take it well. Shortly after Wallace—who suffered from depression—committed suicide in 2008, Ziegler penned a blog post, titled Death of a Salesman, that mocked the famed writer as a wanna-be genius who, “didn’t have the goods to back up those kind of elevated expectations.”

With his radio career fizzled, Ziegler initially turned toward creating conspiracy-fueled documentaries. In 2008 he wrote, directed and produced “Blocking the Path to 9/11,” which examined the role the Clintons and liberal politicians played in censoring the truth about the September 11 attacks. His follow-up, “Media Malpractice: How Obama Got Elected and Palin Was Targeted,” came out a year later and argued that Barack Obama became America’s 44th president thanks in part to the news media’s partisan agenda. He also, famously, made a jackoff of himself on some dating show.

The original piece I submitted to Bleacher Report included much more about Ziegler, his background, his takes. Much of that was removed, which initially annoyed me (in hindsight, my editors were probably right. It was more distracting than interesting). Because for all his bluster and shouting and laughing (the dude loves to employ a, “You’re so stupid, I’m laughing at you” guffaw) and claims of “proof” that Matt is a fraud, Ziegler seems to have no real “proof” that Matt is a fraud. He has theories and hypotheses, sometimes momentarily convincing, ultimately damned by questionable and biased reporting methods.

For example:

• On his site, Ziegler notes Matt’s claim that—thanks to “repressed memory therapy”—he was able to recover recollections of Jerry Sandusky abusing him. Ziegler writes that he discussed the matter with Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a world-renowned expert on memory issues, and that she “mocked” the idea that memories can be “found” via therapy. There are two problems with this: A. Matt never said he was undergoing “repressed memory therapy”—a controversial practice that, according to Richard McNally, a Harvard psychology professor, has been largely debunked in modern times. No, what he said in a 29-minute interview with police detectives was that he was going through normal therapy sessions, and certain memories were starting to return. That’s not a parsing of words—it’s an entirely different thing. Talk to most anyone who has gone through therapy of one sort or another (guilty!) and you’ll hear about certain memories being jarred loose or brought to the forefront. “Before therapy, before I heard another victim, before I went to police, I had many memories of the perverted hell one sick man subjected me to as a child,” Matt told me. “And it’s not because someone told me what to think. My memories were there before I ever started therapy. But when you talk and talk about a subject, it brings things out you hadn’t thought about for a long time.” B. In his writing, Ziegler (oops) failed to mention that Loftus was retained by the defense team to serve as an expert witness on their behalf. In other words, she’s probably the only memory expert Ziegler (from an ethical standpoint) should not have called. But, hey.

• On his site, Ziegler says Matt came home from the first day of the trial and told the entire Sandusky family, “I could get up on the stand and lie just like that.” Ziegler reiterated to me that Matt unequivocally, “told the family of his plan.” Jeff Sandusky, Matt’s older brother and a man who believes Jerry never molested anyone, told me this is untrue. “Why would he tell us that?” he said. “That makes no sense. He’d have lost his credibility and we could have totally nailed him. No, he didn’t say that.”

• On his site, Ziegler repeatedly reports anything that Dottie Sandusky says to him as fact. Why? Because Ziegler says he has a great “BS detector,” and the Sandusky family has never lied to him. “Everything they’ve said has checked out,” he says. So when Dottie says she didn’t know Victim 10, it’s a fact that she didn’t know Victim 10. Dottie says she didn’t hear a victim screaming from the basement, therefore she didn’t hear a victim screaming from the basement. Dottie says police told her Matt stole two of Jerry Sandusky’s national championship rings, so—fact—Matt stole two of Jerry’s national championship rings. There’s no reason to question her truthfulness … because Ziegler believes her.

• On his site and Twitter feed, Ziegler offers links to several video clips he’s created about the Sandusky case. The one he seems most excited about was released July 18, 2014 and is titled, The Overwhelming Case that Matt Sandusky Lied to Oprah Winfrey. It was a reaction to Matt’s July 17 interview with Oprah on the OWN Network, and focused on his rambling, somewhat incoherent response to Winfrey asking why he should be believed, “Did you see how horrendous that was?” Ziegler said to me during a conversation. “She asks how we know he’s telling the truth, and he’s horrendous. He stutters, sits there dumbfounded. Did you see the fear in his eyes? It was obvious. Yet the media said nothing about it.”

I contacted Dr. Dan Hill, the president of Sensory Logic and one of the world’s foremost authorities on analyzing facial expressions (and a man with no ties to the case). He watched the exchange multiple times and broke it down. “I don’t know all the specifics, but for him to say he can definitely see Matt is lying—well, that makes no sense,” he said. “The most common emotion Matt Sandusky showed in his face, by far, was sadness. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean he is or isn’t a liar. But sadness is not a common facial expression for liars, and for someone to say he knows that man is lying, off of that clip, is silly.”

• Ziegler has made the case—often stated by the Sanduskys—that Matt was desperate for the money. However, Matt and Kim wed on Dec. 10, 2011, well before he came forward to testify. The two moved into a modest townhouse together (where they still reside), and the total of their combined incomes (not including benefits, provided by her job) was significantly above the standard of living rate for a State College family of four in 2012 (financial information was provided to Bleacher Report, then verified). “I can assure you, we were doing just fine, money-wise,” says Kim. “It’s been made out like we were poor. That’s just not true.”

• Early on in our first discussion, I asked Ziegler what Matt said when they spoke. After all, who would accuse a man of lying about being sexually abused without making every possible effort to at least hear his side of the story? The documentary filmmaker, who boasts of spending “at least 100 hours, maybe more” on the phone with the Sandusky family, did not like this line of questioning, ripping the “liberal media” and people with “agendas.” He said that he repeatedly offered Matt a $10,000 donation to his foundation should he appear on his show—a weekly three-hour broadcast on AM-1220 KHTS, Santa Clarita’s self-anointed “local radio station” (He also told me, should Matt agree to appear, he would, “tear him apart.” Which isn’t exactly a Welcome to the Show invitation one would accept). I asked Matt and Kim whether they were listeners of Santa Clarita’s self-anointed “local radio station” (the show is also available online), and both said no. When I told John that this (making the offer via his radio show and Twitter) seemed to be a soft effort, and that he could at least knock on Matt and Kim’s door (as the majority of investigative reporters/documentarians would certainly do) he disagreed—loudly. First, he told me it wouldn’t make sense to fly from his home in Los Angeles all the way to State College, Pa., because of the price. “It would cost me $2,000 for the off chance he’d talk,” said Ziegler. (According to Travelocity.com, a flight from Los Angeles to Altoona, Pa. can be purchased for $461). Which is a quirky answer, considering: A. He was offering $10,000; B. He’s been in the area three different times to speak with the Sandusky family. Later, he told me it would be unfair to Dottie, because “it will be presumed Dottie put me up to it.” He also insisted, “I don’t have contact information for the asshole!” (the Peaceful Hearts website includes a fully functioning CONTACT link, as well as a MEDIA INQUIRIES section with two working phone numbers and a mailing address). Finally, Ziegler screamed, “Are you that fucking retarded? Really?”

When I asked Matt whether he would have sat down with Ziegler, he paused for a long time before shaking his head. “Knowing what I know about his tactics, probably not,” he said. “But if it comes down to it and John Ziegler puts me in a corner and it just happens, then it happens. My truth is my truth. It’s out there.”

A couple of days later, I asked Kim. “Hard to say,” she said. “One thing about Matt—he isn’t afraid of people who think he’s lying. I actually think he embraces that challenge.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 10.06.58 AMHere’s my final point: I get people doubting Matt Sandusky. I truly do. Because, as I already noted, his story changed, and there’s a lot of money involved, and Penn State took a huge hit. If you love the university, and you hear this stuff … well, I get it. Truly. Do I think Matt is telling the truth about being molested? I do. For myriad reasons. I also can’t figure out why a guy would lie about being molested, then decide to devote his life to a foundation aimed at bringing awareness to … child molestation prevention. I looked into Matt Sandusky’s organization. He has a $30,000 salary that only kicks in if the foundation exceeds a certain financial threshold. Peaceful Hearts is not even close to that figure.

Mostly, what I don’t understand—for the life of me—is why the Sandusky family and supporters have hitched their wagons to John Ziegler. If you believe Jerry Sandusky is being railroaded; if you believe all these accusations are lies; if you think something is truly wrong … well, dear God, don’t rally behind a conspiracy theorist with this sort of reputation and temperament.

And can someone please loan the guy $500 for a website redesign?