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?

17 thoughts on “On Matt Sandusky and the worst guy I’ve ever dealt with”

  1. Mr. Pearlman,

    Thank you for taking the time to talk with Matt Sandusky and for believing him. I’ve written many pieces on the subject of child sexual abuse, one of which I entitled Why We Struggle with Childhood Sexual Abuse – an excerpt follows:

    “For both the accused and the abused, the stigma of child sexual abuse is untenable. It is a title that neither want, and once given, feel neither can escape – PEDOPHILE. VICTIM.

    And for the surrounding families, there is tremendous collateral damage, particularly when the abuse is intrafamilial. Sides are chosen – Lines are drawn – Who do you believe?

    The Victim?

    Or the (alleged) perpetrator?

    Child sexual abuse only exists in secrets and silence. It is what pedophiles rely on. They don’t abuse children in the light of day, in public places, in plain sight. There is typically…

    No doctor’s report

    No DNA evidence

    No witness

    No contemporaneous reports


    John Ziegler continually harasses and attacks victims and their families. He publicly names them on his website and in his Twitter feed – I have pleaded with him to remove them. He slut shames victim’s sisters, visciously attacks victim’s mothers and stalks these young men via social media.

    These young men had their day in court (or through mediation with PSU) and were found credible. I attended every day of that trial. And I believe every single one of them.

    Thank you,
    Roxine Behrens
    President, Tree-Climbers-org

  2. You know Steubenville High School, right, the school with the two football players who were prosecuted for rape only after Anonymous got involved? The one which allowed one of the players back on the team after he was released from juvie? The one with the football coach Reno Saccoccia who threatened a New York Times reporter? Well, in the early 1990s, John worked as a sports anchor on the Steubenville TV station. He decided to write a book about the football team: http://www.amazon.com/Dynasty-Crossroads-Story-Kids-Values/dp/1558561765

    It was modeled on Friday Night Lights. He spent much time with the kids, with Reno, going to games, etc. Well, Ziegler wrote about the history of corruption in the town and certainly didn’t present Reno in a lovey-dovey light, so Reno disowned it. Lou Holtz was going to write a forward but backed out once Reno disowned it. The book kind of just vanished along with John … until he resurfaced with his nutball right-wing radio stunts.

    Now, I am not saying the book was inaccurate or poorly written or anything like that. The book painted a picture not many wanted to look at, as evidenced by the rape scandal 20 years later. In the book, John did take potshots at people and the area. He made it clear how little regard he had for the area, which certainly didn’t earn him free drinks for life. He was (and still is) pompous and an elitist.

    Just thought it was interesting how John Ziegler and Reno Saccoccia converged at one time and how both are viewed now. At least Reno is revered and has friends at least in one place of the world. John seems to turn off everyone he meets everywhere. And even those he doesn’t meet.

  3. Helen of Troy Aikman

    “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”

    Isn’t changing your story multiple times usually a sign of dishonesty? If sticking to one story is proof you are telling the truth, and so is changing your story….how on earth do you determine who is telling the truth? “Experts” on abuse don’t want to admit that people can lie about abuse, they are not reliable. They are all coming from a biased perspective.

    1. Helen of Troy Aikman (not your real name I’m assuming? but the only way I can address you)

      Children who have been sexually abused have been taught to lie.. That’s part of the grooming process. “If you tell anyone, you/I will get in trouble.” “This is our little secret, no one would understand.” “If you tell, NO ONE will believe you.” “You’re a kid, I’m an adult, who do you think they’ll believe?” So it’s not unfathomable that survivors of child sexual abuse might lie throughout their lives.

      As far as disclosing abuse – often times, victims will only “tell” until you react. And once you react, they stop. They (we) have been taught that we are complicit in the abuse. So we already harbor guilt, carry shame, feel responsible. See, sex is pleasurable. And even a child’s body will react when stimulated. So it’s confusing for the child. “I liked it – so therefore I … wanted it?” Children’s bodies will respond in an adult way…however their minds can’t comprehend what is truly happening to them.

      Throw into the mix they are (often times) being abused by someone they know, perhaps someone they trust (1:4 girls and 1:6 boys are sexually abused by age 18, 90% by something they know, 68% by a family member) and things get REALLY confusing for a young boy/young girl. Familial loyalties/power positions/love/hate/pleasure/disgust… children are ill-equipped to deal with the psychological and emotional tumult thrust upon them.
      I hope this helps.

      1. Helen of Troy Aikman

        “1:4 girls and 1:6 boys are sexually abused by age 18”

        Many sources dispute these stats. It is hypocritical to present abuse as some sort of rare horror that excuses the most horrible behavior in victims (I know murderers often use “I was abused” excuse) and yet claim it is really common.

        “See, sex is pleasurable.”

        And yet society is hysterical about sexual abuse while defending people like Adrian Peterson who commit physical abuse towards children. Go figure – I’d rather be touched sexually than hit but society says the worst thing that can happen to a male is to be touched sexually by another male, so of course people will paint Jerry Sandusky as the most evil man who ever lived, while making excuses for men who rape women

        One thing you and Jeff never asked is why, if Matt thinks Jerry put him through “hell” then why did he let the family adopt him when he was a grown man? Why did he live at home with them until he was 24? If Dottie covered it all up then why did he maintain a good relationship with her right up until he claimed he was abused? Why did he let her and Jerry watch his kids?

      2. Please state your sources that dispute those statistics.

        Abusing a child in ANY way is horrific. Children are defenseless. That an adult would place their hands on a child in any way is deplorable.

        Pedophiles groom victims – with love, affection, attention – they test boundaries, push boundaries, and eventually conquer their prey. Typically pedophiles go after the most defenseless – kids with only one parent or absentee parents,.

        Pedophiles are not the creepy old man in the trench coat. Abuse is not brutal rape. Grooming is a slow, meticulous, loving process. For the MOST part, the relationship is one the child needs most – attention, affection, love – once the abuse starts, many dissociate. Or they feel the “trade-off” of the abuse is worth the other things they are getting – so they endure the abuse.
        Sandusky used his position and standing in the community to groom his victims.

        As Victim 4 testified on Day 1 of the trial (from my notes):

        “V4 expressed repeated regret at not running from Sandusky, but noted it was because of fear, confusion and an acute understanding that he’d be mocked at school.

        “It’s not that simple, you just [can’t] say, ‘OK, I’m done.'” There was also the odd mix of being so excited about getting to be part of the Penn State program (“I was like the mascot”) that he could block out the shower sessions.

        “I thought, I didn’t want to lose this,” the witness said. “This is something good happening to me. I didn’t have a dad.”
        I won’t pretend to talk for Matt, but as I stated previously – when the abuse is intra-familial, there is a confused mix of love/hate/loyalty/ repulsion – this was Matt’s family. And for the MOST part, this was a GOOD thing in his life.

      3. See, you know nothing about this case. We’re told that Jerry Sandusky was a “master groomer” that he plied boys with new shoes and football tickets so they willingly fellated him for decades, spent time with him well into their adulthood, drove great distances to be with him, etc. “That PROVES it!” you’ll say. But LET’S USE A LITTLE COMMON SENSE.
        Jerry was so diabolical he wasn’t suspected well into his 60s. Even after law enforcement investigated him they decided to drop the case and apologized to him. What a criminal genius he must be!
        And yet we’re also supposed to believe he was molesting these boys in places like public showers and the great outdoors in daylight (OPP third-hand hearsay testimony for which Jerry was found guilty). Ask yourself: Does that sound like a criminal genius? Yet somehow, he went undetected. He was so clever he never took pictures of his victims, went on chat rooms, contacted any other pedophiles via the internet, took trophies, etc. In fact, he was the only modern pedophile never to do these things. He must have REALLY been good at grooming, because we’re supposed to believe he went from total strangers to oral sex with these boys, in at least one case, within an hour and a half. We’re also supposed to believe, according to testimony, that this elderly man was having sex up to a hundred times a week! And where? In a secret apartment? At The Second Mile? NO! On campus where anyone in Athletics could walk in at any time! In the basement of his own home while his family was upstairs! OUTSIDE!
        Use your brain. Imagine a man in his 60s, a PUBLIC figure, in a small town, trying to hide an affair with adult women for decades while having sex with multiple partners dozens of times a week, in public places. It’s impossible. But genius Jerry got away with it! Until a Grand Jury told the public a bunch of things that we now know are proven lies -e.g. a “graduate assistant” witnessed with his own two eyes Jerry with his hands on the shoulders of “ten year old boy” anally raping him in a shower. Moreover, Joe Paterno was told and didn’t do anything. Never even TRIED to find out who it was! He probably just said “Jer, old buddy, I don’t care how many ten year old boys you anally rape in our showers, you did a pretty darn good job as defensive coordinator here a decade ago! Bugger away with impunity!” In fact, genius Jerry was SO GOOD at this that Joe and the AD, Tim Curley, allowed their own sons to spend time alone with Jerry. What a master manipulator! Even though they “knew” he was a violent predator he was so CHARMING they threw their own kids to him!

    2. Not within the Child Abuse Industry. It’s rather like global warming. If your story changes, that proves it. If it doesn’t change, that REALLY proves it. If you swear a guy is innocent, that means he’s guilty. If you say he’s guilty, that REALLY means he’s guilty. There is literally nothing Matt Sandusky can do, including recant his story, that would convince these true believers that he’s lying. They have too much emotionally invested in it. They’re like a man whose only tool is a hammer, walking around looking for nails.

  4. Did Matt explain why he took money from Penn State when PSU had nothing to do with his alleged abuse? Right, “… she convinced him that—after what he’d been through—he was entitled to it.”

    That is the most telling thing. Each individual can rationalize their actions in this way. All of Sandusky’s “victims” came from the Second Mile, all had issues, and all can do just what Matt and his wife have done. Convince themselves that they are entitled to something that they are not. Because, there are all these others… He must be guilty of at least some of it, right?

    Matt is a liar. He lied to the Grand Jury or he lied to you, Oprah and all the rest of us. Those “experts” tell us that is normal in abuse cases, that give them an easy out, but they’ll never admit that some victims are just opportunists.

    1. Ellwood, I’d be more careful about calling someone who says he was sexually molested a liar. I really would.

  5. Sorry Jeff, but 99% of the public, if they wasted their time on this kind of crackpot conspiracy theory stuff, would recognize Ziegler is a hack. So why do you waste your time with him?

    After all, who would spend rambling paragraphs trashing Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, Tim Curley, Penn State and the entire State College community “without making every possible effort to at least hear [their] side of the story?” Oh, that would be you.

    You are the company you keep.

  6. I find it immensely sad that a man who is so obviously an individual who has experienced sexual abuse has to work so hard to have his story believed. My God, why should anyone want to come forward and share their experiences when they are publicly crucified and questioned? And this is the goal of the perpetrator – to inspire silence…to make the victim think it’s THEIR fault…to make others think there’s nothing wrong with them, the perpetrator. And you have to admit, Mr. Pearlman, that in your initial interview with Matt Sandusky, whose name change you suggest to be questionable, that you have crucified the victim to save the name of the perpetrator. This post of yours highlights that. And the worst part – you can’t take back the words that landed in print and were read by – and impacted – a whole swath of readers. Sorry Matt ——, you as the victim are punished once again.

  7. Mr. Pearlman,
    You don’t like John Ziegler. That’s fine. He’s not real likable. But try to explain away the hundreds of FACTS on his website that fly in the face of what you and others like you have spread about PSU, Joe Paterno, and Jerry Sandusky. All those “experts” you cite? It’s like quoting Michael Mann on global warming. They (along with Matt Sandusky) have literally MILLIONS of reasons to, well, LIE. Those who actually know the players in this drama know that Matt Sandusky, Mike McQueary, and Aaron Fisher have personalities and reputations that stand in stark contrast to the people whose lives have been ruined, including Joe Paterno, Tim Curley, Gary Schultz, and Graham Spanier. From start to finish this was a miscarriage of justice, and your dislike of John Ziegler does nothing to refute that.
    The fact that Jerry Sandusky is the only modern day pedophile who had ZERO porn of any kind on his computer should give you pause, especially since his accusers computers were riddled with porn that they readily shared with each other. Where is the evidence? The trophies, the pictures, the DNA, the surveillance video, the doctors tests? There is none. Where are the former victims who are outside of the statute of limitations but want to go on record with credible testimony? There are none.
    Finally, why did PSU pay hundreds of millions of dollars while Subway, who is worth TWICE what PSU is worth is not the subject of anyone’s blog-wrath, including yours? DESPITE the fact that there is actual evidence Jared Fogles’ crimes were known to them? Sorry. YOU are the “tool” here.

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