You would think the worst things that happened to Victim No. 1 happened when the man he calls “the monster” trapped him in the basement.
You would assume the severe panic attacks, the suicidal thoughts came solely from the famed football coach slipping into the darkened bedroom again and again.
You would think Victim No. 1's pain, his victimization, started and ended with the man who is now the country's most infamous pedophile.
And yes, that pedophile turned Aaron Fisher into Victim No. 1. But that is not where the story ends, Fisher, his mother and his psychologist told an Omaha audience Tuesday morning.
Jerry Sandusky created Victim No. 1. Then a whole host of others kept him that way.
“The way I was interviewed and treated as a victim, it just seems extremely wrong,” Fisher, now a college student, told a crowd of social workers, children's advocates and attorneys gathered for a conference on child abuse.
“I thought people would be behind us,” says Michael Gillum, Aaron Fisher's psychologist. “But people were fighting to the death for (Sandusky). That's what it felt like.”
What happened to Aaron Fisher after Sandusky assaulted him, and after Fisher tearfully revealed that assault, was the focus of Tuesday's keynote address. The 90-minute speech, during which Fisher, his mother and Gillum took turns at the microphone, described a nightmare scenario in which a victim of sexual abuse courageously comes forward — and then everyone rallies to the side of his abuser.
First, the administrators at Fisher's school advised his mother against going to the police. There's no way this is true, they suggested. There's no way that Jerry Sandusky would do something like this.
Then, the state trooper who normally handles sexual assault cases didn't show up to interview Fisher, as Gillum suggested. The unexplained delay stretched to days and then weeks.
Finally, two other state troopers showed up, the psychologist said. They were the regular trooper's superiors. They had little or no experience in how to respectfully interview a child accuser. They treated Fisher as if he were lying, said both Fisher and his psychologist.
The case made its way to the District Attorney's Office. The district attorney recused himself. The Pennsylvania State Attorney General's Office took over the case.
The attorney general was closely tied to Penn State, Gillum said. He was running for governor.
“Let's just say he was concerned about arresting a Penn State hero,” Gillum said.
It is important to remember that in the years before Jerry Sandusky become a public pariah, he was an apostle to a football god in and around State College, Pa. He had been a longtime defensive coordinator for legendary coach Joe Paterno. And following his retirement, he had continued to get wildly positive — and seemingly well-deserved — publicity for the charity that he founded and ran.
That nonprofit, named Second Mile, specialized in taking in low-income boys from single-parent homes. Boys like Fisher, who were lavished with attention, trips to parks, sleepovers at his house, football tickets. Boys like Fisher, who Sandusky started regularly fondling and then assaulting while Fisher was still in grade school.
“Jerry Sandusky wasn't a stranger,” said Fisher's mother, Dawn Hennessy. “He was in our house. He had dinner at our house. I played with his dog. We knew him.”
And so it's not hard to see why a school official, or a prosecuting attorney, would initially doubt the allegation that Sandusky was, in fact, a monster.
Except that the allegations started to pile up. Other accusers started to come forward.
A secret grand jury was convened. Fisher took a deep breath and testified to 35 strangers about repeated abuse that he had kept silent about for years.
Nothing happened. They brought back Fisher to testify again. Nothing happened.
They convened a second grand jury. Fisher testified a third time. Nothing happened.
Jerry Sandusky was still a free man.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Fisher, his mother and Gillum finally got a meeting with the Attorney General's Office. During that meeting, they told prosecutors that they were going to the news media if Sandusky wasn't arrested. That did the trick.
In November 2011, three years after Fisher first spoke of the abuse, the police finally arrested Sandusky.
This did not end Aaron Fisher's problems.
A coach at Fisher's school outed him as Victim No. 1 to other teachers and students, saying Fisher was telling lies about Sandusky and that's why Sandusky could no longer volunteer to help coach the football team. Victim No. 1 — a label meant to protect Fisher's anonymity — gradually began to be recognized in the school hallways. The reaction was not comforting.
Fisher was forced to transfer schools midway through his senior year. Message boards lit up with angry comments defending Sandusky and questioning his accusers.
The psychologist, Gillum, received death threats and became so fearful for his life that he started carrying a firearm for the first time.
Fisher, then 18, received death threats, too. He believed them.
“I thought somebody would try to make it so I couldn't testify.”
Instead, he steeled himself, took the stand, stared at Jerry Sandusky — who often stared back at him and smirked — and offered testimony that helped put Sandusky in jail for the rest of his life.
And on days like Tuesday, he steels himself again, goes to the podium in packed hotel ballrooms and tells crowds of 500 people, like the one that assembled in Omaha, that he no longer wants or needs the name meant to protect him.
He's tired of being Victim No. 1. He's tired of being a victim.
“You can call me Aaron,” he says.