Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language and graphic descriptions of sexual violence and a murder investigation.
Karen was alone in her apartment when the phone rang.
She didn’t like being alone. It had been weeks since she had been attacked there, but the apartment still felt to her like a crime scene, a place that had been turned over and rummaged through. She had called the police on the night of the attack, when she finally convinced herself that she might be safe. She had gone to the local hospital and submitted to an examination. She had opened the Yellow Pages and called a resource new to the town where she had gone to school and now lived, something called a rape crisis center.
But the police seemed to want more from her, even after she had told them everything she could remember. The hospital had run out of rape kits, and the nurse who examined her was rude, she thought, “mocking.” The rape crisis center had no therapists to recommend, only women around her age who offered more sympathy than expertise.
Karen felt as though she were being pushed aside and forgotten. The attack she had endured was inescapably real but, in its aftermath, she faced a sense of unreality so powerful that she kept in her pocket the scant newspaper clipping about her assault to remind herself that it really happened. The apartment provided no refuge. When she discovered that photos she kept of herself were missing, she knew they had been taken but couldn’t be sure by whom. Nothing had gone untouched. When the phone rang, the call came through a line that a few weeks before had been cut by the blade of a knife.
She had heard from the police that there were others who had been attacked recently. She had heard some of the other women had received phone calls after their assault, possibly from the assailant. But when she picked up, she did not hear the voice she feared. This was someone familiar but not someone she knew. It was a man everyone knew. And when she realized who it was, she wondered immediately how he knew her name:
“Karen, this is Joe Paterno,” the man said. “Are you OK?”
Forty-three years ago, Penn State University played for its first national championship in a football season that began against Temple on Sept. 1, 1978, and ended against second-ranked Alabama, on Jan. 1, 1979. It was the season in which Penn State football became Penn State Football, a season that saw head coach Joe Paterno become an American icon. It was also a season that saw a serial sexual predator attack multiple Penn State students.
If you are any kind of sports fan, you probably know the first story, all the way through its shocking denouement 10 years ago—the story of the football coach whose black shoes and white socks were seen as his moral underpinnings until they weren’t … until his career ended when the sexual abuse committed by an assistant coach named Jerry Sandusky came to light. You almost certainly don’t know the second. It is not just a story that hasn’t been told; it’s a story that doesn’t exist, even in obscure corners of the internet. It’s the story of a Penn State football player who, as his team ascended to the pinnacle of the sport, was ransacking the lives of women in the dark.
His name was Todd Hodne, and he was perhaps the most dangerous predator ever to play college football. “I have been a prosecutor for nearly 30 years,” wrote John B. Collins, who prosecuted one of Hodne’s crimes, in a letter to a parole board. “I have prosecuted serial killers and capital cases. Todd Hodne, to this day, remains among the three most dangerous, physically imposing and ruthless excuses for a human being I have ever faced in court.”
Hodne arrived in State College in 1977 as a prized recruit from New York’s Long Island, and in 1978, he was the Penn State Rapist. There were other rapes and rapists; Penn State, in the mid- and late seventies, was enduring an epidemic of sexual assault that female students of the day still talk about. But even against that backdrop, Hodne’s rapes and attacks stand out because he was a football player who, according to one family member, “had no control over his dark impulses.” He was big and strong, entitled and enabled. He was driven and determined and a little desperate. He was also cruel, the most predatory of predators, a hunter who liked to linger. He attacked with a knife to the throat, and when he attacked women, he made sure they couldn’t see him, but he also liked to suggest they knew him. “Do you recognize my voice?” he’d asked Karen.
In October 1978, Hodne was finally caught on the strength of three fingerprints and a traced phone call. Five months later—two months after Penn State and Paterno lost the national championship game to Alabama and Bear Bryant—Hodne was found guilty of criminal sexual assault after one of his victims testified against him. But that was not the end of Hodne’s string of attacks. It was, tragically, just the beginning of a series of crimes of such escalating violence that they have become generational, wreaking havoc on the lives of his victims and their descendants.
Todd Hodne died of cancer on April 29, 2020, six days after his 61st birthday, comatose but still under guard in the prison ward of a hospital in New York state. The story you are reading started with three questions about Hodne and his criminal career: What did he do, why wasn’t he stopped and why doesn’t anyone know about him? We have examined hundreds of pages of surviving, often heavily redacted, documents and have done hundreds of interviews with Hodne’s friends, girlfriends, family members, teammates and coaches, as well as those who investigated and prosecuted his crimes. We have contended with the obstacles of indifference and obstruction but also of time itself; after 43 years, people grow old, people forget and people die. But of course, they also remember, and the most consequential witness is offered by the women who survived the ravages not just of time but of Hodne himself—who survived their hours in the dark with a 240-pound Division I football player with a knife in his hand and no particular interest in their survival. Of the 12 women he is known to have attacked, four are dead. We spoke to six of the other eight and to the husband of a seventh. One did not respond. We asked them about the violent attacks they endured in 1978 and 1979—and 43 years later, they remembered those crimes in unflinching detail. They shared the stories they’d had to bear in private. And out of that, out of the sheer scope of lives changed and ruined, emerged a portrait of a time and a place, a portrait of a football program and its coach, and a portrait of a terrifying predator who called himself “the All-American kid.”
They were a bunch of kids, 14 years old, but also strangers to one another. They were at freshman football camp, on a new team for a new school, St. Dominic in Oyster Bay, Long Island. They were just yakking before mealtime, in their bunks. You know boys like these: someone had to prove himself, someone had to dominate. So one of them, John Poggioli, started messing with the kid playing linebacker, the kid with the long face and the long hair combed to the side and the serious real estate at the jawline. Nobody even remembers what was said. But anyone who was there remembers what happened next. One second, Poggioli is talking, teasing the kid. Next second, the kid takes out a knife and throws it at him. He misses, but not by much—the knife sticks in the wall, vibrating like a tuning fork, a few inches from Poggioli’s head. The linebacker, Hodne is his name, gets up and without a word pulls the knife from the wall. He slides it back in its leather sheath and heads for chow. The rest follow, wondering if they should tell one of the coaches what they just saw. They never do.
Hodne could hit. Even before he put on all that muscle, even when he was all shoulders and long legs and arms, he could ring bells, he could make the guy on the other side of the line quit or at least reconsider being a hero. “It was just different, getting hit by Todd,” Poggioli says. It’s human instinct to slow down when you make a tackle—to pull up, just a little bit, right before contact. Hodne didn’t have that instinct. He accelerated through the tackle. He accelerated through the ball carrier and liked to luxuriate in the aftermath, standing over the guy he laid out. There were rumors he stuck rolls of quarters in his arm pads.
His ferocity was what brought him to St. Dominic. It was a small school, with around 150 kids in each class, and not a traditional power. But the football coach, Tom Capozzoli, had been at St. Dom’s for about a dozen years, and now he had a star player—his son Tony, who had won the national Punt, Pass & Kick championship two years in a row. The athletic department decided to bring in players who would help the Capozzolis win a championship before Tom retired. Hodne was one of them, along with a teammate from the Levittown Red Devils travel team, Dave Smith. Hodne wasn’t even Catholic. He was just rangy and violent, an intimidator.
He was even intimidating at the freshman dance in the fall of 1973. It was held at the Knights of Columbus Hall; the football players hung around a big round table, showing off for each other. Hodne wound up doing something they talk about even now. He pulled a girl at the dance under the table while his teammates stayed in their chairs—an act that made his reputation in some quarters, and in some quarters undid hers. “To be very honest with you, we all pointed the finger at her,” says Marge Galtieri, a St. Dominic cheerleader and one of Hodne’s classmates. “We judged her. But maybe we judged her wrong, looking at the events of the following years.”
Hodne was from Wantagh, a comfortably middle-class town between the little boxes of Levittown and the fulfillment of Robert Moses’ vision in the boardwalk of Jones Beach. He had a hard-working father, a charming and stylish mother, and siblings with whom he was close. He became an All-Long Island linebacker whose very name rattled opponents. But even in ninth grade, Todd Hodne was a polarizing figure at St. Dominic, because even in ninth grade, Todd Hodne was talking about breaking the law. He brought his knife to school and, according to Poggioli, “definitely” kept the quarters in his fists when he, as a freshman, battered a senior who challenged him. He also bragged about stealing car stereos and doing burglaries. His teammates listened, and they had to decide whether to believe him and what to do if they did. Dave Smith was the son of a Nassau County police officer, and when they were all sophomores, he told his father that Hodne was breaking into people’s houses. Smith’s father contacted Hodne’s local precinct, which investigated. The result, says retired officer Don Smith, was that Hodne, at 15, was “custodialized” by the juvenile justice department of Nassau County and compelled to return the stereo equipment he had stolen. The intervention made enduring enemies of Hodne and Smith, the two inside linebackers for the St. Dominic Bayhawks. But it neither deterred Hodne nor threatened his status on the team.
Many of Hodne’s teammates remember Tom Capozzoli repeatedly taking up for him with school administrators. One remembers a coach being fired after he tried to warn Hodne’s parents about their son. Ralph Willard, who was the athletic director at the time and went on to coach basketball with Rick Pitino at Louisville, says, “I don’t remember there being any problems with Todd, to be honest. I just remember how he hit.”
St. Dominic won the state Catholic High School Football League championship in 1975, in Tom Capozzoli’s final season as head coach. His son Tony, a senior, was named first-team Parade All-American, and he committed to Penn State as a quarterback and a kicker. Todd Hodne, Dave Smith and John Poggioli had one more season together, and though Hodne and Smith once had a fistfight on the school stairs, Hodne and Poggioli were thought to be best friends. In truth, Poggioli said he remained in the friendship because he didn’t know how to get out. He was drawn to Todd Hodne and he was afraid of Todd Hodne in equal measure, and Hodne made him pay every time Poggioli tried to emerge from under his sway. When Poggioli was a junior, he told Hodne that he might try out for the school play; Hodne responded by sneering, “You’re no actor,” and dumping a pail of water on his head. When Poggioli had a crush on a girl named Janet, he wouldn’t dare ask her out because Hodne, though not her boyfriend, had claimed her. “In my four years at St. Dominic, nobody asked me out because they were so afraid of Todd,” Janet Shalley remembers now. “I could only date boys from other schools. And back then, I had it going on.”
Hodne followed Tony Capozzoli to Penn State. The coach who recruited both of them remembers Hodne as a good kid: “If he wasn’t a good kid, we wouldn’t have brought him to Penn State.” But even with Hodne in Pennsylvania, Poggioli remained under his influence. After Hodne completed his freshman year as a Nittany Lion, he invited Poggioli and a friend from Wantagh to spend a weekend with him in State College. School had ended. But Hodne was living with some other athletes in a house off campus. He had made plans with his friends from home to drive to Philly for a Rolling Stones concert. They were going to have a cookout in the backyard, and so they went to the supermarket. “We went to get supplies for the barbecue and got a bunch of steaks,” remembers his Wantagh friend. “He goes, ‘I know this trick: You just turn the steaks over in the cart and walk on out.’ So we robbed all these big steaks and had a feast.”
The next morning, June 18, 1978, there was something else Hodne wanted. They went to a store on College Avenue, the main drag for Penn State students. It was called the Record Ranch, and Hodne, sometimes in the company of other athletes, had been stealing LPs from there since he’d come to school, hiding them under his coat. The store was closed on a Sunday morning, but Hodne wanted to go in. Poggioli thought it was a bad idea, he says now; the problem was telling his friend. “I didn’t stop Todd because I couldn’t stop Todd. If you tried to stop Todd, he would hurt you. You couldn’t say no to him, and he could convince you to do things you wouldn’t normally do.” According to a police report, they kicked in a window of the Record Ranch and were in the process of stealing $30 in quarters and another $800 in merchandise—a Yamaha stereo amplifier; a Rolling Stones mirror; some T-shirts and Harley Davidson belt buckles; and record albums by Donald Fagen, David Gilmour, Little Feat and Rick Wakeman, among others—when two employees from an adjacent store saw a door open and peeked inside. They saw Hodne’s Wantagh friend dangling from the broken window and called the police. He was arrested along with Poggioli, who had stayed outside. But Hodne easily shrugged off the police and ran right through them. “Todd got away because Todd at that point was a criminal,” Poggioli says. “He knew how to get away.”
The next day, Hodne showed up at the police station, saying he heard two of his friends were in some trouble and wanted to visit them in jail. According to a police report, he first said his name was “Tom Harris.” Then he changed his mind and “stated that his name was Todd Hodne … that he was a Penn State football player and that he did not want his name out.” He was leaving the station when an officer told him he matched the description of the man who fled the Record Ranch burglary. The officer asked for permission to take a photograph of him, and Hodne agreed. Hodne drove back to Wantagh and, in his absence, was identified in a photographic lineup. When he returned to State College, he was arrested, and on June 21, he, along with his friend from the neighborhood, were charged and later convicted with felonies. “He ruined my life,” says Poggioli, who wound up pleading to a misdemeanor. “But he ruined so many lives. I feel lucky to have gotten out when I did. I feel lucky compared to the others.”
It was not a violent crime. But it was a felony, and Joe Paterno was a coach who called players into his office even when he heard they were not participating in classroom discussions. He was a disciplinarian, and there would have to be discipline. On Aug. 19, 1978, two months after the burglary, Penn State held a scrimmage, and afterward, Paterno told gathered reporters that Todd Hodne had been suspended for the season. But he did not like to give up on his players, and he did not give up on Hodne. In his announcement, Paterno said that Hodne will be able to return to the team “if he has a good academic year and if he proves to us that [the robbery] was a mistake.” He also sought to provide Hodne a role model for his sophomore season, and to that end, one of his seniors, Fred Ragucci, was summoned into the football office. Ragucci went to a Catholic high school on Staten Island, and now he played defensive end for Paterno. When Ragucci was told he would have a new roommate in Hamilton Hall, he didn’t blink, even though he was two years older than Hodne and was not part of his crowd. Ragucci could figure out easily enough why he wound up in this unlikely pairing: “I was a pretty good student. I was pretty straight, never in any trouble. Nobody specifically mentioned this to me, but I think they were trying to put people in with people who might be a good influence.”
They did not spend a lot of time together at 279 Hamilton. Why would they? In 1978, there was nothing in most college dorm rooms outside a stereo and perhaps a hot plate. But later, Ragucci will always remember one thing about his new roommate: his knife. It was Hodne’s prized possession, a gift his grandmother gave him after she returned from a trip to her ancestral Norway, the blade forged from fine Scandinavian steel. But what Ragucci remembers is how much time Hodne spent with it, his fascination with it. “He was always playing with it when he was in the room,” Ragucci says now. “It had a leather sheath, and he would take the sheath on and off, on and off. All the time, even when you were having a conversation.”
On Sept. 13, 1978, a Wednesday, Betsy Sailor’s phone rang all day. Two days before, she had placed a classified ad in the Penn State student newspaper, the Daily Collegian. She was living in the basement apartment of a brick home not far from one of Penn State’s golf courses, the White Course. Her intended roommate had not returned to school for the fall term, and she was looking for someone to share expenses. In her ad she wrote: “Female roommate needed to share quiet apt. near golf course. Rent $87.50 plus phone. Non-smokers only. Call Betsy.” It was the kind of thing people did back then, and Betsy’s ad ran along with eight others.
She was 21 years old, a senior at what she proudly called “my state university” and one of the few women majoring in business administration. She had curly hair and smiled with resolute cheer. Though still a student, she led a settled life, with a fiancé seven years older than she was who lived a couple of hours away in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She believed that “going to Penn State football games was the most exciting thing you could do” and that Joe Paterno was “a demigod.” She lived with two Siamese kittens. She had never heard of anything bad happening in State College. She thought it was a safe place to be—”good times all the time.”
Betsy liked taking the calls. She liked talking to the callers—interviewing them, really, so that she could make the right choice. She might have been, as one friend remembers, more mature than other students, “like an older person coming back to school,” but she was open to new things, eager for fresh perspectives. A previous roommate, Lisa Yelverton, says of her time with Betsy: “We just clicked. I was from Philadelphia, and I was inner city. And she was country. I was Black, and she was white, and I guess we were so intrigued and wanted to learn about each other’s cultures more than anything.”
As Betsy answered the phone, she hoped she could find someone like Lisa again. Two men called, but one annoyed her, asking if she was absolutely sure she didn’t want a male roommate. The other was calling for his girlfriend. She had registered late, he said, and she needed a place to live. He asked about her apartment and its location and if he could come by and take a look at it. She told him that she was going out for a while and wouldn’t be home. Then she spoke to a caller who connected with her over common interests and made her decision. She studied for a while, relishing her time alone, and then, near 10 p.m. went upstairs to tell her landlord she was going to the store for some cat food. She was not gone long, and when she returned, her landlord, a motherly woman with whom Betsy was close, told her that the kittens had gotten frisky in her absence. She had heard them knock something down in the apartment.
When Betsy went downstairs, she turned on the light in her bedroom. The only thing she found amiss was a telephone book open on the floor, and she wondered to herself how her landlord had been able to hear such a small disturbance. She had already left a message on the answering machine of the woman she selected as her roommate, and she was nothing if not polite, so she also began making plans to call back all the others who had expressed interest in the room, including the boyfriend of the late arrival who now had no place to live. But making a choice had given her a strong sense of freedom and relief, and she celebrated by “doing those silly things you do when you’re living alone”—singing to herself and “dancing with the refrigerator door.” After a while, she remembered that she had to study for a test and went into her bedroom to find her books. She hit the light switch, but the room remained dark, and in the moment of surprise between expectation and reality, it felt suddenly and consumingly black. “The next thing you know,” Betsy says, “I had a hand around my mouth and a knife at my neck, and a voice said, ‘I’ll kill you if you say a word.'”
She did not say a word. She did not scream. She began making choices right away, and the first was that “there was nothing he could do, nothing he could steal, that was worth my life.” The second was that she would go into “information-gathering mode,” and try to remember the details of everything that happened, though her assailant did his best to prevent her from doing so. He had been hiding in her room for as long as she had been home and had used that time to make preparations. He used one of her scarves to blindfold her and the belt from the robe she kept in her closet to bind her hands behind her back. Then he picked her up and planted her face down on her bed, and from his lack of strain or even apparent effort, she understood that his outsize strength made him particularly dangerous. When he went to her bathroom and began rummaging around the medicine cabinet, she told herself, “Good, he’s leaving prints.”But when he asked for her razor, she told herself, “No way I’m giving this guy my razor,” and decided to gamble. She kept her razor in the bathtub. But she knew that men don’t view shaving in terms of the bath; they view it in terms of the mirror. She told him that her razor was where he would have kept it, the medicine cabinet, and when he gave up trying to find it—when he returned empty-handed—she was grateful that men know so little about women.
“I thought, if he touches anything in there, I’ve got him for fingerprints.”
BETSY SAILOR, on considering her basement-apartment surroundings while Todd Hodne attacked her.
Though she decided not to fight him, her mind never stopped resisting. Even when he flipped her over and sat on her chest, with his knees straddling her shoulders, she kept trying to see around the margins of her blindfold and then the pillowcase he had put over her head, kept trying to glean information she could use later to identify him or use now to stay alive. She saw his thumb and knew he was white. She saw the soles of his sneakers and the stitching of his jeans and knew what he was wearing. And yet she was still telling herself that he was there to rob her. “You can take my jewelry,” she said. “I’ll tell you where it is.”
“I’m not going to do that,” he said.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“I’m going to rape you,” he replied.
His voice shattered her. It was the voice from the phone, the voice of the boyfriend who had called about the apartment, but it was so matter-of-fact, so untroubled and decisive, as if her fate were no longer her own. When she heard it, she felt herself split in two, so that she also heard herself, her own voice saying, “Oh no.”
“You could just tell he was big. And he said, ‘If you say a word, I will kill you.’”
What happened next was described in excruciating and graphic detail in the police report for what became case 678-09229: “Actor returned and he took off all his clothes and sat on her chest and put his penis to her mouth and told her to suck it, she said she couldn’t do that, he became angry so she opened her mouth and he put it in. He then moved to her crotch and began licking. He said ‘say you like it,’ she said, ‘no, because I don’t.’ Actor then began to rape complainant and she said, ‘Please don’t cum inside because I’m not using birth control and don’t want to become pregnate [sic] over something like this.’ He said OK but complainant does not know if he did or not. Actor then put his clothes on and went out of the room.
“… she heard him open the back door (outside exit) and then he came back in. Actor told her to open her legs. She refused saying, ‘What are you going to do? Don’t put anything inside me.'” Actor then began moving around the room opening dresser drawers. She asked him what he was doing and he said, ‘Waiting for a ride.'”
When the phone rang in Ann Sailor’s house, she didn’t automatically think the call was from one of her children. Although she had three in college, long-distance calls were punitively expensive in September 1978 and therefore rare. Betsy called every few weeks. She wrote Ann letters, telling her mother about her studies in business administration. The Sailors were a family of schoolteachers, and Betsy would have made a great one, calm and kind, cheerful and strong, given to striking up long conversations with strangers she encountered on campus.
“I’m OK,” Betsy began. As Ann remembers now, “When your child says, ‘I’m OK,’ you know something has happened. But she just calmly told me, step by step, what had happened.” The one thing Betsy didn’t say, wouldn’t say, was that she had been raped. “I wouldn’t use that word,” Betsy says. “I wanted to spare her that. I said, ‘Mom, I’ve been sexually assaulted.’ As if that would make it better.”
Rape. It was not something most people talked about back then, even if—especially if—it had happened to them. It often went unreported, because of the shame associated with the word and the shaming the legal system routinely inflicted on those who survived it. Rape was an ordeal that promised more ordeals to come, chief among them silence. Things like that didn’t happen back then in State College, people still say. But they did. It was just rare that someone came out and said so.
“I didn’t want to use the words, ‘rape,’ because I thought that’s just too big of a word.”
BETSY SAILOR, on phoning her mother after being raped by Todd Hodne.
Ann Sailor knew her daughter was “one heck of a woman,” so stoic she insisted that her parents not drive the three hours from northwest Pennsylvania to State College—that she could handle this ordeal on her own. But she was still so very young, and Ann says she would often wonder: “When she puts her head down on her pillow at night, is she having bad dreams?” Betsy was prepared to say to anyone but her mother that she had been raped in State College. She was prepared to go to court and press charges against whoever had done this to her. She was not afraid, and she was not resigned to silence. And yet, just as there is a cost to keeping silence, there is cost to breaking it. Decades after Betsy called Ann to tell her what had happened on the night of Sept. 13, they both remain reluctant to speak the word that names what Hodne did to her. The daughter is now 64. The mother is 84. They are close; they know most of what there is to know about each other. But they both remember that phone call, and the weight of the word, and how breaking the silence broke them. They can say it now; they can say that Betsy was raped. But they still grieve each time they do. And both of them, far away from one another, in separate phone calls, still weep.
Hodne’s roommate freshman year (who asked that his name not be used) was from upstate New York, and so at first he thought that Hodne was different from him because Hodne came from Long Island and hung around with “the Long Island clique”—older, edgier guys like Tom Donovan and Tony Capozzoli and a basketball player named Frank Brickowski. Then he began to sense that Hodne was also different from everyone else. On the field, Hodne was the same, one of a scrum of players more distinguished by toughness than by talent. Off the field too, he was just another guy who liked to drink, smoke weed, go to parties and bring women back to the room. The difference, the roommate realized soon enough, was a matter of degree.
The realization came when someone told Hodne, “No.” At Hamilton Hall, they lived between the two “jock house” fraternities, Phi Delta Theta and Phi Gamma Delta, otherwise known as “Fiji House.” One night early in freshman year, Hodne and his roommate headed for a party at Fiji House, only to be told at the door that freshmen weren’t invited. They left, but on their way back to Hamilton, Hodne saw an opportunity. “At Fiji House, they kept the kegs of beer in the back, near the stairwell,” the roommate remembers. “And Todd goes, ‘We’re going to take one.’ And he picks up a keg and carries it to our dorm room. And then he goes downstairs and puts up a sign that says there’s a party in our room. We have 25 people in there, and he’s charging at the door for beer that he stole from Fiji House. And I’m like, ‘I’m not going to make it through my freshman year.’ After two weeks, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m in the s—.” I considered going to Joe [Paterno] and asking him for a room change. But Joe’s going to ask me why. And what do I tell him? So I just decided to suck it up. But I spent my entire freshman year praying I wouldn’t be arrested.”
It wasn’t just that when Hodne drank, he “could drink a bottle of Jack Daniels in a half hour.” It wasn’t just that when he went to the Record Ranch, he couldn’t leave without a few LPs under his coat. And it wasn’t even that when they both went to Hodne’s home in Wantagh, he once stopped on the way back to State College and picked up a pound of weed for the purpose of selling it. No, it was that “Todd just didn’t have the same moral compass that other people did.”
Hodne was extreme in everything, in particular the activity that so many football players took as a privilege of being on the roster. “He had some wild sexual appetites,” the freshman roommate says. “We had bunk beds, and I’m on the bottom, he’s on the top. And he’d be up there going at it for hours at a time. It just wasn’t normal. I mean, I knew something was definitely different in that aspect.”
Most of the players who remember Hodne minimize the significance of their memories of him, either discounting the time they spent with him or the time he spent on the team. But the freshman roommate still thinks about him. “Living with someone like that is certainly something you never forget,” he says. “What it’s taught me is that you can’t really know people and what they’re capable of. That’s what I struggle with. How is somebody capable of [the crimes that Hodne committed]? I mean, to me, it’s not even a matter of morals or morality. It’s what deep inside humans are capable of doing. And that’s what freaks me out.”
There were a lot of bars in State College. Beer—sometimes sold to tables by the case—was so extraordinarily cheap that the players followed weekly specials that let them drink nearly for free. They drank at The Saloon, they drank at the Rathskeller, they drank at the Corner Room. After Tuesday practices, a bunch of them used to go to the Train Station, a downtown restaurant and bar with a caboose out front. They ordered hoagies and beer and went back to an off-campus house to watch The Three Stooges. That’s how Hodne got his nickname: “Shemp.”
It was not a flattering moniker. Shemp was the fourth Stooge. Hodne had endured the meat grinder anonymity of freshman football and then had been suspended. Kip Vernaglia, one of the players who hung out with him, remembers Hodne as a “happy-go-lucky knucklehead kind of guy.” Years later, when we told him of the full extent of Hodne’s crimes, Vernaglia said, “Are you serious? … he was Shemp!”
Adrienne Reissman was a student at Penn State and a waitress at the Train Station. She kept her car parked close by, in the alley behind the restaurant. One night after work in the fall of 1978, she was walking out to the alley in the dark. She remembers what she was wearing because she has asked herself so many times what she looked like that night, what he might have seen. “What woman doesn’t ask what she looked like?” she asks now. “Was I a target? Was I trashy?” She was wearing “black slacks and a tan sweater with suede patches at the elbows.” She was 24 years old. She was 5 feet tall. She was an artist and a self-described hippie. She didn’t know the football players who came into the Train Station because she didn’t particularly care about them: “I was not boom-boom rah-rah.”
She was opening the door of her car when she felt someone behind her and heard him say, “Give me your wrists.” He bound her wrists and then blindfolded her with athletic tape and pushed her inside. She was sprawled across the front seats of her car, and he had his knee in the door. She had heard of students being raped at the golf course, and she was sure that’s what he wanted to do—drive her to the golf course and rape her there. But her car was small, a Mazda RX-3, and he was big. He couldn’t fit into the front with her already inside, and this gave her a few moments. She tried to discourage him by telling him she was on her period, even though she wasn’t. She managed to free her hands. She couldn’t see, but she knew where the latch was on the passenger side door. She reached for it and scurried across the front seats as he fumbled behind her. She opened the door and began screaming. He ran. When the cops came, she saw a pair of scissors lying by the driver’s side door. “I’ve asked myself a million times, if I had known he’d had a pair of scissors, what would I have done? What would I have done? Would I have acquiesced? Would I have fought? He had a weapon. Oh, God.”
“I was wearing a black pair of slacks and a tan sweater that had suede on the elbows, because what woman doesn’t question, ‘What did I look like? Was I a target? Did I look trashy?’ I guess it doesn’t matter what you look like.”
She had been attacked from behind and never saw the perpetrator’s face. But when news came out about Hodne being arrested for the attack on Betsy, she read the details of his build and felt certain it was him. He had blindfolded her and bound her hands and had tried overwhelming her with his size and strength. He hadn’t worn gloves, and she was sure he had left fingerprints on her car and on the scissors she saw on the street. She wanted to press charges. Police came to the scene of her attack, but they seemed “disappointed that I didn’t see his face,” she says, and didn’t contact her after the initial investigation. We requested reports of her case but were told by State College Police that they no longer existed.
“It took a long, long time to feel safe again,” Adrienne says. She was an arts education major. She was taking a weaving course, and when she returned to classes the next week, she found that’s all she could do, all day long: weave. “The monotony of putting that shuttle back and forth in the loom, it was cathartic for me,” she says. She remembers surviving the semester by “never going alone, ever, anywhere” from that point forward. She also was taking a course from Penn State’s bowling coach, the esteemed Don Ferrell, who was the university’s first Black head coach and a close friend of Joe Paterno. She had not shared the story of what had happened to her beyond telling the police, close friends and her weaving teacher. Ferrell has no memory of her. But in Adrienne’s recollection, “When I went back to the class, the coach came over and he looked at me and he said, ‘You don’t have to come here one more time. You’re done. You’re passed. Now go try and take care of yourself.'”
Like Betsy Sailor, Susan (who asked to be identified only by her first name) had placed an ad in the paper looking for a roommate. She told one caller that she’d talk to him later, that she was going over to her friend’s house to watch “Dallas.” When she returned, she noticed some potted plants that had been on the windowsill were on the floor. She tried to turn on the bedroom light. It didn’t go on. He was hiding in the closet. “When he confronted me, he threw one of my shirts, one of my favorite shirts, over my head, put me in a bathtub and shaved my pubic area. And then had his way. Put it that way,” she says. “Oh, actually he had a knife to my neck. It was one of my kitchen knives. If I would’ve known it was that one, I would have said, ‘Go ahead and slit my throat,” kind of thing, because it was very dull.” Susan, who sounds brash and fearless telling the story now, wanted to move on: “Suck it up, put your big girl panties on and just deal with it.” But he kept calling, to gloat, to threaten a return. The calls pissed her off. She told her father. Her father worked for the phone company. He had the calls traced. They took the records to the police department. The calls were coming from 279 Hamilton Hall.
The State College Police had Hodne’s fingerprints on file ever since the Record Ranch burglary, along with his photograph. Investigators also found his fingerprints at Betsy Sailor’s apartment—on a tube of Clinique eye cream in the medicine cabinet; on the prized Norwegian knife he left behind; and on the lightbulb he loosened ever so slightly in its socket. But the fingerprint system was years from being computerized at State College. There were no instantaneous matches. Centre County District Attorney David Grine needed a name, and the phone trace gave him one, he says. Todd Hodne, in the greedy predation of his phone calls to Susan, had revealed himself.
State College PD sent the prints to the FBI. On Oct. 13, 1978, an officer at headquarters wrote the following: “On this date at 1335 hours, this officer returned [FBI] Agent [Larry] Harper’s phone call to Washington D.C. Agent Harper told me that he had lifted one latent print from a knife blade, one from a light bulb, and one from a tube of cleansing cream. Harper told me that all three prints belonged to one Todd Steven Hodne.”
Until this point, Hodne had remained a Penn State student despite his suspension from the football team on Aug. 19, had remained on scholarship and lived at 279 Hamilton Hall with Fred Ragucci. It took a few hours for the police to produce a warrant for his arrest. At the end of Oct. 13, the lead investigator on the case, Duane Musser, wrote a report summarizing the efforts that he and his partner, Garry Kunes, had made to find Hodne:
“At 1920 hours Off. Kunes contacted Joe Paterno in an attempt to determine the location of Hodne since Hodne rooms with Fred Ragucci, a PSU football player. Paterno indicated that he would attempt to determine this by contacting Ragucci. Paterno asked to be recontacted on Sunday 10/15/78 at 1830 hours for further information.”
There is no record of a second call to Paterno on that Sunday. Hodne remained free for the weekend, a bye week for the Nittany Lions. He turned himself into Penn State University Police on Monday, Oct. 16, 1978, at 6:45 a.m. He was driven in a police cruiser to headquarters in downtown State College, where Musser began questioning him. Musser had just turned 30, and it was his first case as an investigator. He asked Hodne about his whereabouts on a series of dates between early September and the middle of October. Some of the dates corresponded to reported State College attacks with a similar modus operandi.
Hodne had answers and alibis. Hodne said that on Sept. 1, he was in Philadelphia with Frank Brickowski, watching Penn State play Temple in its opening game of the season. He said that on Sept. 13, the night Betsy Sailor was raped, he was at a Phi Delt party with his girlfriend. On other days and at other times, he said he was hanging out with Tony Capozzoli in his room at Hamilton Hall.
These were lies. In the days before turning himself in, Hodne had tried to convince Brickowski to vouch for him regarding one of the nights Musser was interested in. “Todd tried to tell me, ‘That’s bulls—, because you and I know we were both at the library that night,'” remembers Brickowski, who went on to play 13 years in the NBA and whose father had taught Hodne driver’s ed in high school. “And I looked at him. I go, ‘What?’ He says, ‘We were at the library that night. Study hall.’ And I’m like, ‘Todd, we never stayed in study hall.’ We would go to study hall, sign in the front and slip out the back and have someone sign our names. And he goes, ‘No, no, on this night, we did.’ And I go, ‘No, we f—ing didn’t. And that was the break between him and I.”
Three days after Hodne gave himself up to Duane Musser at State College Police headquarters, Musser went to 279 Hamilton Hall on the campus of Penn State to talk to Hodne’s roommate, Fred Ragucci. “I didn’t want to do it, to be honest,” Ragucci says. “I’m with a roommate I didn’t pick, and he’s having this kind of problem—why am I involved? ‘No,’ Joe said. ‘You have to do this. You have to talk to them.'”
After the interview, Musser wrote a brief report, dated Oct. 19, 1978. “[Ragucci] was asked if he knew or ever heard of Todd Hodne speak of any of the following victims,” the report reads. Musser then names five women, including Elizabeth Sailor. “He was asked if he could recall at what times on the following dates that Hodne left or returned to his room,” the report reads. Musser then names four dates in September and October. Ragucci did not recognize the women’s names nor recall the dates. “The knife used in this incident was shown to Ragucci,” the report reads. “He stated that Hodne had a knife similar in appearance.”
There are no surviving transcripts from the criminal trial of Betsy Sailor’s case in Centre County. The half-page report of Musser’s interview with Ragucci is the only surviving document in the state of Pennsylvania archives that demonstrates the scope of the Hodne investigation between his arrest for the rape of Betsy Sailor and the trial.
We obtained a copy of Musser’s report from the Centre County district attorney’s office last fall. The names of Ragucci and of the women other than Betsy Sailor had been redacted, but the document raised the possibility that the Hodne investigation in State College included multiple sexual assaults in addition to the rape of Betsy Sailor.
There were now other women to find.
Several months later, in May, 2021, we obtained an unredacted copy of Musser’s report. It came from John B. Collins, who as chief prosecutor in New York’s Suffolk County had received documents from Pennsylvania while investigating Todd Hodne for later crimes in Long Island. It was part of three large files Collins kept about Hodne’s crimes. It gave us the names of the other women—Karen (who asked to be identified only by her first name), Susan and Adrienne Reissman (as well as of another former Penn State student who did not respond to our calls)—and access to their stories and voices.
Collins’ files also yielded a report written by Musser two days after Betsy Sailor was raped. That report identifies “a similarity between this case [Sailor’s] and 678-08239 [Karen’s case], invol. Deviate Sexual Intercourse,” and indicates Musser “reinterviewed [Karen] and showed her the [artist composite] sketch. She said he looks familiar, but the nose didn’t seem quite right.” Also in those files is a report in which Musser questioned Hodne, and later his parents, on the day he was arrested in State College. They had come to State College to post bail. “Mr. Hodne was shown the knife used and he indicated that he had never seen it,” the report stated. “He stated that his son was at home on August 20th, 1978,” the day after Karen was attacked.
In all, the Collins files showed that in addition to naming five victims, Musser and the State College Police questioned Hodne, his parents, his girlfriend and two of his teammates—Capozzoli and Ragucci—about his activities on nine dates between the middle of August and the middle of October 1978.
As in the Betsy Sailor case, Susan, Karen and Adrienne Reissman had reported being sexually assaulted by a very large, very strong man who bound their hands and threatened them with a deadly sharp object. Further records from their investigations have since been lost or purged.
On Oct. 25, 1978, Todd Hodne was arraigned at a preliminary hearing for the rape of Betsy Sailor. Later that afternoon, the phone rang at the State College police station. Duane Musser wrote at the time:
“At approx. 1700 hrs. this date someone called this Bureau from the Centre County Jail to inform us that Todd Hodne had posted bail and was released.
“His photo and the above information were placed on the Daily Bulletin for patrol alert. I also contacted [Susan] (678-10416) and informed her of Hodne’s release.”
Susan (678-10416) was the daughter of the phone company employee who had traced Hodne’s phone calls. Musser was calling to warn her.
On the night of Aug. 18, 1978, Karen—one of the five State College women—came home to an empty apartment. She lived with her roommate, Jean, in an apartment building on Beaver Avenue and Jean had gone away for the weekend, something she never did. Karen won’t go into detail about what happened that night when her attacker found a way in and found her alone. It’s too traumatic. An article in the Daily Collegian describes the attack like this: “State College Police are still investigating an incident in which a woman was forced to commit a deviate sexual act at knifepoint Aug. 19. Police had said a man entered the woman’s East Beaver Avenue apartment through a window between 3:30 a.m. and 4 a.m. and then forced her to commit the act.” The Aug. 19 crime is the first of a series of sexual assaults for which Todd Hodne would be investigated. And Aug. 19 is also the afternoon Joe Paterno announced Hodne’s suspension from the Penn State football team.
In Karen’s mind, the horror of the attack would always coincide with fond memories of her last summer in State College. Jean was dating Penn State defensive end Clyde Corbin, and Karen often accompanied them when they went to downtown bars like The Saloon for pitchers of beer. Karen had a lot of friends and a job she liked at the Centre Daily Times, but that summer she also socialized with football players. It was part of what made the summer special. It also was part of what left her with a lifetime of questions: How did her attacker know she was home alone? How did a football player know she was home alone? Why did her attacker ask if she recognized his voice? Had she met him before? Did he have an accomplice?
There was an investigation of the attack. “The police came over,” she says. “They were in my apartment for a long time.” Karen remembers her attacker going through everything, and now the cops were doing the same. Jean remembers seeing smudges of black all throughout their apartment where police had tried to lift fingerprints. Jean also remembers that when Hodne was arrested, Clyde had reminded her that the three of them had run into him at The Saloon a few weeks before the attack. Karen remembers police finding a footprint outside her window. But 43 years later, what Karen remembers most is the sense she had that the police were investigating her as much as they were investigating what happened to her: “And basically what came out of it was that they told me they didn’t have enough information to go to court. And that’s what I heard from everyone involved in this: not enough evidence. They had evidence.”
When we first called Karen in the summer of 2021, she asked why anyone would be interested in the story of what happened to her. “Is this going to be some kind of exposé about Penn State?” she asked skeptically.
The next day, she called back, asking how we had gotten her name. We told her about the police report Duane Musser had written after his interview with Hodne’s roommate Fred Ragucci, noting the names of other possible victims. “Yes,” Karen said. “I would have been one of those people.”
For decades, Karen had felt like what happened to her “didn’t matter to anyone,” she says. But to be asked about Hodne now—to receive a phone call about Hodne now—changed things. “It was just something that was ignored, and there was nothing much I could do about it,” she says. “That [someone] wanted to do a story about it, and felt that it was significant, made me realize, ‘Well, maybe this is more important.'”
She had told so few people over the years. And when she did, she often regretted it. Indeed, it was as if her experience of long ago had determined the course of the decades to follow—as she once felt investigators pushed her aside, she later heard those closest to her urging her to push aside her traumatic memories. She told her parents, and they suggested she must not have been careful enough. She told her brothers and the man she married, and they asked her to move on—to not think about it. And she tried; how she tried, even through her nightmares and unending insomnia. “It was buried,” she says. “And it would come out at the most horrible times.”
When she called back, she started to tell us what happened to her in the summer of 1978—an experience that “has affected me to a great extent my entire life.” She remembered a woman named Betsy as “the only one who could actually pin [Hodne] down” at the time. And she told us something else: “I know Joe Paterno was involved, and I’m trying to remember all the details.”
There were other memories. The attacker used a knife; she didn’t want to talk about it. He stole money from her purse. Later, the police asked about his hands. We circled back to Paterno. What did she mean she knew he was involved? “He knew who I was. He knew the police were interviewing me. The trial itself I was discouraged from going to, and not necessarily by the police. And I’m trying to remember how all that went as well.”
How did Paterno know her? Did he reach out? Did he call her? “I think he might have. I think he might have,'” she said. “And I’m trying to remember all those details, and I hesitate to blurt things out because I’m not totally certain about how that all went. Yeah. I think he did. I think he did. And from then on, he knew me. He would say hello to me on campus if he would see me.” She went on. “I’m trying so hard to remember. It was a rather shallow conversation. It wasn’t anything. But the impression I got was he knew it was that guy [Hodne] but he wanted to probe and see if I knew that it was him. I think that was kind of the gist of it. Which at the time I was really—I don’t remember what I said. I don’t remember too much about what I revealed or didn’t reveal. I don’t think I revealed much of anything.” Why did she think he was asking her questions? “Oh, to protect his player,” Karen said.
Our conversations with Karen have continued since the day she called back. She says it has been an awakening for her, and she has kept us informed as she has remembered more and more details.
Library archives contain none of Paterno’s phone logs from those years. There is barely any information available in the police report about Karen at all. And she remembers Paterno’s call the way she remembers everything else about the days and months after Aug. 19, 1978—fitfully, fretfully.
But the basic narrative has not changed. When Todd Hodne was arrested for his assault on Betsy Sailor, the police had reason to believe that he had also attacked Karen, so closely aligned was the modus operandi. In the fall of 1978, as far as she knew, no one other than Jean, Clyde, Karen’s boyfriend and State College Police investigators knew Karen was one of the named victims in an ongoing string of sexual assaults. But then she learned she might hear from Joe Paterno. “I seem to recall that somebody told me that he was concerned about it and that he might reach out to me,” she says.
Paterno, in those days, was famous for doing the right thing. When he called Karen after Todd Hodne had been arrested for the attack on Betsy Sailor, Karen hoped he was doing the right thing for her, especially after he asked, “Are you OK?”
But the call went differently than she expected. To Karen, Paterno’s call “was kind of an admission that his football player did it, and he was expecting me to move forward.” Karen wanted to move forward but didn’t want to forget. She was, in fact, hoping to prosecute. “He was trying to ascertain if I was going to go to [the Betsy Sailor hearing] and if the police had discovered anything concrete. My recollection is that he came out and asked me if I was going to testify—if I was planning to go to court.”
When Paterno called, she had hoped that he was calling out of concern for her. Instead, Karen felt he was calling out of concern for his program. “He was kind of scaring me I think a little bit,” she says.
Paterno was in charge of discipline on the Penn State football team. “Sometimes they felt that because they were football players, they’d be getting special treatment,” Lee Upcraft, university assistant vice president for student affairs at the time, says of players who got in trouble. “But they were more worried about Joe Paterno than they were of me, let’s put it that way. Joe could just do anything he wanted and nobody was going to question him.”
Paterno kept his own counsel and maintained his own doghouse, which had a number of rooms. The main room was for players who drank, who fought, who put their fists through windows, who had done “something stupid” and embarrassed him. These he punished at practice by making them run the steps of Beaver Stadium or wear the dreaded white jersey of “the foreign team.” “If you messed up, you’d find it in your locker,” says Tony Capozzoli. The second room was for players who were flunking out. These he sent to academic advisers and, if they proved themselves immune to intervention, dropped from the team. The final room was for those who either never left the first two or had made the newspapers by breaking the law. These he suspended unilaterally. He was not in the habit of consulting with his coaches during his deliberations; he only informed them of their result. “He would say, ‘All we have to do is pretend he sprained his ankle yesterday and go on,'” remembers Booker Brooks, one of his longtime assistant coaches. But the players, the press and everybody else in the sphere of Penn State football would know that beyond incurring Paterno’s displeasure, the player had been deemed unworthy. He had been excommunicated. He had been, in a phrase repeated again and again in any discussion of Paterno’s decisive discipline, “sent home.”
Todd Hodne did not fit within Paterno’s system of crime and punishment. Paterno liked to make an example of players who had gotten into trouble, lecturing the team even as the players did their penance. But he had nothing instructive to say about the predatory behavior of Hodne. “There was something fundamentally wrong with Todd,” Ragucci says. “And that was not something that could be corrected by making an example of him.”
On Oct. 21, 1978, a little more than two months after Karen had been attacked, the Nittany Lions beat Syracuse 45-15 for their seventh straight win of the season. A week later, they beat West Virginia 49-21 and were ranked second in the national polls. In between those two games, on Oct. 25, several players attended Hodne’s preliminary hearing at the Centre County Courthouse. Offensive tackle Irv Pankey, who would later become an offensive captain of the team, remembers they were late for practice that Wednesday. Assistant coaches were displeased, but Pankey says Paterno had approved their attendance at the hearing: “It doesn’t matter what the assistant coaches think when Joe Paterno tells you it’s OK.” Paterno liked Hodne, some of his teammates say, and made a habit of calling him out with the grumpy affection he reserved for wayward charges: “Hodne, get a haircut.”
Hodne was still one of them, a teammate. “He was still our boy,” as Pankey says. Hodne had worked with them, sweated with them, drank and partied with them. He might have been “Shemp” to some, but to defensive back Micky Urquhart he was “a free spirit,” and to Bill Dugan, a sophomore lineman and resident of Hamilton Hall, he was “one of the leaders of our class.” They were shocked by the reports of his arrest. They wanted to give him a show of support, and so they came in force, the undefeated Nittany Lions still recognizable in their suit jackets.
Betsy Sailor remembers Centre County District Attorney David Grine telling her that Hodne’s teammates were coming to court if not to intimidate her then at least to make it more difficult for her to identify a football player seated among his kind. And that is exactly what Betsy saw when she looked at the courtroom in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 25, 1978. “There were a bunch of big, burly guys in the courtroom,” she remembers. “It was front-loaded with football players.” But Betsy was neither intimidated nor confused. She spoke of the rape as she always had, forthrightly and with nearly forensic precision. She was not easily embarrassed, and she did not shy away from describing anatomical details if they helped her case. And in her recounting of the crime, she described the blue suede Puma sneakers her blindfolded eyes had struggled to see as she was pinned to the bed—the sneakers Hodne was wearing in court.
Preliminary Hearing Transcript
In a portion of Betsy Sailor’s interview with the Centre County district attorney at a preliminary hearing following Todd Hodne’s arrest, she described the shoes Hodne was wearing when he attacked her.
Source: Centre County Court of Common Pleas
A lot of Hodne’s teammates didn’t think he did it. They didn’t think he did it because they didn’t think he needed to do it—because he already had two girlfriends, one from home and one from the Penn State swim team; because he seemed to have his pick of any girl he wanted. “Frankly, we thought it was bulls—,” Kip Vernaglia says. “We thought that a girl just got pissed off or whatever. Because it just didn’t make any sense. I mean, it wasn’t like Todd was some dreamy-looking handsome dude. But back then, that didn’t matter. You’re not destitute on a desert island. In those days, if you played football for Penn State, the last thing you needed was a date.”
The blue suede “Clydes” were what started to change minds, because they were part of what made Hodne so “Long Island,” as much a fixture of his public life as his knife was of his private one. When Betsy mentioned them in her testimony, they glanced at each other as she spoke—in the words of one of them, “‘Like, holy s—.'”
It was not easy for her. Betsy was but one person, still very young, daring to bring criminal charges against a Penn State football player. She had never known the power of Penn State football until she felt it firsthand—until she understood that by accusing one of its players, she had taken it on. “I felt like I had thrown dirt at the queen,” she says. “I felt bad. I felt bad that one of the things that I admired about this institution, the football team, had produced this individual. They weren’t at fault, but I just felt bad. I was just … I guess I was kind of shocked that part of the university that I admired would do that.”
Betsy remained one person, because although Karen, Susan and Adrienne Reissman all wanted to bring charges against Hodne, none were deemed to have enough evidence to do so. Betsy never met them, and they never met her. And although by this time there was evidence of Hodne attacking multiple women, the preliminary hearing marked an ambiguous milestone: it was both the beginning of Betsy Sailor obtaining justice for her rape and the end of ongoing investigations of her rapist in Pennsylvania. There are no reports indicating that police investigated either Karen’s case or Susan’s beyond Oct. 25, 1978, the day of the hearing and the day Duane Musser called Susan to tell her Hodne was free on bail. Fred Ragucci knew that Hodne was being investigated for other crimes because he had been asked about them. So did Tony Capozzoli, who had also been asked about them. So did Joe Paterno, who knew to reach out to Karen in the time leading up to the preliminary hearing of the attack on Betsy Sailor.
“It was a bit of a different time,” Ragucci says. “Police were authoritative and, presumably, they were doing the right thing. There was no question in my mind they were doing the right thing. There was no question in my mind that Joe was doing the right thing. He talked, you listened, and to be honest with you, it would never have dawned on me to go to the newspaper. And for the people that I talked to—my parents, my girlfriend, my friends—it never came up. We just assumed that the school, the administration, the football folks and the police were all doing the right thing. I tell them what I know. And then they do what they’re supposed to.”
Ragucci remembers returning one day to 279 Hamilton Hall and finding all traces of his roommate gone. But Hodne stayed in State College. Out on bail, he was crashing with friends or living in his car, a yellow Ford Torino with New York plates. One night at the end of November 1978, an officer from the Penn State University Police approached his car to deliver him written notice from student affairs that he had been “summarily suspended.” Hodne tucked the letter under the windshield visor; then he read it, crumpled it into a ball and threw it on the street, a report from the University Hearing Board says. A week later, the director of student conduct told him that a disciplinary hearing had been scheduled for Dec. 7.
Betsy Sailor showed up for the hearing. Hodne did not. In the company of Duane Musser, she told the story of her rape to what she calls “a room full of men,” led by the director of Conduct Standards for the Office of Student Affairs, Don Suit. The University Hearing Board listened and ruled Hodne guilty as charged. He was dismissed from Penn State, and State College Police noted he was living in his car.
Betsy had left school after the rape. She remembers someone from the university telling her to leave State College. After Hodne’s arrest, she returned to Penn State and moved into university housing—a freshman dorm. She could no longer live in her apartment. She was too afraid. She was afraid of being alone. She was afraid of taking a shower without someone standing close by, and she jumped “six inches in the air” when someone surprised her. In the dormitory, she had no roommate, and she felt not only alone but singled out. Once, when she walked the campus, she heard a group of guys she recognized as football players making catcalls: “There would [be] no other reason to do it other than they knew I was the one.” Another time, early in 1979, she had a chalkboard on her door and, according to a police report, found a scrawled message with the name of one of Hodne’s teammates: “Hi, I’m a football player and I’m nice too.”
Penn State Hearing Board Report
Penn State expelled Todd Hodne in December 1978. According to the report from the hearing, which redacts his name, he did not appear for the proceedings.
Source: Penn State University
One night, there came a knock on Betsy’s door that changed everything for her. “And I went to my door, and I opened it,” she remembers, “and there was a man that completely, seemingly, filled the entire door frame, like there was not a lot of space other than him. And he put out his hand and introduced himself. He said: ‘Hello, my name is Irv Pankey, and I just wanted to let you know that I was in the courtroom today and I listened to what you had to say. And I believe every word that you said. And, you will never have to be afraid, or be alone again. I will be by your side.'”
Irv Pankey was a junior and a natural protector—a tight end who had been moved to left tackle. He was 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, with a 13-year NFL career in front of him. He had a deep solemnity about him that belied his penchant for good times. He was the roommate of Hodne’s friend Kip Vernaglia. Pankey was part of the crowd that went to the Train Station on Tuesday nights. He and Hodne had ridden in the back of a teammate’s pickup truck on a trip to New York City, drinking beer and peeing over the tailgate. But he had heard Betsy Sailor describe Hodne’s sneakers, and Pankey had seen her on the stand, and he knew bravery when he saw it. “She came forward,” Pankey says. “And that brought things to light—what the situation really was. If she hadn’t stepped up and he hadn’t gone to trial, no one would ever have known. And she started putting cracks in stories. It used to be ‘he said, she said,’ so with him being a Penn State football player, he would have been believed first. Kudos to her for stepping up and sticking to her guns about it. Kudos to her for not being buffaloed.”
They were so different from one another in so many ways. But Irv had seen that Betsy was alone in State College, and in that he saw part of himself: “When I started playing for Penn State, there were 12 African-Americans on the team. So being African American, I think we understand the play. You know what I mean? We have a commonly white school, and we have all been through some of that stuff. We could all relate, so to speak.” He did not want her to endure the isolation he had: “She did not deserve to be a pariah.” But they also had something else in common. Betsy was not just alone; she was singular. She had taken on the institution of Penn State football and, alone among Hodne’s victims, had brought her case to court. Now Irv, alone among his teammates, walked to her dormitory and knocked on her door. Betsy stood up for herself. Irv stood up for Betsy.
“When Betsy testified, I thought that took a hell of a lot of courage and self fortitude.”
He promised to protect her and not only kept his word but made sure that a few of his teammates followed his example. She had been brutally raped by a football player, but she spent the second term of her senior year in the company of football players, mostly Black, who made her feel less alone and less afraid—and who made her feel once again part of the campus she loved. They did not have to say anything; they simply included her, so that if they went to a party so did she.
“It was huge for me,” she says. “It was huge to me that someone from the football team crossed over the line and befriended me. He could have closed ranks, and said, ‘We don’t talk to her; she’s done something against one of our brothers.’ But he did the exact opposite. He believed in me, and I was a stranger. And I was white, and he was Black. And he was my guardian angel.”
On the last day of 1978, “60 Minutes” profiled Joe Paterno. Hosted by silvery-haired eminence Harry Reasoner, the 16-minute segment aired the night before Penn State was set to play Alabama for the national championship. Its title was “We’re Number One,” and it offered Paterno as a rumpled antidote to a nation obsessed with winning at any cost— “a man who is maybe less neurotic about being No. 1 than others in his profession.” With wry wonderment, Reasoner listed a familiar compendium of Paterno’s values and virtues, extolling the coach’s revolutionary belief that “football should be fun” and that “college coaches should be educators,” before concluding with the affirmation that Paterno is a “genuinely nice guy” who is the “best-loved college coach since Knute Rockne.” The piece wraps up with the line: “If he’s not No. 1, maybe he should be.”
The piece captured Joe Paterno and Penn State football at their moment of arrival, finally deemed worthy of the national stage. It also happened to capture the program in the same week that Todd Hodne was arrested. Reasoner visited State College as the Nittany Lions prepared to play Syracuse on Oct. 21, and Paterno fretted that his players were having a hard time concentrating. Hodne was in jail at the time that Reasoner toured the locker room with a camera crew and noted with amazement that even there “you see players studying.” He never mentions the Hodne case.
Penn State did not end up No. 1. The day after “60 Minutes” aired, the Nittany Lions lost to Bear Bryant in the Sugar Bowl. With the national championship on the line midway through the fourth quarter, Paterno called a conservative run play on fourth-and-goal from inside the 1-yard line. Alabama stopped Penn State tailback Mike Guman from going over the top into the end zone, and when Paterno wrote his autobiography 10 years later, he still lamented the call.
“I have talked about getting angry with myself when I lose. Nothing of the kind ever compared to this loss,” he wrote. “I beat up on myself, not only immediately but for months afterward, halfway into the next season. Much as I blamed myself, I couldn’t tolerate all that self-blame. I let my anger turn against the staff and against the team, even though the decision was purely mine. I had to spill some of it off. Writers and fans said, for all to hear, that Paterno couldn’t win the big one at the critical moment. Even former players said openly, for quotation, ‘He should have won that one.’
“It got to me. It hammered at my ego. When I stood toe-to-toe with Bear Bryant, he outcoached me.”
Two months after the national championship game, three of Hodne’s teammates were called to testify for the defense at his trial. Gary Ptak, Gary Wagner and Tony Capozzoli met outside of Joe Paterno’s office shortly before the trial. He had called them in, wanting to know what each of them was going to say on the stand. He had not addressed his team about Hodne in the usual prescriptive way. But according to a report detailing a conversation between Ptak and Duane Musser, Ptak responded to a request for an interview “by stating that Coach Paterno had made a statement to the football players that no one speak to anyone in regards to this case without his permission.” Musser also tried to interview Capozzoli—who had been arraigned on theft charges in an unrelated case—before the Hodne trial. Capozzoli was “very evasive and indicated he would like to cooperate but stated that he was advised by Hodne’s attorney not to discuss the matter.”
Paterno had been asked about Hodne’s whereabouts by State College Police three days before Hodne was arrested and had made contact with Hodne’s roommate, Fred Ragucci. He had directed Ragucci to talk to Musser. Paterno had allowed his players to attend Hodne’s pretrial hearing and then later had prohibited them from speaking to law enforcement without his permission. Now the coach was meeting with Ptak, Wagner and Capozzoli in his office prior to their giving testimony in the Hodne trial. Ptak and Wagner had been subpoenaed to confirm a timeline. Capozzoli remembers testifying voluntarily, as someone who knew Hodne from their glory days at St. Dominic.
“It was short,” Ptak says of his conversation with his coach. “It was, ‘Joe, we got subpoenaed; what are we going to do?’ He goes, ‘Well, you got to tell the truth the best you can.’ And that was it.” Capozzoli’s conversation was different, as was his relationship with Paterno. As the son of a coach himself, Capozzoli often bridled at Paterno’s authority, and he says he “wasn’t afraid of him.” Paterno sometimes called him a “wise guy from Long Island.” In his office that day, Capozzoli recalls that Paterno didn’t mince words. “So right off the bat, he says, ‘Todd Hodne is guilty, and if you testify for him, you’re off the team,'” Capozzoli says. “So I said, ‘Look, Joe’—I laughed at him. I said, ‘The guy’s got a million girlfriends. Maybe he dumped her and she got mad.’ I said, ‘I’m just going to tell the truth.’ I never took what he said to heart. I testified and went home for a few days, and when I get back, my room key doesn’t work. All my s— is gone; somebody moved it. I’ve been moved down to this place we called the barracks, in the basement of the gym. He goes, ‘You still have your scholarship; you can go to school. But you’re off the team.’ Isn’t that, like, jury tampering? Isn’t that a criminal act? But there’s no recourse. What are you gonna do?”
Paterno’s longtime offensive line coach Dick Anderson remembers Capozzoli’s dismissal differently, saying: “I think he’s making excuses for the fact that he was never good enough to play at this level.” Capozzoli counters, “Why would I lie?” and adds, “To a fault, [Paterno] put the program ahead of everything else.”
Some players had gotten into a jam downtown. It wasn’t anything bad—at least, it wasn’t anything evil. It was just stupid stuff, circa 1979. One of them had put his fist through a window; the others had given the cop who arrested him a hard time. They all wound up getting arrested. They were given a citation and worried about the black mark on their records and what their coach would say or do.
The next day, a lawyer in State College gave them a call. Bob Mitinger was a fixture around Penn State’s athletic department. He had been an All-America end for Paterno when Paterno was an assistant and had gone on to play for the San Diego Chargers in the AFL. Mitinger had returned to State College after he retired and helped players headed for the pros with their contracts. He worked out in the gym with the team, one of the few civilians with that privilege. He taught a business law class popular with athletes, one of whom remembers walking into his class for the first time and being told that all he would have to do was sign his name. Now Mitinger was telling Hodne’s freshman roommate and a few other players that he was going to be their lawyer. When they asked how much it was going to cost, he said not to worry about that. A few days later, they met him in court and paid a fine, and the charges went away.
“Looking back, he was what I would now say was the fixer,” the roommate says. “He did that on a regular basis. In State College, and with Joe Paterno, if stuff happened across the line from the standpoint of the law, to whatever degree it could be taken care of, it was taken care of. Based on knowing the judges, etc., they were able to control the narrative, so to speak.”
Mitinger represented a lot of players he liked to call “knuckleheads,” according to his widow, Marilyn—players he told to “knock it off” after he helped them wipe their records clean. At Hodne’s trial, which began on March 1, 1979, Mitinger, along with his associate John Miller Jr., from the law firm of Miller, Kistler & Campbell, represented a defendant whose crimes could not be written off as the result of youthful excess.
It was the voice again.
District Attorney David Grine had prepared Betsy Sailor for the trial, instructing her to dress conservatively and to refrain from being too emotional on the stand. “He wanted no smiling and no emotion from me whatsoever,” she says. She had been raised “with Pendleton skirts and sweaters and that sort of stuff,” and she had been able to speak matter-of-factly about her rape since it happened. But nothing prepared her for the experience of sitting in the courtroom when Todd Hodne spoke for the first time. She knew that he was linked to the crime by what, in 1978, constituted scientific evidence—fingerprints, semen. But she had not seen him during the attack because he covered her eyes with a scarf and then her head with a pillowcase. She didn’t know for certain that he was her rapist until she heard him open his mouth. It was his voice that had shattered her during the attack, when he had said, “I’m going to rape you” in a way that had destroyed all doubt and all hope. And it was his voice—low and flatly declarative—that now caused her to gasp and brought her to tears and prompted Grine to ask her to step out of the room to collect herself.
Betsy had believed, she says, that the March trial was going to be like the October hearing, “that it was just a matter of working through the evidence and everything was going to be fine.” But as surely as Hodne’s voice confirmed that he was the man who had raped her, it reminded her that he might yet go free. “I realized at this one moment that this is not a matter of my knowing this is right. It’s a matter of the jury thinking it’s right. And that’s when I realized this is, you know, a crapshoot. And that really kind of blew me away. Only then did I feel like I was in jeopardy. Nobody knows what the outcome is. It’s a roll of the dice.”
Betsy had heard what happened to women who accused men of raping them in open court—”the horror stories” of what awaited them when they took the stand. She expected John Miller Jr. to attack her character and her sexual history. But there was one question she had not anticipated. Miller asked whether she had opportunities to leave during the two hours Hodne was in her apartment. “I thought, ‘All right, I have an answer in my mind.’ And I thought it was a little dangerous. But yeah, I am taking this approach. I said, ‘You’re absolutely right. I did. And I thought about it. But after a knife was in my neck twice, I made a conscious decision not to try and escape. I made a decision that I was going to get through this. And I wasn’t going to test it. I wasn’t going to test him. The answer is, ‘Yes.’
“And that shut him down,” she says.
Betsy won. And yet she says that “the hardest thing that I went through was when they found him guilty. They had to poll each of the jurors, and hearing that, ‘Guilty, guilty, guilty,’ gave me a very unsettling feeling. I knew what he did. But in my heart of hearts, I felt sorry for him. I felt that prison was not going to be the answer for him and was only going to make him harder. And I felt that this was the end . . . I felt that this was a person that’s now lost to us.”
Guilty, guilty, guilty: 12 times Betsy heard those words, and each time, she says, “felt like a piece of broken glass.” It wasn’t just the foreboding she experienced; it was the response of Hodne’s family, especially the women in his life, his mother and his sister and his girlfriend from home. “There were shrieks of horror. There was just so much sadness and disbelief. Nobody pointed a finger at me or said anything that made me feel they thought it was my fault. But it was a kind of chaos that was happening, and I was like, ‘Please, let me just get out of here.” The police formed a phalanx around her. They escorted her out of the courtroom, and Betsy Sailor never saw Todd Hodne in person again.
“She was bold enough to stand and get up there and speak on her behalf.”
IRV PANKEY, on his memory of Betsy Sailor testifying against Todd Hodne in court.
Moments after the verdict was read, the judge, Richard Sharp, silenced the courtroom. He did not remand Hodne into custody nor revoke his bail but instead announced he would be released to return home with his family while awaiting sentencing.
David Grine had done something thought to be impossible in Centre County. A Penn State football player had raped a Penn State student, and Grine had won a conviction. He had every reason to expect the football player was headed to county jail and then to prison. But that was not the case. “Usually, you revoke bail right there on the spot,” he says. “It’s, ‘Bail is revoked; see the sheriff, please.’ We got [Hodne] convicted, felony one—and then [Sharp] let him out on bail pending appeal.”
Others in the courtroom also were stunned, Gretchen Fincke, who worked at the rape crisis center, remembers. The Hodne family gathered around Todd. His girlfriend held his hand. They walked Hodne out of the courtroom “in a protective bubble.”
And then, Todd got in his parents’ car and left Centre County, Pennsylvania.
“I remember sitting there looking at the girlfriend and thinking, ‘Oh sweetie, you have no idea what you are in for if you stay with this person,'” Fincke says.
Betsy Sailor’s police report
Over the course of his investigation into Betsy Sailor’s rape, Penn State University police officer Duane Musser contacted members of the school’s football team, one of whom described instructions from Joe Paterno.
Source: State College Police Department
That same day, March 3, 1979, Duane Musser returned from the courthouse in Bellefonte to police headquarters in State College and wrote the following report: “On this date, the defendant, Todd Hodne, was found guilty of Burglary, Rape and Involuntary Deviate Sexual Intercourse after completion of a jury trial before Judge [Richard] Sharp. He was found not guilty of Possessing Offensive Weapons. A pre-sentence investigation was ordered and the defendant remained free on $25,000 bail.”
They thought they got him. Musser, the detective; Ron Smeal, one of Musser’s supervisors; David Grine, the prosecutor; Betsy Sailor, the victim and witness; at least one of the jurors: They all thought they had done enough to put Todd Hodne away. Yes, there were other victims, at least three of whom say to this day that they wanted to prosecute. But Grine remembers them not wanting to cooperate. Smeal says that a detective touched the lightbulb that Hodne had loosened in Susan’s apartment and thereby contaminated the fingerprint evidence. Musser remembers there not being enough evidence in Karen’s case. Adrienne Reissman says the State College Police didn’t follow up on her case once Hodne was arrested and they found out she hadn’t seen his face. But justice had still been done. Hodne was convicted on three very serious charges, and the cops thought these convictions would be enough. “We had multiple rapes that met this M.O.,” Smeal says. “We were very concerned about apprehending him and stopping this spree.”
They are gone or resolutely silent now, the men who might be able to shed light on how Hodne could be apprehended without his spree being stopped. Bob Abernethy, another of Duane Musser’s supervisors, calls Bob Mitinger “one of the good old boys at the courthouse” and John Miller Jr. one of “the big muckety-mucks in Centre County.” Mitinger died in 2004 and Miller in 2007. Miller’s son, John Miller III, still works at Miller, Kistler & Campbell. Despite having signed important petitions in Hodne’s defense, he denies having anything to do with the case and told us that if there were any documents left behind, “I couldn’t give them to you.” As for Judge Richard Sharp: He died of cancer a year and a half after Hodne’s conviction, and John Miller Jr. led a remembrance service at the courthouse.
Four decades later, Grine, who became Sharp’s successor on the bench, is still baffled by Sharp’s decision: “I’ve never had anybody else do that. I’d never had it happen to me before. I’d never heard of it happening. I don’t know if they do it in Philadelphia or New York or not but, they sure don’t do it here in the country. But [Sharp] did. There is no logic or reason to it.”
“I thought he shouldn’t be out,” former juror Romaine Bratton says.
“The judge let him go, and we were appalled,” Fincke says.
They got him, but they didn’t stop him. The $25,000 bail set by the magistrate judge after the preliminary hearing in October was not revoked, and instead of going back into custody, Todd Hodne was sent home to Wantagh.
The trial had been held over spring break when the campus newspaper wasn’t published. There were a few short wire service updates that ran in a few Pennsylvania newspapers. But the only local print coverage of the conviction came in a story two days after the verdict in the Centre Daily Times, written by staff writer Molly Bliss and reporter Jane Musala. Todd Hodne, Tony Capozzoli, Gary Ptak and Gary Wagner testified for the defense. The story describes Hodne as “a former University student” and goes on to describe Capozzoli as “a University junior and friend of the defendant” and Ptak and Wagner as “students.” The only reference to football comes at the end of the story, when it mentions Hodne’s testimony regarding the Record Ranch burglary: “As a result, he said, he was suspended from the football team for a year though his athletic scholarship continued.”
The story of a Penn State football player convicted of the rape of a Penn State student did not include the words “Penn State football player.” “Believe me, it wasn’t my choice,” Musala says. “If we’re covering this because he’s a football player, why aren’t we reminding people that he’s a football player?” Musala’s editor, who would later become mayor of State College, resisted the use of the language because he “was aware that this was sensitive because it was the Nittany Lions,” she recalls. And when she and Bliss contacted Penn State’s head of communications, Art Ciervo, for comment from Paterno on the conviction, Hodne was described to them as “inconsequential.” The editor, William Welch, and Ciervo are now deceased. “We tried to beat the director [Ciervo] into saying something,” Musala says. “‘Look, have [Joe] say something. Can you have him say something?’ ‘Well, he’s an inconsequential player and Joe really doesn’t want to talk about it.'”
The only surviving member of Penn State’s public information department at the time is Dave Baker, who was assistant sports information director in 1978. He became the director a year later, and he still has a job as an associate athletic director at the university. Baker also has taught a media relations course at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. When we called to ask what he remembers about the Hodne case, Baker said first that he didn’t remember the case and then that Penn State did all it could do. “I never met him, and I don’t remember if he ever played a game for Penn State,” he said. “It was a long time ago . . . he got in trouble and then he was no longer on the team.” Over the course of a half-hour conversation, Baker kept repeating that Hodne had been dismissed from the program. He went on to say that he has no idea what happened to Hodne or where he went and that Hodne’s conviction “got substantial press,” was “dealt with at the time,” was “one incident 42 years ago” and was “an anomaly at Penn State.” Baker never used the word “rape.” He said he had a “rough idea” of the nature of the criminal charge but didn’t want to speculate, saying, “I don’t think that’s fair to [Hodne] in case my memory of that is different than what actually happened.”
Todd Hodne was one of seven players in Paterno’s recruiting class of 19 who lettered his freshman year. He played in at least seven games in the 1977 season, including the Fiesta Bowl. One of the few photos that the Daily Collegian ran of spring practice in 1978 shows Joe Paterno giving Hodne the benefit of his personal tutelage, above the caption, “Do it like this.” Beyond the announcement of Hodne’s suspension from the team, neither the school nor the football program ever made a public statement of any kind about Hodne or the students he attacked. He was, after all, a player of no consequence, involved in an isolated incident. He would leave State College and never be heard from again.
But that was not the case.
There were five of them, a bunch of 19- and 20-year-olds jammed into a car for spring break 1979. They had all met each other at secretarial school in New York, and now they were headed for Florida on I-95. They were a little wild, if you want to know the truth; they had a CB radio, and when they weren’t singing along with eight-track tapes, they were flirting with truckers and joining their convoys. They were young, of course. But they also were wild for a reason—wild because one of them was Todd Hodne’s girlfriend, and they were trying to set her free.
Ellen (who asked that we refer to her only by her middle name) had met Hodne in 1977, on her 18th birthday. She had gone to a bar on Long Island with her friends, drinking legally for the first time. She noticed him in part because of his sweater—it was long, with a belt and an extravagant Mexican pattern, more stylish than the kinds of getups Long Island boys usually wore. “I’m Todd Hodne,” he said.
“I know who you are,” she answered.
That night, he wound up driving her home from the bar. “We parked near my house until the sun came up, just talking and talking and talking and talking,” she says. “And he didn’t try anything. He didn’t even try to kiss me goodbye. I went into the house and I was like, ‘Holy crap, that was unbelievable.’ He totally hypnotized me.”
At first, she couldn’t get over the excitement of being with him—he would get her into clubs in New York, he would get her into parties in the Hamptons. “Nothing was out of our realm,” she says. It was even more exciting when he went to Penn State, and she drove with his parents to every home game in State College. He didn’t always play, but she had never experienced anything like the atmosphere of big-time college football. Afterward, he took her to frat parties, and that’s where she began to notice the change in him.
He used to leave her there all alone—abandon her. “I didn’t know where I was, and couple of guys on the team would be like, ‘We’ll get you home,'” she says. But when she went back to Hodne’s dorm room, he wouldn’t be there, and when he was—well, one time she knocked on the door and his roommate came out and stopped her from going in: “No, no, no, you don’t want to go in there.” She tried to pull away from Hodne after that, but he wouldn’t let her. He was “persuasive,” she says. “He could talk his way out of a metal box with locks on it. He had a way of making people say yes.” Wherever she was, he would show up. She tried to tell herself it was normal until, she says, he showed up at a club where she was dancing with friends, grabbed her by the ponytail and swung her into a steel post. Her father forbade him from coming into the house, so he used to park down the block and wait for her in his yellow Torino. After Joe Paterno suspended him from the football team, she didn’t go to State College to visit. But after he was arrested for raping Betsy Sailor, she listened to his avowals of innocence and testified at his trial. “He cried like a baby. To me and his mother, he cried like a baby: ‘I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it,'” she says. “So Tony Capozzoli and I wind up character witnesses for him. I mean, who wants to believe that your boyfriend’s a rapist?”
She cried along with Hodne’s mother when the jury read the verdict. But the conviction was also something of a relief. He was going to prison, so she could get into a car with a bunch of girlfriends and go to Key West for spring break. But as soon as they checked into their room, the phone rang, and she picked it up. It was Hodne. “I’m out front,” he said. He had followed them down on their I-95 frolic, a convicted rapist driving 2,000 miles on the open road. He came to their room and tried to convince all of them that he couldn’t possibly be guilty. And when he left, they all hugged Ellen and wept. “The whole purpose of the trip was to get her away,” Ellen’s friend Kathy says. “And for him to show up was our first realization that the accusations could be true.”
Ellen knew she was in danger once she returned to Long Island in the spring of 1979. Hodne had been convicted on March 3. Now it was the end of April and he, for all intents and purposes, remained a free man, coming and going as he pleased. Hodne, she says, was robbing delis, asking her to hide the money in her car, and reading the newspaper obsessively, as if to find articles about himself. But she didn’t know everybody else was in danger until she looked behind the passenger seat of his car. “There was a face mask and a new knife. And I was like, ‘What?’ I was like, ‘Jesus Christ.’ My whole world was collapsing, and he was like,’ No, sit down.’ And he pulled me to sit back down. And we were driving, and I was like, ‘Where are you going?’ He goes, ‘I just have to make a stop. And we pulled over into a parking lot. And he went over to the dumpster and took his sweater, the sweater that he cherished so much, and threw it into the dumpster.
“And he says, ‘If you ever tell anyone, I will kill your father.'”
On April 21, 1979, not quite seven weeks after Todd Hodne had been convicted in State College, Anne Wright was returning late from a night out on Long Island. She had gone to Rumbottom’s, a rock-and-roll club, and now she was returning to Wantagh. She had grown up there but had moved away with her family; she had come back to work as a nurse’s aide and was staying with some old friends. She was 23. At about 4 a.m. she was walking west on Sandhill Road and started to cut across a small local park with a playground when she was hit twice on the head from behind with what she later figured was a pipe or a club or a tree branch. It knocked her senseless. She grabbed her can of Mace, but her assailant said, “I have a knife.” He bound and then raped her at the edge of the woods, saying, “You love sex, don’t you?” When he finally left, she tried to stand up but fell to the ground. “My head hurt and I was full of blood,” she later told the police. Three girls driving by came upon her and began screaming: “My God.”
On April 23, a young man in a short-sleeved sport shirt with decorative stitching, white pants, a straw hat and sunglasses knocked on the door of a house in Oyster Bay Cove, a small village close to St. Dominic and a house that any student who lived on the South Shore of Long Island and attended St. Dominic would have to pass on the way to school. Georgette Pirkl answered. She was a 52-year-old woman at home with her mother, Caroline, who lived with Georgette and her family. Georgette’s two children were in school. The young man at the door said that he worked for the Police Boys Club and was soliciting local men to be volunteer coaches. When Georgette told him that her husband was not at home, he asked if he could leave his name. She let him in. He took her phone off the hook, locked Georgette’s 79-year-old mother in a closet and then in the same room raped Georgette in her son’s bed, her hands tied behind her back with a telephone cord.
On April 30, Barbara Johnson went out for a run near her family home in Bethpage, halfway between Wantagh and Oyster Bay. She was 20 years old and ran five times a week, always around 10 p.m., always the same route. She heard someone coming up behind her and thought he was another jogger. He put his hand over her mouth and the point of his knife into her ribs. He said, “If you say anything I’m going to use this—do you feel that?” He was wearing a wool sweater with a Mexican design. He ordered her to pull her sweatshirt over her head and pushed her into the shadows of the John F. Kennedy Middle School, dragging her into the woods where she had gone sleigh riding as a kid. “He was very big … I didn’t know what to do at the time because he was so much bigger. I didn’t stand a chance against him physically. So I dropped. And he hit me in the head and said, ‘Get up, get up, get up,'” she recalls. He bound her hands with her shoelaces and later with the string from her sweatpants. “He beat the s— out of me, and he raped me two ways to Sunday. I was on my back at first. Then he flipped me over.” Her face was mushed into the leaves and branches. When she began kicking at him, he hit her across the head with his fist or his forearm. He said, “I guess you don’t value your life.” She said she was willing to take the hits because she was trying to buy time. “After he got done, I’m like, ‘I’m dead. He’s just going to freaking kill me.'” She told him her dad was a police officer and would come out looking for her as soon as he realized she wasn’t home on time. He told her, “Don’t move,” and she heard him run off. “I saw white lights that night. I thought I was dead.”
“I was just like, ‘Take the hits. I don’t care because I’m going to be dead anyway.’”
BARBARA JOHNSON, on being attacked by Todd Hodne in 1979.
On May 12, a 21-year-old secretary from Freeport walked to her car in the parking lot of Long Island’s biggest and most popular mall, Roosevelt Field. When she opened the door, a man pushed her inside and showed her his knife. He told her to drive around for a while, until he found a park to his liking. He bound her with cord he had brought for the purpose and told her to “go down” on him—”and if it’s not the best I’ve ever had, I’ll kill you.” When he was done, he told her where she lived, reading the address off her license. He said, “If you tell the police, I’ll kill you or someone you love. You will need a police escort wherever you go.” She went straight to her boyfriend’s apartment, and he had to convince her, and her parents, that she must go to the police. “She never saw his face. But she heard his voice. And when she went to the lineup, she was easily able to recognize his voice,” said her now husband, who spoke on his wife’s behalf because he said she isn’t comfortable talking about the incident and doesn’t want her name made public.
On May 22, Denise O’Brien left her apartment at 10:30 p.m. to make a phone call. She had just turned 22. She was living in Roslyn, on the North Shore, with no job and not enough money for a phone line of her own. She used a pay phone in the parking lot of a bank across the street. A man bumped into her on the way and then grabbed her from behind and put his hand around her waist. “I know he had a knife because I felt it against my skin several times,” she later said in a statement to the police. She kept saying to her attacker, “Let’s talk about this,” and he said, “Shut up.” He dragged her into a dark recess of the parking lot and tied her up. He removed her tampon and started raping her. She kept telling him to stop, but this only angered him. “Never use the words ‘can’t’ or ‘stop,'” he said, and then told her that he recognized her—and that she might know him “from long ago.”
On May 31, a 16-year-old girl (who asked that her name not be used) answered the doorbell at her family’s home in Baldwin, west of Wantagh along the train line. A man wearing a Sherwin-Williams hat and sunglasses introduced himself as Tom Harris and said that his company was testing a new product by offering free paint jobs to lucky homeowners. When she answered that her parents weren’t home, Tom Harris asked for a glass of water and she let him inside. He grabbed her around the neck and held a knife against her. She reached back and grabbed the knife, but he threatened to cut her if she didn’t let go. He told her that he only needed money, and though he had to tie her up, he would be gone quickly and she would never see him again. She told him she was 15, a year younger than she was, with the hope he’d be deterred by the stiff punishment for assaulting a minor. He tied her up, made her lie down on the floor and held her down with his foot. He dragged her back to the porch and said, “Maybe I’ll f— you. Or would you rather die?”
“I’d rather die,” she answered.
“I broke away from him. I just kept screaming to him, ‘My mother is going to be home. She just went to the store. She’s going to be home any minute.’ I kept screaming it, and he kept telling me not to scream. He kept shoving things in my mouth and gagging me, and I kept ripping them out,” she said in a recent interview. “Finally, he tied me up and left.”
The girl, still bound, followed him outside. He was running. She ran into the street screaming, as her neighbor, John Henkel, a New York City cop, was pulling up to his house. He gave chase and arrested Tom Harris at the duck pond where he had parked his yellow Torino. Todd Hodne had once again been caught.
Hodne was questioned for days and confessed in detail. He admitted to the last crime first and the first one last, since he raped Anne Wright in his Wantagh neighborhood, around the block from his home, and he didn’t want to embarrass his parents. In his statements, he seemed almost relieved to have been caught, as if he understood he was unable to stop himself.
“A normal person shouldn’t do this,” Hodne says in the statement he gave to Nassau County police about his attack on the 16-year-old girl. “There seems to be two sides of myself lately. When I sit down and think about what I do, it drives me crazy. How could I do something like that? I think I need to see a psychiatrist. If you could arrange it, I think I do. It’s not normal for someone to want to do this, and I want to try to straighten out, you know.”
Hodne was indicted on four counts of first-degree rape, three counts of first-degree sodomy, three counts of first-degree robbery, two counts of second-degree burglary and one count of first-degree attempted rape in Nassau County Criminal Court. He reportedly tried to kill himself in jail a few weeks after his arrest. His lawyer, Martin Silberg, notified the prosecution that he intended to file an insanity defense. He never did. On Sept. 7, 1979, six months after his conviction for the rape of Betsy Sailor, Hodne pleaded guilty to two counts of rape, two counts of sexual abuse and one count of attempted second-degree robbery.
“I only wish I could recapture what I lost,” Hodne told Nassau County Judge Richard Delin, weeping as he described his crimes. Delin said he had been inclined to withdraw his sentencing offer after he read the accounts of Hodne’s attacks but that the letters of support Hodne had received had changed his mind. Thirty-five people had written on Hodne’s behalf. One of them was his former high school coach Tom Capozzoli. The Pirkl family remembers Capozzoli also calling Georgette Pirkl’s husband to tell him that the player he coached couldn’t have done what Georgette had accused him of doing. “You got the wrong guy,” Capozzoli said of Hodne, even though a few months earlier his own son Tony had testified in Hodne’s rape trial in Pennsylvania.
Hodne had lost everything but his powers of persuasion. Had he gone to trial, he could have been sentenced to a minimum of at least eight years up to 25. Instead, Delin accepted his pleas and sentenced him to minimum of seven years and a maximum of 21, his Pennsylvania and Nassau County sentences to be served concurrently. In November 1979, shortly after Hodne entered the Pennsylvania prison system, psychologist Ed Perry evaluated him and came to this conclusion:
“His remorse appears hollow as he tends to project the blame for his misfortunes onto others or simply bad breaks. He assumes little, if any, responsibility, for his actions. He has shallow feelings and loyalties and appears to owe no allegiance to any particular person, group or code . . . Frustration tolerance is low and when denied his own way, aggressive outbursts are likely. He will need to be closely supervised. … Todd is manipulative and will likely take advantage of those who are physically and emotionally weaker than himself.”
But the most comprehensive attempt to explain Todd Hodne comes from Hodne himself. Later in life, as a prisoner in New York state, he went year after year before a parole board and had to answer questions about why he did what he did. His answers, as preserved in redacted transcripts, are by definition self-serving and are often dishonest regarding the extent of his crimes. He admits only what he pleaded to, raping one woman in Pennsylvania and two in New York. He explains the attempted rapes on his record by saying he stopped if they resisted. He lies. But he also has clearly been forced to grapple with himself as a consequence of his institutionalized life, and he seems to know this is his life—that he’s never getting out. He cites both drugs and steroids as a cause of his crimes. And yet, the story he tells most often starts with football.
“On the outside, I was the All-American kid,” Hodne says in a 2019 parole hearing, the year before he died. “I was given a full scholarship. I had colleges coming to see me in high school, offering to buy me cars to go to school, to give me money. I chose Penn State and did very well there the first semester . . . And to understand what happened from here, I actually have to go back to the decisions I made when I was 12 or 13 or even younger. The football was everything, my self-worth. It was who I was. It was also where I expressed what you might deem negative emotions. I never dealt with anything in my life, and I stored it up and turned it into anger on the football field, and it made me a very good football player. When I first started playing, I wasn’t very aggressive, and they taught me to channel my emotions and become where you don’t have empathy for people. The other team is your enemy, and it is your job to destroy them. So I started to develop at a very young age my view of [being] a man was that you didn’t show emotion. I had older brothers; if I cried in front of them, they made fun of you. So I really didn’t have any other coping mechanism other than you just internalize it and bring it on to the football field.”
“For me, it’s 42 years. And you can get over it … and go on with your life and whatever. But you’re never going to forget it.”
Hodne says without naming her that he had a girlfriend at home when he went to Penn State but that soon he found another measure of self-worth: “This is where it really kind of developed to look at women as sexual objects. You go to different parties at night, and there were always women you could have sex with, especially being a football player.” When he was suspended after “one of my friends kicked in the window of a store”—that’s how he describes the Record Ranch burglary—he lost not just the game that allowed him to control his impulses but also the opportunities for sexual gratification that the game provided. His relationship with his long-term girlfriend “started to fall apart” and “at that time I felt that it was because I was no longer playing football and I was unable to deal with that rejection. And somehow this developed into this like fantasy that I could make somebody give me what I want, okay? There are certain types of rapes, if you know a certain type of rape, I was what you would deem a control rapist. I would use the necessary force to make them have sex with me. If they resisted too much I would run away. But what I was after was each time I had sex with a woman it was like a reaffirmation of who I was of my self-worth.”
“I think any sexual crime is first a fantasy but the fantasy ends in the way you want it to end,” he says in another parole hearing. In Hodne’s case, he fantasized “that I would capture this woman, I would have sex with her. And in having sex with them, I would either, the fantasy, ok, was, I would either please them so much that they would love me, that they would accept me, that they weren’t being hurt by this, they weren’t being terrified by this.”
In hearing after hearing, Hodne tells the parole board that he did what he did—that he became what he became—because he wanted to feel the way he did when he played football. “Football was who I was. It was all my self-worth. I felt that it brought me friends and girlfriends,” he says.
It is impossible now to establish a direct causality behind Hodne’s crimes. However, in State College, Pennsylvania, two things happened on Aug. 19, 1978: Karen was sexually assaulted at knifepoint in her apartment in the early morning hours, and that same afternoon, Joe Paterno told reporters after practice that Hodne’s name had been deleted from the Nittany Lions’ roster.
Kathleen Pirkl had to get a ride home from St. Dominic. She was 11 years old and had missed the bus, so the mother of a friend drove her. She lived close by in a house with a long driveway, but her ride had to drop her off at the bottom. The driveway was full of police cars and people in uniforms and the solemn confusion of spinning lights. Her father ran down to meet her—to meet her before she reached the house. He was crying. She had never seen Donald Pirkl cry. Her mother, Georgette, and her grandmother, Caroline O’Neill, were in the driveway next door. Kathleen thought her house had been robbed and worried about the stereo she had just received as a gift. “Daddy, did they take my stereo?” she asked.
Her father told her to go inside and find some clothes. When she did, she saw blood all over the hallway and storm clouds of black fingerprint dust on the walls. A sliding closet door tilted crookedly off the rails. She went back outside and was allowed to see her mother and grandmother for a minute before she went to stay with a neighbor. Her mother was bloody and bruised and on a gurney. Her grandmother was wearing a robe not her own. Kathleen stayed the next two nights with her friend, and years would pass before she found out exactly what happened … before she began to understand that although her mother and grandmother went to the hospital, her whole family would bear the scars.
“My parents were very hush-hush,” Kathleen says. “We weren’t supposed to talk about it. We weren’t supposed to even think about it.” She would hear about it in school, through whispers and rumors—what her mother had to do. Kathleen didn’t understand. Her mother was prim and proper and very Catholic, a volunteer at the St. Dominic library. Kathleen had never even seen her wear jeans. But the kids at St. Dominic always knew more than she did. One day at school, a classmate told her, “They got him.” When she saw Todd Hodne’s photo in the local newspaper, she recognized him. He used to drive by in his yellow car and wave to her. She waved back. From that day on, she felt that he might have attacked her mother and her Nana. But he had come for her.
Of all the women Hodne confessed to raping or assaulting in the spring of 1979, at least five faced him in Nassau County Court that September, with one too traumatized to participate in the prosecution. Georgette Pirkl, as one of the five, made her daughter proud. She was a brave woman—they both were, she and Nana. They saved one another. When Hodne was attacking Georgette, Caroline had to listen to it from the closet. She heard her daughter say, “Please don’t hurt my mother.” She heard Hodne cut off her daughter’s pants, girdle and underwear with scissors. She heard him demand that her daughter curse and masturbate for him. She heard him rape and sodomize her. Somehow Caroline freed herself from the telephone cord binding her hands in the closet and made a run for it. Hodne saw the shadow and said, “Damn.” He left Georgette and ran after the old woman. He tackled her on the brick sidewalk between the main house and the guest house where she lived—a 240-pound former Penn State football player expending his full force on a 79-year-old woman. He crushed her. Georgette fled to the bathroom, where there was a tiny porthole window. She climbed up on the toilet seat and squeezed her naked body through it, cutting and bruising herself from shoulders to knees. When Hodne realized she had escaped, he ran, dropping the safe deposit box he had stolen. He had chosen to attack the Pirkls on the day of his 20th birthday. Now the money flew all over the lawn.
It was an assault on all of them. They wound up staying in the house in Oyster Bay Cove because Kathleen’s father was a lawyer who had deep ties to the community and political ambitions. But Nana never physically recovered from Hodne’s tackle. Kathleen’s brother couldn’t stand sleeping in the room where his mother had been raped, and Kathleen did everything she could to get kicked out of St. Dominic. And Georgette rarely left the house until at last she and Donald left the house for good and moved to Florida in 1997. “I have a picture of when she first got to Florida, and I’ve never seen her smile a smile like that,” Kathleen says. “She was just so happy to get the hell out of Oyster Bay. She said, ‘I could not live my life.’ I don’t think she ever enjoyed herself again until they got to Florida, and then they were like little kids. And then my father passed away within a year, and that was the end of her again. I had such a hard life with her. I couldn’t help her.”
It was when Kathleen moved to Sarasota, Florida, to be with her mother that she finally began to understand what happened on April 23, 1979.
“I watched her diminish because of what Todd did to her,” Kathleen says. “She was the type of woman, my father was her first and her only. She didn’t even date. I think she went on one date prior to my father, and I knew it wasn’t a sexual thing back in the day with them. Todd took away a lot from her. And we had discussions where she felt like, ‘I was with your father and only him, and then this happens.’ That really hurts a Catholic woman her age in her upbringing.
“And she told me—and she was very reluctant—she said, ‘He forced me to give him a blow job.’ And I could not believe that word came out of my mother’s mouth because she’s such a sweet lady. It was horrific to hear out of her mouth. And that’s when she told me, ‘If I didn’t do it, he was going to hurt you when you got home.’ He threatened her with me. He told her that if she didn’t do what he asked her to do, he would just wait for me to come home … I was right about the yellow car.”
“I could not believe that word came out of my mother’s mouth.”
KATHLEEN PIRKL, on the moment her mother told her about Todd Hodne’s attack.
Georgette Pirkl died in 2007, when she was 81. Kathleen knew she had kept a book in her bottom dresser drawer—”an old school photo album that had everything in it”—but she had never dared to look through it “out of respect” for her mother. When she started preparing the house in Sarasota for sale, she found it, and a friend convinced her to read it. “And that’s when I learned everything,” Kathleen says. The book included court files and her mother’s notes but also something that shocked her: “A letter from Hodne’s mother apologizing, saying she didn’t know where she went wrong with her son. I remember reading it and sobbing. I do believe my mother responded back to her. I do believe she wrote her a long letter.”
Kathleen does not have the book anymore. Her brother told her to burn it—”that it was time to put Mommy’s grief to an end. That we shouldn’t live it anymore, now that she was peaceful and with our father again.” When she moved to her new home, she had a fire pit in the backyard … “and I put it in there. A part of me wanted to grab it, but a part of me said, it’s time. It was time to get rid of that book that ruined our lives. Burning it felt like voodoo.”
Seven years after Todd Hodne went to prison—three years in Pennsylvania for the rape of Betsy Sailor and four in New York for the serial crimes on Long Island—Francis Quigley wrote a letter. He was the Nassau prosecutor who put Hodne away. He had heard with the arrival of the new year, 1986, that Hodne was under consideration for parole and so wrote to the senior parole officer of the Eastern New York Correctional Facility in Napanoch and said that “the Nassau County District Attorney strongly opposes any release of inmate Todd S. Hodne. I am convinced that to release Todd Hodne will be to subject the community to a severe risk that Hodne will again victimize innocent women with rape, assault and the possibility of serious injury and death.”
Nassau County District Attorney Letter
When Todd Hodne was up for parole in 1986, the Nassau County DA wrote to the parole officer warning that Hodne’s behavior could turn deadly.
Source: Nassau County District Attorney’s office
Quigley wrote that while Hodne was out on bail and awaiting sentence for a burglary and rape charge in Pennsylvania, Hodne “engaged in a series of exceptionally vicious rapes in Nassau County … The victims all reported that Hodne was sadistic and based on my investigation into the case and my interviews with the victims, I believe that the victims were lucky to live through their ordeal. In fact, it was not through any restraint on Hodne’s part but rather the cool-headedness of the victims that Hodne did not kill any of these women … The foregoing demonstrates that Hodne is an extremely dangerous, potentially homicidal criminal, who presents the gravest threat to society.”
Four months later, on May 2, 1986, Hodne was released from prison after serving the minimum seven years of his 21-year sentence, by unanimous vote of the parole board—or, as John B. Collins later put it, “for some unfathomable reason, the New York State Parole Board saw fit to unleash this monster on the unknowing public after serving only the bare minimum of the sentence imposed by the Nassau County Court.” According to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, records from that parole hearing are “no longer available due to how old they are. They have been destroyed.”
Hodne did not look like the college football player who went away. He had lost most of his hair. He wore a thin mustache, and the heaviness of his brow and jaw had become more pronounced. What had not changed was his body. He had worked out in prison, and if anything, he was bigger and stronger than when he left. He weighed about 250 pounds.
The notes and logbook of his parole officer indicate he went to live with his parents in Wantagh and to work in the family home-improvement business. On a visit to a client’s home, he met a woman, and they began dating. He was checking in with his parole officer each week and seeing a therapist about his drug use and sexual compulsions. In July, he was questioned about a rape that occurred on his block in Wantagh but was told he wasn’t a suspect. He failed to inform his parole officer that he had been questioned by the police. He moved in with his girlfriend in Bethpage. On Feb. 24, 1987, he told his therapist that he had started smoking crack. He had begun to violate his parole requirements and by the start of summer, he had not seen his therapist in months, and his uncle had fired him from his job with the family business. As Collins later wrote, “Hodne committed multiple violations of his conditions of parole while at liberty. He was, however, not punished or taken off the streets by those charged with his supervision and control.” In Wantagh, he showed up at his home with bruises on his face and his mother called the parole office to tell them that her son had been mugged in the parking lot of the local 7-Eleven by a gang of teenagers who told him he should go back to jail. He was evicted from his girlfriend’s home in Bethpage after the landlord found out who he was. He lived in a hotel for a while and then checked himself in to a detox center in Hempstead. After a week, he returned to his parents’ home in Wantagh and began smoking crack again. On Tuesday night, Aug. 11, 1987, he met his girlfriend at a TGI Friday’s in Huntington and then asked a friend to drop him off at the White Castle. There, he called a cab.
The driver’s name was Jeffrey Hirsch. He was young, in his early 30s, with reddish hair and a larky smile set in a long, deadpan face. Hirsch had been a successful salesman in Maryland and was about to start his own business when his mother contracted cancer and he came back home to Long Island to take care of her. He had a wife, Mary Beth, and four young children, ranging in age from six months to seven years. His father owned the cab. Hirsch was driving to make ends meet but also because he liked talking to people and hearing their stories. He answered the call at the White Castle, and Hodne gave him the address on a side street behind the Walt Whitman Mall. When Hirsch stopped on the dark street, Hodne threatened him with a knife. Hodne tried to rob him, but Hirsch struggled, and they fought, Hirsch in the front of the vehicle and Hodne in the back. Hirsch was tall and wiry, but Hodne overpowered him. Hodne dropped his knife and put Hirsch in a choke hold and broke the hyoid bone in his neck. Hodne opened the door and stepped outside with Hirsch slumped over in the front seat, his body facing one way and his head another. According to police reports, a man named Robert Gruber stood in front of Hodne on his lawn. He had seen the fight through the window of his home and stepped outside. “I think I might have killed him,” Hodne said.
“I think you did,” Gruber said.
“Call 911,” Hodne said. “He tried to rob me.”
Gruber went inside and brought the receiver of his phone outside and handed it to Hodne, who told the dispatcher his name was Steven Hodne, the twin brother of Todd Hodne. As he said later in a parole board hearing, he didn’t want the police to judge him unfairly because of Todd Hodne’s notoriety. When he gave the phone back, Gruber tried to console him. “Get away from me!” Hodne snapped. For the next 30 seconds, Hodne stood motionless, staring at the cab and at Hirsch. “I’m sick of this s—,” he finally said. Then he got in the cab and drove away.
Hodne left the car—with Hirsch still inside, along with his knife and the $37 in blood-soaked bills he tried to rob—in the parking lot of the mall and then made a run for it. The police dispatched a K-9 unit as Hodne fled through the backyards of Huntington. As Collins wrote, “This former athlete ran through, not over, through two stockade fences, trying to avoid the K-9 and human officers in hot pursuit of him.” The dogs finally found him hiding under a bush. He was taken to the Suffolk County precinct house nearby and started concocting his story. Hirsch had picked him up in his cab and together they went looking for crack, Hodne said. They scored some, and when they smoked it, Hirsch made a pass at him. Hodne fought him off, but Hirsch threatened him with a knife. They grappled over it, which accounted for the blood. By this time, Hirsch was in the hospital, where the admitting physician diagnosed him as the victim of an overdose rather than a strangulation. When the police at the precinct received word from the hospital, they accepted Hodne’s story, writing in a preliminary report: “double overdose of two gays with one in the hospital and the other under arrest by uniform for unauthorized use of a taxi.” They changed the charge to unauthorized use of a vehicle; then Hodne, on his own recognizance, went home to Wantagh.
TODD HODNE’S CRIMINAL RECORDS IN LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK
He had always been, as his former girlfriend said, persuasive. It was one of the things besides his strength that made him so dangerous. Now, by Thursday morning, he had been free for two days. Now, as Jeffrey Hirsch lay brain dead in a hospital, Hodne was in his own bed in Wantagh and his parole officer, Lenny Smith, came by for a visit. His mother told him Todd was sleeping and wouldn’t let him in. He walked past her and went to Hodne’s room. He pulled the blanket off Hodne’s bed. His face was bruised and cut. Hodne had not shown up for therapy in months. He had been failing drug tests. He had been unemployed. But he told Smith something of the same story he told at the precinct. Smith said he wouldn’t write him up for unauthorized use of a vehicle but reminded him that he had to report all contact with law enforcement.
Smith was headed for the door when he saw one of Todd’s brothers sitting in the living room. They looked at each other. The brother had already called Smith a number of times to report on Todd being in violation. Now Todd had been arrested and was free on what the brother calls “a $25 station house bond.” He knew Todd better than anyone; knew, he says, that “Todd was out there by then. And I just couldn’t. I saw the writing on the wall, and I didn’t want any part of it. I don’t want any part. You know, he destroyed our family once, and I was like, ‘I’ll be damned if you do it again.'”
“He’s lying,” Todd’s brother told Smith.
They were in their 60s now and each was heading to State College for a reunion of sorts—a reunion with someone neither had ever met. Betsy Sailor lived in New Hampshire. Karen lived near Pittsburgh. But they were both driving to State College to meet each other and to find out what they could about the experience they held in common. They were very different women who had led very different lives. But they both had to survive Todd Hodne. And, until this day, in the summer of 2021, they each had to do it alone.
They met in a hotel that hadn’t been built when they went to school, in a part of town that hadn’t been developed. Karen arrived first, her hair blonde, her eyes wary and sharp, her manner deliberate and careful. The work she had taken on—of remembering and processing what happened to her—was visible, as if it all took place right under her skin.
Betsy announced herself headfirst, peeking around the partially open door of the hotel conference room. She had kept her curls, the salt-and-pepper spirals that offset her scholarly eyeglasses. She wore a loose shift and sandals, and to hear her talk was to remember what she was doing before Hodne invaded her life: interviewing potential roommates. She’d had a long career in human resources and raised a strong-willed, independent daughter. She had just recently become a grandmother and evinced the cheerful equanimity of a person who had heard and seen it all. Indeed, when she was asked to account for her verve in the face of all she’s had to endure, she said, “When you have enough bad s— happen to you, you get to check off the boxes. You don’t have to be afraid anymore.”
They were very different women, yes—but they also were the products of very different experiences regarding their worst experience. Betsy had faced Hodne in court. She had won. The legal system had recognized her and what was done to her. If anyone had tried to dissuade her from pressing charges, she said, “I would have told them, ‘Yeah, you and the horse you came to town on.'”
And yet the fate Betsy refused was precisely the fate Karen had had to face. “I knew there were others that were raped,” Betsy said. “But I was told that none of them were pressing charges. They weren’t interested in pressing charges.”
Karen now told Betsy that she had cooperated with investigators for months: “I should have been informed what legal ramifications were involved, what assistance the university could give me.”
“It wasn’t a situation where you didn’t want to prosecute,” Betsy said. “But perhaps you didn’t know what to do next.”
“I didn’t know where to turn,” Karen said.
Betsy and Karen had never known each other’s names. They both had heard that were “others,” but they were never told who they were or how many there might have been.
“We should have been together all along,” Betsy said.
The next day, they met Duane Musser. He was retired at 74 years old but still very much a small-town cop. He had a shiny head under his ball cap and a white, horseshoe mustache and goatee. When he spoke, he took his time. He remembered Betsy Sailor and Susan and where they lived. He remembered that the case came down to three fingerprints lifted from Betsy’s apartment and phone calls traced from Susan’s phone. He remembered the “arrogance” of the Penn State lawyer, Bob Mitinger. He remembered that Joe Paterno told his players not to talk. But Musser did not remember the specifics of what he wrote in his police reports of the time. He did not remember going to Hamilton Hall and questioning Fred Ragucci about the five women Todd Hodne was suspected of assaulting. He did not remember questioning Hodne himself about other assaults that had taken place in State College. “I’m beginning to think I didn’t do such a good job,” Musser would say, especially when he was reminded of the outcome—of what happened when one conviction wasn’t enough to keep Hodne in jail. He greeted Betsy Sailor and Karen at the Waffle Shop just outside of State College. He recognized Betsy immediately, and they embraced like old friends. Karen watched and waited, and when he said hello, she asked, “Do you remember me?”
He answered, “No, I’m sorry. I don’t.”
She did not flinch, except in her eyes. But the awful disappointment provided a preview of what was to come. She and Betsy had both come to town to find their files. They went together to visit the county clerk at the courthouse in Bellefonte. They made requests to the investigators who worked for the district attorney. They visited campus and met with an official from student affairs. At each stop, Betsy came away with documents that both validated her memories and gave her information about what happened to her. At each stop, Karen not only came away with nothing, she was told that her files didn’t exist.
“I was just forgotten,” Karen said.
On Nov. 4, 1975, a Penn State student reported a rape at Fiji House—one of the “jock houses” or “football fraternities” on the Penn State campus. The alleged crime was a gang rape that was reported to have taken place a few weeks earlier at a party the night before a football game, the victim drugged and unconscious. The incident generated public protests. Joe Paterno discouraged his players from any involvement in them. According to wide receiver Jimmy Cefalo, who later wrote a series of articles for The New York Times detailing his experiences playing a big-time college sport, “Coach Paterno called the seven Fijis on the football team into his office on the afternoon of the protest and told us to stay away from the house during the demonstration.”
The protests wound up on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s metro section and catalyzed investigations by the State College police, Penn State’s student affairs department and its interfraternity council. The police ultimately determined the evidence insufficient to bring charges, and the university ended up suspending one male student for three terms and putting another on three-term probation. “The interfraternity council decided that they wanted to [impose sanctions] because there was some press that was going on,” says Greg Hanks, the president of Fiji House at the time. “Nothing happened,” says Shelley Gottsagen, one of the organizers of the protests. “Nothing happened at all. There were no repercussions.”
But the end of the Fiji House investigations marked the beginning of the movement toward a rape crisis center in State College. Rape kits were an innovation not yet widely in use at the time, and the term rape culture was just being coined in feminist academia. It was an historical moment in terms of rape awareness, in which advocates and institutions were often at cross-purposes.
“It was generally our policy not to make [rapes] well known,” remembers Lee Upcraft, the assistant vice president for student affairs at Penn State. “If I recall, we would make sure that the people that lived around her and in her building knew that it happened and knew that we caught him. But we tried to keep it out of the paper when we could, because once it got in the paper, then the woman’s privacy was gone. Nothing you could do to protect her.”
“The university didn’t want to know anything about [the extent of sexual assault]. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.”
The impulse to keep women safe from shame contributed to a culture of silence that left them feeling unheard and unsafe. “I just felt we were ignored,” Gottsagen says. “It was even hard for us to make appointments or get time [with university officials]. Nobody wanted to hear what we had to say.” Gretchen Fincke, from the State College rape crisis center, remembers: “The university didn’t want to know anything about [the extent of sexual assault]. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.”
There was a discrepancy between how institutions and advocates at Penn State talked about rapes and sexual assaults and in how they counted them at the time. A former Penn State student who gave campus orientations remembers being discouraged from telling parents of incoming freshmen how many rapes were happening in State College. Ed Nolder, an officer with the Penn State University Police at the time, says, “Rape was not a big thing then; I don’t think I heard of eight rapes in my entire eight years with the police force.” The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program counted a total of 12 rapes and sexual assaults at Penn State University and the borough of State College in all of 1978. The student newspaper ran an editorial that year counting 35 rapes and sexual assaults in and around Penn State as of September.
Besides Hodne, there weren’t just other rapes at Penn State, there were other rapists. One was a student who dressed up either as a female or as a police officer and fondled and battered women at gunpoint. Another was a 21-year-old man who snuck into dormitories and assaulted women as they were taking showers or sleeping in their beds. “Happy Valley has a rape problem,” the Daily Collegian declared in April 1979 in a three-part series on rape at Penn State. The series was published a little more than a month after Hodne’s conviction but never mentioned Hodne. The reporter who wrote it admits now that she had never heard of him.
Lizette Olsen, who worked at the rape crisis center at the time, remembers the university broadly supporting rape prevention and awareness efforts but that “they were low-hanging fruit.” It was different when dealing with specific cases, she says. “When there were instances of sexual violence where the perpetrator was someone of value, i.e., the football team, things did not go so well … I can’t actually say to you that that was an institutional response as much as it was the response of individuals in leadership who were trying to assist the football team or the athletic department.”
When Joe Paterno and Penn State told the story of 1978 and 1979, it went like this: in 1978, he lost his chance at the national championship through a failure of nerve, and then in 1979, he lost control of the team. There was the team captain who refused to finish a lap; the star cornerback who, along with two others, was ruled academically ineligible; the running back caught driving drunk; the linebacker arrested for fighting and the lineman busted for drinking on campus; and, finally, at the Liberty Bowl, the substitute tight end who showed up in a suburban bedroom in the middle of the night and was lucky he didn’t get shot. These incidents were widely covered in newspapers and magazines, first one at a time and then in an onslaught. “Suddenly, it seemed like we were a bunch of felons down here,” Penn State Sports Information director Dave Baker said in 1980.
What ensued was a period of self-doubt unprecedented in Paterno’s career—a simultaneous fall from grace and loss of faith that caused him not only to question his purpose but to consider quitting. In articles in the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Daily News and particularly Sports Illustrated, he did a kind of public penance, admitting in SI that “the Great Experiment”—as he called his own program—”is suddenly in disrepute” and wondering aloud if the violence he encouraged on the field had followed his players off of it: “We’re dealing with aggressive kids; we encourage this aggressiveness and then we get mad when we can’t saddle them. Maybe the fault is with us.” What he didn’t do in any of the articles was mention Todd Hodne by name or acknowledge his crimes.
It had never been easy for Joe Paterno to talk about sex, his son Jay writes in his book “Paterno Legacy.” He was squeamish about it in the best of circumstances and doubly so in the worst, for he clearly viewed sexual violence in terms of sex rather than of violence, his usual righteousness giving way to awkward befuddlement. “The most awkward,” Jay Paterno writes, “was a sexual assault allegation involving a female student and two of our players that was later dropped. Our two players had engaged in sex with her at the same time.”
“When it came up in a staff meeting, Joe read the report and a puzzled look came across his face. He paused, leaned back in his chair, and thought for a minute. ‘So about this incident … ‘ Joe said in a confused tone. ‘It says she had sex with two of them … at the same time? How is that even possible?'”
It was a paradox that turned out to be a tragic flaw. He insisted on innocence as well as power. He portrayed himself as naive as well as all-knowing. He saw everything—as Fred Ragucci said, “He would throw a fit if you didn’t wear socks“—except what he didn’t understand. In 2002, Penn State expelled defensive back Anwar Phillips for two semesters after investigating him for sexual assault, but Paterno insisted on playing him in the Capital One Bowl on New Year’s Day, later speaking about his decision with something like resignation: “… if down the line, out of 125 kids, once in a while something happens that none of us are glad about, it happens. If I could change that, I’d change it. But I’m not gonna be able to change it.” Four years later, as Penn State prepared to play Florida State in the Orange Bowl, Paterno was asked at a news conference about an opposing player accused of sexual assault, and he answered in a way that caused the local chapter of the National Organization for Women to call at the time for his resignation: “There’s so many people gravitating to these kids, he may not have even known what he was getting into … They knock on the door, somebody may knock on the door, a cute girl knocks on the door, what do you do? … Thank god they don’t knock on my door because I’d refer them to a couple of other rooms.”
What else did Joe Paterno think, about Todd Hodne, about sexual misconduct? We reached out to his children to find out. His daughter Mary initially said she needed some time to think and then didn’t respond when we followed up. His son Jay asked about what documents we had but did not agree to an on-the-record conversation for this story. His daughter Diana said she didn’t recall a player named Hodne and cut the call short saying, “This sounds to me like another chance to blame my dad for something he had nothing to do with.” And his son Scott answered an email by explaining, “I was six. I have no idea what you are talking about. But based on what you tell me, the guy was arrested and convicted—seems like that story has been written for about two generations.”
Two things in the story of Todd Hodne are inexplicable: the mind of Todd Hodne and the decision by Richard Sharp to let him go. The behavior of Joe Paterno and his involvement in the case are straightforward by comparison. He was involved in the case, early and late. But then by temperament, Paterno was always involved. He was the man behind the desk. As a matter of policy, he let the justice system do its job, Lee Upcraft, assistant vice president for student affairs, says: “Whenever football players were involved in sexual assaults, Joe Paterno was wonderful. He and I talked, and he said, ‘If there’s a football player involved, I want to know about it.’ He said, ‘But I don’t want him treated any differently than any other student,’ and that was the agreement we had in those years. I never had any pressure whatsoever from Joe or from any of his staff to do anything different to a football player that had gotten in trouble. It just wasn’t who he was.”
In the Hodne case, the justice system failed. Of course, Joe Paterno could not have foreseen that Todd Hodne would go back to Long Island nor what he would do when he got there. And as Paterno saw it, his job was not to control the justice system but to control the narrative. “Whenever a player got in trouble, he didn’t want anybody to know about it,” Upcraft says. “It was bad for him and bad for the program if a player got in trouble and it became public that the player was in trouble … I think one of the things he always hoped was that nothing would come out. I’d do my thing, and he’d do his thing, and nobody would know about it. That was the best outcome as far as he was concerned.”
“It’s a matter of image,” Robert Scannell, the phys ed dean who worked closely with Paterno, told the Washington Post in 1979. “Because of the exposure we’ve had the last few years, a lot of people have come to think that Penn State football players never lose games and always make straight As. We love that image. But it creates added pressure. What used to be a local story is now a national story.” And what might be a national story also stays local: multiple cases become a single case, a single case becomes a one-time incident, a one-time incident becomes an anomaly. Todd Hodne is seen as dismissed, inconsequential, sent home.
As Paterno put it in the 1980 Sports Illustrated profile, published one year and 14 days after Hodne was convicted in Centre County Court for the rape of Betsy Sailor, “We have never covered up things around here. We just didn’t have problems.”
Six months after we called her for the first time, Karen had another memory about State College. It was about something that happened after she was attacked. She was driving in her car at night. Another car began following her, close, with two men up front. The car and its aggressive pursuit scared her so much that she drove to State College Police headquarters and parked out front. She pressed on her horn until the car went away.
She wrote about the memory in an email. The car, she wrote, was not like the family sedan she drove. It was “a guy car, sporty but 1970s big,” and she sent us a photo that corresponded to what she remembered—a photo of a 1971 fastback Pontiac GTO, light green. Hodne drove a fastback Ford Torino of roughly the same vintage, light yellow.
“I mean, [Todd Hodne] is gone now, but it doesn’t feel like it’s finished. … I don’t think it’ll ever be over.”
“I was reflecting on the story you are writing, keeping still and thinking of sights, smells and sounds associated with memories of that night,” she wrote. “I was wearing ‘White Linen’ perfume that summer. I used Clinique moisturizer, Palmolive soap. My car smelled like gasoline, old leaves and coffee.”
Once, Karen had pushed her memories aside. Now, she is learning to live with them. “I try to find some little thread that could make a difference. I mean, he [Hodne] is gone now, but it doesn’t feel like it’s finished,” she says. “I don’t think it’ll ever be over.”
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network advises using the term victim when referring to a person recently affected by sexual violence, or when speaking of a specific crime or criminal justice proceeding. It is an ancient word that has never lost its elemental and disturbing power, a word that says violence has been done and violence endures. The term survivor is often used to describe someone living with the long-term effects of sexual violence, someone experiencing the impact of violence over time. It is a word that encompasses who the women we interviewed were at the moment when Hodne’s assault threatened to annihilate them, as well as who they became, who they had to become, over the course of their lifetimes.
This is not to say that all his victims have survived. Three of them are gone, and those who have survived them—their family members and friends—believe that Hodne hastened their end. Anne Wright was attacked in Wantagh on Long Island on the early morning of April 21, 1979, bludgeoned from behind with a heavy object and raped in the woods. She was staying with friends, one of whom, Edie Howell, still remembers the sight of Anne coming back from the hospital: “I was sitting on the porch when they dropped her off. She got out of the car, and her entire head was wrapped. They had her in a wheelchair, and she couldn’t walk. It was a hole. It was a big indentation in her head. I don’t know if that ever went away. Believe me, it was bad. There was a very large amount of stitches.” For the rest of her life, Anne Wright had to endure the debilitating pain of spinal stenosis. In 2011, she died of an accidental overdose of morphine. She was 55 years old.
Denise O’Brien was already struggling when Hodne grabbed her while she was trying to use a pay phone in Roslyn on May 22, 1979. She was 22 years old, without a job and estranged from part of her family. Of the six women Hodne attacked on Long Island, she was the only one who didn’t participate in his prosecution; she was too traumatized. Her family not only never really knew what happened to her that night, they couldn’t quite bring themselves to believe what she told them about it, especially as Denise kept on her difficult and erratic course, swallowed up by substance abuse. She died of lung cancer at 36 in 1993, and it is only now—now that they are learning what happened to her—that they can see in retrospect the point in time when the dark forces that seemed out to get her grabbed her for good: 1979. “Obviously, this person destroyed a lot of lives,” her brother Jeff says of Hodne.
Georgette Pirkl made it into her 80s after surviving Hodne’s sustained brutalities on April 23, 1979, in Oyster Bay Cove—after surviving being raped and sodomized in the presence of her mother Caroline O’Neill and then watching the lingering aftermath of Hodne flattening Caroline against the sidewalk. No, he didn’t kill them, Georgette’s daughter Kathleen says, but he took their lives anyway, their remaining years. Both Georgette Pirkl and her mother died at 81, Caroline two years after the attack. Kathleen was lucky to be at school when Hodne invaded their home, but the more she learns about what her mother and grandmother survived, the more she understands the generational obligation survivorship entails. Though Kathleen burned the album Georgette kept about the attack, she battled the Nassau County bureaucracy for months to obtain the case file. “When I read it in black and white,” Kathleen says, “it explains a lot of things in my life, a lot of reasons I wasn’t allowed to do certain things that I wanted to do, that other kids could do. And now I forgive them. I forgive my parents because I used to think that they were horrible. And now, as an adult her age, [I understand that] being raped by a young kid, it’s humiliating. And what he said about my father [as he attacked Georgette], humiliating. And I now understand why they were the way they were in raising children. I mean, he was brutal on what he did.”
Despite his best efforts, Todd Hodne did not destroy all of them. Just as they fought for their lives then, they fight for their lives now. They not only can’t forget him, they don’t want to, because that means some part of themselves would be forgotten. The 21-year-old secretary who was ambushed in the parking lot of a bustling shopping mall in Garden City is 64 now; she doesn’t want to talk about what she went through nor does she want her name used. But she wants her story told, so she has given her husband the task of telling it. He was her boyfriend in 1979, so he has lived with it too, and he remembers the aftermath of May 12, 1979, through the lens of nearly lifelong family attachment. It was her parents’ wedding anniversary, he says. She had gone to Roosevelt Field to shop for a Mother’s Day gift. For many years, she couldn’t shop in stores because of the memories associated with that experience, and even now, her parents’ anniversary is a bittersweet milestone. “I can tell you, it has had an effect on her through her life,” her husband says. “A lot of times we forget about it and life is normal. But there have been years where I’ve said, ‘What’s the matter?’ And she’ll say, ‘It’s my parents’ anniversary.'”
Surviving a predator like Hodne requires strength, of course—strength, resourcefulness, a clear-headed decision to live no matter what. In the case of the 16-year-old girl whose fight against Hodne in the kitchen of her parents’ home in Baldwin led to his Long Island capture, the strength seems frankly superhuman. On May 31, 1979, she was still a child. But she made Hodne run, and the people who knew her story were, she says, in awe of her. It has been part of her life all her life, the memory of her strength also proof of her strength. She became an artist, and she has had to live in rough neighborhoods, but as a survivor, she always had the confidence she would survive. “It may have been that I just trusted myself to get out of a bind,” she says.
The inevitable distinctions between survivors make it difficult to write about survival. The hard work of living with what has happened encourages the sharing of individual stories and ends up underscoring the fact that not all stories are alike, as Barbara Johnson, now 63-year-old Barbara Kuffner, understood even at age 20. On April 30, 1979, she went out running in her Bethpage neighborhood; when she ran past the local middle school, she felt Hodne running behind her, and then felt his knife. She does not in any way minimize the extreme brutality of the attack; when it was over, she felt certain that he would kill her, and she saw “the white lights.” But she didn’t die, and when Hodne left in the “sweater with the Mexican design” he would later throw in a dumpster, she went home with bruises on her face and rope burns on her wrists. “I ran home barefoot,” she says, “holding my sweatpants up because I didn’t even take the time to do the string.” She had told Hodne the truth when she told him her father was a cop. He was retired NYPD, and once she got home, he took her back to the scene of the crime in order to find evidence and get the story straight. “He said, ‘You have to do this.’ And I’m like, ‘Fine.'” After Hodne was caught a month later, Barbara went to the jailhouse to pick him out of a lineup and then to court to testify against him. And it was there she saw the other women; it was there she realized the differences between them.
“They looked awful,” Barbara says. “You could see they were just shattered by it. And it taught me a lot about myself, honestly, that I looked at these women who had been raped by the same man many months before and they were still suffering. I saw all of them. They all looked ruined. And it made me realize my strength in myself.” She got over the attack, she says, “the day after it happened. I was over it. I was not going to let it bog me down. But you never forget it. You never forget it for the rest of your life. You just don’t. It comes up. It comes up in conversations. It comes up in parenting.” And decades later, it also came up in sex with her former partner: “I said to him, ‘I’ve been raped.’ And it’s crazy. Because it was, what, 42 years ago? And I said, ‘You need to be gentle with me.’ And he said, ‘I’ve heard the story.’ And I said, ‘But you need to still be gentle with me.'”
There is no prescription for surviving the trauma of sexual assault. The women who speak here offer their stories rather than their advice; they testify as individuals rather than as representatives of any sort of category or class. There is, however, a prescription for how the survivors of sexual assault should—and should not—be treated. The only universal response to trauma is grief for what came before. The women Hodne attacked on Long Island each responded to the experience in different ways, but they were allowed to grieve in court for themselves and each other. It was not that way in State College, where only one of the women whom Hodne was suspected of attacking went to court, and where the rest had to grieve privately for, among other things, their loss of faith in the place they were supposed to love the rest of their lives. They had to grieve for their loss of happiness in Happy Valley during a season of frenzied celebration for a team and a coach pursuing the national championship. The team that provided the magic also had provided Todd Hodne support, moral and otherwise; the coach who provided leadership had provided him his scholarship. Joe Paterno took pride in his role as moral exemplar and had led millions of Pennsylvanians and then tens of millions of Americans to believe he had something to say about everything. He was very nearly silent about Todd Hodne.
Adrienne Reissman believes that Hodne was the man who attacked her in the parking lot outside the Train Station in downtown State College: “He did a f—ing number on me, and I’m a brave soul.” But she also believed back then in Joe Paterno, and she expected something of him: “The decency and humanity to acknowledge the pain that the women [Hodne] hurt suffer. That’s what I expected. That’s what I expected from Joe Paterno. But nothing. Nothing. They washed it under the rug. ‘Oh, my God—it’s one of Joe Paterno’s football players? Oh, please God—no.’ They kept that quiet. They kept it quiet.”
Paterno is gone now, deceased and disgraced. But Adrienne is reminded of him every time she receives a fundraising letter from her alma mater, which she throws away unopened. She knows Paterno kicked Hodne off the team. In her mind, that was not enough.
“You only partly did the right thing,” she says, addressing Paterno 43 years later. “The humanity is the other part. Really: Who the f—- are you? God? That you can’t acknowledge that someone that you brought to this campus hurt five women that I know of? And you don’t have the decency to at least write a note? Because this man who was hurting women all over campus went to school for nothing, nothing. He had everything. And you sought him out, Mr. Paterno. You brought that rapist on to this campus, and you gave him money to come. Excuse my language. F— you, Joe Paterno”
Irv Pankey was once the biggest man Betsy Sailor had ever seen. Now he is just too big for his rental car, especially after four hours behind the wheel. He has come a long way for this, flying across the country and then driving across the state of Pennsylvania. He climbs out of the car one long limb at a time. He moves with the unmistakable gait of a man who played football for a living, a 63-year-old man in a Hawaiian shirt and a ball cap who doesn’t hurry, even in the rain.
He knocks on the door.
She is not surprised this time, and when the door opens, she embraces him, then clings to him, as if steadying herself after losing her footing. He has the same big cheeks, with the small, winsome smile squeezed between them. “What up, dear child?” he asks. “Where’s my cookies?”
They have not seen each other since a chance meeting outside Beaver Stadium a year or two after they graduated. But they’ve been in touch lately, more than four decades after they each did something remarkable. “When I think back on him doing what he did, I’m amazed that he even thought strongly about it. And that he took that risk,” Betsy says. “Here’s a [future] captain of the football team, in a championship year, looking at the NFL draft; well, a lot was on the line for Irv. To have him going against the powerhouse of Penn State football and what his leader, Joe Paterno, was telling him was absolutely amazing.”
Irv did not feel that Paterno had prohibited him from standing up for Betsy, but he did know he was taking a risk by breaking ranks: “Penn State football—we were winning, we were nationally ranked, we were doing well. It was a close-knit brotherhood, so to speak, kind of like an army platoon.” Few of his coaches or teammates remember what Irv did for Betsy, but to a man they say it sounds like something Irv would do. “Irv probably said, ‘This is a bigger statement than just playing football here at Penn State,'” says former defensive back Micky Urquhart.
Watch “Betsy & Irv”
More on Betsy Sailor’s story of survival and the unexpected hero who helped her as she confronted a predator, an institution and the justice system in the ESPN Film streaming now on ESPN+. Watch here.
And now here they are, reunited in 2021 over something that happened in 1978, Irv eating snickerdoodle cookies in the kitchen of a State College rental and Betsy immediately angled against his shoulder. “I had 43 years’ knowledge of this person and his impact on my life,” she will say a few weeks later. “And I was never able to really express that fully and say a long overdue thank you. But then there’s that magic that happened. As soon as I saw him, it was the most heart-to-heart transfer of appreciation and love that went right through me, and then from him back to me. And just that smile and my smile and the eye contact. It was magical. It was a deep connection that was, I guess, ever-present but never realized. It was always there, but I couldn’t, didn’t, seek it out. I didn’t make it happen. So it was the magic of the moment and just seeing him and being able to hug him. Which I don’t recall doing much of when we first met. But now I could hug him and look at him and hug him again.”
A question often arises about the revelations in this story, a retrospective question about the responsibility and culpability of the coaches, players and university officials, as well as of the cops, lawyers and judges, who found out about Todd Hodne in real time, without the benefit of hindsight:
What would you have had them do?
The story of Todd Hodne is so full of pain that to recount it is also to hope that someone steps in and stops him. There are people who perhaps have the chance to and don’t; there are people—Dave Smith and his father, Don, at St. Dom’s; Francis Quigley in Nassau County; David Grine and Duane Musser in State College—who try to. These are good people doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. But Hodne was an unstoppable force and a rare evil. He forced some people to find a place in themselves that went beyond themselves. The women, whose death-defying feats of courage, strength and resolve in the face of their attacker seem unimaginable, had to go beyond themselves. So did Robert Gruber, who came out of his house in Huntington when Hodne was strangling Jeffrey Hirsch and offered testimony that enabled John B. Collins in Suffolk County to put Hodne away for life. And so did Irv Pankey, whose heroism was such that it allows a glimpse of what might be possible in the face of evil. He did not stop Hodne. Nor did he take the stand and testify against him. But he did something no one else was able to do. He saw himself in another and he took up her pain as his own. He imagined what it must have been like for her and led her back into the world. And so he became . . . he becomes what everyone in this story needs, and what only Betsy Sailor actually gets, embracing him now in the kitchen—”my guardian angel.”
Jeffrey Hirsch, a cabdriver and father of four, died on Aug. 16, 1987. He had been on life support for five days. He was brain dead. His wife, Mary Beth, was at his side. And 31 years after lying in court about strangling him, and then arguing in appeals for more than a decade that he did it in self-defense, Hodne told the parole board he was sorry.
“I ended his life,” Hodne said. “It’s unforgivable; it’s inexcusable. And then I tried to blame it on him at the trial, tried to make myself the victim. I’m sorry.” Hodne’s daughter was born when he was in jail awaiting trial, and he married her mother when the trial began. His daughter had made him feel more empathetic, he said: “I’ve never been out there for her . . . and maybe the first family visit she had she was asking me when I was coming home. She wanted me home, and she started crying. And that night, I could only think about, ‘This is what I’ve done to [Hirsch’s] children.’ I believe it helped me understand a little bit better the damage that I caused.”
Kristen Hirsch has never really had a father. She was a baby when Hodne killed her father; her oldest sister was 7, her youngest sister was six months old. Sobbing, she wants people to know: “To grow up without a Dad really sucks. The love from your father is the first true love you know, and I don’t have that. I’ve never had that, and I probably never will.”
Her mother, Mary Beth Hirsch, who died in January, 2022, didn’t talk much about the murder: “She had a real bad time after my Dad died.” But she kept a briefcase with all the clippings from the trial. It was not something the children were supposed to open. But they did. “I was about 8 years old, and I remember getting into it. And I remember reading that Todd knew my Dad and my Dad was selling drugs and I didn’t know what to make of it. I knew from a really young age that my father was killed but not the specifics.”
A few years ago, Kristen says, she was contacted by the parole board. “They got hold of me and asked about him being let out on parole. I said I really didn’t know—all I knew was the same story I had heard, that [Hodne] was addicted to drugs and was robbing my father for money. As someone who has dealt with drug addiction, I felt that maybe he should get another chance, you know? But I didn’t know the things I’m finding out now.”
She didn’t know who Todd Hodne was; she didn’t know how strong he was, how persuasive and how violent. She didn’t know what he had done before he killed her father. She didn’t know he lied to the police about what happened. She didn’t know her father was no drug dealer but simply a man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Kristen Hirsch is close in age to Hodne’s daughter. They have had very different lives, in that Hodne’s daughter, for all she had to endure in her life, had what Kristen didn’t. She had a father, and he was a constant and sustaining presence in her life. She has stories to tell of him and of growing up as a little girl in the prison yard. She spoke to him nightly by phone. She believes he got off drugs for her, and she believes his remorse over his crimes was genuine and agonizing. When he got cancer, she became his medical advocate. When he was dying on a ventilator, in the early weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown, she was able to see him for the first time in her life in a room without guards, who waited outside and told her when her five minutes were up. She had to wear PPE gear, “basically a hazmat suit,” she says. But she touched his wrist, and had the chance to say goodbye.
And yet the two daughters also have something in common. Kristen did not know about the crimes of the man who killed her father until she was contacted for this story. And Hodne’s daughter did not know about them, either; she had been told by her family that her father had killed a drug dealer in a drug deal gone wrong. She did not know what her father had done until after he died, when the prison handed her the few bags containing his belongings and personal effects. In them were his legal papers. In them were many of his crimes.
Hodne’s wife now lives in a nursing home, according to his daughter. We succeeded in reaching her once and never again. His daughter has spoken to us a number of times over the past year and a half; last summer, she asked us to tell her the worst Todd Hodne did and listened to the excruciating entirety of our answer. She asked not to be quoted on the subject of her father. Instead, she wrote a statement addressed directly to his victims:
“There is nothing easy about this for any party involved. I’m sorry you haven’t been able to tell your stories; I’m thankful you can now. I only recently learned the extent of my father’s crimes in July of 2021. Having a daughter changed my father in more ways than I can express, but that doesn’t change what he did before my birth. His crimes haunted him till the day he died. It’s not easy to come to terms with what he did. I know there is nothing I can say to undo the damage and trauma you and your families have endured. I hope this gives you some peace and closure after all you have gone through. I give my deepest condolences to you all and your families”
In 1989, Joe Paterno wrote an autobiography titled “Paterno By the Book.” Chapter 20, “If a Coach Wants Love, He Also Gets Losing,” addresses his loss to Alabama and what he calls “the terrible season” of 1979.
“In the summer preceding the 1979 season, the team was shocked by the kind of incident that’s not supposed to happen in Penn State athletics,” he wrote. “One of our young players was arrested on multiple charges of rape. Then, on opening day of fall practice I had to bounce three players off the squad for losing their playing eligibility for academic reasons. One of these was all-American Peter Harris, who led the nation in 1978 with ten interceptions. That was not only a loss in itself, but fans felt the pain of it even harder because he was the kid brother of Franco Harris, who had graduated six years earlier. People came down on me as though I had committed disrespect to Franco’s memory. When people demanded I explain, I did so bluntly. Pete goofed off. When that’s so, I said, I don’t care whose brother he is.”
The passage is the only on-the-record statement Joe Paterno ever made about Todd Hodne’s string of sexual assaults. It does not name Hodne. It does not say he was convicted or sentenced. It does not say Hodne’s crimes began during the 1978 season, when the team was contending for the national championship. It does not mention the women he attacked who were students at Penn State or the pain they suffered. And it does not refer to the crimes Hodne went on to commit in Long Island.
In November 2011, 22 years after publishing “Paterno By the Book,” Joe Paterno announced his intention to retire in the wake of revelations of sexual abuse committed by his former assistant coach and close associate Jerry Sandusky, who remained close to the program. Days earlier, Sandusky had been accused of sexually abusing young boys for more than a decade. In his statement, Paterno reflected on his own responsibility and inaction: “This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
A few hours later, Penn State fired him.
Ann Sailor lived near Pittsburgh when Hodne raped her daughter, Betsy, and she was accustomed to regular front-page stories about Penn State football and even, occasionally, the off-the-field peccadilloes of its players. She does not remember any featured coverage of Hodne’s crimes against Betsy or of Betsy’s act of witness. But more troubling to her, she says, was the complete silence from Penn State: “I was just under the impression that they were keeping it quiet. I suppressed the urge of going to the university myself. The university never, ever got in touch with us about this. As parents, we never heard a word from the university or from the athletic department or from Joe Paterno. Never one word.
“But I thought, why didn’t he ever pick up the phone and call parents? If nothing else, as a parent himself.”
“Everybody would talk about how wonderful Joe Paterno was,” Ann says. “But I thought, why didn’t he ever pick up the phone and call parents? If nothing else, as a parent himself. That his football player had done this to our daughter. … I can’t imagine what Betsy’s days and nights were like after that because I wasn’t there. I wasn’t with her. And yet Joe Paterno went to sleep every night and I don’t think he gave a damn about what her nights and days were, nor anyone at the university.”
The victims we spoke to wanted to hear more from the university. We contacted current Penn State president Eric Barron, requesting access to Hodne’s student file and asking for a meeting to discuss Hodne’s crimes and their impact on the lives of his fellow Penn State students, the university’s alumna. Barron never responded directly. Two university spokespeople met with us in person and arranged a meeting with the current assistant vice president for student affairs to discuss present-day Title IX strategies. Ultimately, one of the spokespeople released the following statement:
“First, Todd Hodne committed horrific crimes, and we have the greatest sympathies for each of those he victimized. We recognize their lifelong struggle to cope with the pain Hodne inflicted through his crimes, and we hope they can find some solace in the fact that Hodne was caught, convicted, and spent the rest of his life in prison for what he did.”
The statement continued:
“Regarding your request for Hodne’s file. While FERPA [student privacy] rights extinguish upon a student’s death, in the interest of safeguarding students’ legitimate privacy interests in their education records, the University’s longstanding practice is to not release the education records of any deceased student unless required by law.”
It happened a long time ago, and the time when it happened was different from today. Today, 43 years after Hodne was convicted of his rapes and sexual assaults, there are laws on the books and policies in place that help prevent such crimes from taking place. There are provisions under federal Title IX gender equity laws that require schools to investigate such reports and provide support, counseling and protection to students who have been the victim of sexual violence. There is a requirement for campus law enforcement to issue timely warnings, which students receive on their cell phones when a suspected predator is on the loose.
And yet the story of Todd Hodne is not simply a reminder of how much has changed since 1978. It’s a reminder of how slowly change has come. It’s a reminder that change didn’t come until it had to. It’s a reminder that, in the matter of athletic departments and sexual violence, change came because the worst that could possibly happen so often did. It’s a reminder that incremental progress has occurred at the cost of indelible pain and that every law protecting students today exists because of the absence of such laws a few decades ago—an absence that gave rise to the notorious stories and impossible outrages that led to institutions and athletic departments finally being called into account.
“There isn’t any reason why you can’t have great football with people who are very sensitive, humane individuals.”
JOE PATERNO, on the temperament of football players in an interview with ABC News in 1978.
The story of Todd Hodne should have been one of those stories—one that prompted change or at the very least one for which people were held accountable. It should have been a story that elicited outrage, but it wasn’t, because the story of the Penn State football player who preyed pitilessly on women even as his team and his coach were competing for the national championship was never told. Like Betsy Sailor, who even after she won in court had to find out that the man who victimized her went on to victimize so many others, the women who suffered at Todd Hodne’s hands had to suffer in vain, their pain a missed opportunity cloaked in a secrecy and silence that reverberated decades later.
Ten years ago, when the revelations of the secrets kept by Penn State’s athletic department resulted in the conviction of Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts of child sexual abuse involving 10 boys and caused the statue of Paterno at Beaver Stadium to come down, Shelley Gottsagen, who in 1975 had participated in the protests against gang rapes at “the football fraternity,” read the coverage expecting a reckoning that never happened: “It stunned me. I really thought, I just made that comment so many times when Sandusky’s trial was happening … I can’t believe nobody’s dug up what happened in the ’70s there. The protests and the rapes—it’s gone from history. It stunned me. I really thought, ‘Why are they not looking?'” When Karen Zelin, who was working alongside Gottsagen in the 1970s, heard about Sandusky, it almost made sense to her: “This is what was happening then. This was common knowledge among us that things were covered up or ignored.” Those incidents with women were the prelude of what was to come, says Joanne Tosti-Vasey, the NOW chapter president who called for Paterno to resign in 2006: “That climate of indifference allowed it [Sandusky’s crimes] to happen. It took child sexual assault for the public to become outraged.”
At the time of the Sandusky revelations—at the time a 2012 report determined that Paterno failed to respond appropriately when made aware of the accusations against his assistant coach—the general public’s understanding was that this was the first time this program had been faced with the prospect of a serial sexual predator in its midst. The belief was that the coaching staff and the administration at Penn State had been caught unawares, that something had happened that they never could have imagined or prepared for.
But that was not the case.
Before Jerry Sandusky, there was Todd Hodne. Before the serial sexual predator who ended Paterno’s career, there was the serial sexual predator who left his career untouched.
“I remember being in a group for dinner and people were discussing this,” Ann Sailor says. “Here, [where she lives in Pennsylvania], it’s very pro Penn State. You know, there are an awful lot of Penn State graduates. And I piped up and said, ‘There were incidents that happened at Penn State where they kept it under the rug, and it was not talked about.’ They just looked at me.’ I know for sure. It was just to be kept quiet. And it was kept quiet.'”
Cliff “Clyde” Corbin, who played for Joe Paterno, and who knew Karen and what happened to her, remembers debating with his Nittany Lion teammates Paterno’s response—or lack of response—to Sandusky’s crimes. “When the whole thing happened, people were reacting like, ‘he couldn’t have known,'” he says. “I was like, ‘Come on – stop.’ I love the man. But the buck stopped with him for 50 years. The president of the university was the president in name only when it came to football. The man handled everything.”
The story of Todd Hodne wouldn’t have been told at all if John B. Collins, who prosecuted Hodne for killing Jeffrey Hirsch and became a judge in Suffolk County, hadn’t kept tabs on the investigative file in the event that the parole system ever considered releasing Hodne from prison. From that file came Karen, Adrienne Reissman, Susan, Anne Wright, Barbara Johnson, Georgette and Kathleen Pirkl, Caroline O’Neill, the 21-year-old Freeport woman, Denise O’Brien and the teenage girl. From that file came their voices, asking to be heard.
Most everything else is gone, and what “routine housekeeping of records” and laws that privilege institutional “discretion” can’t achieve, time will. Lenny Smith, the parole officer for Todd Hodne before he killed Jeffrey Hirsch, remembers Hodne as a “wrecker,” and as a one-word epitaph, it will suffice. But time is the original wrecker and does its own kind of violence. It kills and robs and distorts and plunders and turns what is provisionally remembered into what is at risk of being lost forever. The players who remember Todd Hodne have grown old, and the coaches who worked for Joe Paterno in many cases say they have no memories of Hodne whatsoever. Booker Brooks, the receivers coach, doesn’t. Neither does Dan Riley, the strength coach. Neither does Jerry Petercuskie, the graduate assistant. Line coach Dick Anderson remembers the name, remembers the “incident.” So does the coach who went to St. Dominic and recruited Hodne to State College, though he adds the inevitable caveat: “That was a long time ago, and my memory is not what it used to be.”
We initially contacted all of these coaches by phone. One coach, however, was contacted, as a matter of necessity, by a letter sent in the U.S. mail to inmate No. KT2386 in a prison in Pennsylvania.
“I received your letter and must say I feel bad about my lack of recollection. I only vaguely remember [Todd Hodne’s] name,” he replied in a handwritten note. “I may have been the contact person because of my founding of the Second Mile in ’77. It’s possible I made some attempt to help him. My guess is that I didn’t become heavily involved for some reason. It sounds as though he had problems well beyond what I was capable of helping.
https://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/32496588/before-jerry-sandusky-penn-state-football-had-another-serial-sexual-predator-untold-story-crimes-fight-bring-justice Before Jerry Sandusky, Penn State football had another serial sexual predator. This is the untold story of his crimes and the fight to bring him to justice.