- Associated Press - Friday, June 10, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - A teacher accused of witness intimidation testified Friday that a remark he made to students that he missed a previous class because he “was being interviewed by two men in suits” wasn’t meant to menace a teen girl who had accused another teacher of illegal sex.

Plum High School teacher Drew Zoldak, 41, testified for the defense before both sides rested. The parties will be back in court Monday for closing arguments.

His accuser, now a 19-year-old college student, testified that Zoldak pointed her out in class as the reason he was questioned by Allegheny County district attorney’s detectives.

She said Zoldak was explaining to his forensics class why he had to meet with the detectives and miss class and gestured toward her by moving his head and saying, “Because of her.”

Zoldak acknowledged making the “men in suits” comment but denied gesturing toward her.

The Associated Press generally doesn’t identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault.

The accuser, then a senior, testified she was so upset when she left school later that day in April 2015 that she never returned - not for prom, not for her graduation. She also had reservations about continuing to cooperate with authorities investigating a teacher she says had sex with her - Joseph Ruggieri, 39, the vice president of the teachers union.

Prosecutors contend Zoldak made the comment and gestured toward her in an effort to get her to stop cooperating against Ruggieri, who has since pleaded guilty to institutional sexual assault. He’s serving two to five years in prison for violating that law, which makes it illegal for teachers to have sex with students, regardless of their age, and for trying to intimidate his accuser by continuing to contact her while he was free on bond.

Zoldak denied any such motives, and other students gave mixed accounts of the day.

Several other students who testified on Zoldak’s behalf said they never saw him gesture toward Ruggieri’s accuser and thought the exchange was no big deal.

It was common knowledge that teachers were being interviewed as part of the Ruggieri investigation, they testified, and Zoldak was simply acknowledging he was questioned, too.

“He never singled anybody out, never made a direct allegation toward anyone,” testified Ashley Alpino, a student in class that day.

But at least one other student said Zoldak gestured toward the accuser. The accuser testified that she “hoped nobody would catch” Zoldak’s gesture, but said, “Inside, I just broke.”

The witness intimidation charge Zoldak faces is a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in prison.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide