An Ellwood City district justice ruled yesterday that the June drowning of a 15-year-old resident of a Grove City reform school was a calamity but not a criminal offense, then dismissed all charges against a former counselor.
"Obviously this was most certainly a tragedy," District Justice Samuel A. Battaglia said at the end of the preliminary hearing. "But I don't believe it was a crime."
He threw out three counts of reckless endangerment and three counts of endangering the welfare of a child that had been filed against Aaron Joseph Cujas, 34, of Franklin, a counselor at George Junior Republic at the time of the drowning.
Cujas, who served as a house parent at George Junior for three years, took Nathaniel M. McCoy of Philadelphia and two other teens who lived in Cujas' cottage on an outing June 9.
First, they helped paint canoes for a church youth group for several hours at the home of Charles and Suzzett Foster in Grove City. Then they decided to go swimming in Slippery Rock Creek, a place where the Foster children had gone swimming numerous times.
State Trooper Joseph J. Vascetti, who investigated McCoy's drowning in the creek, told Battaglia the stream is clearly dangerous because of its depth and strong current. The hillside leading down to it at Kennedy Mills Bridge, where Cujas took the boys and two Foster girls, is steep, slippery and hazardous to climb down, he testified.
In addition, Vascetti said, Cujas should not have taken the youngsters there without life preservers or a lifeguard.
He also said it was irresponsible of Cujas to use the other teens to help search for McCoy in the water after they realized he was missing.
The trooper conceded, however, that there is a path worn from the bridge to the creek, that the creek is a public area and that it was not posted with "no swimming" signs. Several witnesses estimated that a dozen other teens were swimming in the creek that day.
Vascetti also said he was told Cujas ordered McCoy to stay on the stream bank after McCoy said he couldn't swim. Vascetti said youngsters who saw McCoy in the stream said he seemed to be swimming just fine.
The Lawrence County coroner ruled the death an accidental drowning.
The two other boys Cujas took on the outing, Travis Lakey of West Pittston, Luzerne County, and Kevin McNeely of Weirton, W.Va., testified that the current was strong but they were not frightened when swimming in the creek.
Cujas, who was fired five days after the drowning, was denied unemployment compensation and now suffers nightmares. After the hearing, he said, "I am so happy I could cry. I have been under so much stress."
His wife, Jackie Cujas, who served as a house parent with him, also was fired. On the day she learned she was pregnant with their third child, they were evicted from their home at George Junior.
"Only our faith in God has brought us through this," she said.
Barbara White Stack can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1878.