Harry F. Nicoletti, who was a corrections officer for a decade before being terminated under a cloud of suspicion, sat through the first day of his criminal trial Wednesday as a prosecutor characterized him as a cauldron of "demented desires" and the defense portrayed him as a decorated public servant.
Mr. Nicoletti, 61, of Coraopolis is accused of being the prime mover in a State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh clique that, prosecutors have said, singled out inmates viewed as pedophiles for abuse. He faces 89 criminal counts, ranging from official oppression to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, based largely on the accounts of 22 inmates, most of them sex offenders.
The accusers "had committed a crime, no question," said Assistant District Attorney Jon Pittman in his opening statement to the jury. But in prison, they don't have the power to make their own food, go to shower or even open their doors.
"Their very lives are dependent on the corrections officers," he said. Jurors, he said, will see what happens when someone "uses that authority and control over others to fulfill his own demented desires."
Defense attorney Steve Colafella said the many accusations were the product of "a noncomputerized social network" in which inmates share tales and try to build claims, and potentially lawsuits, against guards. "You've got inmates going from one prison to the next, and the rumors and the hyperbole go right with them."
He said the prosecution has no physical evidence, no video and no medical records documenting inmate injuries, and no paper grievances against Mr. Nicoletti before word about the investigation got out. The fired officer had a good work history, he said, and had received a rare Department of Corrections Medal of Valor, which he got for conduct outside of work.
Jury selection began Tuesday and resulted in a panel of 12 jurors and two alternates, including nine women.
Jerry Lynn Shoemaker, 42, of Pittsburgh was the inmate who spurred the investigation, and was the first accuser to testify. He is serving time for rape of a child and related charges.
Shoemaker said he entered SCI Pittsburgh in 2010 and was assigned to F Block. When Mr. Nicoletti became aware of his charges, he said, the officer "started berating me and screaming at me and slapped me off the face."
Later that night, he said, Mr. Nicoletti visited him in his cell while other inmates stood outside. The officer then exposed himself and told Shoemaker to masturbate him.
"If I didn't, he would have [another inmate] come in and beat the [expletive] out of me," Shoemaker told Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David R. Cashman. "I started reaching up. He slapped my hand away and said, 'If you touch my [penis], I'll kill you,' or something like that."
Shoemaker said he later came to the conclusion that his food was being tampered with, and stopped eating it for several days. "I ate toothpaste," he said.
Shoemaker later shared his account with counselors at another prison.
His account forms the basis of six charges, including two counts of criminal solicitation, and one each of terroristic threats, simple assault, indecent exposure and official oppression.
He will be cross-examined today.
Based on Shoemaker's accusation, Department of Corrections investigator Gary Hiler was assigned to investigate in late 2010.
Mr. Hiler testified that he and colleagues then fanned out and interviewed hundreds of inmates who had been on F Block.
"Inmates who were convicted of sex offenses that involved minors were primarily singled out, in most cases, and abused," he said. "No inmates were promised or given anything, in any manner, for being interviewed and cooperating with this investigation." He added that dozens of inmates declined to cooperate.
Mr. Pittman showed jurors a series of photos of F Block, a century-old, five-tiered structure that houses hundreds of inmates, most for short stints while they await transfer elsewhere.
He showed two cells that were not covered by cameras, and a vacant office.
The office, said Mr. Hiler, was where "sometimes inmates were taken into, and they indicated that they were physically or sexually assaulted in that room."
A former colleague of Mr. Nicoletti, Tory Kelly, was convicted last month on four counts related to an inmate's abuse allegations, and acquitted on 10 counts, and faces a March sentencing.
Two other former colleagues await trial, also before Judge Cashman, and three faced charges that have since been dismissed or dropped. None but Mr. Nicoletti were accused of sexual crimes.
Rich Lord: email@example.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord. First Published January 10, 2013 5:00 AM