Police lacked assault details
Share with others:
Pittsburgh sex assault detectives investigated former Pittsburgh Public Schools police Officer Robert Lellock in 1999 but were not aware of key information the school district had that could have helped them crack the case.
Detectives got a break in July, when a 27-year-old man told them the officer sexually assaulted him repeatedly in a closet of Arthur J. Rooney Middle School on the North Side, where he was a troubled student. City detectives reviewed the district's internal investigation from 1999 -- which they didn't have before -- and became aware of three other men who now also accuse the former officer of abuse that occurred more than 10 years ago.
Mr. Lellock, 43, of Beltzhoover was arraigned early Thursday on 23 counts of offenses including child endangerment, official oppression, sex crimes and terroristic threats involving four men who said they were 13 or 14 when they encountered him. A district judge held him on $1 million bond and ordered him to undergo a mental health evaluation through the Allegheny County Jail's behavioral clinic.
Many questions remain about the school district's handling of the May 1999 incident -- in which then-principal Ronald Zangaro told police he discovered Mr. Lellock and a 14-year-old boy "wrestling" in a closet at the middle school. Among the questions are why the district did not make city police privy to its internal investigation at that time or report the case to detectives sooner. As part of its internal probe, school administrators interviewed teachers and several students, including the 14-year-old and the men Mr. Lellock has now been charged with abusing. None of them accused the officer of sexual misconduct at that time, and the district opted to suspend Mr. Lellock for 20 days for violating protocol by removing students from class and taking them into the secluded closet.
It wasn't until two months later, in July 1999, that former school police Chief Robert Fadzen asked sex assault detectives to look into the May closet incident, police said. Mr. Fadzen on Thursday referred questions to his attorney, who did not return calls for comment.
"It was something we wish we would have been notified of immediately," said city sex assault Detective Greg Boss, who was not in the unit then but is investigating the cases now. Detectives, rather than school staff, could have properly interviewed the students had they known sooner, he said. "We didn't conduct the interviews, so we don't know what questions were asked."
Police at the time lacked the evidence warranted for criminal charges, Detective Boss said. The 14-year-old, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2001, did not accuse Mr. Lellock of sexual assault, nor did Mr. Zangaro, who said he discovered the two in the closet while making his daily rounds. He told detectives in 1999 that he pushed open the closet door and saw the boy and Mr. Lellock, both fully clothed, standing in opposite corners. Mr. Zangaro said "the student appeared to be shocked to see him and said, 'We were just wrestling.'" He recalled "he was furious at Lellock" and "he believed something inappropriate was going on, even though the victim and Lellock told him they were just wrestling," according to police reports from that time.
Mr. Zangaro said he immediately reported the "suspicious incident" to a school police commander and Mr. Fadzen, who began their investigation the next day. Mr. Zangaro told police the boy "repeatedly denied he had been sexually assaulted. The boy's mother also did not want to pursue the matter, he said.
"Zangaro stated that, in his opinion, Lellock should have been fired for this incident," the police report says. Mr. Lellock, he added, had no permission to pull students from their classes and he wasn't aware that teachers were allowing it to happen. He added, "he does not fault the teachers, because with Lellock presenting himself the way he had, they trusted him," according to the report.
His current statements to police are consistent with the one he made in 1999, Detective Boss said. Mr. Zangaro, who left Rooney later in 1999, could not be reached for comment.
School solicitor Ira Weiss declined to comment, citing ongoing investigations. "I can only tell you that when a full explanation of the circumstances comes out, and it will, I believe the actions of the school district will be evident," Mr. Weiss said.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. announced last month that his office was investigating the school district's handling of the abuse allegations. The Post-Gazette has learned that taking the case before the county grand jury has not been necessary. University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said that could mean witnesses being interviewed in the matter are cooperating.
Mr. Zappala said late Thursday that he expects his probe will be completed by the end of the year. He declined to comment on specifics. When there is an allegation of sexual abuse, he said, it must be turned over to the authorities quickly.
"You can't wait. It's crucial to get a matter before the police immediately and that wasn't done," Mr. Zappala said. "These are very time-sensitive investigations."
Based on the fact that the city school district submitted memoranda of understanding with the Pittsburgh police in 2008 and 2011 with respect to child abuse reporting, it is unlikely that anything the investigation uncovers would implicate either current superintendent Linda Lane or Mr. Weiss.
Pittsburgh police said their investigation also continues, and they expect additional accusers to come forward. Mr. Lellock is charged with sexually assaulting three students and providing a fourth with marijuana. In at least one of the cases, the man told detectives he did not report the incident to them sooner because he was afraid and embarrassed.
Mr. Lellock's attorney, Timothy Kidd, said his client "had no knowledge of what [they] were talking about" when he heard news reports of the investigation three weeks ago. "He was dumbfounded." Mr. Kidd declined further comment because he had not yet read the criminal complaint.
The school board accepted Mr. Lellock's resignation Wednesday night. He was a 22-year veteran.