Acquitted teacher files suit against Plum and police force
A teacher at Plum Senior High School acquitted of witness intimidation in the investigation of other teachers accused of having sex with students sued Plum Borough and its police force on Thursday in U.S. District Court.
Drew Zoldak, 41, said in his complaint that the police violated his civil rights in bringing a case against him “with reckless disregard of the truth.”
Mr. Zoldak was acquitted last June after a jury trial in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.
He had been charged with one count of witness intimidation after investigators said he singled out the victim of former teacher Joseph Ruggieri in his class on the morning of April 20, 2015.
When students asked him why he had been absent the previous Friday, according to prosecutors, he told them he was being interviewed by detectives “because of her,” referring to Mr. Ruggieri’s victim, identified in court records as Jane Doe.
The jury found him not guilty after deliberating about 90 minutes.
Mr. Zoldak’s complaint, filed by attorney Alexander Lindsay, who represented him at the criminal trial, names police Chief Jeff Armstrong and officers Lanny Conley, Mark Focareta and Joseph Little as well as the borough.
According to the suit, Detective Focareta swore out a complaint on April 22, 2015, in which the victim said she thought Mr. Zoldak’s comments were “inappropriate” and “made her feel uncomfortable.” During the criminal trial, she testified that his actions caused her to question her decision to testify against Mr. Ruggieri and cooperate with the police, although she did both.
The day after the incident, according to the suit, Detective Focareta interviewed students present in the classroom and none corroborated the girl’s story. Without further investigation, the suit says, Detective Focareta swore out a probable cause affidavit and an arrest warrant.
The complaint also says that even if the evidence that the detective gathered had been true, it didn’t amount to witness intimidation.
During the trial, Mr. Lindsay made the same argument.
“This isn’t the crime of making someone feel bad,” he said then. “This isn’t the crime of embarrassing someone. This crime is designed to keep people from trying to interfere with the system of justice.”
Reached at his Butler office Thursday, Mr. Lindsay said the the filing of the charges and his client’s “very public” arrest in his classroom were efforts by police to intimidate faculty members and students from questioning the legitimacy of the criminal cases against Mr. Ruggieri and another teacher, Jason Cooper, also accused of having sex with a student.
“It’s our opinion that this was a ‘send-a-message’ arrest,” he said of the way police hauled Mr. Zoldak out of school in handcuffs.
The suit says Mr. Zoldak suffered harm to his reputation when he was suspended and then “vilified” in the media as one of the teachers involved in the Plum sex scandal.
Mr. Lindsay said he lost opportunities for other teaching positions and potential income as a result.
“Because of these false charges against him, he lost the ability to work with children, including his own children, in sports activities such as coaching and helping with other people coaching,” Mr. Lindsay said.
The suit accuses the police of acting “with malice and reckless disregard for [Mr. Zoldak’s] federally protected constitutional and civil rights” under the First and 14th Amendments and seeks unspecified money damages.
Bruce Dice, borough solicitor, said he hadn’t seen the suit and couldn’t comment.