Jury trial still on hold for former gym coach

Court hearing held Tuesday

July 29, 2020 Cranberry Local News

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Keith Callen of Clinton Township, a former gymnastics coach, awaits a trial in Butler County for alleged sex crimes. cranberry EAGLE FILE PHOTO

It won’t be until October at the earliest before Butler County holds a jury trial.

Jury trials were put on hold the week of March 16 due to COVID-19.

Judge William Shaffer, acting Common Pleas Court administrative judge, made the assessment July 21 during a hearing for Keith R. Callen, 49, who is accused of sexually abusing young girls.

Callen, who allegedly committed the acts during his time as a gymnastics coach between 1998 and 2000, appeared for the hearing by video from a state prison in Albion, where he is serving a two-to-four-years sentence for sexual abuse.

Last summer, Callen pleaded guilty in Allegheny County to aggravated indecent assault, sex assault by a sports official, unlawful contact and corruption of minors.

Callen faces similar charges in Butler County, and during last week’s hearing arguments were heard to determine future proceedings. Callen initially was charged in 2016, about 15 years after the alleged offenses.

Callen’s lawyer, David Chontos, argued Tuesday that prosecutors didn’t have evidence to support part of their case.

Chontos asked Shaffer when he expected to hold trials in the county again.

“We’re pushing along to eventual trial,” Chontos said. “What are the plans for a jury trial here? Hopefully I’ll get some insight.”

Shaffer said that he didn’t plan on holding anything until after September.

He also noted that Beaver County was the only county in the area that has held a trial since the start of the pandemic, adding, “I take certain comfort from surrounding counties” not holding trials.

Butler County, like the rest of the state, suspended all jury trials in mid-March after the coronavirus pandemic forced physical distancing measures to stop the spread of the virus.

Tuesday’s hearing centered on the June 10 addition of a felony charge of photographing or filming the sex act of a child.

Chontos argued that the new charge was unwarranted because there is no physical evidence to support it.

Callen’s case initially was part of the Allegheny County one, which went to trial in 2017 before the state Superior Court stepped in and nullified the trial results over constitutional violations against Callen.

The Superior Court split the case into two — one for Butler and another for Allegheny. The decision was made because only one of the relevant crimes was said to take place in Allegheny County, with the others happening in Butler.

When prosecutors grouped the two, they denied Callen his constitutional right to a trial “by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed,” the Superior Court found.

During that trial, two elementary school-aged girls testified that Callen made them wear tutus without underwear and took pictures.

Using that testimony, Assistant District Attorney Robert Zanella filed the additional charge with the backing of the transcript.

But Chontos countered Tuesday that there is no physical evidence to support the additional charge.

“You don’t have the photographs,” Chontos said. “You have the two children potentially describing what the photos were of. That’s it.”

Shaffer didn’t rule on Chontos’ request. A further hearing was scheduled for August.

During a preliminary hearing in 2016, one of the victims said she remembers Callen telling them not to tell anyone what was done to them. She said the abuse occurred at her mother’s home in Middlesex Township and at Callen’s home on Sarver Road.

She said both girls were repeatedly abused in Callen’s home.

Callen’s coaching career involved more than one county, and the cases against him involved two sets of victims in each county.

In the Butler County case, he is accused of molesting and taking sexual photographs of two girls — one of whom was age 5 or 6 and the other age 6 or 7 at the time during 2000-2001.

Zanella noted in a previous hearing in February that the photos used for the additional charge were destroyed or deleted by someone, but the existence of the transcript and the victims’ claims are enough to support the charge.

Shaffer admitted the addition, but Chontos insisted Tuesday that there was no evidence to support it.

As it stands, Callen faces two felony counts of endangering the welfare of children, and a felony count of photographing or filing the sex act of a child. He also faces two misdemeanors of corruption and a misdemeanor of indecent assault of a person less than 13 years old.

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