‘A Terrifying Predator’: ESPN Investigation Documents Todd Hodne’s Crimes At Penn State & Beyond
A new, highly detailed investigation by ESPN journalists released on Monday sheds light on Todd Hodne — a former Penn State football player whose record of sexual assault and violence largely went “untold” for more than four decades.
The piece, a 32,000-word report from ESPN’s Tom Junod and Paula Lavigne, recounts Hodne’s actions as a student at Penn State in the late 1970s and the years following his departure from Centre County. He’s said to have committed a string of crimes, including the assault of more than a dozen women and a 1987 murder that placed him behind bars until he died of cancer on April 29, 2020, shortly following his 61st birthday.
ESPN’s investigation and subsequent recount of Hodne’s actions are graphic and disturbing. After conducting hundreds of interviews with Hodne’s former inner circle — his friends, girlfriends, family members, teammates, and coaches — and reviewing decades-old, heavily redacted documents, the investigation paints a picture of “a terrifying predator who called himself ‘the All-American kid,'” Junod and Lavigne wrote.
Hodne led a troubled adolescent life, but his more serious crimes at Penn State began on August 19, 1978, when he held a State College woman at knifepoint and sexually assaulted her. That same afternoon, Joe Paterno suspended Hodne from Penn State’s football team for the rest of the season, referencing a robbery Hodne allegedly committed earlier that year. That woman, Karen, asked to be identified by only her first name and largely struggled to recount her run-in with Hodne. She did recall, however, that Paterno eventually called to check in on her, but she later said Paterno wound up intimidating her in the process.
In September 1978, Hodne raped Betsy Sailor, then a Penn State senior. Soon, the fallout from Hodne’s crime polarized some on the Nittany Lions football team. According to ESPN’s reporting, Paterno told his players that Hodne was guilty, “and if you testify for him, you’re off the team.” Tony Capozzoli, one of Hodne’s teammates, did testify. According to ESPN, Capozzoli was removed from the team but remained on scholarship.
“To a fault, [Paterno] put the program ahead of everything else,” Capozzoli told ESPN.
Irv Pankey, however, was not fazed. An offensive tackle for Penn State, Pankey came to Sailor’s defense and fulfilled his role as “a natural protector.” He offered her support throughout her trial and credited Sailor for standing up against her abuser.
“When Betsy testified, I thought that took a hell of a lot of courage and self-fortitude,” Pankey told ESPN.
Following hearings in Sailor’s case, a jury found Hodne guilty on several charges in March 1979. Moments after the verdict, Judge Richard Sharp silenced the Centre County Courthouse and announced Hodne would be released to return home to Long Island with his family as he awaited sentencing. That fateful decision, many interviewed in ESPN’s story argued, allowed Hodne to commit more crimes away from Centre County before he was jailed.
In the spring of 1979, shortly after Hodne was sent home to New York, his crimes continued. Among them, according to ESPN’s investigation, Hodne tailed a group of 19- and 20-year-olds 2,000 miles down I-95 to Florida for a spring break trip just to intimidate them and convince them he couldn’t be guilty of Sailor’s rape. Weeks later, he raped a 23-year-old woman in the woods and another 20-year-old woman, bound and beaten, behind a middle school. He would later beat a 16-year-old girl near his home in Wantagh, New York.
Hodne later confessed to some of his crimes in 1979. He was indicted on four counts of first-degree rape, three counts of first-degree sodomy, three counts of first-degree robbery, two counts of second-degree burglary, and one count of first-degree attempted rape, according to ESPN’s investigation. In September 1979, Hodne pleaded guilty to two counts of rape, two counts of sexual assault, and a single count of attempted second-degree robbery. A judge sentenced him to a minimum of seven years and a maximum of 21 across both Pennsylvania and New York.
Once he was released in 1986, Hodne confessed to a therapist that he began smoking crack and violating parole. In 1987, he murdered Jeffrey Hirsch, a cab driver and father of four who, following a struggle with Hodne, wound up brain dead and succumbed to his wounds five days later. Hodne, meanwhile, would spend the rest of his life in prison after he was arrested and convicted for Hirsch’s murder.
Through the entire investigation, ESPN’s team constantly notes that Hodne’s story largely went untold. Besides Paterno’s initial announcement of Hodne’s suspension, ESPN’s story says, Penn State nor its football program publicly addressed Hodne or his victims.
Today, much remains the same. Penn State President Eric Barron, when contacted by ESPN’s investigators, did not respond directly. Two university spokespeople met with Junod and Lavigne and arranged a meeting with Student Affairs administrators. In a statement, Penn State said Hodne “committed horrific crimes” and clarified it supports Hodne’s victims, who the university hopes “can find some solace in the fact that Hodne was caught, convicted, and spent the rest of his life in prison for what he did.”
Continuing, university officials said they would not grant access to Hodne’s student file, citing Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act regulations that shape student privacy laws. Penn State said that, through a longstanding practice, it does not release the education records of deceased students “unless required by law.”
To read ESPN’s full investigation, which is chock-full of details that could not otherwise be properly summarized, head online through this link.
ESPN says its pursuit of Hodne’s story will continue with the release of an upcoming film, “Betsy & Irv”, that will examine Sailor’s “story of survival” and Pankey’s role as an “unexpected hero” who helped her through such troubling times. For now, it’s unclear when the film will premiere.
Anyone with additional information about Todd Hodne or sexual violence in State College during the 1970s and 80s is encouraged to contact ESPN’s investigative team. Send an email to Tom Junod or Paula Lavigne or call in a tip by dialing (860) 370-4850.
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About the Author
Nittany Lions old and new have received new jersey numbers ahead of the 2022 season.