PITTSBURGH (AP) – A former state prison guard cooperating with prosecutors in their abuse case against another ex-guard was known for telling tall tales, including once claiming that he worked on Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s car, a third guard testified Tuesday.
Kevin Johnson testified on behalf of fired Pittsburgh state prison guard Harry Nicoletti, 61, of Coraopolis.
Nicoletti is on trial on 80 counts including involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, institutional sexual assault and official oppression. Prosecutors say he targeted inmates he didn’t like, usually because they were convicted child molesters or gay.
Johnson testified that guard Curtis Hoffman – who testified for the prosecution last week – had a habit of making outlandish claims. Johnson recounted that he was once talking about installing a ceiling fan only to hear Hoffman claim he had 32 such fans in his home.
“What, do you live in a wind tunnel?” Johnson said he asked Hoffman.
On other occasions, Johnson said Hoffman claimed to be a retired Army major with two honorable discharges, claimed he had a four-car garage and once claimed “he worked on Ben Roethlisberger’s Corvette, which we all found out was not true.”
Johnson was demoted but never criminally charged as part of an internal investigation into abuses at the prison.
The Associated Press could not immediately find a current listed phone number for Hoffman, who told the jury last week that he’s in the witness protection program and lost his house and 14-year career as a corrections officer because of his cooperation.
Nicoletti has said the charges are “made up” while defense attorney Steve Colafella has told the jury the allegations resulted from the inmate rumor mill, which he characterized in his opening statement as like a “non-computerized social network.”
Nicoletti has been the focus of an investigation that has seen six other guards who worked at the prison’s intake area charged with crimes.
Counts against three of those guards were dropped or dismissed when inmates changed their stories or were deemed incredible by a district judge.
One guard was convicted of felony witness intimidation and other counts involving an inmate who accused him of abuse. Ten other counts pertaining to three other accusers were dismissed by the same judge who’s presiding at Nicoletti’s trial.
The other two guards face trial on lesser charges later this year.
Nicoletti has opted for a jury trial. His fate will be determined by whether the jurors believe the testimony of 20 former inmates who have testified that Nicoletti targeted them or had other guards or inmate workers abuse them. Nicoletti is charged with molesting some inmates, including a transsexual male who claims he was raped, and also with having other guards or inmates taint their bedding or meals with urine or other bodily fluids.
Gary Chabot, the first defense witness to testify Tuesday, is a former inmate from Erie who said he overheard one of Nicoletti’s accusers seek out legal help from other inmates so he could make a “fictional report” to “get back at” Nicoletti and other guards.
Another inmate, Kenneth Bitkowski, 50, testified he was one of Nicoletti’s inmate workers and denied ever seeing or hearing Nicoletti abuse inmates or “call them out” for sex crimes so other inmates would abuse them.
Bitkowski testified that he called Colafella and offered to testify in support of Nicoletti after he saw a TV news story on the charges last year.
“I can’t believe this, what they’re saying, I know it’s not true,” Bitkowski remembered telling his wife at the time. “I know these corrections officers.”
Colafella has said Nicoletti will testify, though that’s not expected until at least Wednesday.
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