PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – A former Plum High School teacher will stand trial on felony witness intimidation charges.
Joseph Ruggieri, 40, faces multiple counts of witness intimidation after authorities say he had a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old student.
Previously, Ruggieri was told not to contact the alleged victim, but officials say he violated that court order. He is accused of contacting the 18-year-old victim twice via email accounts he set up on his school-issued laptop.
Today, Ruggieri appeared in court on those witness intimidation charges.
Ruggieri’s lawyer says the emails from his client to the alleged teenage victim in the case are about love, not intimidation.
“They say nothing whatsoever about ‘don’t testify,’ they don’t say anything about any intimidation, any threats, any offer of anything whatsoever. Therefore, I don’t believe the, despite the judge’s ruling, I don’t believe that the case has been met by the Commonwealth, and we intend to challenge that in the next proceeding,” said defense attorney Anthony DeLuca.
Ruggieri wore Allegheny County Jail red to the Wednesday hearing after his bond was revoked when he was charged for a second time with having contact with the student, this time using a school laptop.
The criminal complaint says first there were calls: “…When she answered the phone, the male caller identified himself as ‘Joey’ at which time she hung up. Victim stated she recognized the voice as that of Joseph Ruggieri.”
Then, a supposed fictional story sent in an email, which read in part: “Then, sweetie, stop running away. You can go across the country, but it won’t be far enough to escape what you really want. No matter how much fun and sun you try and find, you’ll always feel cold and lonely inside without him.”
Prosecutors saw that as veiled intimidation to keep the victim from testifying. The defense called it expressions of love, not intimidation.
“We believe they didn’t even meet the minimal requirements of the law that they establish some evidence of the case,” said DeLuca. “All those statements were, all those words were, were basically, ‘Hey, don’t be scared, don’t run away. If you love somebody, love them.’ That’s all they say.”
But District Judge Linda Inez Zucco disagreed and told the defense she wasn’t buying it. She ordered Ruggieri to stand trial on the latest charges.
As the hearing began, the defense tried to stop it when the prosecution planned to call only a detective and not the alleged victim herself.
After the judge ruled she would allow that testimony, the defense stipulated that the detective would testify to what was in the police affidavit, and the detective would testify that the alleged victim was scared by the contact.
“The issue is not whether it would scare an individual, it’s what the intent of the defendant is, and I don’t believe from what was stated there that the intent of the defendant could be in any way construed to be not to testify or to scare anybody,” said defense attorney DeLuca.
Ruggieri faces a number of other charges, but his lawyer hopes to go to trial later this year.