Judge Accepts Plea Deal After Threatening To Reject it

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – One of the four Plum High School teachers facing charges pleaded guilty in court Wednesday morning; and after threatening to reject that plea, the judge accepted the deal sending the ex-teacher to jail.

There was a point in the day when nobody was sure what would happen to the plea deal. But in the end, Judge David Cashman approved the deal, sending 39-year-old Jason Cooper to jail for 18 to 36 months.

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Cooper, dressed in the jail uniform he’s worn since his bond was revoked in January, was accused of preying on the vulnerability of a female student who had family problems.

He allegedly provided alcohol to her, and eventually, they developed a sexual relationship.

But after Cooper pleaded guilty and after apologizing to the court, Judge Cashman made it clear he didn’t like the deal.

The judge told Cooper, “You’re not a teacher. You’re a predator. You are dangerous. I’m half tempted to reject it because it doesn’t give you enough punishment for what you’ve done. I’m still not sure I should approve this.”

Cooper’s lawyer says the judge had reservations when he met with lawyers Monday, too.

“At that time, Judge Cashman was very clear about him not feeling good about the plea,” said defense attorney Mike DeRiso. “So, as he indicated, he’s had several days to think about it, and Judge Cashman is honorable and he certainly took the time to reflect on the plea before he accepted it, and he did so, and he did so for reasons not to benefit Mr. Cooper, but to make sure that the victim didn’t have to come and testify and be subject to cross examination.”

Judge Cashman ordered the hearing to resume after lunch so he could think about it some more.

When the hearing later resumed, the judge decided to accept the plea deal. But had sentences been handed down consecutively, Cooper could have faced 11-22 years in jail.

KDKA’s Harold Hayes asked DeRiso, “Why is this a good deal?”

“Cases like this are emotion driven,” DeRiso said. “Fortunately, [Allegheny County District Attorney] Stephen Zappala, who is a good person and I know he’s a heck of a prosecutor, instructed his office to handle it in this fashion. The emotion was taken out of it. It was handled via the Pennsylvania sentencing guidelines.”

Representatives with Pittsburgh Action Against Rape says the wishes of the victim have to be factored in as well.

“In this case, I understand that the victim really did want this to be over, put it behind her and move on,” said director Allison Hall. “And this was a way for that to happen while also holding the offender accountable.”

A statement from the victim was read by the prosecutor:

“I trusted him with my sorrow. He used this to his advantage. I lied to my family to protect him. I blamed myself. You, Mr. Cooper, did this.”

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“You deserve to rot in jail for what you’ve done. Please make sure this monster stays away from my family.”

A statement from her family read in court says in part, “You are a dangerous man, a predator who needs to be locked up for good. Your sentence is a gift. You have destroyed a child and should be sentenced to the same. It is only to save our child from more pain that we are agreeing to this plea. You deserve much, much longer. Use this time to find a way to stay away from this family.”

Cooper’s attorney also says Cooper could be eligible to be released after 20 months. He says his client knows if he violates the “no contact order” involving the victim, he would indeed face many more years in jail.

Cooper was arrested in February of 2015 and charged with institutional sexual assault, corruption of a minor and providing alcohol to a minor in connection with his alleged relationship with an 18-year-old female student.

According to the criminal complaint, the student said she visited Cooper at his home in Plum Borough right before Christmas in 2014. Cooper allegedly gave her alcohol and she spent the night. She says they kissed a few times, once in his classroom when no one else was around, and admitted to having sex with Cooper at his home.

After the charges were filed, a no contact order was issued. However, he did not adhere to this and contacted the alleged victim over the phone.

In a 30-minute conversation, Cooper talked to the girl about her pending testimony.

After the girl’s father called police, an additional charge of intimidating a witness or victim was filed.

Then, this past January, he was sent back to jail for violating his bond.

The prosecution said that two days before Christmas, he drove down the street of the alleged victim while under house arrest in violation of his bond.

Three other teachers from the same high school face charges and are awaiting their trials:

Joseph Ruggieri will go on trial on charges of institutional sex assault on April 18.

Michael Cinefra will go on trial on charges of institutional sex assault on April 25.

Drew Zoldak will have a trial on charges of witness intimidation on June 7.

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