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Story Publication logo November 8, 2021

‘The Mayor of Maple Avenue’: Episode 1 Transcript

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This podcast exposes the gap in health care for one victim of sexual abuse who turned to street...

SECTIONS

Chapter 1: - Introducing the Mayor of Maple Avenue

Marianne Sinisi: Josh called me and said, "Mom, somebody instant messaged me."

Joshua Sinisi: Asking, "Are you Shawn’s brother? And I’m like, "Yeah why? What’s going on?"

Marianne Sinisi: "She claims to be Shawn’s friend."

Joshua Sinisi: Saying about how he overdosed, he’s in an ambulance right now going to the hospital. And I’m like, "Who are you? Like, Is this real?"

Megan: They were in the McDonald’s. He had called a couple times, and I even hear him tell Jim, “I’m going to the bathroom,” and I kind of hear him walking in there and we’re just talking. He was just talking and all of a sudden there was nothing.There was no bang, there was no dropping of the phone. And I was like, “Shawn? Shawn? Hello? Hello?” Kind of looking at my phone. But they were both still connected, the phones. And maybe 20 seconds, I sat there going, “Hello? Hello?” And it was just complete silence.

I didn't ... what he meant at first. He said, “He’s gone,” and he started crying and then I knew what he meant And I just started screaming. I just kept saying no. I just collapsed on the step, screaming.


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Sara Ganim: In the summer of 2019, I got a call from a woman who identified herself as Marianne Sinisi. She wanted to talk to me about her son Shawn — and what had happened just a year earlier, when Shawn was found unconscious on the floor of a McDonald’s bathroom in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Shawn died that night of an overdose. He was just 26 years old.

Marianne sounded somewhat frantic on the phone that day as she described what had happened to her youngest child. She had reached out to share her story, because Shawn had also been a victim. A victim of a man who is now one of the most well known serial pedophiles, Jerry Sandusky.

Headshot of woman.
Marianne Sinisi at her home in Altoona on May 12, 2021. Image by Sean Simmers/PennLive. United States.

Archived News Report: And for more now we turn to Sara Ganim, a reporter for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She broke the story about the grand jury investigation into Sandusky back in March. She is also a graduate of Penn State. And Sara Ganim, thank you for joining us.

Sara Ganim: News of allegations against Jerry Sandusky first broke in March 2011, when I reported the very first story detailing the criminal investigation into Sandusky’s crimes. 7 months later, the grand jury presented its charges.

Archived News Report: The 67-year-old Sandusky is charged with sexually abusing 8 boys over 15 years from 1994 to 2009.

Archived News Report: For 23 years Jerry Sandusky served as defensive coordinator for the Penn State Nittany Lions, now he’s out on bail and defending himself against charges he sexually abused young boys, one as young as eight years old.

Sara Ganim: And until his conviction in the summer of 2012, Sandusky and Penn State were a huge story.

Archived News Report: Jerry Sandusky jeered as he headed to county jail. His hands cuffed. The first night of the rest of his life behind bars. The jury convicting him of 45 counts of abusing little boys.

Jerry Sandusky is escorted in handcuffs.
Former Penn State assistant football coach Gerald "Jerry" Sandusky, center, arrives at the office of Centre County District Justice Leslie A. Dutchcot while being escorted by Pennsylvania State Police and Attorney General's Office officials in State College, Pennsylvania. Sandusky was arraigned following a grand jury investigation related to numerous child sex charges. Image by Andy Colwell/PennLive. United States.

Archived News Report: And to the sexual abuse scandal that is rocking Penn State University and its renowned football program.

Sara Ganim: The accusations against Sandusky threatened to dim the legacy of Penn State football — which was a 73 million dollar a year business at the time of Sandusky’s arrest.

Sandusky’s case led to the firing of Penn State’s beloved head coach, Joe Paterno. There was denial, disbelief, and anger. A lot of anger.

Archived News Report: Thousands of students jammed downtown streets, overturning a TV news truck, knocking over light poles, and throwing rocks at police. Tears were in my eyes. He’s done so much for our university. We’re in support of our school and we’re in support of Joe Pa. We think it’s absolutely ridiculous he got fired over this sort of situation.

Sara Ganim: So it makes sense that a lot of the focus on this story has been about the fallout of what happened to Sandusky and the folks around him — the people at Penn State, where he coached, and at his charity, the Second Mile. That’s where a lot of my focus has been over the years, too.

When Sandusky was sentenced in 2012, it felt like the story was over. The bad guy had gone to jail, justice had been served. And we all moved on.

But the story that Marianne told me on the phone that day, it focused on a different kind of fallout. Her son’s life after the abuse stopped.

I had never heard of Shawn Sinisi before Marianne called me. He wasn’t one of the victims in the highly publicized criminal case. But I’d always known the number of victims extended far beyond the 10 that the state built its case around. Dozens more had come forward over the years. And I often thought about how many victims we might never know about.

Victims like Shawn.

Reporter asks question during press conference
Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim asks a question at a press conference following the preliminary hearing for Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley and former Penn State vice president Gary Schultz on charges related to the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case. Image by Joe Hermitt/PennLive. United States, 2021.

Marianne Sinisi: I mean, who’s Shawn? Why would anybody believe him? He’s somebody that’s just using drugs and getting in trouble.

Sara Ganim: Jerry Sandusky’s conviction was punishment for what he had done, and it ensured that he could not harm any other children, but it couldn’t undo the abuse — or the consequences and myriad of ways it would manifest in his victims’ lives.

As Marianne relayed her son’s story to me, I realized this was a major gap in our reporting: the profound failure of our society to help trauma victims.

That’s what we don’t talk enough about.

The lifelong struggle of victims to cope with what happened.

And then to get the help that they need and will continue to need. And what happens when they can’t find that help.

In so many ways, Shawn Sinisi was a textbook abuse victim: he was ashamed, confused, angry, unable to admit or discuss what had happened. He was a child who seemingly overnight went from a happy-go-lucky and outgoing kid to a quiet, distant, and then troubled young man.

He began to escape his pain and bury his memories of abuse with drugs and alcohol. He became an addict. And when his addiction led him down a darker path, he was given yet another label: criminal.

And those labels, they impacted the quality of his healthcare and they changed the way that society saw him as a person.

The empathy that would have been afforded to Shawn as a victim was lessened because he was now labeled an addict and a criminal.

Marianne Sinisi: I think if compassion was part of treatment, how, how different that could be. I mean, I don’t know any other disease that’s treated in this way. There’s always compassion. And it doesn’t matter. You know, if you smoked a pack a day, five packs a day and you get lung cancer, you’re treated with some compassion, love and understanding. But not this, this disease is not treated that way. They just lump you all and say that you chose this, you chose to be an addict. You chose to use these drugs. So you deserve the punishment that you’re getting and the treatment you’re getting in the world.

Sara Ganim: Long before she ever found my number, Marianne had been fighting with everything she had to try to get her son help. Trying to get him sober. Trying to find him support, and therapy. To scrape together money and resources where there were none. To keep her son alive.

But a broken rehabilitation system and easy access to narcotics got in the way of almost every effort.

Shawn’s life, from the time he was a teenager until the day he overdosed, was a merry-go-round of drug court, treatment, halfway houses, relapses, jail. And as his mother described this cycle to me, it was clear that she felt it was all designed to shame him for his addiction and punish him for using drugs. There was no space or real concern for the helpless boy who had been violated by a predator.

Not even at the expensive rehab facility that was supposed to, finally, after all those years, treat the underlying trauma of sexual abuse.

Marianne Sinisi: The Meadows was so pumped up to us that that was like a dream. I looked at the facility and to look at people that were on the panel, the board, all that stuff. To see oh, God, they get it. This guy wrote a book on how sexual abuse changes the chemical makeup of your brain, and then you add on top of it, addiction. These people really, really get it, this is going to be it. This is the golden key we’ve been waiting for. That’s how we felt.

Sara Ganim: After more than a decade of addiction, bouncing between more than 10 facilities trying to get help, Shawn was finally admitted to a high-end rehab facility in Arizona, called The Meadows. It’s one of those places that celebrities and the uber-rich go, where the price tag alone implies the best doctors and the best service. It touts itself as “the most trusted name in trauma and addiction treatment.” The Sinisi’s are not rich — far from it. Marianne cleans houses. Her husband, Mike, is a truck driver.

They have lived a modest but comfortable life, raising their two sons in Altoona, Pennsylvania — in the shadow of Penn State University. It had taken them years to get their son into a place like The Meadows. A place that would treat Shawn’s underlying trauma.

On August 26, 2018, Marianne and her husband watched their son Shawn get on a plane bound for Phoenix, hoping they would finally find a way out of this nightmare they’d all been living. They were nervous but excited about what 30 days at The Meadows could do for their struggling son.

Photo of PA town
Altoona, Pennsylvania, shown on April 14, 2021. Image by Sean Simmers/PennLive. United States.

Marianne Sinisi: I didn’t think I’d hear from him again for maybe three days, or whatever. But he actually called again that night and said, “I’m in the building. I’m in the nursing. And they said I could call and check-in. And so we both lay our heads down and think for the first time that we can actually possibly sleep,

Sara Ganim: But a week later, Shawn was abruptly kicked out of the treatment facility. The Meadows put him on a plane back to Pittsburgh. But he had no safe destination lined up, no place to go.

He spent the first night sleeping in a car he found unlocked. And less than 24 hours after landing in Pittsburgh, Shawn was found on the floor of the McDonald’s bathroom. In his wallet were two used packets of heroin. He was 26 years old.

As someone who had followed the Sandusky story since the very beginning, I recognized immediately: that Shawn’s death marked a grim milestone — a fatality stemming from Jerry Sandusky’s abuse.

Marianne had sought me out because she still really did not know what happened to her son in his final days. And she said The Meadows had shut her out.

A local McDonalds
The McDonald's on Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh, where Shawn Sinisi overdosed. Image by Sean Simmers/PennLive. United States, 2021.

Marianne Sinisi: When Shawn died, nobody from that facility even reached out to me and how many years later? Still, nothing.

Sara Ganim: And Marianne, understandably, wanted answers. How could this have happened? How could the system be so stacked against people like her son? And what exactly happened in that last week of his life? For the last two years, I’ve been trying to help her figure that out.

Sara: Like you felt like, nothing about his life was handled properly, and then his death wasn’t handled properly either.

Marianne Sinisi: Right. I guess, living through all of that and having all that disappointment was just excruciating, on a daily basis, but when he died, yes, I felt like, the way everything went down that day.

Sara Ganim: I’m Sara Ganim, and this is The Mayor of Maple Avenue.

Jerry Sandusky’s crimes against children have rocked Penn State with the fallout for a decade now. It’s one of the largest failures in collegiate history.

But this is not a story about Jerry Sandusky. Or about Penn State.

This is a story about trauma. About aftermath.

About a life that was ruined. About drugs and addiction and the misconceptions surrounding them. About a broken rehabilitation system.

It’s a story about the complicated relationships between mothers and their children. About the lengths we will go to to try to save those who we love. And the heartbreak that’s tied up in not being able to do so.

Over the course of this series, I will tell you the story of Shawn Sinisi. And what I’ve learned about how the healthcare and justice systems that are designed to rehabilitate people like Shawn instead failed him, over and over again. And how they fail many others just like him.


A post dedicated to Shawn in the front yard of the Sinisi home in Altoona on May 12, 2021. Image by Sean Simmers/PennLive. United States.

Joshua Sinisi: He was always happy, always laughing, smiling. They called him the mayor of the neighborhood. Maple Avenue.

Mike Sinisi: He was the Mayor of Maple Avenue. It just didn’t make sense to me whatsoever.

Marianne Sinisi: Eventually the counselor just said to me, look. He’s either gonna walk down the street like he should or he’s going to go down the alley.


Photos of Shawn and Josh Sinisi and Josh's wedding photo hang on a wall in Josh's home on June 14, 2021. Image by Sean Simmers/PennLive. United States.

Jenn Storm: That doctor should be held accountable. That’s disgusting.

Dr. William Miller: We’ve had so little respect; I think both for people who are suffering from addiction and those who treat it.

Jenn Storm: It’s probably a case study in what not to do in terms of garnering cooperation. And listen, they still are using these tactics.

Marianne Sinisi: You didn’t do an X-ray. You didn’t do an MRI. Hell, you didn’t even send him to a chiropractor. You just gave him Neurontin. And she said, ‘Well, he said he has back pain.’

Marianne Sinisi: That’s where the red flags really started coming.

Dr. Marv Seppala: If someone is provided a medication or takes a medication, it continues that assault on the part of the brain associated with addiction, there isn’t true recovery it can’t be had. It’s just still smoldering along.

Marianne Sinisi: We just kept saying the same thing. It’s just trading one drug for another.

Dr. William Miller: We debated here whether you should have to have a high school education in order to treat addiction. Now, what other life-threatening illness would you ever have that debate about, whether your provider should have graduated from high school?

Dave Morante: Let’s throw a bandaid on a gunshot wound and hope it works. I mean, it makes no sense.

Marianne Sinisi: And my words to him were, "Let me guess, you hope he dies before then, so that’s one less inmate that you have? Because there’s not a chance in hell he’s going to be able to do this by himself. You know it and I know it. He needs help."

Jenn Storm: They did nothing to help aid in his own understanding of his traumatic responses or to heal it.

Mike Sinisi: And he was just paranoid. So paranoid.

Marianne Sinisi: He kept staring out the window and saying, "They’re coming for me. Did you bring them here?"

Marianne Sinisi: What an abnormal life he had to live because he had an addiction. It’s just heartbreaking. It really is.

Marianne Sinisi: I did feel like I just threw him in the ocean and said, "Swim to the other side."

Debrah: He was sitting on a chair and I went over and I put my arms around him and I said, "Shawn, when are you going to stop this stuff? "It’s not that easy, Aunt Deb. It’s not easy."

Debrah: And I just said, “You’re killing yourself. Shawn, you’ve got to stop." "Aunt Deb, if it was that easy, we’d all stop."

Marianne Sinisi: I said, "I just, I’d like to know why, why would you have never told me?" "I don’t know. I guess a part of me blamed you because you’re my mom and you’re supposed to protect me."

Marianne Sinisi: And I can remember Shawn breaking down and crying and asking me what’s wrong with him? And I just said, "I don’t know, but you have to tell me."


A photo of Shawn as a toddler. Image by Sean Simmers/PennLive. United States, 2021.

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