By Joe Pinchot/Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
Although she lost her job over allegations that she gave two former students cans of beer, the former Lakeview High School principal has not given up on the hope of serving in education, now that she has been cleared of the criminal charges.
"I would certainly like to get back to being a principal," said Elizabeth A. Auer, 47, of Fairview Township. "I was a good one."
At Auer's non-jury trial Friday, Mercer County Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas R. Dobson found her not guilty of two counts of furnishing alcohol to minors.
Both sides agreed the case came down to "he said-she said," and Dobson said the main "he" was not a credible witness.
"I did not believe anything he said," Dobson said of Ryan A. Herrmann, who was allowed to enter the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program on the most serious charges he faced from running his car into an Amish buggy in return for his testimony.
While Herrmann's buddy, Kyle M. Scott, also testified and was apparently more forthcoming with police than Herrmann, who repeatedly lied to police, there was no corroborating evidence to back up their stories, such as the beer cans, Dobson said.
"I need more and it's not there," Dobson said.
Judge Robert G. Yeatts in August ruled that state police Trooper Brian Shevitz illegally pulled beer cans from Auer's garbage, disallowing their use as evidence at trial.
"I'm saddened that I was vilified in the press," Auer said, "but very thankful to (her attorney) Mr. (Robert) Varsek, my husband, my father and my family and friends for their support throughout all this."
"The system worked for her," said Varsek, of Oil City, although he said she probably has no recourse to get her Lakeview job back.
Herrmann, of 9 Olson Road, Sandy Lake Township, was hired by Auer to perform yard work at her home at 957 Schrader Road.
Auer testified that Herrmann called her the night before and asked if Scott could help, and she agreed.
Herrmann and Scott - 2010 Lakeview graduates - were 20 on July 11 2011, the day they showed up to pull weeds and spread mulch at the Auer home.
Herrmann discovered a half-full case of Yuengling beer in his trunk - he said someone had bought it for him and he had drunk some of it the night before - and he and Scott had five or six beers throughout the day as they worked.
At between 3 and 4 p.m., Auer arrived home, and the three sat on the porch and talked. Herrmann said he and Scott were drinking beers at the time.
"When we got done with that she offered a beer, Busch," Herrmann testified. Herrmann said he and Scott responded that they wanted one.
"She went inside and got it out of the fridge," Herrmann said
Scott said he and Herrmann asked her for the beer.
"After that one beer, we left," said Herrmann, now 21 and a student at Clarion University.
Herrmann was driving, with Scott as a passenger, when he crashed his Pontiac Sunfire into the buggy on Fredonia-Stoneboro Road in Fairview. He did not stop to see if anyone was hurt, drove off and dropped Scott off at home, he said.
Herrmann explained his actions by saying he "got scared" and "panicked."
The driver of the buggy suffered minor injuries, Shevitz said.
Police tracked down Herrmann's car to a store parking lot in Stoneboro, and he explained away the damage by saying he had hit a deer a couple of nights earlier. He also said his dad was in the store, but his dad pulled into the parking lot.
Herrmann then admitted being involved in the buggy accident, but denied drinking and said he was alone in the car. He was taken to the barracks in Jackson Township, given a breath test, and then taken to a hospital for a blood test, which showed a blood-alcohol level of 0.086.
Shevitz testified that neighbors and witnesses identified Scott as possibly having been with Herrmann, and he interviewed Scott the next day. Scott, an Edinboro University student, admitted being the passenger.
"He didn't hide anything from me," Shevitz said.
At Herrmann's preliminary hearing, Herrmann and his attorney, Jack W. Cline, worked out a plea deal with prosecutors whereby Herrmann would plead guilty to two traffic violations, and be admitted to the ARD program - a probation-like diversion program - on the more serious charges of drunken driving and hit-and-run.
As part of the deal, he agreed to testify truthfully against Auer, he said.
In her brief testimony, Auer was asked by Varsek: "Did you give them beer?"
"No," she replied.
The prosecution tried to make the most of discrepancies as to whether the boys were ever in Auer's house. The boys testified they went in once, to use the bathroom and get a glass of water.
Herrmann said he called Auer and asked permission, and she directed him to where the spare key was. They said they did not get beer from her house.
Auer testified to essentially what the boys said, but Shevitz testified that she told him differently.
"I specifically asked her if she let them in the house, if they were in her home," he said of an interview conducted at the school. "She looked very surprised and said they had not been in her house."
The significance to the discussion is that Herrmann and Scott could have been charged with burglary if they had broken in, Shevitz said.
Varsek said Herrmann scored a "sweet deal" with prosecutors over the crash charges - Herrmann admitted he was facing jail time and a license suspension of about 2½ years - and said Scott's statements to police helped Herrmann.
Varsek said the boys drank beer all day, admitted a history of underage drinking, crashed into the buggy, left the scene and Herrmann lied to police.
"It's pretty sinister conduct here," he said. "There's plenty of motive here for them to implicate my client."
Assistant District Attorney Cynthia A. Gilkey countered that Scott - who was not charged and was never threatened with being charged - had no motivation to lie. But Auer did, she said.
"The court has to look at who has the most motivation to lie," Gilkey said. "She has at least equal motivation to lie."
Gilkey also downplayed the seriousness of the charges against Herrmann - although she acknowledged he would not normally have been eligible for ARD because of the accident - and said he had an "understandable" reason to lie to police.
Published Oct. 24, 2012, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.