MERCER COUNTY — The 15-year-old girl had been in Civil Air Patrol for about two years without incident when the group’s commander got “weird” last fall, she said.
James Vessella, who was Mercer County Composite Squadron 122 commander until his December suspension, would occasionally pull the girl aside at CAP meetings.
If she had missed a meeting, he would ask her why, she testified Thursday at Vessella’s preliminary hearing on charges that he corrupted the girl and had unlawful contact with her.
Vessella, 67, would pick up the girl from her home and, with her mom’s permission, take her to McDonald’s, where she would use the free Wi-Fi service to study CAP drills and jargon on her computer, she said.
But, things got weird when he started talking about her boyfriend, a subject she had not brought up with him, she said. Vessella told the girl her boyfriend was cheating on her and she should dump him, she said. Vessella also told her that the boy had given her an infection, she said.
“He (Vessella) got weird, saying he was going to give me some medicine for it,” she said.
Vessella went on to say he would show her a “slutty” movie, which she said she took to mean “something about porn.”
“He said it was going to open my eyes,” she said.
He offered to buy her a toy, which she said she took to mean a sex toy, she said.
Vessella said he had pills for her to treat the infection, but she had to come to his home to take them, she said. He also said he had a wash she was to use on her vagina, and that he would need to examine her.
She was asked by Assistant Mercer County District Attorney Daniel Davis what she believed the examination would entail.
“He was going to look at my stuff,” she said. “My vagina.”
“It grossed me out,” she said of the conversation.
Defense attorney Randall T. Hetrick asked the girl how she responded to the conversation. “I never answered to it,” she said.
Hetrick asked if Vessella touched her.
“He never touched me,” she responded.
“You never followed through with any of that stuff?” Hetrick asked, referring to the video, the toy, the exam and the other comments. “No,” she said.
The girl, who lives in the Shenango Valley, said Vessella, who lives at 106 17th St., Pymatuning Township, would show up at her home uninvited, but said the “weird” stuff occurred in two instances – one when he took her to McDonald’s to study and one at her house, when she talked to Vessella for 30 to 45 minutes, mere feet away from her boyfriend, who was on the porch.
Davis asked the girl if Vessella offered her a cover story for if she would take up his offer to go to his home.
“He said to tell my mom we were gonna have a study session, to go to McDonald’s or something,” said the girl, who no longer participates in Civil Air Patrol.
Hetrick told District Judge Ronald E. Antos, Farrell, that he believes the prosecution had met its evidence burden on the charge of corruption of a minor, but not on the grading, third-degree felony, in which Vessella had been charged.
For the charge to be a felony, there had to be more than a discussion, he said, a point on which Davis agreed.
Antos held for court the charge with the understanding the degree would have to be amended; Davis said it would proceed as a first-degree misdemeanor. The charge of unlawful contact with a minor was dismissed.
The change in grading means that instead of the maximum penalty of 3ê to 7 years, Vessella, if convicted, could only be imprisoned for up to 2è to 5 years.
Vessella remains free on bond.
Vessella, whose CAP position is volunteer, was suspended by Civil Air Patrol officials as soon as they got word of the charges, according to a news release from CAP national headquarters at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.
Vessella, who achieved the rank of Major, was cleared for membership in July 2003 after an FBI background check.
Other commanders from the Pennsylvania Wing are helping to keep the Mercer County squadron going, said Julie Debardelaben, deputy director for public affairs. Vessella’s suspension will hold until the criminal case is completed, she said.
“If there is a conviction his membership will be terminated in accordance with our regulations,” Debardelaben said in an email. “If he is found not guilty or the matter is dismissed by the local authorities, CAP may continue the membership suspension and initiate an internal investigation to determine if there has been a violation of CAP regulations or if CAP requirements for membership are not being met.”