Laura Ditka, deputy state attorney general, sits in her office on Thursday, June 15, 2017 in Pittsburgh. Ditka, the niece of Mike Ditka, was the lead prosecutor from Pennsylvania state’s attorney office that got a conviction and jail time for two Penn State officials involved in the Jerry Sandusky case. (Justin Merriman / Chicago Tribune)
Laura Ditka enjoys a reputation in her home state of Pennsylvania as a dogged and determined prosecutor that would surprise nobody in Chicago familiar with her last name — which is almost everybody.
But even more than a litigator who hates to lose, Mike Ditka’s niece always viewed the Penn State child sexual abuse case under her care through the eyes of a mother.
"This case has been a tragedy for almost everyone involved, but it wasn’t about football or egos," Ditka said in an interview with the Tribune. "This was about the vulnerability of children and the fact that we tend to deitize people, make heroes out of them, and sometimes in doing so we don’t pay attention to what’s right in front of our face."
The penalty phase raised eyebrows in early June when disgraced former Penn State President Graham Spanier became the third former school official to receive a jail sentence for negligence in the scandal involving convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky, a longtime Penn State football coach. Former senior vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley each pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of child endangerment and will spend two and three months in jail, respectively.
Spanier, the Penn State president from 1995 to 2011, was convicted on a misdemeanor charge in March after a trial in which Ditka was the lead prosecutor. Ditka convinced a jury that Spanier chose to protect his and Penn State’s reputations instead of the children Sandusky preyed upon for years.
"That is inexcusable," argued Ditka, the chief deputy attorney for Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
Spanier is expected to spend two months behind bars and two months under house arrest, marking one of the last acts of justice of the ugly scandal that shook State College, Pa.
"You can only hope it’s the end," said Ditka, 54, who has a daughter, Chloe, adopted from China. "I don’t know that this was a victory. A lot of lives were ruined. But I certainly think it lets people know, especially those in positions authority, that you have to take that responsibility seriously when you’re talking about the most vulnerable of people. I think this can have a chilling effect on something like this happening again in the future somewhere else."
Put in the most provincial of terms, Da Coach’s niece put the Penn State bad guys in da slammer and made all the Ditkas proud. Mike Ditka hasn’t seen the daughter of his younger brother, Ashton, in more than a year but cheered her commitment to standing up for those with no voice.
"The Penn State thing, I never knew she was involved as much as she was, but I am glad she did bust (them) because they were all (expletives)," Mike said. "The whole thing was completely flawed. I found it disgusting. … I remember Laura as a very intelligent girl who I knew would go far in life because she always had her head on straight. And if you have to put (expletives) behind bars to do it, that’s good too."
Photos of the Hall of Fame Bears coach.
Growing up in Allegheny County, Laura Ditka loved football because of her uncle, a Hall of Fame tight end for the Bears, but mostly because of her father, a standout halfback at Bucknell. Ashton was born 13 months after Mike —"Like Irish twins," Laura said — to Charlotte and Mike Ditka Sr., the family patriarch who set an example as distinct as a Pittsburgh accent.
"My grandfather was a remarkable man, a hard worker," Laura said. "I think that sort of ethnic, old-school work ethic is what you see in this family. Everybody sort of puts their heads down and gets to business."
That mentality kept Laura at Ohio University, studying for semester finals, on Jan. 26, 1986, instead of in New Orleans with the rest of her family watching Mike’s Bears pound the Patriots in Super Bowl XX. Laura did attend Super Bowl XIII on Jan. 21, 1979, in Miami between the Steelers and Cowboys when Mike was a Dallas assistant.
As her famous uncle’s celebrity exploded through his tenure as an ESPN analyst, he never was "Iron Mike" to Laura as much as the guy with a soft spot for family. Laura cherishes the memories of the dinners she had with Mike whenever he passed through western Pennsylvania to see his mother, who died last year at 93.
"Most people might be surprised to know that he’s just a regular guy from Aliquippa (Pa.), who talks to people as if he were a plumber or high school teacher," Laura said. "The hype is fine, and the ‘Kicking and Screaming’ character is fun, but that’s what it is. It’s not who he is."
Who the no-nonsense litigator has become in the Pennsylvania legal community makes Mike likely to be introduced as Laura Ditka’s uncle on his next visit home. After 25 years with the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office, where she established a child-abuse unit, Ditka joined the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office in 2013.
Former Pennsylvania Attorney General Bruce Beemer once called Ditka "one of the preeminent trial lawyers in Western Pennsylvania." Joan Mills, a counselor who worked with Ditka in Allegheny County, told PennLive.com in March: "If you think her uncle Mike was tough, she makes him look like a wuss."
Known around the courthouse for talking boldly and wearing bright colors, Ditka possessed the perfect personality for a challenge that tested her patience and resolve unlike any since she graduated from the Duquesne University School of Law.
"I don’t know that I’ve ever had a case that garnered this sort of outside attention, which you just tune out because the noise can be a distraction — and the noisiest of the group are the haters," Ditka said. "It’s easy to get caught up in the negativity and it can have an effect on you that isn’t productive, so you just put your head down and do your best."
If this was her Super Bowl, Ditka dealt with distractions well enough to post the equivalent of a 46-10 victory. Not that she ever would inject herself into the story as much as some have tried.
"It’s not personal to me," she said. "The facts make up your cases, and you’re only as good as your facts. You have to work hard and believe in what you’re doing. I tried to do that in this case.
"And I hope we made a change. It was important we took it on because, most of all, it was a message that needed to be heard."