WEST CHESTER >> Penncrest High School Varsity Baseball Coach Stephen Smith was given six months of probation Thursday for summary offenses of harassment and disorderly conduct in connection with an altercation in a West Chester nightspot, over the protestations of his victim.
“I think it’s bulls---,” said Ed Protesto outside Courtroom 17 of the Chester County Courthouse. “It must be OK to walk up to someone and punch them in the face, and that’s OK in the eyes of Chester County courts.”
Smith, 60, of Downingtown, was originally charged with simple assault and harassment in the March 31 altercation inside the Saloon 151 restaurant in West Chester. Charges of strangulation and terroristic threats were later added at the district court level.
Protesto was joined Thursday by his wife and a friend, West Goshen Police Officer Robert Gilbert, for Thursday’s hearing before Judge Ann Marie Wheatcraft.
Assistant District Attorney Chad Maloney said Smith, who has no prior record, physically assaulted Protesto inside the bar area of the restaurant at about 7:29 p.m., “shoving and pushing him multiple times,” ultimately causing both to fall to the ground.
Maloney and defense attorney Dawson R. Muth showed the judge a video of the incident prior to the hearing, which Gilbert said was taken from about 30 paces away. Wheatcraft said the video appeared to show Smith pushing Protesto twice, but Protesto and Gilbert gave a differing account.
Shortly after walking into the bar area of the restaurant, Protesto said his wife saw Smith and said hello. Protesto said they knew Smith, who had coached their children at his former position with the Marple Newtown School District. When Protesto went to shake Smith’s hand, he said the other man pulled his hands back.
“He said, ‘You’re a f---ing p----, I’m going to kill you,’” said Protesto. “He punches me in the nose, hits me in the forehead with his umbrella … I put my beer down and I locked him up and got him on the ground. He’s trying to choke me.”
Protesto said he did not strike Smith, but held him until others in the bar pulled him up and off. Gilbert told the judge Smith still had a hand around Protesto’s neck as he was lifted off and there were marks on his neck the following day. Protesto said his throat was so sore he could not eat that night and he sought medical attention the following day.
Maloney said he had taken the victim’s concerns into consideration, but did not believe he could prove the elements of simple assault to a jury and was comfortable resolving the matter with a negotiated plea on the two summary offenses.
Smith told the judge he did not approach Protesto with the intention of accosting him, but a comment was made in his direction that provoked some underlying anger inside him. Smith acknowledged there was “bad blood” between the two men.
“I made a bad choice to not just carry on out the door,” he said.
Smith also apologized to Protesto after some prompting from Muth and Wheatcraft.
“I’m sorry that it happened,” he said. “I’m sorry I behaved that way, too. I’m old enough to know better.”
Protesto was not happy with the outcome.
“I’m pretty amazed they’re going to plead this down,” Protesto told the judge. “I believe that anybody in this courtroom that was attacked like that and did nothing to provoke it would want to see an assault (charged). And it is an assault, if you look at the law, it is truly an assault. I’m bleeding from my nose, my forehead and my ear, and I don’t get how he gets a slap on the hand.”
Gilbert also provided a statement in court Thursday matching Protesto’s account, but Judge Wheatcraft said that she did not see any punch occur in the video, which was not displayed to the court.
“In the video that I just saw, there were two pushes and then they grabbed each other and then it turns into a mess and they were down on the ground,” the judge said.
“From what I saw, it was not just a simple harassment,” Gilbert replied. “(Smith) had the opportunity to walk past and he attacked my friend in a public place, and it wasn’t just a couple pushes and shoves … The video does not give a true depiction of what happened.”
Protesto also said video cameras closer to the action would have captured a more accurate account of the altercation, but those tapes were not recovered. In light of the only tape available, Maloney indicated he would have a hard time convicting.
The judge accepted the plea following a sidebar with the attorneys, saying she trusts Maloney’s judgment and that he is not afraid to take on difficult cases. She added that she did not take lightly the account provided by Gilbert, a 20-year police veteran.
Wheatcraft noted that even if convicted of simple assault, Smith would only be facing six months of probation, the same sentence he received Thursday. She also admonished Smith for not simply walking out the door as he passed Protesto’s party.
Smith, a contractor, left the coaching position at Marple Newtown in 2016. District Solicitor Mark Sereni said he could not discuss the circumstances of Smith’s departure. Rose Tree Media Superintendent Jim Wigo said Thursday that he was not familiar with the court case and could not comment.
In addition to probation, Smith will pay a $25 fine and court costs, attend anger-management classes, and undergo a drug and alcohol evaluation and follow any recommendations. He is not to have any contact with Protesto.