COUDERSPORT, Pa. – You would think the approximately 100 people who lined the streets of this northwest Pennsylvania town Monday night were welcoming an astronaut, or a movie star, or a hero.
It was far from that, though to the people of Coudersport, John J. Rigas is a hero.
Dozens of Rigas’ old friends and employees gathered in front of the historic Potter County courthouse holding welcoming signs and erupting into a thunderous cheer as his SUV approached his hometown.
Rigas had spent more than eight years in a federal prison for looting his once-powerful Adelphia Communications Corporation of at least $1 billion. But none of that seemed to matter as they swarmed his car shouting “God Bless You, John” and “Welcome home, Mr. Rigas” and “We love you.”
A frail Rigas seemed overwhelmed by his welcome, waved, blew kisses and flashed a “V” victory sign.
“I can’t believe all these people came out just for me,” he said. “God bless you all.”
The former owner of the Buffalo Sabres and of one of the nation’s biggest cable companies, who had been sentenced to 12 years in jail for conspiracy and fraud, walked out of the federal prison at Canaan, Pa., around noon Monday after he was granted “compassionate release” Friday evening by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and a U.S. district judge in Manhattan.
Rigas, 91, who is suffering from terminal cancer, was picked up Monday afternoon by his son, Michael, and make the approximately 3½-hour drive to his home in Coudersport, Pa.
Midge Houghtaling, a former Adelphia paralegal who helped gather hundreds of signatures on petitions seeking Rigas’ early release, organized a meeting at the local McDonald’s on Monday evening to paint “Welcome Home” signs for Rigas.
She said Coudersport is forgiving and welcoming – with some residents skeptical of his 2005 conviction in the first place.
“I am extremely happy, excited and pleased he is coming home,” she said. “He is the kindest person I have ever known. He needs to be welcomed home and I feel he deserves this.”
She added that she recruited Coudersport residents via Facebook and telephone to gather Monday evening for the homecoming.
“You know what they say about a small town,” she said. “Word spreads quickly.”
Houghtaling also credited Rep. Glenn T. Thompson, R-Pa., for helping secure Rigas’ release.
Thompson spokesman Nick Ruffner said the congressman’s office helped the family with “navigating the bureaucratic process.”
“The congressman thanks the prosecutors, Bureau of Prisons and Department of Justice for their cooperation in the process,” Ruffner said.
Philadelphia lawyer Lawrence G. McMichael said he worked feverishly all weekend with Bureau of Prisons officials and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan to facilitate his client’s release. McMichael has represented Rigas and his son Tim, who remains incarcerated at Canaan in northeast Pennsylvania.
He said the federal prison system’s mission is to keep their prisoners behind bars and not let them out. But he said the bureau and Department of Justice have proven accommodating in obtaining the compassionate release, granted on occasion to prisoners deemed no threat to society and nearing the end of their lives.
“It was a real team effort,” McMichael said. “We were all on the same team here. We just had different jobs to do.”
McMichael said Rigas’ son Michael, another former Adelphia official who avoided prison by pleading guilty to falsifying records and who has been working furiously behind the scenes for his father’s release, drove to Canaan with other supporters in a separate car. Though Michael Rigas had suggested procuring an ambulance to transport his father home across Pennsylvania, McMichael said the elder Rigas “definitively rejected” that idea.
“He just wants to ride in a car,” he said.
McMichael said Rigas is suffering from the effects of the cancer that has wracked his bladder, kidneys and lungs for several years. He tires easily, the attorney added.
“But he’s a tough character,” he said. “He hangs in there.”
The attorney acknowledged that one aspect of the Rigas homecoming will be shaded by a major element of sadness. For the past eight years, John and Tim Rigas have shared adjacent bunks in a small cubicle at the military-style prison camp at Canaan and two other facilities. Tim Rigas still must serve the rest of his 17-year sentence that he continues to appeal.
When they were slated to say goodbye at 12:15 p.m. Monday, McMichael acknowledged that, barring unforeseen developments or the possibility of future visits, it is likely Monday morning was their last together.
“It’s sad,” McMichael said. “He’s probably not going to see his father again unless Tim gets out. But Tim is a big advocate for the release and wants what is best for his father.”