Hancock County

Coach had ‘obsessive behavior’ toward student, friend testifies

Hancock County sheriff’s Capt. John Luther on Thursday shows the jury a piece of evidence recovered from Leslie Danielle DeWitt’s home.
Hancock County sheriff’s Capt. John Luther on Thursday shows the jury a piece of evidence recovered from Leslie Danielle DeWitt’s home. wmuller@sunherald.com

Every level of Hancock High School’s administration had expressed concerns about the relationship between a then-basketball coach and one of her players, according to witness testimony Thursday in the teacher-student sex-abuse trial of Leslie Danielle DeWitt.

The former assistant coach is accused of having had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student between Dec. 1, 2009, and July 30, 2010. DeWitt is charged with two counts of sexual battery while in a position of trust and three counts of unlawful touching of a child for lustful purposes.

At the start of the second day of the trial, Principal Rhett Ladner testified to having voiced concerns over the unusually close relationship between DeWitt and the girl, and even had a meeting with other faculty members and administrators to discuss those concerns.

Hancock County School District Assistant Superintendent Donnie Gholston corroborated Ladner’s account of the meeting.

However, they said no one at the meeting explicitly mentioned any concerns DeWitt was having a sexual relationship with the student.

After the meeting, Ladner issued a letter to DeWitt demanding she cease contact with the student.

At the time, DeWitt and her family, which included her husband and young son, had grown very close to the student and her family. The coach had for years given the student private basketball lessons, the girl’s mother said.

The student’s mother, who testified Wednesday, had dismissed the early concerns from the school, saying she initially believed DeWitt’s excuse of it being the result of internal “drama” in the basketball program.

Then-head basketball coach Pam Slayton also testified, saying she had several discussions with DeWitt to tell her not to single out players or give anyone extra attention.

However, Slayton said, DeWitt refused to back off.

“She did not agree,” Slayton said. “We had several discussions about it. It was not a good and healthy relationship for the team.”

Under questioning from DeWitt’s attorney, Jim Davis, Slayton said she also hosted sleepovers for the entire team at her home, but never for just one or even a few players.

Slayton said the sleepovers were designed for “team bonding,” and hosted other team-bonding activities such as whitewater rafting.

‘Inappropriate’ affection

One of the girl’s best friends, said she saw DeWitt show unusual and “inappropriate” affection toward her friend.

On several occasions, she said she noticed DeWitt touch the girl’s hair and arms, and make efforts to be around the teen whenever possible.

When Assistant District Attorney Chris Daniel asked she if she ever saw DeWitt touch any other student in that manner, the friend responded, “No.”

She said DeWitt displayed “obsessive behavior” toward her friend.

One of the teen’s teammates also testified Thursday, saying DeWitt and the victim spent a lot of time texting each other.

The teammate recalled an uncomfortable experience she had while in the car with DeWitt during a summer basketball trip to Louisiana. DeWitt began asking her many uncomfortable questions about her relationship with the girl to the point where she broke down and cried when she left in her car to drive home, the teammate said.

Both witnesses, however, said they never actually saw anything that might amount to illegal physical contact.

Capt. John Luther, Diamondhead police commander and former Hancock County sheriff’s investigator, said he interviewed the student, school officials, and family and friends during the investigation.

The Sheriff’s Office also executed a search warrant on DeWitt’s home, uncovering a sex toy and pornographic material from DeWitt’s bedroom.

The sex toy matched the description the student gave to investigators when she told them DeWitt used it to sexually abuse her, Luther said.

Under questioning by the defense, Luther said he never sent the evidence to a lab for further testing because about three years had passed between the time the alleged abuse occurred and the time the student reported it to deputies.

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