By Matt Ward
The criminal case against a former Pahrump elementary school principal was dropped last week by the Nye County District Attorney’s Office.
Holly Lepisto, the former top educator at Floyd Elementary School, had faced a single felony count of child abuse stemming from allegations she covered up for a longtime special education teacher accused of physically abusing special education students.
Lepisto’s arrest made headlines in November 2010 when she was taken off school property in handcuffs in the presence of students by detectives investigating the allegations against special education teacher Sarah Hopkins, who is set to go to trial on a felony child abuse charge in May 2013.
An order signed by District Court Judge Kimberly Wanker and dated Aug. 3 not only bars prosecutors from bringing any new charges against Lepisto in the case but grants her immunity if she testifies against Hopkins.
District Attorney Brian Kunzi said his office has already subpoenaed Lepisto to testify. He said he made the decision to have the case against Lepisto dismissed because he could not try the women together in a unified trial — Lepisto chose to exercise her right to a speedy trial during a hearing earlier this summer; Hopkins chose to set her trial date in the middle of next year.
Kunzi said that another obstacle his office faced in trying the women was that each made remarks that could be used against the other at trial.
“Basically I had to choose which one to go after . . . I made a decision to cut bait on one to make sure we get the other,” the DA said.
Contacted at home on Monday, Lepisto said a weight was definitely lifted off her shoulders now that her legal ordeal is over. She referred to her attorney, Bret Whipple, for further comment.
Whipple could not be reached for comment as of press time.
Lepisto has been on paid administrative leave since her arrest. Nye County School District Superintendent Dale Norton said she would be eligible to return to work once he is officially informed of her case’s dismissal.
“She’s an employee. She can go back to the status of position that she left,” he said.
Lepisto may not be able to go back to Floyd since that job was filled in her absence. Norton said he would have to look at the school district’s master contract with administrators to determine how best to move forward.
Lepisto said she was looking forward to getting back to work.
The dismissal of Lepisto’s case follows the dismissal of charges last year against teacher’s aide Kathryn Cummings, who faced similar charges. Another aide, Phyllis DuShane, ended her legal troubles by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge in December 2010. She received 150 hours of community service after admitting to swatting a student’s behind and “popping” a student on the mouth.
Hopkins, Cummings, DuShane and Lepisto were all originally arrested on multiple felony charges stemming from allegations of physical abuse of handicapped students as young as 6 years old in Hopkins’ special ed class. Hopkins and the aides were each arrested at home. Lepisto, however, was forced to endure a tearful, very public arrest that outraged some members of the community who blamed the sheriff’s department for engaging in “cowboy” style policing. Lepisto was arrested for allegedly misleading a detective on the case.
After news of the arrests broke, relations between this newspaper and Sheriff Tony DeMeo were strained for a time because the PVT quoted some residents questioning the tactics used by detectives in the case to develop evidence.
After detailed police reports became public months later, however, the state’s case against the women appeared to be much stronger, particularly against Hopkins.
Multiple witnesses testified in later preliminary hearings of seeing Hopkins and her aides being overly physical with some of the young handicapped students under their care. Witnesses also said they alerted Lepisto of more than one incident and that it appeared nothing had been done to stop them.
Hopkins remains the sole defendant in the case now. A number of locals have banded together hosting events to raise money for her legal defense.
She has repeatedly chosen not to comment to the press.