By MATT WARD and GINA B. GOOD
Nye County Sheriff’s deputies stand by their arrests of four Floyd Elementary school employees Tuesday on multiple counts of child abuse, saying that more evidence was uncovered by their investigation on Wednesday.
Although no additional charges were filed, the four women — Principal Holly Lepisto, 53, teacher Sarah Hopkins, 52, and special education aides Phyllis DuShane, 73, and Kathryn Cummings, 56 — saw their bail almost tripled to $100,000 by Justice of the Peace Tina Brisebill on Wednesday.
The judge released DuShane for medical reasons, but the three others were in custody as of press time.
The Nye County School District has started an internal investigation and has suspended all four women as well as a fifth, unidentified aide, officials said.
Ed Lepisto, the principal’s husband, was hoping to get his wife out of jail before the holiday, working with a bail bondsman as well as with local defense attorney Jason Earnest to secure her release. He said that the bail increase only added to the shock of the past 24 hours.
“We’re all in shock. The community is in shock. Police officers who were at the scene were in shock,” the principal’s husband said.
Earnest said he would not comment about his client’s case until more information was available to him.
The Pahrump Valley Times requested the criminal complaint and police reports, called deck sheets, from Sheriff Tony DeMeo and officials at the Pahrump Jail. Those records were not made public. Brian Kunzi, the county’s new district attorney, says criminal complaints will likely be filed on Monday. According to a press release made available Tuesday, Holly Lepisto was arrested for conducting “an extremely poor investigation” when a complaint was made to her about the manner in which Hopkins was punishing a student.
Sources at the school confirm that Hopkins was told by Lepisto not to punish a certain disabled student in a certain manner because it may look abusive to some. According to police, though, Lepisto was required by law to notify law enforcement and Division of Child and Family Services officials when the complaint was made. No one at the Division of Child and Family Services was available for comment Wednesday, though one official said they were not aware of the case until reading about it in news reports.
DeMeo says four students, and possibly more, were subject to abuse at the hands of the instructors. DuShane, Cummings and Hopkins were arrested at their homes. Lepisto, however, was arrested on school grounds in front of students.
DeMeo defended the arrests.
“These allegations are crimes committed against people who could not defend themselves. There’s a lot more to it,” he said. “There is validation in this investigation to the allegations.”
Asked if the police recovered any videotaped proof of the abuse — cameras are located inside and outside of Floyd Elementary — DeMeo said there wasn’t. The investigation, which was launched only a few days ago, started when “someone, who told someone, who told someone, who told a police officer,” the sheriff said. After that, “it unraveled.”
The detective who brought the criminal charges against the four women is also a local advocate for disabled children — he also has a reputation as a no-holds-barred detective who some call a “rogue” deputy.
Det. David Boruchowitz was a central player in the downfall of former District Attorney Bob Beckett, even facing, and later exonerated of, multiple criminal charges himself during that saga. He was the arresting officer when former candidate for sheriff Ted Holmes, who is suing the county for millions of dollars, was charged with impersonating an officer. Numerous statements from multiple sources spanning more than a few cases show the detective to have a gritty, off-putting style of dealing with members of the public during criminal investigations.
A school official who wishes to remain anonymous, who says they witnessed the principal’s arrest, says the detective was forceful in his questioning of Lepisto, engaging in tactics such as repeating her answers to his questions multiple times back to her and misquoting her, and then threatening to arrest her. The witness said it seemed as if Lepisto was being coerced.
Lepisto’s husband said the real abuse in his wife’s case occurred when the detective arrived at Floyd Elementary School. He was there as she was led away.
“This is a witch hunt. I went up there. I said ‘honey, what’s wrong,’ and she said, ‘they don’t believe me,’” he said. “They hammered her. What’s that all about? That’s abuse. And it’s done by our sheriff’s department.”
DeMeo said the principal “made a scene” at the school and that detectives attempted to be discreet.
Boruchowitz declined to comment about his interview of Lepisto. Asked whether his position as president of local nonprofit Pahrump Disability Outreach Program, a nonprofit outreach group that works with family members of disabled children, played any role in the investigation, he said no.
Asked whether he thought his off-duty role in PDOP constituted a conflict of interest, he said no.
“I’m an advocate for disabled children, all children, at work and off-duty,” he said.
DeMeo said he agrees there is not a conflict of interest.
Coincidentally, a press release from PDOP was issued two hours after the Nye County Sheriff’s Office released its information about Lepisto and the other educators’ arrests. In the release, the group states “The betrayal of trust that these individuals have exhibited is a devastation felt not only by you and your families but by all of us as a community.”
It goes on to address the people arrested on Tuesday: “The Pahrump community will not tolerate this behavior by you or anyone else especially in your position.”
Lepisto has been an educator in Pahrump for four years. She and her husband left Ohio so she could teach here. She was given the assignment at Floyd, her husband said, because she was so good at what she does. Lepisto’s own education focused on special education. She also has two masters degrees.
“She’s been a servant of the people for 30 years and this is what she gets,” Ed Lepisto said.
Asked why he believes she was arrested, her husband says the principal is dumbfounded and figures that another complaint must have been made to police and not to her.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said.
Gary Loyko, who has a 6-year-old son in Hopkins’ class, says he’s still in shock by the events. In his dealings with Boruchowitz, he says he was treated rudely by the detective. He said that it appeared that unless he wished to provide Boruchowitz with incriminating statements against the educators, the detective didn’t want to talk to him.
“When I didn’t have any evidence or one more nail to put in their coffin, he couldn’t get off the phone fast enough,” Loyko said. “He’s talking like they’re already guilty.”
DeMeo says he believes all of the complaints registered by the public are mostly due to shock. He says his subordinates followed the investigation where it led. Capt. Bill Becht, who oversees all criminal investigations in Nye County, said he was “disgusted” when he was made aware of the evidence uncovered in the case.
“The victims, the whole circumstances just disgusted me. It’s a violation of public trust,” he said.
The kids at Floyd Elementary School look forward to the day before Thanksgiving when their parents or caretakers bring little brothers and sisters to visit their classrooms — many of whom are in strollers — to join in on the yearly Turkey Trot.
The families walk, or run in some cases, through the desert behind the school.
Normally, the families are joined by their principal, Holly Lepisto, who dresses in an outrageously loud and goofy turkey outfit. The students pose with her for family photos and she greets the kids by name.
“We’re missing our turkey this year,” said a front desk clerk at the school who saw Lepisto handcuffed by Boruchowitz on Wednesday and taken out the front door of the school. “It was horrible.”