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She once dreamed of a gold medal; her parents now hope she survives former Marian coach's assault
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She once dreamed of a gold medal; her parents now hope she survives former Marian coach's assault

The 14-year-old girl and her parents had dreams.

She trained and competed in track and field, earning a spot on a prestigious Junior Olympics development team. She would go on to earn a full-ride track scholarship to a major college, her sights set on Olympic gold.

Then the ghosts of her recent past started haunting her.

In 2012-13, as a freshman at Marian High School, the girl had met Andrea Lightfoot during basketball tryouts. Lightfoot, then an assistant basketball coach who’d had a stellar basketball career at Marian and Idaho State University, groomed the then-freshman by text and phone call. Over a monthlong relationship with her, she sexually assaulted the girl at least twice.

Thursday, eight years after the assault, after marrying and recently giving birth, Lightfoot’s bill came due.

Douglas County District Judge Gary Randall sentenced the 34-year-old mother of a toddler to 20 to 30 years in prison for sexual assault.

The rare hearing — conducted by videoconference software because of coronavirus precautions — gave a live, split-screen view of the toll of the case.

Lightfoot, who now goes by her married name, Andrea Knecht, appeared via videoconference from her attorneys’ conference room. She buried her face in her hands and began crying after absorbing the net effect of the sentence: She will have to serve 10 years before she is eligible for parole; absent parole, she will serve 15 years. She also must register as a sex offender for the next 25 years. The judge ordered her to report to the Douglas County Jail on Friday morning.

On another screen, the mother of the now-22-year-old woman Knecht victimized read a devastating statement. She wept as she began, gasped and eventually gathered herself, her voice breaking throughout.

The mother said her daughter once was an Olympic prospect. She’s now a college dropout.

“I used to hope she would be an Olympic athlete who would change the world,” her mother said. “Now I hope she just survives.”

The girl is in therapy — and deals with constant anxiety. Her siblings and parents walk on eggshells for fear they will set her off. She hardly talks to her dad, a father who loved to roadtrip with her to all of her competitions.

“The child we raised no longer exists — our exuberant, extroverted, overachieving child is gone,” Mom told the judge. “She is a shell of her former self.”

Like many abuse cases, prosecutor Molly Keane said, the abuse was a fissure that the girl kept hidden for years. It didn’t crack completely open until the young woman, then in college, came across a tweet.

Last year, Marian officials were promoting the all-girls private school on Twitter. “Marian High School covered up the fact that I was sexually assaulted,” the woman replied to the tweet. “Who took a stand for me?”

That prompted current Marian High School President Mary Higgins to dig into personnel files, find documentation of the relationship and report the matter to authorities. It also prompted questions as to why Marian officials didn’t report the matter in 2013.

A former Marian official, Susan Toohey, told The World-Herald that she terminated Lightfoot immediately for improperly communicating with the student — a resolution that she said was acceptable at the time to the girl’s parents. However, Toohey has said, she didn’t report the relationship to authorities because no one suggested that it was sexual in nature.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine has stressed that any adult, especially school officials, must report improper relationships to law enforcement. If Marian had, Kleine said, the abuse could have been uncovered and addressed much sooner. No administrator was prosecuted for failing to report in this case because the statute of limitations had run out.

A sullen Knecht apologized Thursday.

“As the adult,” she said, “I take full responsibility for my mistakes and actions. I’m extremely sorry for the pain I may have caused.”

Her attorneys, Mallory Hughes and Sean Conway, emphasized that she has lived a changed life. Before her arrest, she was working, had married and she and her husband have been raising a 1-year-old boy.

“She has lived not only a law-abiding life but a productive life, an empathetic life,” Hughes said.

In her statement Thursday, the young woman’s mother noted that she and her husband went to Marian officials after discovering that their then-14-year-old daughter was getting texts and emails at all hours of the night. At one point, the parents took away her phone and blocked Knecht’s number. But Knecht replaced it with a burner phone that looked exactly like her previous phone, her mother said.

Marian administrators fired Knecht but apparently didn’t ask to look at the text or email exchanges.

The survivor listened to the hearing but chose not to speak.

Her mother said the betrayal still burns.

“We truly hope that she will be able to rebuild her life,” she said. “Andrea Knecht caused so much pain and anguish. Our daughter is like a ticking time bomb. I don’t think (she) will ever fully recover.

“We just hope she finds a way to heal and to cope with the ups and downs of society.”

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Reporter - Courts

Todd Cooper covers courts, lawyers, trials, legal issues, the justice system and government wrongdoing for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @CooperonCourts. Phone: 402-444-1275.

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