Derry woman who ran Latrobe day care convicted of endangerment
A Derry Township woman stood silently with her hands clasped Friday afternoon as a jury announced it convicted her of 11 felony child endangerment counts.
Lisa Knecht, 54, was led away in handcuffs by sheriff’s deputies once her bond was revoked by Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway at the conclusion of her five-day trial for allowing her husband, a convicted sex offender, access to children at the day care she operated in Latrobe.
“I love you,” Knecht whispered to her daughter on her way out of the courtroom, as a few witnesses and mothers of children who were enrolled in the day care thanked and hugged Assistant District Attorney Judy Petrush and county Detective Robert Weaver.
Jurors deliberated about two hours.
Prosecutors told the jury of six men and six women that Knecht knew her husband, Donald Knecht, had previous sex crime convictions but still permitted him to be at Bright Beginnings Day Care from 2007 to May 2011, when it closed.
Donald Knecht served two five-year probation terms, one stemming from a 1989 arrest for molesting a young girl in Virginia and the second after a 1996 lewdness incident in New Jersey.
“(Lisa Knecht) chose. She made a choice to pretend like it didn’t happen,” Petrush told jurors during closing arguments. “She turned a blind eye.”
“Lisa Knecht chose to operate a daycare. She took money from parents and she took their most precious possession …,” Petrush said. “Instead of protecting these children, she knowingly exposed them to the risk of harm.”
Donald Knecht is serving a 12 1⁄2-to-25-year prison sentence since pleading guilty in Westmoreland County in 2012 to rape and possession of child pornography. Police said those charges don’t involve children at the day care.
Several parents of children who attended the center and former staffers testified that they regularly saw Donald Knecht there interacting with children, sometimes playing with them or having them sit on his lap.
Lisa Knecht has maintained her innocence.
She testified in her own defense that she was unaware that Donald Knecht was on probation when she married him in 1993. She didn’t know the truth about her husband’s arrest in New Jersey and she didn’t make him get clearances to be at the day care because he wasn’t an employee or a volunteer, she told the jury.
Jurors could infer, Petrush argued, that Lisa Knecht “knew he couldn’t get” clearances.
Knecht told jurors that her husband was rarely at the center, and when he was, it was only for a few minutes. She testified that she would sometimes leave him unsupervised in the facility or leave to attend to other business.
Defense attorney Greg Cecchetti told jurors during closing arguments that “my client knew nothing” and questioned the recollections of witnesses.
“She has lost her livelihood, something she holds dear to her,” Cecchetti told the jury. “She has lost the ability to earn.”
“Her life was around kids, and now that’s all been taken away from her because of Donald’s prior criminal history and the allegations that Lisa knew about it,” Cecchetti argued. “She’s being dragged down because of the sordid details of what her husband was doing behind her back.”
Knecht faces a sentence of up to seven years on each of the 11 charges. She previously had pleaded guilty to 10 child endangerment counts, and Hathaway said she intended to send her to jail. Knecht withdrew the guilty plea at a sentencing hearing last month and demanded a trial.
Knecht’s sentencing is set for May 15.
Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or [email protected].