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Safety & Discipline

Pa. Board of Education chair accused of sexual relationships with teens

| Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017, 10:27 a.m.

Annette DeMichele was 17 when, she says, her crew coach, Larry Wittig, took her and another rower on her elite team to a nude beach after a West Coast competition.

Wittig was 32 and married. DeMichele was a fresh 1981 graduate of Harriton High School in Lower Merion.

“He told me I had perfect breasts,” DeMichele said. “No one had ever seen them before.”

That led to what DeMichele says was a year-and-a-half sexual relationship with Wittig — who, 36 years later, is the outgoing chairman of the Pennsylvania State Board of Education.

She says it felt consensual at the time but today, considering their age difference and his role as her coach, she believes she was coerced.

After she brought her concerns to a reporter, the Inquirer and Daily News looked into Wittig's background and uncovered a troubling history. Another woman says she had a sexual relationship with Wittig when she was 16 and he was 29. The woman, who asked that her name and other details not be used out of concern for her privacy, said the relationship lasted about two years.

Before Wittig met either of those two women, when he was 21, he was charged with raping a 15-year-old friend of his sister. A Schuylkill County, Pa., jury found him not guilty. The woman, reached by the Inquirer and Daily News, stood by her testimony at trial.

DeMichele, now 53, says her relationship with Wittig started the summer after her high school graduation and continued at the University of Pennsylvania, where she rowed and Wittig coached. Wittig resigned that position in 1984 amid an ombudsman's investigation into, in part, his relationship with DeMichele.

Contacted Monday, Wittig, now 68, declined to meet with a reporter. After being sent a letter outlining the claims made by DeMichele and others interviewed for this story, Wittig on Tuesday said he knew the women and denied their accusations.

“I know of them, yeah, of course, but I'm, look — I'm not going to answer any particulars,” he said. “I'm just going to say I categorically deny it.”

That same day, Wittig submitted a letter to the Department of Education stating he no longer planned “on attending nor participating as a member of the State Board of Education.”

He backdated the letter to Nov. 15, the week following the most recent board meeting he chaired. Wittig told a reporter this week that the November meeting was his last and he was no longer chairman.

However, Wittig remains chairman of the board. His term was to expire in October, or when a new chairman is named by Gov. Wolf, which Wolf has not done.

Wittig has spent nearly two decades in prominence within the state education system.

In 1995, the Schuylkill County resident was elected as a Republican to the Tamaqua Area school board, taking the position of president, which he still holds. He was appointed to the state Board of Education by Gov. Tom Ridge in 2001 and named chairman by Gov. Tom Corbett in 2011, overseeing a 21-member body that has broad jurisdiction over elementary, secondary and higher education in the state.

Wittig also is a trustee at Philadelphia University-Thomas Jefferson University and a member of the president's leadership council at Drexel University. He runs an accounting practice in Tamaqua and is president of a waste management company, according to his LinkedIn page.

DeMichele, who has a law degree and a doctorate in clinical psychology, lives in New York City with her husband and two children. She said she decided to share her story because she was inspired by the women who have in recent months told their own stories of sexual harassment at the hands of powerful men in politics, entertainment, and the media.

Two of DeMichele's friends from Harriton — Margo Boyle and another woman, who asked to not be named — say they knew about DeMichele's relationship with Wittig either while it was happening or shortly after it ended. DeMichele also kept many mementos from the relationship, including a 1982 receipt bearing Wittig's name from a lingerie store.

Other women who rowed with DeMichele at Harriton have their own stories of being inappropriately pursued by Wittig as teenagers.

One, Sarah Dahlgren, said she went to the nude beach with Wittig and DeMichele during a trip to San Diego for a rowing competition. She said the team and Wittig stayed at the home of one of her family friends, sleeping on the floor of a common room. When the lights were turned off, as people chatted before falling asleep, Wittig reached over and stuck his hand between her legs, she said.

“What I remember is lying in the room,” said Dahlgren, who now is 54 and lives in Pelham, N.Y. “And somehow I ended up next to Larry, and him reaching over and starting to touch me, and me pushing him away.”

Wittig grew up near Tamaqua, a small borough about an hour northwest of Allentown. He started rowing in 1968, when he tried out for Drexel's crew team.

In 1970, while a student at Drexel, Wittig was charged with rape and statutory rape of his sister's 15-year-old friend.

At a preliminary hearing, the girl testified that the incident happened at Wittig's home, on a May evening when he had come home from college.

According to the judge's notes on file with the court, she testified that she was in the living room when Wittig came in, scooped her up in his arms, and carried her to his bedroom. She said she protested — “No, Larry, no, no,” she said she remembered telling him — but she could do little to fend him off. She was under 5 feet tall and weighed 97 pounds.

The court file includes few details from the trial. Wittig's lawyers filed notice that they planned to present two witnesses who would testify that Wittig was with them the night of the alleged rape. Those individuals, a man and a woman who later married, were members of Wittig's class at Tamaqua High School, according to a list of graduates.

After four days of testimony, the jury deliberated for about 6½ hours before finding Wittig not guilty.

Wittig on Tuesday said the girl fabricated the story in an attempt to extort money from his family.

The victim, reached by the Inquirer and Daily News, asked to not be named but maintained that Wittig had raped her.

“He got away with it. Of course, I was humiliated. I was unhappy. I'm still unhappy about it,” she said. “But what am I supposed to do when they say he's not guilty?”

She said she put the ordeal behind her, rarely thinking about Wittig in the nearly five decades that have passed.

Wittig graduated from Drexel three months after his trial, in June 1972. Over the next five years, he made the rounds of the region's collegiate rowing programs, coaching first for his alma mater, then for Penn and finally for St. Joseph's University, then called St. Joseph's College. In 1976 he rowed with the U.S. men's national team, according to an article in the Allentown Morning Call.

During a brief hiatus from coaching, Wittig and his then-wife (he has since divorced and remarried) opened an accounting office in Tamaqua. He officially returned to coaching when he was hired by Penn in 1981.

At the time, he was a member of Philadelphia's celebrated Vesper Boat Club on the Schuylkill.

That is where DeMichele and her team from Harriton practiced, carpooling after school from Rosemont to Boathouse Row.

Several members of DeMichele's boat crew recall Wittig's offering to train them in 1981 after Harriton assigned the team a coach with limited rowing experience. It was DeMichele's senior year.

On the water, Wittig was disciplined, giving pointers on form and technique that the women remember resulting in improvements almost immediately.

Off the water, the women say, he took them to nightclubs. He commented on their bodies and looks. He confided in them about problems at home. He made sexually charged jokes.

“He tried to be younger,” said Boyle, a friend and teammate of DeMichele's. “He tried to be part of us. And be like a teenager.”

Boyle said Wittig also pursued her at the time. She recalled his rubbing her hand as they tied a boat to the roof of his van and telling her, “It'd be really nice if we got together.”

“All of the time, he kept making passes at me,” she said. “And I just, I blew him off. I didn't mind the passes. But I just knew nothing was going to happen, because he was creepy.”

Wittig's advances had a different impact on DeMichele, who was the least experienced of her friends and hadn't dated. When Wittig took an interest in her, she said, it made her feel attractive and desired, which she longed for at the time.

“I thought I was somehow more grown-up and special and sophisticated at the time, having this relationship,” she said. “Whereas now, I can look back and realize how young and naive and vulnerable and stupid I was.”

DeMichele said Wittig's banter grew more inappropriate when he took her and Dahlgren to the nude beach in San Diego, a trip taken the day after her high school graduation.

She said her relationship with Wittig turned sexual later that summer at Dahlgren's home while her parents were away. DeMichele said she, Wittig and Dahlgren were napping in Dahlgren's bed when Wittig put his hand under her dress.

“All of the sudden, I felt him touching me. He had his hand between my legs. And I froze,” she said. “And I was too shocked and embarrassed to do anything. Especially with Sarah right there. I couldn't believe he was doing this, and it kept going.”

DeMichele never told her friends about the incident. Dahlgren, who lost touch with DeMichele after high school and only learned about DeMichele's relationship with Wittig last month, says she remembered Wittig's being at her home but had no specific recollection of the incident.

DeMichele said she and Wittig had sex for the first time soon afterward, during a trip to Washington to see the Dallas Cowboys, her favorite team, play the Redskins.

After the game, Wittig took her to the hotel where the Cowboys were staying. She said they watched the players coming through the lobby, then went upstairs to a room Wittig had rented and had sex. It was her first time.

The trip marked DeMichele's first weekend of college. She said she made few friends that year because she spent so much time with Wittig. Even after the relationship ended, she never rebounded to have a fulfilling college experience, she said.

The relationship, she said, scarred her in other ways. DeMichele said she developed an eating disorder because Wittig was constantly focused on her weight, often making bets with her about how many pounds she could lose.

“The only person I had was him,” DeMichele said. “I was so isolated, by design. By what this relationship was, and because it had to be secret.”

DeMichele said she continued seeing Wittig through her freshman year and the following summer. Wittig, she said, would pick her up on campus and take her out for dinner. They would have sex in his van or at Penn's or Vesper's boat houses, she says.

She said she broke things off in the fall of her sophomore year when Wittig told her his wife was pregnant.

“I guess, however, I had to delude myself, it kind of all came crashing down in that moment, and I also got just hit with this tremendous guilt and shame,” she said. “Not that they were absent previously. But they just were so much more real when he told me that she was pregnant.”

The following year, DeMichele said, an assistant crew coach knocked on her apartment door and told her there were rumors about her relationship with Wittig. He asked if she would be willing to speak with the school's ombudsman, which she agreed to do.

According to a 1984 article in the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn's student newspaper, Wittig resigned amid that investigation, which the paper reported was focused on sexual harassment and program mismanagement.

John Keene, who led the ombudsman's office at the time, said he could not recall any details about his office's investigation.

Many years later, DeMichele still recalls how comforting it was for her to speak to the ombudsman's office about the clandestine relationship with Wittig.

“Finally, the grown-ups arrived and said, ‘No, you're not crazy.' And, ‘No, you're not just blameworthy,' “ she said. “And, ‘No, you don't have to keep this secret any longer.' . Here were these grown-ups that were trying to find out the truth, to hold him accountable.”

The investigation seems to have been little more than a bump in Wittig's coaching career.

Seven months after he resigned, he was picked to lead a development camp for the U.S. Olympic women's rowing team, according to an article in the Morning Call. He went on to be a member of the coaching staff for the women's U.S. Olympic team in 1984 and the U.S. national rowing team in 1988, according to the paper.

He also stayed in contact with Penn rowing. Only seven months after he left the school, while trying to entice the Olympic team to hold its selection camp in Carbon County, Pa., he interested Penn in providing boats and a launch for the camp free of charge, according to a Morning Call article from the time.

He recently attended two reunions of the school's rowing community, according to online attendance lists.

DeMichele said she was invited to one such reunion but never considered going, worried she would run into Wittig and that seeing anyone from the rowing program would stir unpleasant memories.

“It's like a part of my life that I don't go to inside,” she said.

While visiting her parents over Thanksgiving, she brought down from their attic boxes filled with items from that pivotal first relationship. A matchbook from the famed Second Story disco, where she said Wittig often took her. Ticket envelopes bearing his name from Dallas Cowboys games. Two red roses, one plastic and one now flat and brittle, that she said he sent her after they broke up.

There was a card with the flowers.

“Some things will die in time but some will last forever,” reads the hand-written note. “We will be together some day.”

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