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Sex offender interacted with kids, witness says in trial of former Latrobe day care owner

Renatta Signorini
| Thursday, April 9, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
Donald Knecht was sentenced to serve up to 25 years in prison for sexually assaulting  a 9-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy.
Donald Knecht was sentenced to serve up to 25 years in prison for sexually assaulting a 9-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy.

A convicted sex offender routinely interacted with children at his wife's day care center even though such contact was forbidden by the courts, according to testimony Wednesday by four former employees of the center.

The testimony came during the third day of the trial of Lisa Knecht, 55, of Derry, on charges she permitted her husband access to children at her Bright Beginnings Day Care Center in Latrobe and before that, when the business was in Whitney.

Donald Knecht was sentenced to five years' probation in a Virginia sex case and five more years for a lewdness conviction in New Jersey in 1996.

In 2012, he pleaded guilty in Westmoreland County to rape and possession of child pornography and is serving a 12 12-to-25-year prison sentence. Police said the rape case did not involve children at the day care.

The former employees said they often saw Donald Knecht with children at the center.

“Any time that I worked, I made sure he was never alone with any of the children,” said Erica Wilson of Derry.

Sometimes, he would calm children during nap time and sit on the floor with them, the ex-employees said.

“A lot of kids would call him ‘Pappy Don' when he would show up,” Alexandra Lekawa of Latrobe testified before Judge Rita Hathaway.

He was “very hands-on with the kids,” Megan Artis of Latrobe said. “He would let them sit on his lap quite frequently.”

Artis said he regularly left open the door to a restroom designated for children while he urinated.

Defense attorney Greg Cecchetti asked Artis why she never told Lisa Knecht.

“Aren't you responsible to be with the children and look to their protection?” Cecchetti asked.

“Because that's a hard situation to be in,” Artis responded.

Through it all, Lisa Knecht has denied knowing about her husband's past.

But a Florida woman testified she heard Donald Knecht tell his bride-to-be, identified only as Lisa, that he had a criminal history.

Donald Knecht's former sister-in-law, Lucy Clements of Miami, said she heard him tell a woman named Lisa in 1993 about his past during a conversation on a Virginia naval base.

Kerri Shimmell of Latrobe testified she was informed by Lisa Knecht that all employees had clearances and background checks when Shimmell enrolled her son at the center.

Shimmell told jurors she sometimes saw Donald Knecht playing video games in a room alone with her son when she picked him up.

Lisa Knecht closed her day care center on the day her husband was charged with the 2012 offenses.

Late last year, she pleaded guilty to 10 counts of child endangerment and Hathaway said she intended to send her to jail. But before a formal sentencing hearing last month, Knecht withdrew her guilty plea and demanded a trial.

Prosecution witnesses will continue with testimony Thursday morning.

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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