He promised spiritual counseling and a shot at parole. But for years, Kenneth Dewitt, the aging chaplain at an Arkansas lockup, called female prisoners to his office for “special training” and raped them instead.
Dewitt was sentenced to five years for assaulting three women at the McPherson Unit in Newport from 2013 to 2014. He originally faced 50 counts of sexual assault, each carrying 10 years behind bars, but took a plea deal this summer.
Now the crooked clergyman is named in a lawsuit from one of his victims, Leticia Villarreal, a single mother from Mexico. Villarreal claims Dewitt sexually assaulted her 72 times, or every Monday for about a year and a half.
Dewitt, 68, degraded Villarreal while he assaulted her, calling her his “Mexican whore” and “my Mexican,” the lawsuit states. “You are a criminal from Mexico. No one will help you here but me, so you better do as you are told,” Dewitt allegedly told her.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Villarreal said Dewitt preyed on women who had no family and few visitors. “Nobody wrote me letters. I was pretty much abandoned,” said Villarreal, who was released from prison and deported last year.
“I didn’t have much education, I was an orphan and grew up on my own. That made me a target,” she added.
Villarreal’s lawsuit—which also lists several corrections officers as defendants—provides a deeper look into allegations of Dewitt’s sickening abuse and requests damages for medical expenses, as well as an overhaul of prison policy in Arkansas.
The complaint, which alleges a violation of civil rights and negligent training and supervision, also comes as the U.S. Department of Justice investigates allegations of sexual abuse of inmates at the penitentiary.
Dewitt made national headlines in December 2015 after he was charged. Back then, The Daily Beast revealed Dewitt based his jail teachings on those of Bill Gothard, an evangelical minister accused of sexually harassing more than 30 women.
Yet no one appeared to suspect this white-haired man of the cloth was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, who secretly coerced prisoners into sex on a schedule. He assaulted one inmate on Sundays, another on Mondays and a third on Wednesdays, prosecutors said. One victim told police that Dewitt had her sit in a chair and perform oral sex on him while he stood at the door, keeping watch.
Previously a Baptist minister, Dewitt founded his prison program, Principles and Applications for Life, in 1999. He resigned in September 2014, after a former inmate wrote a letter to prison officials stating, “Chaplain Dewitt and I had a moral failure,” and sparked an investigation, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. Shockingly, the state Department of Correction honored him as its “employee of the year” just one year before.
“There are so many people out there pretending to be something,” Villarreal said of Dewitt’s abuse of authority, “but they’re really criminals.”
The 43-year-old said she became acquainted with Dewitt not long after moving to the United States and going to prison.
Villarreal immigrated to Arizona and later to Texas in 2001 to escape her abusive husband in Mexico. She told The Daily Beast she worked as a waitress and a stripper in Texas, struggling to make ends meet for her three children. She was arrested four years later as a passenger in her brother’s vehicle, which was transporting drugs.
According to Villarreal, her sibling and two other male passengers lied to cops, telling them the cocaine belonged to her. (These claims could not be confirmed by The Daily Beast, but online court records show Villarreal has a conviction for cocaine possession with the intent to deliver. Meanwhile, her lawsuit states she was sentenced to 40 years.)
The distraught mother sought help to turn her life around once she was incarcerated in 2007. So she signed up for Dewitt’s non-denominational “P.A.L” program—which the parole board looked favorly upon—and became a counselor whose duties included translating for Hispanic inmates.
But in January 2013, Dewitt came to her with an “opportunity for advancement” and asked her to report to his office the following Monday at 6 a.m., her lawsuit states.
When she arrived, Dewitt locked the door and said he knew “how very attracted [she was to him],” court papers state. The pastor then allegedly told Villarreal he wanted to give her “sexual training in order to be a true woman of God.”
Despite Villarreal’s refusals, Dewitt groped her and told her she had no choice but to accept his authority, the lawsuit states. Before she left the room, he allegedly reminded her to visit his office every Monday morning “or else.”
What happened between them was a “private matter,” Dewitt allegedly warned, and if she ratted him out, no one would believe her.
Villarreal continued to visit the preacher’s post every Monday at 6 a.m. out of fear, the lawsuit states. Once she arrived, Dewitt would lecture her for 30 minutes “on how to have a proper relationship with God,” then rape her and force her to perform oral sex.
Dewitt also allegedly told Villarreal she should be grateful for his “training” and suggested she become a missionary in Mexico and thus a “woman of Godliness.”
The chaplain warned Villarreal that if she told anyone about the abuse, she would be put in segregation and never leave prison. She never reported the sexual assaults and began to contemplate suicide. The only thing keeping her from killing herself was the thought of seeing her children again, the lawsuit states.
Villarreal did not only suffer emotionally from the sexual assault; she acquired sexually transmitted infections from Dewitt, court papers allege.
Dewitt routinely bragged about his sexual exploits during PAL lectures, the lawsuit alleges, and told his flock he acquired herpes during his “glory years” as a “playboy.” Villarreal repeatedly sought help from medical staff for pelvic pain and bleeding, as well as sores in her mouth that nurses called “lie bumps,” the complaint says.
According to the lawsuit, another of Dewitt’s victims had similar symptoms in her treatment history but medical staff did not report this to higher-ups.
Dewitt allegedly continued to assault Villarreal until late July 2014, when he left for a trip and his assistant chaplain Stacey Smith took over. Smith, who was also sleeping with Dewitt, was a former inmate serving a 60-year sentence on drug charges but granted clemency by former Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Smith called Villarreal into the chaplain’s room and said she knew about the Monday sex sessions with the pastor, the lawsuit says. “Then, in an utterly bizarre gesture, Chaplain Smith said she ‘forgave’ [Villarreal]” before ordering her to leave the office,” court papers allege.
The next day, Villarreal asked Smith to remove her from the PAL program, but Smith said she couldn’t without Dewitt’s permission, the complaint states. Villarreal also asked another corrections employee, Tonya Gates, to change her barracks assignment but Gates also allegedly deferred to Dewitt.
Villarreal claims Dewitt was furious when he returned from vacation, demanding she not ask for removal from his program again. With the help of Sergeant Phillip Allen, Dewitt escorted her back to his office, the complaint says.
According to the lawsuit, Allen offered to pepper spray Villarreal and toss her into solitary confinement if Dewitt “needed help.” Once in the pastor’s quarters, Villarreal was berated by Dewitt until she promised to keep quiet about the abuse.
In September 2014, Dewitt changed his tone, asking Villarreal to “forgive” him for raping her. The chaplain informed her authorities were on his tail, and he asked her to lie to investigators, court papers allege. (That month, Smith told prison officials in a letter about her “moral failure” with Dewitt.)
Villarreal didn’t reply, because Dewitt “appeared mentally unstable, and she was worried about her safety if she said the wrong thing,” the complaint states.
Still, in December 2014, she reported the sexual assaults to the chaplain’s temporary replacement and was told a warden would interview her. Villarreal claims in her lawsuit that the warden never took action but that Arkansas State Police came knocking months later.
Villarreal’s lawsuit suggests a network of chaplains and prison employees allowed Dewitt unfettered access to potential victims.
Kristina Gates, a prison chaplain known as Gramma and who is named as a defendant, continued facilitating phone calls between Dewitt and one of his victims even after he resigned, court papers allege. Because of Gramma’s help, Villarreal initially felt unsafe in reporting Dewitt’s assaults.
Indeed, it’s unclear how Dewitt’s sexual abuse went undetected by prison officials.
Wendy Kelley, hired as the director of the state Department of Correction after Dewitt’s resignation, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the chaplain’s office was on the unit’s main hallway and had a floor-to-ceiling window.
“But that clearly wasn’t good enough,” Kelley told a reporter at Dewitt’s plea hearing. “So we made some moves to prevent that from ever being able to happen again.” (The prison knocked down some walls to prevent blind spots.)
The Arkansas Department of Correction, as well as Dewitt’s attorney, declined to comment on Villarreal’s lawsuit.
Joseph Lacome, an attorney for Villarreal, said he has a list of five other possible victims of Dewitt’s abuse and is awaiting the results of the DOJ’s probe into McPherson.
“The [Arkansas Department of Corrections] can make it look like, ‘Well, we’ve done our job,’ but I think it’s more systemic,” Lacome told The Daily Beast. “There’s a lot more going on in that prison.”