Former Tennis Star: Bob Hewitt faces rape charges in South Africa
By Bob Hohler : Boston Globe
Disgraced tennis star Bob Hewitt has been summoned to court in South Africa on charges of rape and indecent assault involving women he coached when they were girls and he reigned as one of the greatest doubles players of all time, according to sources in South Africa.
Hewitt, 73, who last year was suspended indefinitely from the International Tennis Hall of Fame over the women’s reports of sexual abuse, is due to make a preliminary appearance at the Boksburg Magistrate’s Court Aug. 16.
South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority has not identified the alleged victims, but at least two women who went public two years ago in a Globe investigation of Hewitt — Twiggy Tolken and Suellen Sheehan — reported they were abused in the Boksburg jurisdiction.
“The time has come for the law to take its course,’’ Tolken said Wednesday from New Zealand. “Let justice prevail.’’
The Globe investigation uncovered allegations that Hewitt sexually abused underage girls he coached, from Greater Boston to South Africa from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Six women publicly identified themselves as alleged victims, and numerous others who were cited as possible victims either declined to be interviewed or could not be reached.
Several of the alleged victims have long sought Hewitt’s prosecution. Sheehan said from Johannesburg she hoped the criminal charges would send an empowering message to young abuse victims “who need to know they will be heard.’’
Efforts to reach Hewitt, who lives in the small country town of Addo, South Africa, were unsuccessful. He previously denied any wrongdoing to investigators, including a former US prosecutor who conducted a lengthy inquiry for the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.
That inquiry led more than 25 members of the Hall’s executive committee to vote unanimously to suspend Hewitt. The Hall stopped short of expelling him because he has not been convicted of a crime, according to executive director Mark Stenning.
Under South African law, Hewitt may enter a plea Aug. 16, which would determine whether the case is resolved in the magistrate’s court or moved to the South Gauteng High Court for a possible trial.
The Globe launched its investigation after Heather Crowe Conner of West Newbury, a former tennis pro and member of the Pentucket Regional School Committee, went public in 2011 with allegations that Hewitt began abusing her when she was 15, soon after he completed a stint with the Boston Lobsters.
When the Globe interviewed Hewitt about Conner’s allegations in Addo in 2011, he generally denied them. But he made several incriminating statements, including, “I would rather just forget about it,’’ and, “What’s she bringing it up now for?’’
Conner said Hewitt first sexually assaulted her in 1975 near the tennis courts at Masconomet Regional High School. In 2010, she asked Essex County prosecutors to pursue criminal charges against him. But the district attorney’s office, while deeming her allegations “credible,’’ said prosecutors were stymied by the lapsed time since the incident, the lack of additional evidence, and Hewitt’s location outside the United States.
Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, has supported Conner and has joined her in calling on the state legislature to reduce the statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases.
“We applaud South African officials for this action,’’ Bernier said. “It sends a strong message to abusers who believe they can sexually exploit children with impunity and never be held accountable. When victims and their advocates stand up for the truth, abusers are learning that no amount of money, status, or institutional reputation can shield them.’’
The case in South Africa is strengthened by love letters Hewitt purportedly gave Tolken in 1981 while he was allegedly sexually involved with her. She had just turned 13, and he was 40.
A source close to the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s inquiry said investigators were prepared to conduct a handwriting analysis of the letters but the exercise became unnecessary when Hewitt acknowledged writing them.
A native Australian, Hewitt partnered with South Africa’s Frew McMillan in the 1960s to form one of the most dominant doubles teams in tennis history. They captured 57 titles, including victories over teams led by John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, and Arthur Ashe.
Hewitt won 15 Grand Slam doubles titles before he retired in 1983.
In recent months, Hewitt has made several public relations efforts to restore his image. In addition to attacking the integrity of the alleged victims, he has portrayed himself as a victim.
“Overnight my life changed for the worse,” he told a South African magazine. “It’s been traumatic for us all,’’ he said, referring to his family.