Three women, traumatized for decades by former tennis great Bob Hewitt allegedly sexually abusing them as girls, reached a milestone in their pursuit of justice Friday when Hewitt was formally charged in South Africa with two counts of rape and one count of sexually assaulting a minor.
“After all these years, it’s a feeling of absolute vindication,’’ Suellen Sheehan, one of the alleged victims, said after the hearing at the Boksburg Magistrate’s Court near Johannesburg. “I cannot believe this day has arrived.’’
However, a Massachusetts woman who set in motion the effort to expose Hewitt’s alleged serial sexual abuse of girls he coached remains stymied.
Three years have passed since Heather Crowe Conner resigned from the Pentucket Regional School Committee on Boston’s North Shore, saying she was traumatized by Hewitt’s alleged abuse, which began in the 1970s.
Conner shared with the Globe her account of Hewitt beginning a sexual relationship with her when she was a 15-year-old tennis player at Masconomet Regional High School and he was a world-renowned doubles player who had starred for the Boston Lobsters. Her interview triggered a six-month Globe investigation that led in part to Hewitt’s indefinite suspension from the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the criminal charges in South Africa.
“I’m excited for the girls in South Africa,’’ she said. “It will be nice for him to be held responsible and accountable for his actions.’’
But she yearns to present her case against Hewitt in an American court. She filed a complaint with Topsfield Police in 2010 and asked the Essex County district attorney to pursue an indictment. But prosecutors, while citing Conner as credible, said they have been unable to pursue the case largely because of the passage of time and Hewitt’s foreign location. He has been a citizen of South Africa since the 1960s.
“I wish he could be held accountable in the United States for what he did to me,’’ Conner said. “It would never be enough of a penalty, though. I am still struggling.’’
Rape convictions in South Africa can be punishable by life sentences in prison.
Hewitt, 73, who has denied the charges, did not appear in the Boksburg court, citing ill health.
Hewitt’s lawyer, Alwyn Griebenow, told the court his client, one of the greatest doubles player in history, is being treated for anxiety and depression and was unable to travel 650 miles to Boksburg from his home in Addo on South Africa’s Eastern Cape.
Griebenow submitted a doctor’s report that stated Hewitt’s “overall condition had deteriorated rapidly over the last 2-3 years.’’
The court magistrate indicated he would issue an arrest warrant if Hewitt does not appear at his next hearing Oct. 4.
Hewitt was charged with raping a girl under 16 in Sun City, South Africa, in 1981. The alleged victim, Twiggy Tolken, has said she was 12 when Hewitt began sexually abusing her there.
Tolken played a key role in exposing Hewitt’s alleged abuse by giving the Globe and law enforcement authorities love letters that Hewitt purportedly wrote her when he was 40 and she was no more than 13.
Hewitt also was charged with raping a girl under 16 in 1982. Sheehan has said she was no older than 13 when Hewitt began having sex with her.
Tolken and Sheehan both were tennis prodigies at the time, as was Amanda Wienhold, who Hewitt allegedly sexually assaulted in Boksburg in 1994 when she was 16.
Globe policy protects the identity of sexual abuse victims, but Hewitt’s alleged victims all agreed to be publicly identified.
Hewitt’s lawyer asked the magistrate to move the case to Port Elizabeth, near Hewitt’s home, while prosecutors requested the trial be held at South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg.
At least six other women in the United States and South Africa have alleged they were abused by Hewitt when he coached them as girls. No charges have been filed in those cases.