By Lyra Bordelon
A recent arrest in an out-of-state investigation by the Greenbrier County Sheriff’s Department startled a number of families attending Southern Elite Gymnastics in Lewisburg. After the sheriff’s department announced the arrest of Leonard Eugene Johnson on Facebook, Southern Elite Gymnastics owner Dwight Bundy reached out to parents, telling them what he knew and speaking with many of the individual families that took classes with Johnson.
Johnson was taken into custody in Fairlea on November 11 by officers with the Greenbrier County Sheriff’s Office and West Virginia State Police after receiving a warrant from Missouri.
“The warrant for Leonard Eugene Johnson was issued by the Marion County, Missouri, 10th Judicial Circuit Court for the felony charge of ‘Statutory Sodomy or Attempted Statutory Sodomy- Deviate Sexual Intercourse- Person less than 12 years of age,’” reads the press release from the Greenbrier County Sheriff Bruce Sloan. “The offense date is listed as March 2, 2020.”
A probable cause statement was filed against Johnson in Marion County on August 17. According to this statement, the parents of two alleged victims approached the Hannibal Police Department on May 29 to report Johnson for molestation. Johnson, originally from Minnesota, “had been staying with them off and on since March due to COVID and he had taken both [alleged victims] to stay in a hotel on more than one occasion.” The warrant gives a timeline between March 22 and May 5 for potential offenses.
The arrest startled many parents and his potential future employer – Johnson was working for Southern Elite Gymnastics in Lewisburg and his arrest gave owner Dwight Bundy a cause for alarm.
“This is obviously a complete shock,” Bundy said. “After the shock, my first priority was the safety of our students, our athletes, our kids. That’s why we immediately started reaching out to all the parents, communicating what we knew about the situation. … It’s not something you can turn a blind eye at.”
After the Greenbrier County Sheriff’s Office announced Johnson’s arrest on November 12, Bundy sent out an email to a number of parents
“My gymnastics director and I, immediately when it happened, hit it face on,” Bundy said. “We talked to as many parents as we could, we sent out a mass email. We personally talked to basically every parent in the program. I’ve never had something like this happen before, but we actually had a lot of support.”
According to Bundy, Johnson also wasn’t an employee yet, but a volunteer coach the gym was “getting ready to hire.” As part of their hiring practice, coaches have an approximately two-month period of evaluation “to see if they’re someone we want to invest in” before being completely brought on. Also part of the hiring process is a background check.
“Since we are a United States gymnastics facility, all of our coaches have to be in good standing with the United States of America Gymnastics (USAG) to coach here,” Bundy explained. “Everyone that works with a USAG affiliate has a background check through SafeSport. He was clear. He didn’t have a record, no prior convictions, nothing. … If someone has never been convicted of anything, they’re not going to show up on anything [like a background check].”
Some parents expressed concern Johnson was able to gain employment at the gym despite the out-of-state charges. Bundy explained that many parents understood the situation he found himself in – an unexpected, high-profile arrest of someone working for you.
“If I had known [about the charges], obviously he never would have set foot in this facility,” Bundy said. “I have a 12-year-old daughter, a nine-year-old son, I get it. I understand and I can sympathize with an upset parent. Once I communicated that and saw where we were coming from, they understood a little bit better.”
Bundy noted that there had been no complaints against Johnson before his arrest and, as a result of surveillance measures and speaking with parents, Bundy feels confident no harm came to the gym’s athletes.
“As part of our safety protocol, … we have 24 hour surveillance always recording the gymnastics facility and we also have a parent back there that rotates every week that watches every class,” Bundy said. “That’s another safety protocol to cover us if something were to happen. We put that extra measure a few years ago to help us out, keep everybody honest.”
He also asked for parents with concerns to reach out.
“As a business owner, we had to make sure nothing had happened here,” Bundy said. “Talking to all the parents, I was transparent with everyone. If there was an incident where your kid felt uncomfortable, let me know. We’ll handle it. We haven’t gotten anything like that, we’ve gotten a lot of support from our parents.”
Johnson pled not guilty before Greenbrier County Magistrate Judge Tim Stover on November 11, where the case was transferred to the Greenbrier County Circuit Court. He was incarcerated at the Southern Regional Jail in Raleigh County to await extradition.
Deputies M. T. Doss and T. T. Hyatt, of the Greenbrier County Sheriff’s Department, are the local investigating officers.