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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

How one family’s pursuit of tennis success ended in heartache

David and Rosaria Lewis, whose daughters’ pursuit of tennis careers had a tragic end, at home in Auckland, New Zealand on Oct. 23, 2023. (Ruth McDowall/The New York Times)

By Matthew Futterman

Four years ago, David Lewis received a phone call from the coroner’s office in Washington, D.C. His oldest daughter, Carolina, a former college tennis player, had been found dead in a hotel room. She was 23.

Lewis would later hear a convoluted story about a night of club-hopping, a man in a disguise, Carolina’s panicked phone calls and the rendezvous with a stranger that preceded her death. But at that moment, all he knew was that he had lost a daughter.

The Lewises are tennis royalty in their native New Zealand. David, 59, had been a touring pro, as had his brother, Mark. Another brother, Chris, played in the 1983 Wimbledon men’s singles final, losing to John McEnroe.

For a time, Carolina and her sister, Jade, carried on the family tradition. When they showed promise on the court as young teenagers, their parents moved the family to the United States so the girls could chase tennis stardom.

Carolina became a standout, competing in Division I tennis at West Virginia and Kansas State. Jade was for a time even better, becoming a promising pro prospect who excelled in her only season at Louisiana State.

But soon it all went wrong. Jade entered a relationship with an LSU football player who abused her; she still struggles with the psychological fallout. Carolina spent her years in college tennis hiding the trauma of a sexual assault she told friends about but never reported to anyone else.

In September 2019, she was lying in a morgue wrapped in a sheet as her mother, Rosaria, leaned over to kiss her one last time.

The Lewises now spend their days battling their anger over what they see as botched and halfhearted investigations into Carolina’s death and Jade’s abuse. Even more, they regret the decision to come to the United States. Tennis gave David Lewis an identity and a purpose, and it crushes him that his daughters’ pursuit of success in the game ended so horribly.

“It’s like the person who has the terrible car accident wishing he had taken a different route,” Lewis said as he sat on a couch in a friend’s sprawling home, high above Auckland, New Zealand’s suburban beaches and turquoise harbor. He was there to feed the cats while his friend was away.

Raised on the tennis courts

For six decades, tennis has been the Lewis family’s identity, its livelihood, a source of all good things. It was even how David found his spouse.

David Lewis and his brothers were introduced to tennis by their parents, who loved the game and played it with their children at the Ngatira Tennis Club in Auckland.

“Dad was a handy player,” David Lewis said.

As their skills improved, the local press provided intense coverage of the three brothers, who were all top juniors and represented New Zealand in junior team events and the Davis Cup. Chris Lewis, born in 1957, was the world’s top junior in 1975 and won the Wimbledon boys’ singles title. Mark, born in 1961, became a solid doubles player.

David worshipped Bjorn Borg. “Saw him play in Auckland when I was very young,” he said.

After David’s playing career ended, he was working as a tournament organizer when he met Rosaria La Pietra in the small German town where she lived. They were married within months, and three years later, in 1996, Carolina was born. Jade came along two years later.

The girls started playing sports, especially tennis, when they were toddlers. That is what Lewises did.

The family moved from Europe to New Zealand when the girls were young children, and the better at tennis they became, the more another move abroad made sense, given New Zealand’s small size and the lack of nearby competition. The family took a three-month trip to Florida, a hotbed of junior tennis, and realized that if the girls were really serious about the sport, they would have to relocate to America.

“The American tennis dream,” Rosaria Lewis said in an interview, her words laced with scorn. “It was supposed to give them the opportunity.”

In 2011, the family landed in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, where David got a job at a tennis academy that Ivan Lendl, the former world No. 1, was setting up.

Carolina was 15, and Jade was 12. In Hilton Head, they were exposed to better players and coaches and competed in junior tournaments nearly every weekend. It was a demanding life, especially for Jade. She endured six hours a day of practice and fitness training, even in the sweltering South Carolina summers.

Carolina and Jade once won a minor pro event as doubles partners, but Carolina was never bent on becoming a tour player. She had interests beyond tennis: She was a massive sports fan. She spoke to her mother only in Rosaria’s native Italian, her volume rising as she switched on that side of her personality. Carolina once recorded a video in which she compared herself to a window, “because what you see is what you get.”

All she wanted from tennis was a college scholarship, and she got one, to West Virginia. She posted a 24-6 record in singles as a freshman and remained competitive as a sophomore against stiffer competition.

She also had an active social life, making a new friend seemingly every time she left her room.

“She could talk to anyone,” said Molly Trujillo, a West Virginia schoolmate who became Carolina’s closest friend.

As Carolina’s social life blossomed, her coaches began to question her commitment, according to the Lewises. They got on her about her weight. They tried to control her diet and made her do timed distance runs.

Carolina lost some of her spirit, Trujillo said. Sometimes she just seemed sad.

A spokesperson for West Virginia’s sports department said that the coaching staff became aware of these complaints only after Carolina left the school. The university conducted an investigation but did not uncover any evidence to support the claims, the spokesperson said.

“Our tennis coaches are greatly disappointed that these claims have surfaced again,” the university said in a statement that also expressed compassion over Carolina’s death. “With no findings supporting the claims being made, WVU considers the matter unsubstantiated and closed.”

Carolina confided in Trujillo and other friends that tennis was not the root cause of her unhappiness. Two wrestlers had sexually assaulted her during a night out, she told them. She never reported the incident to school officials or told her parents about it. David and Rosaria learned about what happened only after her death, when her friends told them.

Seeking a fresh start, Carolina transferred to Kansas State. She joined the tennis team and played her final season there in 2018.

But the memories of what had happened at West Virginia lingered. One day, the Lewises received a call telling them that Carolina had overdosed on sleeping pills and was in the hospital. Trujillo received a similar call. They all quickly flew to Kansas.

Carolina told Trujillo that she had started to indulge in harder drugs, including cocaine. She told Trujillo that even though she had plenty of friends, sometimes she felt so alone.

‘We took our eye off the ball’

David and Rosaria knew little about this.

“We were so focused on Jade, we took our eye off the ball with Carolina,” David Lewis said.

Jade had entered LSU in January 2017, attracted by the offer of a full, lifetime scholarship if she played one season in Baton Rouge for the Tigers. Coaches Julia and Mike Sell — he was a former tour player and had once coached Monica Seles — knew Jade was headed for the pro tour and were happy to have her play at LSU, even briefly.

Jade won co-freshman of the year honors in the Southeastern Conference, helping LSU earn a berth in the NCAA tournament.

But off the court, she was in crisis. Jade’s then-boyfriend, a star football recruit named Drake Davis, beat her multiple times beginning in 2017. Sensing that Jade’s life might be in danger, David and Rosaria Lewis moved to Baton Rouge to try to protect her. Jade, fearing for her safety and unable to break away from Davis, refused to listen and became estranged from them, even as the threats and attacks piled up.

Eventually, she spoke out. USA Today’s reporting on Jade’s allegations against Davis prompted LSU to order an investigation and report by the law firm Husch Blackwell. In 2019, Davis pleaded guilty to battery of a dating partner and violating a protective order.

University officials have admitted — during hearings in the state Legislature and in testimony to Husch Blackwell’s lawyers — that they failed Lewis and other women at the school. She is now part of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against LSU.

Jade said she still struggles with a sense of shame over what happened at LSU. It has contributed to feelings of emptiness that have led to two Adderall overdoses.

“Say the name Jade Lewis,” she said, “It’s like, ‘Oh, the girl that got beat up by the football player.’”

A tragic night out

Carolina graduated from Kansas State in the spring of 2019. At the end of the summer, she worked at the U.S. Open, handling player logistics. She hoped the job might have been the start of a career in sports, perhaps even tennis.

She had dinner with her father in New York near the end of the tournament. Two days after it ended, she took a bus to Washington, D.C., to visit Trujillo and other friends from West Virginia.

One night, Carolina, Trujillo and their group went to a bar called The Gryphon in northwest Washington. Later, David Lewis said, one of the detectives investigating Carolina’s death would point out to him that she was “wearing a party dress” — which he took as a backhanded suggestion that she was to blame for what happened. The comment still burns him and Rosaria.

At The Gryphon, Carolina met Glenn Gibson, then 37, a former cop who had held various jobs since leaving the police department in Norfolk, Virginia, in 2009.

“Beautiful,” Gibson said when asked during an interview for his recollections of Carolina and that evening. “She had a nice spirit. A very nice person.”

Shortly after midnight, Carolina and her friends, joined by Gibson, headed to a nearby nightclub called Abigail.

Carolina and Trujillo became separated inside the club, and just after 1:30 a.m., Trujillo left. She had to be up early for a babysitting job.

If there were one thing Trujillo could change in her life, she said in an interview, she would go back in time and drag her friend out of the club.

Gibson would later say he saw Carolina leaving Abigail with a couple of men he said he did not know. A security tape confirmed this. One man had dreadlocks and wore a Halloween mask.

Gibson said he was on his way home about 2:30 a.m. when Carolina called him in a panic. She was at an apartment in northeast Washington. Could he pick her up?

Police have never determined precisely whose apartment Carolina was in, but according to her text messages, the men there began fighting, and she grew increasingly afraid, repeatedly asking Gibson whether he was close. She also told him, “I did oxy.”

Around 3 a.m., Carolina escaped the apartment and met Gibson on the street, climbing into his black Mercedes S600.

Detectives with the Metropolitan Police Department later recovered a nearly nine-minute video of Gibson and Carolina checking into the Liaison hotel near Capitol Hill around 3:30 a.m. She was wobbly and walking across the lobby in bare feet, leaning on Gibson affectionately but also for stability. She kissed him occasionally. As the check-in process dragged on, he helped her to a nearby couch. A few minutes later, they headed up to Room 916.

“She seemed fine,” Gibson said in an interview.

According to Gibson’s statement to police, they showered, had consensual sex — a forensic analysis confirmed this — and fell asleep around 5 a.m. He awoke a couple of hours later and left the room briefly to move his car. When he returned to the room, she was dead.

An autopsy later revealed that her blood-alcohol level at the time of her death was 0.24, three times the legal limit for driving in Washington. Also, according to a toxicology report, Carolina appeared not to have taken “oxy.” She took fentanyl.

‘So many questions’

A coroner called the Lewises later that morning. Authorities would rule Carolina’s death a tragic, accidental overdose.

David and Rosaria were once again living in Hilton Head. After the autopsy was complete, Carolina was cremated.

For the next several months, David Lewis pushed detectives to find out how his daughter had ended up dead of a fentanyl overdose in a hotel room with a man she’d known for only a few hours. He wanted police to figure out who had given Carolina the fentanyl and charge whoever was responsible with murder.

Just before Gibson picked up Carolina, she had received a call from a phone number connected to a convicted sex trafficker named Larry Holt. Police told David Lewis that they could not establish the connection between Carolina and Holt, who refused to cooperate with investigators. Holt could not be contacted for an interview for this article. The phone number used to call Carolina is now a dead line.

David Lewis also had suspicions about Gibson. He believed that the toxicology report alone was proof that his daughter had been sexually assaulted because the lethal level of alcohol and fentanyl in her system had prevented her from giving consent.

However, the law — and juries — often distinguish between being incapacitated and being able to give consent, especially if victims became intoxicated voluntarily.

The Metropolitan Police Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the investigation.

Police have refused to release transcripts of their interviews with Gibson and redacted large sections of the police report. The office of legal counsel for the mayor of Washington, D.C., recently ordered police to provide reasons for withholding the information or to release it. So far, police have declined to do so.

“So many questions and no answers,” Rosaria Lewis said. “It’s like running around in a circle.”

A father’s regrets

David, Rosaria and Jade Lewis are back in Auckland now. More than four years after Carolina’s death, David Lewis can barely sleep at times. Send him an email or WhatsApp message in the middle of the New Zealand night, and a response often arrives nearly instantly. His daughters’ cases are the first and last things he thinks about each day.

Everyone in the New Zealand tennis world knows who he is and what happened to his family. He can sense their discomfort with the pain he has endured. So he tries to avoid that scene, such as it is. Too triggering.

“It was, before we lost Carolina, a huge part of my life,” he wrote of tennis in a recent email. “However now I do something completely different for that reason.”

Jade wasn’t abused on a tennis court, and Carolina didn’t die on one. But when David tries to comprehend what has happened, when he reverse-engineers the last few years to see what he could have done to protect his daughters, his mind drifts to the family’s move to America and the pursuit of tennis excellence that inspired it. He harbors questions about the coaches and athletics staff at LSU, Carolina’s friends who left her alone in the club, and Gibson. He has also come to resent the game at the center of the family’s journey to America, and the pain of that can be hard to bear.

He tries to keep busy. He has worked for a friend’s high-end bathroom fixtures business. He runs several times a week.

He also pushes however he can to get Carolina’s case reopened. His surviving daughter does not approve.

“It’s his way of not dealing with what happened,” Jade said of her father.

He said only a parent who has lost a child can understand.

To the Lewises, it feels like their traumas are still happening to them and will happen to them forever. It is not a matter of getting to the other side. They doubt the other side exists. Tennis was everything for a time for the family. It was their bond, how they communicated.

Now it’s something else — a road they wish they had never taken.

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