Park City tennis coach testifies, denies putting student player in choke hold

Park City High School tennis coach Lani Wilcox displays the mark left on the left side of her face after a student player allegedly struck her. Wilcox, who is charged with aggravated child abuse, a third-degree felony, said at a hearing Tuesday that she acted in self-defense. | Photo introduced as Defendant’s Exhibit 1

A Park City High School tennis coach accused of assaulting a student testified Tuesday that she grabbed the alleged victim in a “bear hug” to defend herself and others after the girl slapped her, but she did not put her in a choke hold.

Last year, Wilcox said the girl became angry at a practice session about the position she would be playing in a match the next day and went to a bathroom, where she talked to her mother and stepfather on the phone before returning almost an hour later. The coach said she told the girl because of the time she had gone from practice, she would not be playing in the match and to go home, but the girl refused to leave.

“I turned around when she came after me and she hit me really, really hard,” Wilcox said.

The student said, “f— you, Lani,” as she struck her on her left cheek, she said.

Because she feared the girl would go after her again or attack someone else, Wilcox said she put her arms around her from behind. The student must have pushed back because they both fell to the ground, she said.

Her head hit the court and she suffered a concussion, Wilcox said. The student then kicked the assistant tennis coach, Brad Smith, in the groin, she said.

Wilcox, 62, the head coach of the girls varsity tennis team, is charged with one count of aggravated child abuse, a third-degree felony, and one count of interruption of a communication device, a class B misdemeanor.

She is accused of putting the girl in a choke hold on Aug. 29 at the Park City Municipal Athletic & Recreation Center PC (MARC) and taking her phone away. State law prohibits an individual from interrupting another person’s attempt to call for emergency aid, by force, intimidation or violence.

Wilcox, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, gave her testimony at a justification hearing in Summit County’s 3rd District Court. Her defense attorney, Clayton Simms, requested the pretrial proceeding to present evidence supporting his argument that his client was the victim of an aggravated assault and she had responded with the force necessary to defend herself, as well as her fellow tennis coach and the other student tennis players at the practice.

Under a state law enacted in 2021, if prosecutors cannot prove by clear and convincing evidence that a defendant’s use or threatened use of force was not justified, the court must dismiss the charge.

A surveillance video of the incident, played at the hearing, shows the student and Wilcox talking and the girl slapping the coach. The two fall to the ground, then get up, and the girl is seen kicking Smith.

Under cross-examination by Summit County Chief Prosecutor Patricia Cassell, Wilcox said the girl was being defiant by refusing to leave. When she went to the other side of the court, the girl followed right behind her and was in her space, the coach said.

Cassell, noting that Wilcox walked up to the student several times, said she could have walked farther away.

“Are you suggesting that because I got close to her, she’s allowed to hit me?” Wilcox said, adding that she was not in the girl’s face.

The student testified that she was trying to figure out why Wilcox wanted her to leave after she came back from the bathroom. The coach was getting angry and her face was just a few inches from hers, according to the girl.

The student said she was getting freaked out and felt Wilcox was going to push her. She acknowledged that she cursed Wilcox and struck her but said she didn’t hit her hard.

“It’s not a big slap,” she said.

And, the girl said, the cursing was done out of fear. She felt frustrated and turned to leave, but the coach put her in a choke hold and she couldn’t breathe, she said.

“She grabbed me around my neck with both arms,” ​​the girl said.

The student said she thinks Wilcox fell from grabbing her and that the coach’s hand hit her own face, which caused a red mark on her cheek.

In a written statement to Park City police on the day of the incident, the student said when she got up from the ground, she saw Smith approaching her.

“I have had my arguments with him in the past so I was scared when he approached me that he would do something as well so I kicked him in between the legs,” she said.

Smith testified at the hearing that he heard the student accusing Wilcox of lying to her, which she denied, and Wilcox telling the student five or six times she should go home. Then he heard the slap and saw Wilcox’s head hit the court, he said.

When the girl’s mother and stepfather got to the MARC, Wilcox showed them what their daughter had done to her face, Smith said. The stepfather got into Wilcox’s face and asked how he knew that she didn’t hit herself to make the mark, he said.

In her testimony on Tuesday, the mother said Wilcox told her husband that she had choked the girl twice. Simms called Smith and Wilcox back to the stand after that and they testified that it was not true.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Richard Mrazik asked Simms and Cassell to submit briefs later about whether Wilcox has made a case for self-defense and if he finds that the coach did put the girl in a choke hold, whether that was likely to cause injury or death. The judge scheduled a hearing on March 24, when he is expected to issue his ruling on the justification issue.

If convicted, Wilcox faces up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine on the child abuse count and six months in jail and a $1,000 fine on the misdemeanor count.

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