The Education of Mr. J.
Thad Jesperson, jailed for nearly four years on molestation charges that spanned three trials before an appeals court threw out his convictions, now faces the sentence he believes he’s always deserved: freedom
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THE YOUNG THUG’S SHAVED SKULL bore a tattoo of a gargoyle holding the severed head of Jesus. He approached in slow motion, swinging his head side to side, muttering expletives. His target, Thad Jesperson, sat motionless in a corner of the jail cell reserved for snitches, gays and child molesters. The ex-teacher’s eyes were wide with terror, his ears ringing with screams from adjoining cells: “Get him! Kill him!” His nightmare—that he would not get back home safely to his family—was playing out.
The kid growled something about “Chester,” jail slang for a child molester—the worst label for an inmate. He kept coming.
Jesperson, a devout Christian and pacifist, realized that in the next moment he had to somehow convince this advancing, irrational force of something Jesperson and his attorney had failed to make clear to jurors: that he was not a molester; that he had never harmed a child.
Now others lined up, awaiting turns to impress the cheering section. Hyper-alert, Jesperson saw from the way the kid was balanced that he would swing with his right, a shot straight to the face.
Thad Jesperson knew in his heart he didn’t belong behind bars. But he had no choice now except to deal with it.
KIDS, PARENTS AND TEACHERS at William P. Toler Elementary School in Clairemont Mesa knew Jesperson as Mr. J, a fond moniker for a man many described as an immensely popular, innovative teacher. Toler was small, a few hundred students, about a third of them Hispanics bused in from the South Bay.
When first questioned, each of the girls who would later accuse him denied Mr. J had touched them inappropriately. But after repeated questioning by police detectives, parents, social workers, district attorney’s investigators and other students, the girls’ stories changed. Experienced molestation interviewers say that turnabout is not uncommon.
Concern among Toler parents was spurred by letters sent home saying a teacher was suspected of molesting students. The letters urged parents to question their children, a red flag to many child-abuse experts. In high-profile false-accusation cases a generation ago, badgering by parents and misguided therapists led to fantastic stories by youngsters of not only sexual abuse but also blood rituals and animal sacrifice in classrooms. The notorious Dale Akiki prosecution in San Diego and the McMartin Preschool case in suburban Los Angeles were two of the more famous among at least 100 such “witch hunt” prosecutions across America.
San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis vigorously defends the decision to prosecute Jesperson. She says lessons learned from the phony case against Akiki provided safeguards against false allegations in the investigation at Toler Elementary School.
Dumanis says the Jesperson case was vetted by a panel of experienced prosecutors. Her team decided the girls’ statements were strong enough to convince jurors of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecution’s ultimate success on that score was decidedly mixed, however.
As prosecutor Tracy Prior, an 11-year veteran in the Family Protection Division, told the court, the “entire case rides on the backs of 9- and 10-year-olds.” There was no corroborating evidence, and there were no independent witnesses against Jesperson. The issue of suggestibility played a prominent role at trial.
At the time of his arrest in April 2003, Jesperson had no criminal record. The defendant, who has a master’s degree in education, came relatively late to teaching. Born in San Diego in 1964, Jesperson spent two years in South America (starting at age 20) as part of a mission with the Mormon Church. For five years, until he was 28, Jesperson owned a carpet-cleaning business. Then he decided to enter the classroom.
Married for 20 years, Sydney and Thad Jesperson have two sons and two daughters. The four kids, who range in age from 11 to 19, passed a number of significant milestones while their father was behind bars; Jesperson participated as best he could over a prison phone line and by mail.
The genesis of most of the accusations, according to court documents, came on a December day in 2002, after Jesperson walked past and said hello to five girls gathered in the schoolyard.
“Third graders Michelle, Kelcey, Dreanna, Renee and Vanessa were talking when one of the girls mentioned that [Jesperson] had touched her leg and back the previous year and that it felt ‘uncomfortable,’ ” is how one court brief put it. “Kelcey said [Jesperson] had touched her shoulder. Vanessa, who was never in any of [Jesperson’s] classes and made no accusations, testified she told the girls that such touching was ‘child molesting.’ ” She’d learned about it “on a TV program called Law and Order. ”
Michelle reported the conversation to her mother, who does not speak English. The distraught mother sought out a woman at school whom many Hispanic parents considered to be a counselor. In fact, Nellie Goodwin was the “bus lady,” a part-time employee who shepherded kids from buses and helped supervise at recess.
When Michelle’s mother told Goodwin her daughter talked with friends about Jesperson touching them, Goodwin responded: “This is not the first time we’ve had a report about this teacher. I don’t know why he is even here; he is not a good teacher.” Then Goodwin started crying and told the mother not to repeat what she had said. Goodwin, according to court testimony, said she would look into the matter; the mother would be called by the end of the day. When that call didn’t come, Michelle’s mother called San Diego Police.
Kimberly Newbold was assigned to the case. The young detective decided to interview only the girls who had been in Jesperson’s class because, she later testified, “I was looking for victims.” Despite the girls’ initial denials about “bad touching,” the questioning did not stop.
MOLESTATION ACCUSATIONS emerged and evolved through Jesperson’s preliminary hearing and his trials. They included that he rubbed girls on their thighs and backsides during reading sessions in front of the class.
Most of the alleged fondling was done through their clothing, the girls testified. But some eventually said he pulled down their underwear, or removed their “nylons,” in order to touch their “private parts.” There was no allegation of penetration, rape, oral sex or any type of act more serious than fondling.
The abuse was alleged to have occurred in a busy classroom where teachers, school staff and parents came and went freely, often to use computers. During much of the period in question, an aide to an autistic student was present in Jesperson’s class; neither she nor any other adult ever saw him inappropriately touch a child. Classroom doors and blinds were open, according to testimony, and Jesperson commonly sat in plain view at the front of the class, usually next to students he was helping learn to read.
Jesperson and his trial attorney, Robert Boyce, said the idea that a molester would choose such a setting for his crimes made no sense. But D.A. Dumanis said a molester might well operate in plain sight in order to later make that argument.
The fact that no pornography was found on the ex-teacher’s school and personal computers was an example of the prosecution trying to turn something positive for the defense into a liability, according to Jesperson’s attorneys. Prosecutor Prior emphasized to jurors that a school colleague of Jesperson’s had erased personal files and e-mail from the hard drive of Jesperson’s work computer after he was arrested and fired. “And it’s [pornography] gone forever,” Prior said in a closing argument. “There is no child pornography . . . We would never have known, because it’s now gone forever.”
But Jesperson’s lawyers noted it was routine to erase school computer files once an employee leaves. Besides, FBI investigators were able to restore 90 percent of Jesperson’s school hard drive (his home computer had not been erased), and no pornography of any kind was found.