tampabay.com

Evidence builds against Lafave

Prosecutors have DNA evidence and telephone records they plan to use against the teacher accused of having sex with a student.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published December 3, 2004


TAMPA - Two days after Debra Lafave's attorney said he will pursue an insanity defense in the sex case against her, the state released a stack of evidence that offers insights into the reason behind that strategy.

The most incriminating evidence: Lab results confirming Lafave's DNA was found on the body and shorts of the 14-year-old alleged victim.

The state also has receipts, witness accounts, cell phone records, recorded phone conversations and video surveillance supporting what the former Greco Middle School student told Temple Terrace and Marion County investigators about the time he spent with Lafave, 24, between late May and early June.

State prosecutor Mike Sinacore and Lafave's defense attorney, John Fitzgibbons, declined to comment Thursday. But Brian Gonzalez, a local defense attorney who is not involved in the case, said the evidence means the teacher will have a difficult time denying she had sex with the teenager.

Hence, the insanity defense.

"At this stage in the game, the defense has to present itself as an entity ready to try a case," Gonzalez said. "You have to posture. You've got to do something."

The evidence against Lafave - now suspended from her job as a reading teacher at Greco Middle School - includes not just the DNA but a credit card receipt and surveillance footage from the Best Buy in Ocala. The teen said he went there with Lafave and his cousin on June 15, following a sexual encounter with Lafave in back of her silver Isuzu Rodeo.

A credit card receipt and a Time Warner Cable statement show Lafave ordered a pineapple pizza from Westshore Pizza and the movie Stuck on You the afternoon of June 3. The teen told police he and Lafave watched the movie that afternoon in the Riverview townhouse she shared with her new husband, and that Lafave then performed a sex act on him.

The state also released cell phone records showing frequent calls between Lafave and the teen between late May and June 21, the day Temple Terrace police arrested her on two charges of lewd and lascivious battery.

A week later, the Marion County Sheriff's Office arrested Lafave on two more more charges of lewd and lascivious battery and one count of lewd and lascivious exhibition.

Lafave has pleaded not guilty to the charges, felonies that each carry a maximum 15-year prison term. A trial is set for April 25.

Explaining his decision to pursue an insanity defense, Fitzgibbons said in a court hearing Tuesday that Lafave has "some profound emotional issues that are not her fault."

The state's evidence includes a series of recorded phone calls between Lafave and the teen in which she assures him he doesn't need to worry about a condom.

The first call was made June 18, a day after the teen's mother confronted him about why he was in Ocala with Lafave. According to the documents released Thursday, the teen told his mother he had sex with Lafave, and his mother called police.

The final call was recorded the morning of June 21, when Temple Terrace police arrested Lafave in the teen's driveway. Lafave called the teen and arranged to pick him up. She asked if his mother has left for work. He told her she was gone.

"Pinky promise?" Lafave says.

"Yes," the teen answers.

"Say pinky promise," she tells him.

* * *

They met at a flag football game in the spring.

The teen told investigators he and his friend walked up to Lafave and introduced themselves.

The teen's flag football coach, Greco teacher Jeremy Jackson, told Temple Terrace detectives that the teen, "like many of the males at Greco, seemed to be fascinated by Mrs. Lafave."

Greco Spanish teacher Nazli Kayan told police the teen "was really into Mrs. Lafave."

Once, when the teen started describing Lafave's body, Kayan threatened to write a referral for "talking disrespectfully about another teacher."

About the time the teen introduced himself to Lafave, fellow Greco teacher Geri Lopez started seeing "a change in Lafave."

Lopez told Temple Terrace investigators that in April, Lafave started missing work. She complained she had headaches that wouldn't go away.

Lafave told Lopez she was having trouble with the looming anniversary of the death of her sister Angela Beasley, who was pregnant in August 2001 when she died in an auto accident involving a drunken driver. Lafave became distant at school as the year came to an end, Lopez told investigators. She became "very casual" with her students, sometimes letting them watch television during her class periods.

Lopez said she heard Lafave speaking to students "inappropriately," and she overheard Lafave talk about getting more tattoos.

The teen told police Lafave approached him in the last two weeks of school, saying she had "feelings for him and that she was trying to get over them but didn't know how."

Lafave started going to the teen's basketball games at Temple Terrace Recreation Center, witnesses said. The teen started spending time in her portable building each morning before school, according to a classmate and friend.

A classmate of the teen told police he and the teen spent time with Lafave in her classroom the last week of school. He said the teen and the teacher openly flirted.

By then, Lafave had applied for a job at King High School, where the teen was to attend the following year as a ninth grader. The teen later told a friend Lafave was going to King because she "wants to be with me," according to police.

Lafave also asked Steven Torkelson, a math teacher at Greco who coaches the summer basketball league at Temple Terrace Recreation Center, for a league schedule, Torkelson told authorities. Torkelson said Lafave later began taking the teen to the games and bringing him home.

"The only time I ever took him home was when Debbie's husband showed up at halftime," Torkelson wrote in a statement to police.

The teen told police his first sexual encounter with Lafave was June 3 in her townhouse. The other encounters happened June 14 in her portable classroom, and June 15 and 17 in the back of her silver Isuzu as they rode with his cousin in Ocala, according to police.

On June 7, four days after their alleged first encounter, Lafave saw the teen at the Temple Terrace recreation center, detectives said after interviewing the teen and other witnesses.

Lafave gave him a pewter key chain. On one side was a butterfly, the same fluttering symbol she had tattooed on her back.

On the other side of the keychain was one word: hope. Lafave told the teen she had one just like it, and she wanted him to have one, too.

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3373 or svansickler@sptimes.com