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To the end, a mother protects her son

In conversations over the past few weeks, the boy's mother told the Times that somehow they would find their way back to normal.

By SUE CARLTON
Published March 21, 2006


TAMPA - Maybe it was when the flowers arrived at her house in Temple Terrace with the card from Matt Lauer.

Maybe it was when her teenage son's school picture appeared in the pages of a sensational British tabloid.

She's not sure just when, but at some point in the summer of 2004, her world went completely crazy.

One minute she was a normal divorced mom raising two pretty great kids, working a sales job she loved, cheering at her son's basketball games, visiting her daughter in college.

The next, she was taking the boy to the rape crisis center for DNA tests on his clothes and fending off advances from national news shows.

All because of Debra Lafave.

It would have been different - still terrible, but not so terribly public - if her son had been involved with almost any other adult. But Debra Lafave was 23 and a bombshell, all blond hair, blue eyes and cheekbones. Reporters even dug up a photo of her modeling a bikini beside a motorcycle.

The tabloids couldn't have dreamed her up if they'd tried.

The boy's mother, whose name is not being used to protect her son's identity, told her story to the Times in several conversations over the past few weeks. She said she had one thought during the frenzy over her son's sexual relationship with his teacher.

Normal. She would protect her son through this, and somehow they would find their way back to normal.

***

That summer day just after 8th grade ended, the mom got a call from her sister in Ocala, nearly a hundred miles away. Did you know he's here today? She certainly didn't. He was supposed to be at the rec center back home.

She got him on his cell phone. He said he had been working out at the rec center when a teacher from his school came by and said she needed to go to Ocala to buy a present for her husband.

His mom was shocked. What kind of teacher takes a student somewhere without a parent's permission? She would be talking to this teacher. Her son gave her the home phone number for Mrs. Lafave.

She got the answering machine. "Hi, this is Debbie!" said a bright female voice. "And Owen!" said a man. They sounded like a happy couple. She left a message.

***

Later, the teacher called back and apologized. She said she used bad judgment and it wouldn't happen again.

Meanwhile, the sister from Ocala was calling. She had overheard little things that the boy and his cousin had said to each other. It was a mother's intuition. "I think something more is going on," the sister said.

That night, in the car on the way home from his basketball game, she confronted her son. "You need to tell me the truth," she said, giving him The Look. "Because I know."

***

He was 14. He was overwhelmed. He was also busted. He burst into tears and told her everything.

He first talked to Lafave on the 8th-grade trip to SeaWorld a couple of weeks earlier. Their relationship became sexual. At the Riverview townhouse she shared with her new husband, she performed a sex act on him. They had sex in a portable classroom and in the back of her SUV. She was his first.

His mother was stunned. This woman was a teacher. He wasn't even old enough to drive.

She called the Temple Terrace police. They set up a sting. The boy would talk to Lafave on the phone while they recorded her. They talked numerous times, and in the final call, Lafave made plans to come by and pick him up that morning. She asked if his mom had left for work. He said yes.

"Pinky promise?" Lafave said while they listened. "Say pinky promise."

She drove up to the house. The blinds were open. The boy's mom had not gone to work.

The mom had been thinking of Lafave as a 40ish woman, her stereotype of a teacher. She saw her climb out of the SUV, cops moving in.

The mom would remember the young teacher wearing shorts, a tank top, no make-up. She was pretty. She looked so young. For a moment, the mom almost felt sorry for her.

Why would a girl like that want to give up everything?

The boy's mom grounded him that summer. Not because of what happened with the teacher, but because he had lied to his mother. She raised him to know actions had consequences. So no computer, no cell phone, extra chores.

"He took it like a man," she said.

***

Meanwhile, they were under siege. Reporters found them. One showed up on their doorstep and knocked, TV camera poised. She didn't answer. Others talked to neighbors. She wouldn't let her son answer the door or mow the lawn.

The flowers came from Matt Lauer in a crystal dish with a note saying he'd like to talk. Court TV host Nancy Grace and others would also ask. A tabloid TV show wrote her a friendly letter, then accidentally sent her a similar one meant for Lafave's parents.

The mom never considered talking. She was poised enough, but she had no desire to be part of the circus. She would not do that to her son.

The prosecutor called. The British tabloid News of the World had published the story of the "school miss," complete with racy details - plus the boy's name and his 7th-grade picture. His mom was outraged. She found a lawyer in London who sent them a letter, and they took the boy's picture off the Internet. It cost her nearly $4,000.

***

Months passed. In court hearings, the mom thought Lafave seemed smug.

Sometimes she heard the opinion that her son was a lucky kid, not a victim. She doubted those people would say the same had it happened to their own son.

Why had Lafave picked him? Sex offenders sometimes seek out drifters, the ones whose parents aren't paying attention. But he was close to his mom, tight with his sister, saw his dad a lot. Their family was big on holidays, summer beach trips, Bucs games. He was liked at school. Maybe, his mother thought, his popularity was what attracted Lafave.

Attorney John Fitzgibbons announced an insanity defense, hinting at the tragic death of Lafave's sister, killed by a drunk driver, and other emotional upheavals.

The boy's mother didn't buy it. Mostly, she felt sorry for Lafave's parents.

By the time the December 2005 trial date drew near, the boy had turned 16, grown to 6 feet tall and started high school, though he could pass for a college student. This could help the defense: The jury would see a young man, not a 14-year-old boy. He could look more like a willing participant than a victim.

Mike Sinacore, veteran prosecutor of sex crime cases, warned the boy's mother things could get rough. She watched her son grow quiet after sessions of talking with Sinacore, even though the prosecutor always handled him gently. What would happen at the hands of a sharp defense lawyer? Not to mention the cameras in the courtroom and everyone watching.

"He didn't deserve what was about to happen to him in court," his mother said.

The last straw was Court TV, expected to be at the trial. The boy's mom had seen enough of the courts-and-crime cable station to know that shows about the juiciest trials are broadcast again and again. Her son could go to college and they might still be showing the Lafave case. He could get married and they might still show it. "It would go on forever," she said.

She wanted Lafave punished for abusing her position as a teacher and taking advantage of her son. She also wanted to spare him this trial.

She asked the prosecutor. Is there another option?

It was time to deal.

Lafave's lawyer wanted to keep her out of prison. The boy's mom wanted to make sure Lafave couldn't do this to another teenager.

The plea agreement was carefully crafted. She would plead guilty to two counts of lewd and lascivious battery and get three years of house arrest (even Martha Stewart struggled with that, the mom thought, and she had a mansion). Then seven years of probation, during which she could not profit from her crimes - no movies, no book deals. She would be a registered sex offender who could not work with kids. And she had to apologize in court. Didn't matter if her lawyer wrote the words. The boy's mom wanted her to say them.

Her son had asked before about the possibility of a deal. She had asked herself how he would feel if Lafave went to prison. Now, he looked like the weight of the world was off his shoulders.

"I have zero regrets," his mother said. "I have no doubt we made the right decision."

Soon after the deal was sealed, she was at a Bucs game with her son when she ran into a prosecutor she had gotten to know. Then she saw Fitzgibbons, the defense lawyer, and they spoke a few minutes. There they were, she thought, all going on with their lives after Hurricane Lafave. And Debra Lafave could not go to a Bucs game.

"Anybody who thinks she got a cakewalk," the boy's mom said, "she didn't."

 But it wasn't over after all.

Prosecutors offered the same deal in Ocala, expecting a rubber stamp. But Marion County Judge Hale Stancil said no. The mom was stunned. How could a judge think of forcing a victim into a trial? A psychatrist testified that the teen would be further victimized by the insanity of a trial. Then everyone waited to see what the judge would do.

The call came from Ocala Tuesday morning, when the mom was working at home and her son getting ready to head to the beach for spring break. The judge rejected the plea. She couldn't believe it. "He has not considered my son at all through this whole process," she said.

And then, finally, it was over. The Marion prosecutors announced they would drop the charges.

Finally, she thought. Some sanity.

 The boy's mother says if she has learned anything, it's this: "Be attuned to your kids. They've got to be able to tell you anything."

Her son has grown up, faster than she would have liked. He is a sophomore on the honor roll and talking college. He has a tight group of friends, boys and girls, though no serious girlfriend. He doesn't talk about what happened. "He just wants to move on," she said.

So he plays basketball, drives with his newly-minted license. He doesn't love algebra. On weekends, he mows the lawn.

-- Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@sptimes.com

Any information used from this article must be attributed to the St. Petersburg Times.