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Lafave saga takes new turn

The teacher-turned-felon is accused of violating probation in talks with a teen co-worker.

By REBECCA CATALANELLO, SAUNDRA AMRHIEN, JUSTIN GEORGE, and ABBIE VANSICKLE, Times Staff Writers
Published December 5, 2007


TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay tabloid queen is back.

It has been two years since former Greco Middle School teacher Debra Lafave was sentenced to house arrest for having sex with a student.

Her ice-blue eyes and flawless complexion had just about faded from the nightly news and morning papers.

But a few conversations with a 17-year-old girl in a Sun City Center diner changed all that.

Lafave, 27, was arrested at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday on a charge that she violated her probation.

The arrest comes at the end of two years of house arrest, just as her attorney prepared to ask a judge to drop her final year of house arrest and place her on probation instead.

"I can only characterize this as somewhat of a bizarre and unusual violation," attorney John Fitzgibbons said of the charge.

Lafave, according to the charges, had intimate conversations with a 17-year-old co-worker at Danny Boys' Restaurant in Sun City Center, in violation of her sentence that prohibits her from having unsupervised contact with a child under 18.

Lafave and the Ruskin teen discussed "non-work related issues such as family problems, friends, high school, personal life, boyfriend issues and sexual issues in both private one-on-one conversations ... and group settings," probation officer Michael Cotignola wrote in a report.

Fitzgibbons said the conversations in question amounted to nothing more than "girl-talk ... among fellow employees."

"The way the Department of Corrections interprets this condition of her probation," he said, "is that her voice can barely meet the ear of anyone under the age of 18."

Lafave is serving three years of house arrest followed by seven years of probation in exchange for pleading guilty to two counts of lewd and lascivious battery stemming from her conduct with a 14-year-old student in June 2004.

If a judge finds her guilty of violation of probation, she could face up to 15 years in prison for each of the two felony counts against her, Fitzgibbons said.

On Tuesday, she was released on her own recognizance, meaning she didn't have to post bail, two-and-a-half hours after being booked into jail.

But news of the notorious teacher-turned-felon's latest trouble whipped Danny Boys' Restaurant into ground zero for media madness.

"CNN is on line 2!" an employee yelled to manager Scott Griffin. Larry King Live had called, too, wanting to interview Griffin live. A television news helicopter hovered overhead as journalists lined up inside the restaurant to talk with him.

"We don't understand this at all," said Griffin, 28, a childhood friend of Lafave's who hired her to work at the restaurant in January 2006. "We are completely blown away."

Lafave quit three weeks ago, he said, after her probation officer called to say she could no longer work there.

Griffin said he was "shocked" to hear of Lafave's arrest from reporters calling. He said that while Lafave was not shy, he never heard her talk about personal matters in the restaurant, and never noticed anything unusual about her relationship with the 17-year-old girl.

Fitzgibbons said Lafave and the young woman worked together for two years with the knowledge of her probation officer. "This isn't something new," he said.

The 17-year-old girl could not be reached to talk about the matter. A man at her Ruskin home declined to comment, saying the teen was not home.

Fitzgibbons does not dispute the charge that Lafave had conversations with the young woman. And he said he doesn't believe the charge presents a major challenge to his plan to ask a judge to release Lafave from her final year of house arrest.

"She has worked so hard on this," Fitzgibbons said, "and I view it simply as a technical violation."

But a DOC spokeswoman and legal experts said sex offenders face stiff rules and a climate of zero-tolerance for transgressions.

"Even the slightest offense is going to cause probation officers to ask for a warrant," said Clearwater criminal defense attorney George Tragos.

The rules of Lafave's sentence state that she can't have any unsupervised contact with a child unless the child's guardian, who has been advised of Lafave's crime, is present and approved by Lafave's sentencing judge. Such contact can't occur unless Lafave has successfully completed a sex offender treatment program or if the courts grant her an exception.

DOC spokeswoman Jo Ellyn Rackleff said Lafave's probation guidelines allowed her to work with minors inenvironments such as restaurants. But her contact with minors was to be limited.

The incident shouldn't be perceived as minor, said Cloud Miller, a Kaplan University Criminology professor and former Florida Probation and Parole Commission hearing officer.

Probation officers have no leeway in reporting suspected violations, he said.

The courts gave Lafave a chance to stay out of prison and expected her not to have private conversations with juveniles, he said. As a former teacher, teenage girls could look up to her and respect her views, advice or counsel on sexual matters or relationships, Miller said.

"Somewhere along the line," Miller said, "the message has to be sent that this type of behavior won't be tolerated."

But Tampa defense attorney Eddie Suarez suggested an attorney might only issue an admonishment, if indeed her conversations with the 17-year-old were restricted to the restaurant, where, one might argue, they had been supervised.

"I wouldn't be surprised if this judge found that this was not a willful violation," he said.

Lafave has been in sex offender treatment for two years. But the latest offense means her counselor has placed her on "corrective action," according to the violation report.

Fitzgibbons said that means she's receiving additional treatment to help her identify how to avoid potentially volatile situations such as this.

"You go far overboard the other way," he said, "so that there's not even a hint of anything. ... You live on eggshells."

But at least one person believes Lafave's actions show a pattern of behavior that she won't quit.

Owen Lafave, the man who was married to Lafave when she was arrested in 2004, had some harsh words of advice for his ex-wife: "Try staying out of trouble and away from children," he said.

The 29-year-old Tampa banker said he wants to see his ex-wife go to jail.

"You know, I'm not surprised," Owen Lafave said. "You know, here is someone who threw away her husband, threw away her career to go live with her parents and work at a deli."

Debra Lafave is no longer engaged to her former boyfriend Andrew Beck, who appeared with her at a news conference last year.

Since leaving the restaurant, Debra Lafave is working at her mother's business, Joyce Beasley Barber Shop in Ruskin, records show. A GPS monitor strapped to her ankle continues to track her movements.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Catherine E. Shoichet and Alessandra DaPra contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Local teacher sex charges

Oct. 23, 2007

Police arrested Christina Butler, a 33-year-old special education teacher Middleton High School in Tampa, accusing her of having sex up to a dozen times with a 16-year-old boy.

Oct. 8, 2007

Former Wharton High School teacher and coach Jaymee Wallace pleaded guilty to having a sexual relationship with a student who played on her girls basketball team. Wallace is scheduled to be sentenced today in Hillsborough Circuit Court. She previously rejected prosecutors' plea offer of three years in prison.

July 2007

Daniel Zdrodowski, a former band instructor at Seminole High School, was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for having sex with a teenage female student.

January 2006

In Citrus County, Amy Lilley, a teacher and softball coach at Lecanto High School, was sentenced to two years of house arrest and eight years of probation after pleading no contest to having sex with a 15-year-old girl.

January 2002

James P. Hymiller, a former Wesley Chapel High School social studies teacher, pleaded guilty to having unlawful sexual contact with a minor. He could have been sentenced to nine years in prison, but instead was sentenced to two years of house arrest and seven years of probation.

Compiled by Times news researcher John Martin

 

Timeline

Debra Lafave

June 21, 2004: Greco Middle School teacher Debra Lafave is accused of having sex with a 14-year-old boy. She is arrested and charged with committing lewd or lascivious battery on a person under the age of 16.

June 25, 2004: Marion County sheriff's investigators issue a warrant for Lafave's arrest on two counts of lewd and lascivious battery and one count of lewd and lascivious exhibition. She turns herself in three days later.

April 2005: Debra Lafave is divorced from her husband, Owen.

Nov. 22, 2005: Lafave pleads guilty to two counts of lewd and lascivious battery as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors in Hillsborough and Marion counties. She is sentenced to three years of house arrest and seven years' probation. She is now classified as a sex offender.

Dec. 8, 2005: Marion County Circuit Judge Hale R. Stancil rejects Lafave's plea deal in Marion County and sets a trial date.

March 21, 2006: After hearing more testimony, Stancil again rejects Lafave's plea deal. Prosecutors in Marion County respond by dropping all charges against Lafave, allowing her Hillsborough plea deal to stand.

Dec. 4, 2007: Lafave is arrested on a probation violation after her probation officer says she has been engaging in unpermitted contact with a minor. She was talking about family, dating and sex with a 17-year-old girl with whom she worked at a restaurant.