By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The 18-year-old turned on his tape recorder and spoke from the heart.
"There's more out there than the anger and violence you see," he said. "There's beauty, there's love, there's happiness and there's joy. You need to go out and find it. And you better hold onto it tight, man, cuz you can lose it in a heartbeat."
Sobbing, the young man signed off. "This is Richard Edward Deuel. Goodbye and I love you." Ricky titled the tape his "Last Will and Testament."
Five weeks later, Ricky walked into his parents' bedroom and collapsed in his mother's arms. Mary Deuel cradled him in her lap. Ricky took three deep breaths and died of heart failure.
@body:Ricky's father stood before Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Norman Hall last April 23.
"A pedophile is a human thing that tries to steal a portion of the soul of a child," Chick Deuel told the judge at the sentencing of South Mountain High math teacher David McCord. "McCord used his position of trust at South Mountain to satisfy his perverted lust for youth. Fortunately, he did not manage to steal Ricky's soul. Rick grew up to be a man of honor. He wanted very, very much to be here."
Several months later, at their middle-class home in west Phoenix, the Deuels spoke of their oldest son's struggles. They recalled how Ricky had made news in 1973 by becoming the nation's youngest recipient of a heart pacemaker.
The Deuels spoke briefly and with hatred of David McCord, the molesting teacher now serving what amounts to a life term in prison. But the couple saved much of their venom for the school officials who hired McCord.
"It's them I feel the anger toward," Mary Deuel said, clutching a framed photograph of her late son. "There were so many ways to catch up to Mr. McCord. He shouldn't have been allowed around kids. Ever."
The Deuels only know the half of it.
A New Times investigation shows how gross negligence by Phoenix and Mesa school officials allowed McCord access to students for nearly a decade:
ù A sex-crimes detective told Mesa High School's principal in 1985 that the only reason he hadn't arrested McCord on charges of molesting three young children was that the children had been judged incompetent to testify. The principal allowed McCord to teach through the end of the school year, when he resigned. The Mesa district later let McCord work as a substitute until a school psychologist familiar with the earlier allegations complained.
ù The Phoenix Union High School District hired McCord full-time in August 1988 after a superficial background check uncovered nothing suspicious about his past.
ù South Mountain High failed to investigate allegations of molesting against McCord for almost one year before police arrested him in January 1991. During that time, he had sexual contact with at least three new victims.
Reams of alarming material about McCord were readily available through public records. One prime source of information was on file at the Maricopa County Superior Court. In September 1988, McCord's ex-wife and three adopted children won a $6.3 million civil judgment against him. The suit accused McCord of sexually molesting the youngsters. Experts in the case judged McCord a pedophile, an adult who seeks sexual gratification from children. (For legal reasons, the family never collected a penny.)
South Mountain hired McCord full-time just a few days before the devastating court judgment. But apparently no one at the school ever learned about it.
"I won't hide what happened," says South Mountain principal Art Lebowitz. "We didn't have an appropriate system in place that made us check backgrounds like we should have. The guy had proven himself with us as a substitute. Who was going to sit there and think, 'Let's call and see if we have a pedophile on our hands'? I hope this never happens again."
But it will, according to more than 30 education and law enforcement professionals interviewed for this story. While the McCord case is heinous, almost everyone agrees it's not an aberration.
One reason is that many Arizona school administrators are afraid to release relevant background information about ex-employees to prospective employers. Prodded by skittish attorneys, these administrators apparently fear being sued more than they fear for the safety of students.
Another problem is that some districts ignore a common-sense Arizona law that demands "documented, good faith efforts" at background investigations.
A check of records shows 117 teachers and administrators have been disciplined by the Arizona Board of Education since 1985. Sixty-four of those--or 55 percent--have been rebuked for sexual improprieties.
Those are only the cases we know about: As the McCord case indicates, some of Arizona's 215 school districts follow unspoken policies that allow wayward teachers to resign without a red flag on their records. Remarkably, some school boards agree not to release any information as part of termination settlements with departing teachers.
"If a district knows that a teacher may have molested and allows him or her to resign and just walk away, that district is criminal," says Vic Hooper, a Mesa insurance agent who serves on an advisory board to the Arizona Department of Education. "Unfortunately, many do it."
Thus, dangerous teachers may move from school to school, their credentials intact.