SEX EDUCATION

NO ONE IN FLAGSTAFF COULD BELIEVE THE CHARGES AGAINST THE TOWN'S FAVORITE MUSIC TEACHER. THEY DIDN'T KNOW WHAT HAD HAPPENED IN MESA.

His interest in Karen started when she was in second grade. Pitts would softly tell her again and again how pretty her hair was and how special she was. He won her parents' trust and friendship over the years as an attentive music teacher and fellow churchgoer.

Karen told police that Pitts had fondled her genitals briefly when she was in fourth grade. She was about 9 at the time and she never said a word to anyone about it. After a music lesson the following year, Karen said, Pitts stuck his finger inside her. It hurt terribly, but Pitts had instructed her to keep the incident a secret.

When she was in sixth grade, Karen said, Pitts tried to have sexual intercourse with her during a party for kids at his home. The other youngsters were playing outside while this went on, she said.

The sexual episodes with Pitts escalated over the next several years and included full intercourse and oral sex. Many of the experiences were physically painful for the girl, who said Pitts sometimes inserted inanimate objects into her vagina. But Karen still kept the situation to herself. Such silence is the norm, say those who work with child victims of sex crimes. Experts remain convinced that most child sexual abuse still goes unreported.

Karen told police her last sexual encounter with Pitts was in November 1991. As also is typical in such cases, Karen was afraid no one would believe her if she came forward. But she knew she had to try to put a stop to it.

In January 1992, the girl--now 16--confided in a woman she knew through her church and school. The woman informed Karen's parents, who called Flagstaff police. The agency launched an investigation.

After some difficulty, the investigation unearthed Pitts' alleged Mesa victim, Janice Johnson. And did she have a story to tell.

"I had kept things bottled up for so long," she tells New Times. "It felt good to tell the whole truth to someone in authority."
The Flagstaff investigators also found a high school classmate of Janice's. She said Pitts had once kissed her in his school office during junior high, and that she'd wriggled away from him. She had told her parents, the woman said. For some reason, they had decided not to pursue it.

@rule:
@body:Though the population of Flagstaff is nearing 50,000, it remains a small town in many ways. Pitts soon learned police were asking questions about him. By the time detectives tried to question him, he had already hired an attorney--just as he had in Mesa.

The Flagstaff police investigation proceeded slowly. Detectives backtracked through Pitts' past, noting his 1977 resignation from the Mesa Unified School District. They became very curious about the circumstances of Ralston Pitts' sudden departure from Mesa.

But they found surprising resistance to their efforts. Many of the prime movers behind Pitts' resignation showed faulty memories about the case of the teacher who allegedly had sex with a student. Last July, for example, a detective interviewed George Smith, the ex-Mesa superintendent who had written Pitts' laudatory reference letter in 1978.

Smith downplayed Pitts' sexual involvement by referring to Janice Johnson as Pitts' "girlfriend." He said he did recall her parents' letter to the school board, but for the life of him, Smith couldn't remember the girl's name.

The superintendent--now retired--staunchly defended his actions. He said the reporting of molesting allegations to law enforcement authorities was not mandatory at that time. And, Smith added, Janice Johnson had reached the age of consent by the time the Mesa school district first heard of her allegations.

Smith tried to explain to detectives why he had referred to Pitts' resignation from Mesa in the 1978 recommendation letter as "medical and professional."

He speculated Pitts may have needed psychiatric care after the messy situation with Janice Johnson, or that maybe he had been referring to Pitts' supposed problems with his legs. Smith said he just wasn't sure.

Smith concluded by saying that, at the time, situations such as these usually were handled as the one involving Ralston Pitts had been handled--discreetly.

But Smith had been more than discreet. He had protected his friend at the expense of the alleged victim.

And Smith's son-in-law had represented Pitts legally during the troubles in Mesa, although Smith insists the hiring was "coincidental."

Current Mesa superintendent Jim Zaharis--another of Pitts' reference-letter writers--told a Flagstaff detective he didn't recall much about the case. He repeats that in an interview with New Times.

"I'm very surprised to hear all this," Zaharis says. "All I had heard was a rumor that something had gone on with him--I don't even know what it was. I'm unaware of any of these details. I was out of the loop at the time."
The Flagstaff police also spoke with the members of the Mesa school board who had let Pitts resign. The five members were Darl Andersen, John Crandall, Dennis Lambson, Marion Peterson and Lynn Sharp.

Some board members seemed to have markedly better memories than others. Marion Peterson told police he couldn't remember "specifics" about the Pitts incident. He said all he recalled of Pitts was that he was a good musician.

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