Once More With Feeling

When parents repeatedly complained that a teacher was fondling their sons, school administrators and police officers looked the other way

In an April 1 pretrial interview with prosecutor Cindi Nannetti, Judy DeWalt said she'd never heard about this.

"His application wouldn't have gotten to me if everything was not on the up and up or acceptable," she told Nannetti. ". . . It's a policy to call on references."

But Paradise Valley officials apparently didn't ask the New Mexico school district about Wade Hutchins.

An investigator from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office contacted the former superintendent of the Mosquero district days before Hutchins' trial began. The superintendent described Hutchins' troubling relationship with a fifth-grader.

"We had our suspicions, but no real proof [of molesting]," the superintendent said.

The investigator, Tom Buckner, also called Mosquero school board members who had voted to let Hutchins go. The board president said he'd heard complaints from parents whose children weren't "comfortable" around Hutchins.

Buckner then spoke with an ex-student of Hutchins'. The teacher had lived with the New Mexico boy and his family one summer. Now 18, the student denied having been sexually molested, revealing only that Hutchins sometimes would give him back rubs.

(The jury at Hutchins' criminal case didn't hear of Hutchins' actions in New Mexico.)

Hutchins soon found himself in trouble in Phoenix during the 1991-92 year. It happened at Echo Mountain Elementary School, where Judy DeWalt was principal and where Hutchins filled in as a substitute.

That fall, a volunteer aide, Jo Ellen Marley, told a school counselor that Hutchins' behavior disturbed her. The new sub, Marley said, was constantly embracing the boys, having them sit on his lap, stroking their hair.

Marley says she then spoke with Judy DeWalt, who related that a student's mother also recently had complained about Hutchins. Hutchins had given her son his home phone number, Marley recalled DeWalt saying, and he had called the boy late one evening.

DeWalt has said she doesn't recall the meeting with Marley. But she did admit to speaking to Hutchins about the mother's complaint.

"He said he didn't feel there was anything wrong with being friendly with the children," the principal later told police.

Despite the glitches, a full-time teaching job was in the offing for Hutchins in the fall of 1992. The Paradise Valley district opened a new school, Cactus View Elementary. Hutchins and two others applied for a P.E. slot. The new school's principal, Judy DeWalt, chose Hutchins.

DeWalt asked two other P.E. teachers to watch Hutchins. She later told police investigators, "I said, 'This is confidential. I need you to keep your eye open,' and they didn't observe anything and they watched him like a hawk, because we don't need somebody like this destroying everything we're trying to do."

The other teachers apparently saw nothing amiss, but several parents certainly did during the next two years.

In December 1993, a mother told DeWalt that Hutchins had made her son sit on his lap as he put his hands up the boy's shorts' leg. The mother--we'll call her Mrs. M.--followed up the phone call with a letter to the principal.

That December 17, DeWalt made a notation in her personal log: "Re: Child being touched by WH. Does not want to file complaint, but to make me aware. I'll read policy. Talk with her again, re: What she wishes to be done. Matter will be addressed. (On lap, hands up pants/shorts leg.)"

DeWalt explained the log entry in a pretrial interview with prosecutor Cindi Nannetti: "In [Mrs. M.'s] letter, she basically told me it didn't happen. There was a miscommunication. It would be very difficult for me to say, 'I'm going to write you [Hutchins] up, this is inappropriate,' when the mother just told me it didn't happen."

Nannetti then showed DeWalt a copy of the letter.
"I . . . do not wish to place a formal complaint," it said in part. "I feel he's a good P.E. teacher and well-liked by the students, and I don't feel this was an isolated incident. I would appreciate you speaking with him as we discussed so hopefully Mr. Hutchins will realize that some touches are not acceptable and can leave a student feeling uncomfortable and parents feeling deeply concerned."

"That's not how I remembered it at all," DeWalt replied.
"Would you agree with me that that letter doesn't really indicate that she said nothing happened?"

"Yes, after reading it, yes."
The principal decided this episode didn't merit a mention in Hutchins' personnel file. Instead, she wrote a glowing evaluation of the teacher, in which she commended his "dedication to Cactus View."

DeWalt never spoke with Mrs. M.'s son about the allegations, but if she had, it's doubtful she would have elicited much. Her lack of investigative expertise became evident after Hutchins' arrest.

A few months ago, an investigator asked DeWalt about her interview of a student that Hutchins would be convicted of molesting.

"Did anybody ever say, 'When he tucked your shirt in, did he touch your private area?'" DeWalt was asked.

"No," the principal replied. "I'm not that sophisticated."

Arizona's reporting statute is based on a sound premise--that law enforcement professionals must investigate allegations of crimes against children as soon as possible.

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