The most riveting detail to come out of Paul Babeu's three-year tenure as head of a private Massachusetts boarding school for troubled teens was his close relationship with a 17-year-old student there.
Former students of the now-defunct school tell New Times that they often saw Babeu showering attention on fellow student Joshua Geyer.
"I'd see [Babeu] around campus all the time," says Melissa Burech, who attended DeSisto School during Babeu's tenure. "And I saw [Babeu and Josh] together more than they should've been. I saw [Babeu] take him off campus."
New Times news short
Babeu's sister, Lucy, alleges that Babeu was engaged in a sexual relationship with Geyer.
The Rose Law Firm — hired by Babeu after allegations arose that he and his lawyer, Chris DeRose, threatened his Mexican ex-lover with deportation if the man revealed their romantic relationship — did not return calls for comment on his relationship with the student. Babeu, however, denied wrongdoing through the firm.
Students say Babeu was a constant presence at DeSisto. The school occupied an expansive campus in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, where wayward teens, plagued with such problems as drug addiction, depression, anorexia, and mental illness, received what was deemed therapeutic treatment.
Babeu was headmaster and executive director at DeSisto from April 1999 to August 2001, and students say they often saw him milling around campus with the school's founder, the late Michael DeSisto.
Since the scandal involving his ex-lover broke in New Times on February 17, Babeu has minimized his role at the school, which was investigated for nearly two decades because of allegations that students endured systematic neglect and sexual and physical abuse there.
Babeu, elected Pinal County sheriff in 2008 after serving as a police officer in Chandler for several years, lately has claimed he did not interact with students and had no direct supervisory responsibility over staff at DeSisto.
But students who attended the school tell New Times that they saw Babeu in daily meetings where administrators discussed issues facing the school, including its disciplinary practices — which included students being forced to sit on metal folding chairs facing a corner for hours on end and students getting stripped naked and forced to wear nothing but bedsheets.
Babeu's camp has carefully parsed denials that he engaged in a sexual relationship with Joshua Geyer.
That is, Babeu, who would have been in his early 30s at the time, has not denied having a relationship with Geyer; he's only denied having an "inappropriate" relationship with his former student, according to his legal handlers.
One justification for this statement could be that Geyer was old enough to consent to sexual intercourse in Massachusetts.
The sheriff has eluded questions about how he could have developed a close relationship with a DeSisto student if his job did not involve dealing with students.
ABC 15, in a report on Babeu's years at the school, received signed, but undated, letters from the former student. The Rose Law Firm released the letters to the station.
"I have never at any time lived or engaged in any inappropriate sexual relationship with Paul Babeu," the first letter reads. "I have remained personal friends with Paul Babeu."
The second reads, "I never lived with or engaged in any sexual relationship with Paul Babeu while I was a student at DeSisto private school."
The station said neither letter was notarized and that there was no proof the letters were written by the student.
New Times was unable to reach Geyer for comment.
Lucy Babeu tells it differently, recalling a time when she saw Geyer at her brother's home in Massachusetts, and when she confronted her brother about the boy, Paul Babeu confessed that he was in love with Geyer.
Melissa Burech and other students who knew Geyer, and attended DeSisto while Babeu was headmaster, recall signs of a close relationship between the two.
Burech, who followed her family to Arizona a few years ago and now lives in Deer Valley, says she had friends in common with Geyer, friends in whom he confided about his "inappropriate" relationship with Babeu.
"Because the school was so intense, so cult-like, you developed close bonds with people," she says. "I think Josh looked to [Babeu] for guidance, and I believe Paul twisted that, abused that power to get what he wanted."
Another student, who grew up in New York, also found herself at DeSisto while Babeu was in charge of the school.
The former student, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirms what others have said: Babeu and Geyer were "together a whole lot," and Geyer "got taken off campus for lunch a lot" by the future National Sheriff of the Year. She says word got back to students that the pair often went to the Panda House, a Chinese restaurant in the area.
"Everybody on campus knew about it," she says. "When Josh left the program, and so did Paul, it was a big thing about them dating. Everybody knew."
The woman described Babeu as Geyer's "commitment holder," a title the school gave to staff members selected by students to monitor their progress.
"You would go to someone you could trust, or [whom] you could speak to about your problems," the former student says. "They were supposed to help you heal."
When Babeu took over as the school's headmaster, it was operating unlawfully without a state license, and it already was embroiled in lawsuits from dissatisfied parents.
Each family paid tuition of about $65,000 a year for their child to be in an environment that was "excessively punitive" and created "an extreme risk of injury even death," the Massachusetts Office of Child Care Services said in legal papers.
This state agency "received many allegations of abusive practices at the school," state investigators said, adding that Massachusetts officials repeatedly were denied access to the campus and to student files:
"The school effectively stonewalled the OCCS, claiming [DeSisto School was] not subject to [state] licensing, but refusing to provided necessary information to back up [the] claim."
The school argued that it didn't need a license because it wasn't serving enough special-needs students. According to Massachusetts law, if more than 30 percent of the student population was made up of such students, a license was required.
When state officials finally forced open the school's files in 2001 after almost 20 years of complaints, they classified more than 40 percent of the student body as special needs. The school ultimately shut down in 2004 because it was unable to comply with state mandates.
Court and state records paint a chilling account of life at DeSisto, including during the time that Babeu ran it.
One student refused to stop leaning against a wall and was physically restrained for several hours. Another who threw a plate and got into an argument was tied up for nearly six hours.
A student forced to sit in a metal chair for weeks, facing the corner, wasn't properly medicated, became severely depressed, and urinated and defecated on himself. The teen eventually was taken to the hospital for treatment for pneumonia.
Records show that students had to take group showers, "denying them privacy and leading to instances of sexual abuse."
A few months after a court ordered the school in 2001 to either shut down or apply for a license, Babeu resigned. He recently told various media outlets that he was only responsible for the school's operations, including maintenance of the grounds.
But he told another story on a campaign website. There, Babeu described his time at DeSisto as a period when he was "frequently recognized for his effectiveness in personnel management and fiscal abilities."
In 2002, when he applied for a job as a Chandler cop, Babeu noted on his application that, while at DeSisto, he supervised directors of the school and 80 full-time employees.
Babeu counters allegations of his relationship with the student or his knowing about abusive conditions at the school by attempting to discredit his sister. He portrays himself as a victim under attack by a mentally ill family member.
Babeu, the second-youngest of 11 children, described his family as one with "lots of different personalities" in a 2010 interview with the Arizona Daily Star.
"I've seen lots of different things in our family, but that's all family business," he said at the time.
Babeu's representatives at the Rose firm now are divulging this "family business" by releasing allegations detailing Lucy Babeu's alleged mental illness. According to the firm, she was placed in psychiatric care on two occasions, had her children taken away, and has been a frequent drug abuser.
Lucy Babeu denied these claims to New Times, calling them "slanderous."
The sheriff, a candidate for Congress in Arizona's conservative 4th District, says he's also a victim of attacks by political enemies.
On March 3, during an interview with Newsmax, Babeu says the timing of the allegations are suspect.
"[His being gay was] pushed around for months and months — in fact, for years," he told the conservative website. "Political opponents have threatened me, trying to go to the newspapers and the TV stations . . . clearly, looking at the timing of this election. They're literally five months away from primary ballots being mailed to voters, we being 10 points ahead."
That was then. A new poll — taken after New Times broke the story that Babeu's Mexican ex-boyfriend says the sheriff and his lawyer tried to intimidate him into keeping the love affair secret — showed Babeu six points behind Congressman Paul Gosar in the 4th District.
The former lover, Jose Orozco, says the sheriff's attorney raised threats of deportation when he refused to sign a document promising he would never disclose details of the affair. Orozco has filed notice that he intends to sue Babeu and Pinal County for $1 million for violating his civil rights.
Babeu denied that he or his camp did anything inappropriate then, too, portraying himself as a conservative politician under attack because he is gay. And he again played the victim card, claiming Orozco had hacked into his campaign website and his Twitter account and had stolen his identity — charges that seem unlikely given that the sheriff gave Orozco access to his websites and accounts.
Orozco and his lawyer, Melissa Weiss-Riner, say he turned over everything Babeu and DeRose requested but that they still pressured him to sign the non-disclosure document concerning the romance.
An interesting side note is that Babeu, in 2002, went public about getting sexually abused by a Catholic priest in Springfield, Massachusetts. He said he was outraged because the church took years to defrock the priest who had abused him, his older brother Francis, and other children.
It is similar outrage that moved DeSisto alumni to speak out against their former headmaster and the abusive treatment they received, partially under his reign.
The New York student, who attended DeSisto from 1998 to 2003, is surprised to hear that Babeu now describes himself as a career-long advocate for victims' rights.
"When did he become that guy? When did he become so involved in victims' rights? Why didn't he see problems in the [DeSisto] program, see that things needed to change?" she says. "He would hear about kids starving in the corner . . . You'd think he would know that was wrong."
Melissa Burech, sent to the school from West Virginia when she was 15 because of a history of depression, says, "Things got worse" during Babeu's reign.
"He signed up to be an administrator at this school, and he didn't do anything to help us or change what was happening there," she says.
When state officials finally got on campus and gained access to students, their files, and school staff, the school was ordered to immediately stop its most abusive practices — such as strip-searching students, barricading them in their bedrooms with mattresses (or with staff sleeping outside doors), and banishing them to remote areas of the campus.
Students, sent to what was known as the "farm," were not allowed to attend academic classes and were forced to perform manual labor for five to eight hours a day before they could eat or drink, Massachusetts child welfare authorities reported.
"We had to cut down trees or restore the buildings," Burech says. "It was a big joke that we attended the school of the janitorial arts."
The former student from New York recalls being forced to hold hands with several other girls for days at a time, no matter where they went, unless they were sleeping or eating meals that were limited to 15 minutes each.
"We had to go to the restrooms that way, take showers that way, get dressed — try to put on our underwear that way," she says. "We had to hold hands under the stalls and, even if we had a male staff member [supervising], we had to ask for permission to take our hands apart so we could do what we needed to do in the bathroom. It was humiliating."
She says they would rotate so that each girl had a chance to be at the end of the human chain and have the privilege of a free hand.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"We all had different problems, obviously; that's why we were in that school," she says. "But we weren't stupid. We knew this behavior was wrong, and we knew it wasn't helping. It was just a way of torturing us."
Burech now is attending school to become an occupational therapist.
"If I saw [Babeu] today, I would say 'thank you' because those horrible experiences taught me to be a fighter," she says. "No matter what, he is part of my past. But I'm speaking up now because I want to inform Arizona about his past so he doesn't become part of our future."