A Principal Problem

Christopher was 10 years old when teachers at Longview Elementary School singled him out as a troublemaker. During that long 1993-94 academic year, Christopher regularly baited and insulted his teachers. His theatrics distracted his classmates to such an extent that he was often banished from class and sent to a different room where he fidgeted endlessly and tried to do his homework under the watchful eye of a teacher's aide.

No one knew why the boy caused so many problems at the school at 1209 East Indian School. Maybe Christopher was frustrated by a severe learning disability, which made it hard for him to learn to read. Maybe he had trouble coping with a difficult family life; his stepfather didn't have time for him. His mother had problems of her own--problems so severe that now, five years later, she is reportedly homeless and could not be reached for an interview.

For whatever reason, young Christopher was a nuisance in the classroom, which explains why his teachers sent him to the school guidance counselor, 26-year-old Ronald Maldonado Ruelas.

But instead of helping the troubled boy, Ruelas sexually abused him, police and the Maricopa County attorney now say.

Christopher made an ideal victim--he needed a father figure, and it would have been easy for the counselor to gain his trust. And who on Earth would believe Christopher if he were ever to inform on Ruelas?

But Christopher had uncommon courage. Despite his personal embarrassment, he told his mother in 1994 that Mr. Ruelas had asked him, Christopher, to "suck his privacy" and had been "feeling" on him.

The boy also confided to the only school official he trusted: Maxine Hotchkiss, a teacher's aide who worked with the more troubled kids in the school.

At the time, Hotchkiss was 48 years old and had strong instincts about when children were telling the truth. She quickly wrote a two-page report on what Christopher had said and walked it over to Principal Joanne Talazus' office. Hotchkiss later claimed Talazus ultimately fired her for writing the report.

The teacher's aide and other faculty members thought Ruelas and Talazus had a weird relationship. When Talazus was mourning the death of her son, who had died in a car accident, Ruelas told several teachers that he'd taken Talazus to dinner, presented her with flowers, and confided that her dead son had communicated with him, Ruelas, in a dream.

All of this may explain why Talazus dismissed complaints made by Hotchkiss and Christopher's mother, who also immediately notified Talazus about the alleged sexual abuse.

Instead of reporting the incident to authorities, as required by law, Talazus promptly summoned Christopher and his mom to her office and called the boy a liar.

The matter was closed.
Little Christopher never got a whit of therapy.
Five years later, when Joanne Talazus was asked by police why she never reported Christopher's allegations to authorities, she blurted: "We decided we were going to, you know, carefully watch Christopher. And not have Ron be his counselor. Be anywhere near him. Uhm. You know, see if anything else came up. Ron was new on the job. It was. You have to. You also can't. In a principal's position, you're balancing everybody's rights."

And she assured police Ron Ruelas was just a real "child-centered" guy.
In February, Ruelas was indicted on 23 counts that included sexual abuse, child molestation and indecent exposure. According to police, Ruelas sexually abused eight Longview students.

Christopher, they say, was his first victim.
After Ruelas' arrest, Talazus sent out a memo to school personnel demanding that they feign ignorance and not talk to either children or the press about the scandal.

Some teachers even told police that they'd heard Talazus had retained a lawyer to defend Ruelas after he was indicted.

And then, just last week, 50-year-old Talazus herself was indicted on 11 criminal counts--for failing to heed many warnings that Ruelas was a monster who abused vulnerable children, an act that enabled the sexual abuse of the students in her own school.

Talazus, through her attorney Marc Budoff, declined to comment.
"I am disturbed, as she is, about the allegations," says Budoff. "I'm disappointed that the state felt obliged to bring charges against a dedicated and award-winning children's educator."

Ruelas has denied molesting Christopher.
Talazus and Ruelas both face long prison terms if they are found to have committed the crimes charged in the indictments.

But no amount of punishment meted on either Joanne Talazus or Ronald Ruelas will help Christopher, who is now 15 years old and sits in the Rincon Unit for Minors at the Arizona State Prison in Tucson--for molesting his little sister after Ruelas had molested him.

Although he had absolutely no reason to trust authorities--and nothing to gain--by the time police caught up with Christopher in his jail cell in January, the boy opened up to police.

He remembered being sent to Ruelas' office for fidgeting too much with a pencil. The office was decorated in a Star Trek motif. There were toys and stuffed animals in the room. Once, Christopher said, Ruelas tried to get the child to masturbate into the garbage can. He couldn't.

And there was bad touching, he said. It occurred in the office, Christopher said.

The boy was vague about when the touching began and when it ended. A report filed by Hotchkiss, the teacher's aide, pertains to the 1993-94 school year. Christopher himself told police about an incident that may have happened in 1996, but he wasn't sure of the dates.

Christopher remembered the day he and his mother were called into Talazus' office. He recalled sitting at the end of a long table facing off against Talazus and Ruelas. He told Talazus that Ruelas had been touching him.

But no one believed him.

Christopher has agreed to be a witness in Ruelas' upcoming criminal trial.
In the meantime, he has filed a $25 million claim against the Osborn School District and Longwood Elementary School, Ruelas, Talazus, and school superintendent Wilma Basnett.

Christopher's victim, his 8-year-old sister, has filed a separate $25 million claim against the same parties.

Michael Vaughn, a lawyer for the siblings, says in legal documents that what happened between Christopher and his sister might never have happened if Christopher had not been molested by Ruelas, and if school officials hadn't abandoned him.

After Ruelas sexually abused the boy, and after Talazus called him a liar, Christopher "became angrier and angrier," the attorney says.

"As research has established, children who are molested often go on to molest others," Vaughn says, adding that Christopher's victimization of his sister was a "direct, proximate and foreseeable result of the sexual abuse."

Vaughn says both children face lifelong problems.
In the face of the credible evidence gathered against Ruelas and Talazus by Phoenix police, I figure the district will offer Christopher and his sister substantial settlements--in the millions.

But even if they're paid multimillion-dollar settlements, they face uncommon problems throughout their lives.

Christopher will be a registered child molester. His picture will appear on the Internet. And it's likely he will re-offend if he has a chance.

Frank Putnam, a child psychiatrist who specializes in the effects of sexual abuse on children at the National Institute of Mental Health, says boys who have been sexually abused often tend to become sexual offenders with "high rates of recidivism."

Christopher's sister faces other problems. Girl victims, according to Putnam, "internalize" the trauma, suffering from severe depression and other psychiatric maladies that plague them throughout their lives.

I wonder if Ruelas ponders any of this as he sits in his cell at the Madison Street Jail.

And I wonder if Joanne Talazus, who will be arraigned on June 1, takes the time from thinking about her own legal problems to reflect on the little boy who sat in her office five years ago, the little boy she called a liar.

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Terry Greene Sterling