Longform

Andrew Thomas Ignores Evidence That Courtney Bisbee Was Wrongly Convicted of Child Molestation As Supporters Work to Free Her

In January of 2004, Courtney Bisbee's life was hitting a hectic but welcome stride. The divorced mother of one had recently landed a nurse's job at Horizon High School in affluent northeast Phoenix, close to the border of Scottsdale, where she lived. Across the street, her 4½-year-old daughter attended preschool at Rancho Solano Private School, where Bisbee, 33, had previously been a student teacher.

The new position at Horizon allowed Bisbee, who'd gotten her bachelor's in nursing cum laude from the University of South Florida, to eat lunch every day with daughter Taylor Lee. At night, Bisbee pursued a master's degree in elementary education from the University of Phoenix. Sundays, she worshipped at Scottsdale Bible Church with her little girl.

"I was trying to find balance between being a working single mom and being able to maintain this life I was living until I graduated," recalls Bisbee during a recent phone conversation. "I didn't know if I was going to go back east after I graduated because I was doing so well here. Everything was going awesome."

Her divorce finalized in 2002, Bisbee was finally sticking a cautious toe into the dating pool. At the high school where she now worked, she found teenagers willing to babysit for her. Some of them had challenged home lives. She did her best to assist them, even taking in one wayward 16-year-old, Brittany Heeler, whose mom had kicked her out of the house. For Bisbee, it was the Christian thing to do.

She did not know it, but her days of normalcy were numbered. On February 11, 2004, Bisbee was arrested outside her home by Scottsdale police on suspicion of child molestation. It was only after she had been held for 66 days, then finally released on $100,000 bond, that she would grasp the full extent of the allegations against her.

The state alleged Bisbee had engaged in a mutual grope session with a 13-year-old named Jon Valles. Incredibly, she was supposed to have done this in a room full of teenage witnesses, some of whom had babysat her daughter.

Jon claimed to authorities that Bisbee had kissed him on two different occasions before the alleged incident on the afternoon of February 5. Jon said Bisbee molested him during a visit she made that day to the home of Michael and Diane Kemp, where Jon and his older brother Nik had been living since early January. In the bedroom of his friend Donnie Kemp, with Brittany Heeler, Nik, and others present, Jon claimed, Bisbee pulled a blanket over them as the pair sat or lay on the floor.

Beneath the blanket, where no one could see, Jon said Bisbee unbuttoned her pants and his, placed his hand down her pants onto her vagina, and stuck her hand down his pants, touching his penis over his underwear. This touching supposedly occurred anywhere between two and 15 minutes, until Jon rose to get a drink of water. Donnie and Brittany, in the room making out with each other, stated they observed Jon and Bisbee kissing beneath a blanket, though evidence later emerged to undermine Donnie's and Brittany's accounts.

That night, Jon and Bisbee spoke by phone. Mike Kemp, Donnie's father, claimed he listened in through a bedroom extension as the two discussed running away to Utah. Bisbee later disputed this, saying she was admonishing Jon for trying to kiss her, and that the Utah reference was a sarcastic one, taken out of context. Kemp told police he called Jon's mother, Janette Sloan, on a cell phone and placed the phones side by side, allowing her to listen in. The next day, Sloan filed an order of protection against Bisbee, then reported details of the alleged molestation to the Scottsdale police.

Two weeks following her arrest on February 11, Bisbee was charged with three counts of child molestation and three counts of indecency. The media lumped her in with various high-profile cases of improper student-teacher relations, though Bisbee was not a teacher, and Jon was not her student. Rather, he attended Desert Shadows Middle School, a mile or two south of Horizon.

Bisbee pleaded not guilty, aced a polygraph test, and passed a rigorous screening designed to sniff out pedophiles. Still, she was convicted after a six-day bench trial in early 2006. Despite conflicting testimony and a lack of physical evidence, Superior Court Judge Warren Granville believed Bisbee's accuser and found Bisbee guilty on two counts of child molestation, resulting in a sentence of 11 years in state prison.

Bisbee lost everything. Her home. Her career. Her good name. Her freedom. Plus, more than $400,000 in legal and consulting fees. And, most importantly, Taylor Lee, whom she has not seen or heard from since losing custody of the girl in 2005, because of the alleged molestation of Jon Valles.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons