Redemption Song

Gravel crunches under Ken Lamberton's sneakers as he follows the Yetman Trail near the Tucson Mountains west of the city on a clear, cold morning in early January. Lamberton glances up and pauses. Above him, a large bird flies in circles. He identifies it as a red-tailed hawk and gives a quick lesson on how to spot one.

With his salt-and-pepper hair, soft voice, and curious eyes, Lamberton resembles a science teacher on a field trip. When he pauses again later in the hike to explain how the nearby mountains were created by an ancient volcano, it's easy to picture him in front of a classroom talking about fault lines.

"In one place they say it was like a thousand feet thick. Molten ash covering all these square miles," he says. "Kinda makes you feel puny."

In fact, Ken Lamberton was once a science teacher.

He's also a convicted child molester.

Lamberton served a dozen years in prison after he seduced a student and left town with her. He was 26. She was 14 — even younger, when they first became involved. This month marks the 20th year since the crime.

A lot has changed. Twenty years ago, no one had heard of Mary Kay Letourneau, another teacher who bedded a student (she even bore the 12-year-old's baby) and became a quasi-celebrity in the pages of People magazine. And these days, Hollywood considers teacher-student romance fodder for satire instead of drama — in Election, Reese Witherspoon has an affair with a teacher, and she comes off as the creepy one, instead of the other way around. (Although that guy does lose his job.) Only a pervert with a twist in his tale, like Neil Havens Rodreick — the 29-year-old recently caught in rural Arizona masquerading as a preteen — grabs the spotlight the way Ken Lamberton did 20 years ago.

Around town, people still talk about the Mesa teacher who ran off with his student, a case described in a New Times story at the time as a "tragedy of obsession and betrayal."

Since he first went to jail in 1987, Lamberton has written two books about life in prison. He tells his personal story through nature and metaphor.

But in Lamberton's third prison book — to be published later this year by the University of Arizona press — he faces his crime and its consequences head on. In the book, tentatively titled Time of Grace, Lamberton gives the reader an in-depth look at his life in prison and the struggle to rebuild his marriage.

Though his is certainly not a household name, Lamberton has achieved relative success with his books and is generating interest in literary circles.

He recently won a grant from the Open Society Institute, a group sponsored by George Soros, the millionaire known for personally funding the education of black university students in Cape Town, South Africa, during apartheid and, closer to home, pro-marijuana initiatives in Arizona and other states.

There's no doubt Lamberton is talented, but it's interesting that he's building his post-prison career on the fact that he can write eloquently about his crime.

Lamberton's case is complicated. In some ways, he doesn't fit the mold of the teacher gone bad. He says he doesn't — didn't — lust after teenage girls. Just one — whom he loved, he says, adding that the student, Kelly Gregan, loved him back.

But the fact is, this isn't a story about two teenagers in love. It's about a grown man with a family, and a girl experiencing powerful feelings, at a very early age, for a man in a position of authority.

Gregan, now a family law attorney in San Diego, did not respond to e-mails or phone calls to comment for this story. Her parents are both dead, and her sister, Maureen, who is also her attorney, did not return a call for comment.

The last time Gregan spoke publicly about Lamberton was in 1986, when she was 14. She told the Arizona Republic, "I was used, emotionally and physically. I think he should be put away for as long as possible."

Gregan didn't talk for this story, but Lamberton did. He gave New Times a copy of his forthcoming book; only his editors, close friends, and family have seen it. He spent hours talking about the past, present and future, and so did his wife and children. Hundreds of pages of court records were reviewed for this story, including the letters Ken and Kelly wrote to each other 20 years ago.

Ken Lamberton's crime itself is just the beginning of a complex story. It's what came afterward that's truly unusual: His wife and daughters never left him, and he now has a good relationship with all of them. Still, some of the wounds he inflicted continue to bleed and will likely never stop.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin