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Posted at 08:00 AM ET, 05/16/2011

Sean Lanigan: The rest of the story (Vol. 1)

UPDATE: Sean Lanigan answered readers’ questions live online at 1 p.m. Monday. Here’s the transcript: http://live.washingtonpost.com/sean-lanigan.html

UPDATE: Many readers have been asking about helping with Lanigan’s defense fund. A neighbor of Lanigan’s has established an account, and checks can be sent to: Sean Lanigan Defense Fund, 14001-C St. Germain Dr. #6398, Centreville, VA 20121.

ORIGINAL POST: Fairfax County school teacher Sean Lanigan still has not recovered from the experience of being falsely accused of molesting a 12-year-old girl. My article on that case appeared in Sunday’s Post, here.

There’s much more to the story than can fit in the print edition, though. That’s why we have the infinite Internet. Here are some additional pieces to the Lanigan saga:

Naming the 12-year-old accuser


The main equipment room at Centre Ridge Elementary School, where a girl said teacher Sean Lanigan laid on top of her, on tumbling mats. Numerous witnesses said the room never had, and couldn’t fit, such mats. This was shot in January 2010. (Courtesy Sean Lanigan)
Many of the readers in the public comments Sunday wondered why The Post was not naming the girl who falsely accused Lanigan of groping her. This issue has long been batted around in journalism, most recently in the case of the woman who accused the Duke University lacrosse players of raping her. Even after the case against the players was dropped, the mainstream media mostly did not name her. She came to prominence as a sex crimes victim, the media automatically protects such victims’ anonymity, and just because suspects weren’t convicted (for a variety of reasons) doesn’t always mean the crime didn’t happen.

[Then the Duke accuser, Crystal Mangum, was arrested recently for murder, and all bets were off.]

In the Lanigan case, we discussed naming his accuser for about 15 seconds. Besides the whole sex-crime aspect, she’s a child. She made a mistake. Kids make mistakes. It’s why juveniles who commit crimes are granted anonymity by the courts and media, unless they are prosecuted as adults. The accuser is not charged with a crime in this case, and won’t be.

Her name and role are well known in her neighborhood and in the Centre Ridge Elementary School community. There were plenty of grown-ups who could have helped prevent this whole episode. Many of them are named in the story. We didn’t need to put this on a little girl, online, forever. You may disagree.

After the jump, see another photo of the Centre Ridge gym equipment room where the assault allegedly happened, and more details of the case behind the scenes.

“Believe a child who tells you about a sexual assault!”

Detective Nicole Christian has years of experience investigating child sex abuse and is well-respected in her field. Many members of the largely male Fairfax County police detective bureau have only good things to say about her, and that’s a group that will not hesitate to criticize another cop they think is weak. But questions remain about the detective’s judgment in this case.

An alert reader noticed that Christian and Det. Rich Mullins have a powerpoint presentation posted on the Internet about “Child Abuse Awareness.” They list numerous physical and behavioral indicators that a child has been sexually assaulted, and the accuser in Lanigan’s case appeared to have few or none of them.

At the same time, Christian and Mullins emphasize this point with an exclamation mark:

“Believe a child who tells you about a sexual assault!”


The main equipment room at Centre Ridge Elementary School, where a girl claimed teacher Sean Lanigan laid her down on mats. Taken in Jan. 2010. (Courtesy Sean Lanigan)
Christian and Mullins deal with a lot of ugly stuff all the time. Investigating the sexual abuse of children is a thankless job. But in this case the detectives became convinced not only of Lanigan’s guilt, but also that people were conspiring with him to cover it up. The detectives were not swayed by Lanigan’s clean prior record – every criminal has to start someplace, cops know. First-time offenders commit murder. Past history is no alibi.

[Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh had a similar outlook in this case. As an assistant prosecutor, he once handled the case of another popular school teacher, who was accused of groping a middle-school boy. “No way!” the school parents clamored, just as they did for Lanigan. Then, another boy came forward with worse accusations, and the teacher pleaded guilty.] The police and prosecutors in Lanigan’s case still believe in his guilt, and support the accuser. They feel that sometimes things just don’t go your way in court.

Similarly, just because Lanigan denied the crime doesn’t mean he didn’t do it, in the police and prosecutors’ view. Plenty of suspects deny their actions. Sometimes, after skilled questioning and proper pressure, suspects confess. Sometimes they lie and say they didn’t do it, when the evidence shows they did. That was the perspective of Christian and Mullins when they put the heat on Lanigan that one morning in a Centre Ridge office.

But when others – staff, parents – tried to tell Christian anything she didn’t want to hear, she threatened them with prosecution for obstruction of justice, the staff members and parents said. School district investigator Steve Kerr’s investigative report, written after Lanigan’s acquittal, confirmed those claims, noting that: “Because of the jury’s decision, the detective [Christian] advised that she will not pursue criminal charges against [staff member] or [staff member].”

In addition, the accuser’s close friend and corroborating witness to the incident quickly tried to retract her story, her mother said, but Christian wasn’t hearing it. In a letter to the mother of the witness from assistant superintendent Kevin North after the trial, North confirmed that “you requested a re-interview with your daughter, which the detective declined.”

Police feel that child victims and witnesses can be manipulated or intimidated into changing their story, and the witness’s mother said Christian told her, “if she changes her story, they’re going to wonder why she changed her testimony. She said, ‘I know how to do my job. Don’t tell me how to do my job.’ ”

But when Christian and assistant Fairfax prosecutor Katie Pavluchuk approached the witness and her mother outside Lanigan’s preliminary hearing in March 2010, the girl and her mother refused to speak with them. The girl then joined the accuser in recanting the claim that Lanigan had lain on top of the accuser.

Not long after that hallway encounter, Fairfax County launched a Child Protective Services investigation into the witness’s mother -- the reasons for which have not been made public for alleged inappropriate behavior by her boyfriend.. The witness’s mother was eventually cleared of any allegations of misbehavior, but also had to undergo the pressure of being investigated. The girl and her mother have since moved from the area.

The most damaging allegation crumbled early

The most disturbing element of the initial allegations against Sean Lanigan came in the Fairfax police press release which said he “pushed her down and lay on top of her.” The next day, at his first court appearance, a Fairfax prosecutor told the judge that the defendant “laid on top of her and thrust his pelvis into her.”

But that claim soon evaporated.

First, the accuser’s friend told her mother and a school staff member that Lanigan didn’t lay on the accuser in the equipment room. Then, in a Facebook conversation with a friend shortly before the preliminary hearing, which was provided to the police, the accuser wrote:

“it wuz a joke tho lyk always he picks up gurls as a joke nd I feel rlly bad. Nd I swear I dident wnt to go this far I told cuz some1 told me too nd I thought he wud just get a warning but no:(.”

And here was the accuser’s testimony at the preliminary hearing in March 2010, being cross-examined by defense lawyer Doug Kay. He asked if Lanigan lay on top of her, and she shook her head no.

“Did you ever tell anybody that he was lying on top of you?” Kay asked.

“No,” the accuser answered.

“You ever tell the police that?”

“Yes, but it was like, it was kind of.”

“Why did you tell them he was laying on you?” Kay asked.

“I said he was kind of laying on me.”

“But that didn’t happen, correct?”

“Yes.”

The accuser did not recant her claim that Lanigan groped her breast and buttocks briefly, and so the juvenile court judge sent the case to the grand jury, where Lanigan was indicted.

Did it have to happen?

Several years ago, another Fairfax County school teacher was accused of taking photos up the skirts of some female high school students. He told me he was quietly removed from school for two months, with pay, while police and the school checked it out.

The investigation found he hadn’t done it. Then, he was asked to return to the same job. The same class. The accusing girls were moved out. No press releases, no arrest, no life turned inside out.

I wrote up his case as an example of how allegations can be handled differently than they were in the Lanigan case. But this teacher asked that we not use his name or specific identifiers in our story, which can make the factual information seem somewhat less compelling. It ended up getting cut out of the story.

But the information shows that accusations can be handled sensibly by the schools and the police.

By  |  08:00 AM ET, 05/16/2011

Categories:  Centreville, Fairfax County, Schools, Police | Tags:  Sean Lanigan, Nicole Christian, Virginia

 
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