Former D.C. teacher makes FBI ‘Most Wanted’ list after 2008 child porn discovery

May 16, 2012

The discovery was as shocking as it was horrific: a camera with explicit photos of a child who attended Washington National Cathedral’s exclusive Beauvoir elementary school, which caters to some of the area’s most powerful families.

The camera was assigned to third-grade teacher Eric Justin Toth. School head Paula Carreiro quickly summoned Toth that day in June 2008 and confronted him. She then had him escorted to the end of the cathedral driveway, ordering him away.

With that, she gave Toth a critical jump on police, unwittingly helping a man alleged to have a history of making child pornography. He is now one of the country’s most notorious fugitives — last month, the FBI put him on its Ten Most Wanted list, filling a spot left empty by Osama bin Laden’s death.

Toth’s face is plastered on bus stops and billboards nationwide, including in Manhattan’s Times Square. Over the past few weeks, agents have run down hundreds of tips, leading them as far as South America.

The FBI describes Toth as a crafty fugitive and child predator who will not stop until he is arrested. They call his methods typical for a pedophile: He worked where he had access to kids, ingratiated himself with families and got extended alone time with their children, sometimes as a tutor. Then he allegedly exploited children and took pictures of them for gratification.

Details of how he escaped authorities are now clearer.

Carreiro called 911 the same afternoon that she had Toth removed from campus, but within 24 hours, he was 700 miles from the District, beginning a run for his life that has included aliases, a sham suicide note and a stint at an Arizona homeless shelter.

Carreiro, who plans to retire from the school in June 2013, declined to comment for this article. People close to her said she wanted to get Toth off campus quickly and thought police would later handle the criminal aspect.

Nobody knew at the time that he had allegedly installed a video camera in his third-grade class bathroom and used it to record images of his students.

Ronald Hosko, special agent in charge of the criminal division at the FBI’s Washington Field Office, said the Toth case illustrates the challenge schools have in trying to protect children.

Toth, now 30, arrived at Beauvoir in 2005 with good recommendations and no known criminal history, according to several people affiliated with the school. He lived in the District and worked at Beauvoir for three years.

“Eric Toth doesn’t have an on-off switch,” Hosko said. “His discovery here in D.C. isn’t going to turn him off. Our belief and fear is he’s looking for victims right now.”

Toth moved from job to job every few years — and just before he went on the run, he was in talks with another exclusive D.C. area private school about a teaching job.

Beauvoir did not know about Toth’s past. Around 2001 and 2002, parents in Indiana were concerned that he was too close to children while volunteering at an elementary school there, according to the FBI. And years later, police found evidence of child pornography that Toth may have made while working as a counselor at an all-boys summer camp in Wisconsin from 2004 through 2006.

At Beauvoir, the education is elite and expensive. Parents include U.S. senators, White House staff members, State Department officials, World Bank employees, and a cross section of Washington lawyers and entrepreneurs.

Parents and administrators are fiercely protective of the school and its reputation. Many said they felt torn talking about Toth.

While at Beauvoir, Toth charmed adults and children alike. But looking back, parents say, there were signs that something was wrong: The teacher sometimes spent nights in his classroom closet, slept at students’ houses and lavished attention on select 8- and 9-year-old boys, sometimes holding them on his lap.

Officials at Beauvoir, which has about 390 students in pre-kindergarten through third grade, declined to comment for this article, but the school released a statement: “Beauvoir’s first priority has been and remains the safety of children. Since this incident came to light four years ago, Beauvoir has closely cooperated with investigating authorities to provide any information that may lead to Mr. Toth’s apprehension.”

People familiar with the school’s governing board say members thought school leaders responded appropriately to the discovery by increasing training and awareness of child sex abuse for staff members and parents. Some parents interviewed for this article praised the school’s handling of the Toth matter. Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth served on the school’s governing board after Toth left.

Parents say it was common knowledge that Toth was entwined in the lives of Beauvoir students — particularly male students — and sometimes in unusual ways. He babysat and tutored them, at times for free. He slept at their houses as a babysitter when parents were away and was a guest at one boy’s home for weeks.

He chose favorites so blatantly that children called some classmates “Tothies.”

Toth allegedly took sexually explicit photographs of a boy at the victim’s home in the summer of 2007, according to the FBI and court documents. Beauvoir parents said the child was a student at the school.

Toth has been indicted on charges of producing child pornography. Authorities say there is evidence that he also molested at least one child, but he has not been charged with such an offense. Warrants have been issued for his arrest in the District and in Maryland, and some of the charges have been sealed.

Parents now say that “wanted” posters around town have brought back painful memories and prompted uncomfortable questions from their now-teenage children.

Many parents remember the young teacher spending hours tutoring boys in math while not paying adequate attention to the girls.

Michele Booth Cole, a parent of one of Toth’s former students, said he was an engaging teacher.

“He was very adept and good at relating to kids and making kids feel smart,” said Cole, who works at a center for abused children. “He came up with creative and intellectually challenging projects.”

One was about teaching kids “levels of moral reasoning,” she remembered.

“They learned about why people do certain things and the motivations of why people do the right thing,” Cole said. “My daughter loved it.”

Many parents described Toth as having a sharp academic mind, energy and dedication. They felt lucky to have him.

“He’d have brilliant observations about kids and their learning style,” a parent said. “When you had somebody this smart, he could be teaching at college level. But he wasn’t. He was at our little school.”

Parents said they were willing to overlook some quirks. They’d find his socks drying on a classroom windowsill and heard he was raiding the school cafeteria at night. When Toth’s peculiar habits became obvious, one parent said, some discussed offering him financial help.

Toth’s world unraveled on June 9, 2008, the last day of classes.

A student found a digital camera and gave it to a teacher, asking what was on it, according to several people familiar with the case. The teacher saw a series of shocking pictures on the camera, which contained explicit photographs of at least one boy thought to be a former student of Toth’s.

That teacher brought the camera to Carreiro, the head of the school, who saw the pictures and within an hour called Toth into her office, according to one person familiar with the situation.

When Carreiro confronted Toth about 1:30 p.m., that person said, she found his answers evasive. She then placed him on administrative leave and had Washington National Cathedral Police escort him off campus. By about 3 p.m., Carreiro had called D.C. police.

After police began the investigation, detectives found images from the video camera Toth had allegedly placed in his class bathroom.

People familiar with the school’s governing board said it has maintained its support for Carreiro.

The FBI upgraded Toth from a local most-wanted list in April because agents think that he is a threat to children and that the description of him — he is thin, 6-foot-3, has green eyes and a mole under his left eye — might be enough to help someone identify him.

Toth was born in Fairfax County and grew up in Indiana, according to the FBI. He studied at Cornell University before earning his undergraduate degree in education from Purdue University.

An FBI timeline shows his known movements since he left Beauvoir:

That afternoon, he withdrew cash in Arlington and arrived the following day at his family’s home in Hammond, Ind., where he stayed for a day or two. His family declined to comment for this article.

The next day, he used the alias Jay Keller to buy a cellphone and Global Positioning System device from a Circuit City store in Madison, Wis.

A day later, he drove a Honda sedan to a long-term parking lot at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Inside the car, he left a bogus suicide note indicating that police could find his body in a nearby lake.

On Aug. 1, 2008, officials noticed the Honda had surpassed the allowable number of days in the parking area. They found the note, as well as explicit images that police say might date to his time at the Wisconsin camp.

A year later, Toth turned up in Phoenix at a homeless shelter and rehabilitation facility. He used the name David Bussone, a man he met in Phoenix, and told people at the shelter that he had taken a vow of poverty and that he was living a Spartan life.

He was volunteering there as a tutor when someone who had seen him featured on the TV show “America’s Most Wanted” called police. Toth vanished before officers arrived.

The FBI says he probably has assumed a different identity, maybe in a homeless shelter, and possibly working as a tutor or nanny.

At Beauvoir, Toth was getting what he wanted and then got sloppy, authorities said.

“He’s an adult with a good education, and he takes images of child pornography into a school,” said the FBI’s Hosko. “He calculated and thought he’d get away with what he’d done.”

In fact, he was hoping to move to another one of the D.C. area’s exclusive private schools. He had told some parents that he was taking a job at the Potomac School in McLean.

Toth had applied there, but when the school called Beauvoir for a reference, it was told about the investigation, a school official said. He was not hired.

Hosko said that because Toth hadn’t been arrested in the past, it wasn’t easy for schools to vet him.

Someone at the elementary school in Indiana, where parents expressed concerns that he was too close to children, would have had to have flagged Toth as a problem. Or someone at the all-boys camp might have gotten wind of something unusual and let Beauvoir know. Such messages, however, can be difficult to communicate, especially in light of slander laws.

“The things that protect our liberty sometimes cut against our kids being safe,” Hosko said. “It’s a difficult line to walk.”

Staff writers Steve Hendrix, Valerie Strauss and Josh White contributed to this report.

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