A 43-year-old woman in a white pantsuit is sitting in a Rockville diner, a billed cap pulled down near her large brown eyes.
Sunlight streams through the picture windows, flooding the Formica table.
The lawyer for Pamela Y. Hoffler-Riddick, charged with money laundering in a $20 million drug operation, says she was a victim of her trust in a man she loved.
(Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
She hasn't been sleeping lately. There have been terrible dreams.
"It's exhaustion," Pamela Y. Hoffler-Riddick says.
Usually she'd be at school now, jawboning with students, or out in the field, convening with her staff of principals. But here she sits, on forced unpaid leave from her job as an assistant superintendent in the Prince George's County school system, where just months ago she oversaw more than 30 schools.
Now she is facing criminal charges.
On Jan. 24, she was arrested by federal agents and charged with five counts of money laundering in a $20 million drug operation. That ring, Operation Blowfish, authorities called it, included up to three dozen people and stretched along the East Coast and parts of the South. Hoffler-Riddick is charged with laundering about $50,000 of those alleged drug proceeds. She is accused of laundering the money for drug kingpin Aaron Burton and his financial adviser, John McBride, a man she says she once loved.
She pleaded not guilty on Feb. 9 at a Norfolk court appearance. David W. Bouchard, her lawyer, says it was all a misunderstanding: a man she dated; some issues of trust; some issues of naivete.
Her trial starts in July.
"I used to tell the kids to stay away from the criminal justice system," Hoffler-Riddick says. "That's what I preached. And I looked around that courtroom and there were all these black people. Defendants. And afterward people started talking about me and my PhD degree and the fact that some of the defendants hadn't finished high school. That burned me up! Just because they hadn't finished high school, you gonna judge them a certain way? I always said, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' "
A second later she says: "Why can't the least of us be the best of us?"
She has hardly touched the corned beef hash. Or the scrambled eggs. She salted the grits, then left them alone.
A sip from the coffee cup, then it goes cold, too. A whole life, tumbling.
The arrest shocked and bewildered her friends, family and colleagues.
"It's blown the mind of everybody," says Robert Richards, who recruited Hoffler-Riddick into the doctoral program in educational administration at Virginia Tech, which she completed in 1998.
"She's one of the brightest young people I've ever known," says Helena Nobles-Jones, principal of Charles Herbert Flowers High School, in Springdale, where Hoffler-Riddick was headquartered.
Hoffler-Riddick has been in a kind of seclusion since the arrest, and there is a sense for her that nothing will ever be the same again. In the course of several hours, she will share the story of her life -- "I think I have been in search of myself for quite a while. Been running from myself for quite sometime now."
She will not divulge her legal strategy.
She knows, however, what folks are wondering: How a high-achieving woman with her degrees, her skills, wound up staring at a possible prison sentence.