Wearing combat fatigues and black face paint streaked under his eyes, David Woodington crept into the woods of Southern Maryland and waited for the secret rendezvous. It was 5 a.m., and he remembers it being so cold that he could see his breath.
He knew the plan from an e-mail he had found a day earlier on a computer used by his 16-year-old stepdaughter: She and an older woman were going to meet that morning near the girl's home in St. Mary's County. Woodington planned to force them to end what he and his wife believed was a 27-month inappropriate relationship.
It wasn't just that they were both female. It wasn't just that they were 18 years apart in age. What most disturbed him was that Leslie R. Berg, then 34, was his stepdaughter's former guidance counselor at Chopticon High School.
"When you put your child in school, you expect your child to be safe," Woodington said. "You don't expect it to be some singles bar for the teacher to pick up kids."
Berg, a married mother of two, flatly denies the allegation that she had a sexual or romantic relationship with the teenager. To the former head of the Southern Maryland Counselors Association, the accusation would be laughable if it had not been so devastating.
Berg said that she has never had any sexual interest in the girl and that she continued to have contact with her only because she felt she could not turn away a child who needed help.
"I cared about her like she was my own child," Berg said. "I guess that could be misconstrued, and somebody could think there was something going on."
That is exactly what the Woodingtons thought when they told Berg to stay away from their daughter. School administrators had also ordered Berg not to have contact with the girl. Berg herself, at the prompting of a judge, had promised not to contact the teenager. Despite all that, about 10 a.m. Jan. 13, 2004, she pulled up to the meeting place in her copper-colored Ford truck and picked up the girl. Woodington called his wife, who dialed 911.
Berg was taken into custody and soon resigned from her job under pressure. Prosecutors charged her with child sex abuse and said they had firm evidence against her, including what they described as a love letter sent from her school e-mail account.
Last fall, prosecutors and Berg came to a plea agreement -- in part because prosecutors say they were worried that the girl might lie to protect Berg -- and the counselor accepted a three-year suspended sentence and five years of unsupervised probation for helping the teenager commit truancy.
Berg says her accuser, who previously made similar allegations against a school administrator and developed an infatuation with another guidance counselor, is not credible. But the case isn't over. In March, the teenager and her parents filed a lawsuit against Berg and the St. Mary's school system for failing to prevent Berg from contacting the girl. They say they need money from the suit to pay about $200,000 in medical and legal debts.
The teenager is now 17 and living in a facility for emotionally troubled youths near Baltimore. Her mother, Kathleen Woodington, and prosecutors say they are worried about what might happen when she turns 18 and is released, free to make her own choices.
Kathleen Woodington declined to let the girl be interviewed because of her fragile emotional state. The teenager's name is being withheld by The Washington Post because she is an alleged victim of sexual abuse.
No matter what happens next, the girl will continue to carry physical scars. On her left inner forearm, in block letters that her mother says she carved with pins last spring, is the name "LESLIE."
Aftermath of Divorce
Woodington moved her family in 2001 to St. Mary's County, where she had grown up, to escape the fallout of a messy divorce. Her oldest daughter had a particularly severe reaction to the split. She was estranged from her father, sank into a deep depression and developed intense attachments to older women.
At Chopticon High School, Woodington's daughter began to confide in Berg, described by several former students as the best guidance counselor they had ever had. She "cared so much for her students," said Alice Willingham, an English teacher at Chopticon.
The teenager told Berg that that she had had a romantic relationship with a vice principal at her former middle school. Berg reported the allegation to the St. Mary's Department of Social Services, but an investigation by the Maryland State Police found no evidence that a crime had been committed, according to a department report.
After the report was filed, Chopticon Principal Joseph R. North assigned the student to a new counselor. Berg said she bitterly protested his decision. The girl became deeply depressed and attempted suicide during four months in and out of the hospital.
When the teenager returned to Chopticon in the fall of 2003, she and Berg confessed to having "feelings" for each other, according to a transcript of the girl's later statement to police. Berg denies ever expressing romantic feelings.
An increasingly concerned Kathleen Woodington complained to North about Berg. He sent the counselor a letter ordering her "to have no direct contact with [the student] other than the occasional pleasantries." Berg now acknowledges that she disregarded North's instruction. "Whoever comes through my door, I'm going to try and help them," she said in an interview.
After a brief hospitalization and more suicide threats, the girl was supposed to return to school Nov. 13, 2003. She never made it to class. The girl and Berg later gave police very different accounts of what happened that day.
According to a transcript of the girl's statements to police, she and Berg drove to Berg's house in Mechanicsville, where they spent six hours having sex. Berg told her colleagues that she had to leave school because her daughter was ill -- a story she later acknowledged to The Post she made up because she was exhausted and needed to rest. But she said that she never had sex with the girl and that the girl has never been to her house.
Furious school administrators placed her on administrative leave and transferred her to teach math at Great Mills High School. But Berg and the girl continued to have contact.
Kathleen Woodington tried to get Berg fired. She sought help from police and the courts. Those efforts were all unsuccessful. "The system failed me," Woodington said.
Her only consolation was that Berg, at a judge's suggestion, voluntarily promised not to contact the girl.
It all came to a head in January 2004, when Berg and the girl arranged a surreptitious meeting, according to an e-mail exchange.
"All I live for right now is the moments when I can speak with you and better yet, see you," Berg wrote to the teenager in a Jan. 12 e-mail that prosecutors said was from her school system account. "God, I'm obsessed with you. Please help me. I love you."
She instructed the girl to immediately delete the e-mail because "I just can't afford to be found out." Berg said she does not remember writing the e-mail but said that if she did, she did not intend her words to be sexual. She said she intended to tell the teenager at their meeting that they could not communicate anymore.
After Berg picked up the teenager that morning, Kathleen Woodington quickly called police, who took the pair in for questioning.
The St. Mary's school system decided that Berg's continued contact with the teenager constituted "insubordination and willful neglect of duty."
She was forced to resign in February and was later forbidden to enter any St. Mary's public school.
In May 2004, Berg was indicted on two charges in the Nov. 13 incident: contributing to the condition of a child in need of supervision for helping a student skip school, a misdemeanor punishable by up to three years in prison; and sexual abuse of a minor for exploiting a child under her supervision, a felony that can carry a 25-year jail sentence.
Both sides ultimately decided to compromise.
Joseph M. Stanalonis, assistant state's attorney for St. Mary's, was looking for a way to avoid trial. The girl's psychiatrists had told him that putting the teenager on the stand could be devastating to her mental health. Plus, he worried that she might lie to protect Berg.
Several teachers and friends of the girl raise questions about her statements. Marck Santee, an English teacher who taught her, said he believes she made up the story.
"I know what a troubled young woman she was and is," said Santee, a friend of Berg's. At first, Berg planned to fight the charges. But under intense pressure from her worried family, Berg asked her attorney to cut a deal.
Prosecutors agreed to drop the sex abuse charges in exchange for Berg accepting the suspended sentence and probation on the lesser charge, during which she cannot have contact with the girl or work with children younger than 18.
In the civil trial, the girl's parents expect Berg to pay. They have sued her for allegedly sexually abusing their daughter and intentionally inflicting emotional distress on her.
The two families, which live less than 10 miles apart, are struggling to deal with the aftermath. Woodington fears that her relationship with her daughter is irreparably fractured. Last summer, Berg's husband, Timothy, was found to have multiple sclerosis. His doctors told him the disease was brought on, at least in part, by stress related to the sexual abuse allegations.
He knows the continued contact between his wife and the teenager seems to make his wife look guilty. But he also expresses certainty that she has never had a romantic relationship with the teenager. "My wife screwed up, but not in the way they say," he said.
Leslie Berg, trying to adjust to a non-teaching life, obtained a real estate license last fall and works in Prince George's County.
At Chopticon, some teachers are now reluctant to chat with students in the hallway or be alone with them in a classroom.
"I always hear people say now, "You don't want to end up like Leslie Berg,' " Santee said.
Both families fear what will happen when the teenager, who turns 18 on Aug. 5, can make her own decisions.