The first clue that Kimberly Winters, a high school English teacher, had that a former student had accused her of sexually abusing him was when Loudoun County sheriff’s deputies in full riot gear burst into her bedroom one morning with their rifles drawn.
Winters said the deputies yanked her out of bed, handcuffed her, and made her stand in the front yard of her Sterling, Va., home in her pajamas while they patted her down, in full view of the neighborhood.
When she went to the Loudoun jail, Winters said, she was strip-searched, which her lawyer said violated the sheriff’s policies because she wasn’t booked into the jail. But her mug shot was taken and distributed to the news media along with a press release saying she was charged with sexually abusing one of her students when he was 17. Soon, she was fired from her job at Park View High School, after teaching in Loudoun for eight years.
When Loudoun prosecutors looked at the case brought by Detective Peter Roque, they promptly dismissed all charges. Winters sued Roque and Loudoun Sheriff Mike Chapman (R). And after a five-day trial earlier this month, a Loudoun jury took less than two hours to find the two law enforcement officials liable for Winters’s economic and punitive damages. They awarded her $5 million.
It appeared Roque had not seriously investigated any of the student’s claims, said Winters’s lawyer, Thomas K. Plofchan. On a sworn search warrant application in November 2018, Roque had written, “Witnesses’ statements are corroborated by phone records,” but there were no records, Plofchan said the evidence showed.
Winters said she could not get a job for two years, even as a stock clerk in a grocery, with her master’s degree in teaching. She lost all of her friends, many from her years in Loudoun schools. And she developed intense anxiety, including an involuntary tremor. “It became so humiliating, I literally couldn’t go out of my house,” Winters said. “This has been going on for four years. The repeated trauma of having to relive this created this tremor. My entire body shakes.”
“I hope I can just start to rebuild,” Winters said. She has sold her home and moved out of Sterling, where she grew up and worked. “This definitely isn’t a cure-all. The information [about the arrest] is still out there.”
Court records show the accuser was a Park View graduate who initially approached the school district with his mother in the fall of 2018, saying that Winters sexually abused him at her home. He then took his accusations to the Loudoun sheriff’s office. But both the school district and Loudoun prosecutor’s office determined that the former student was 18 at the time of his allegations, and so was not a juvenile under an adult’s supervision, meaning no crime had occurred. Winters denies that she had sex with him at any point.
Roque, a detective in the Eastern Loudoun Station of the sheriff’s office, declined to comment, as did Chapman, who was not involved in the investigation, and their attorney, Alexander Francuzenko. Francuzenko argued at trial that Roque’s mistakes were honest ones, and that “sometimes you get them wrong and you don’t want to, but that doesn’t mean you’re malicious,” the Loudoun Times reported.
The former student’s mother said in an interview that she remained convinced that Winters sexually abused her son, and that it was wrong even if the contact occurred when her son was 18.
“Do you know how much he’s scarred for that?” the mother said of her son. “She got away with all this with $5 million on top of it. That’s a miscarriage of justice.” The former student, now 23, could not be reached for comment.
Michele Bowman, the Loudoun sheriff’s office public information officer, said the defendants would appeal. Five days after the verdict, Chapman was named “Sheriff of the Year” by the National Sheriffs’ Association.
Five of the seven jurors who heard the case did not respond to messages seeking comment, and two jurors could not be located. A spokesman for the Loudoun school district said it could not comment on personnel matters.
In her lawsuit, Winters alleged the mother and son changed the dates of the alleged sexual abuse to a time when the son was 17, after Roque and the school district initially declined to investigate. The mother signed an affidavit about the accusations, extensively revised by Roque, and claimed she had records of texts between her son and Winters, the lawsuit states. The son said he had called and texted with Winters repeatedly, but had wiped his phone before meeting with the authorities, Plofchan said.
In the newly alleged dates in 2017, Winters said she was at a volleyball tournament on one occasion, and out of state at a wedding on another. But Roque did not question Winters or check on her alibi, Plofchan said. Two deputies without identification appeared at Winters’s door, and she said she declined to speak with them.
Roque obtained an arrest warrant and a search warrant from a magistrate in November 2018, including the handwritten claim that phone records corroborated the accusations. The search of her home, and her classroom, turned up nothing, but Winters was already charged with felony sexual abuse. After the arrest, Roque obtained search warrants for the accuser’s two phones, which turned up no evidence of sexual contact while he was a minor, according to the lawsuit.
Plofchan took on the case, and in early 2019 presented his evidence of Roque’s lack of investigation to Loudoun prosecutors, who then asked to see Roque’s proof, namely text records the accuser’s mother claimed to have. Winters alleged in the lawsuit that the mother then told Roque “she had been ‘bluffing.’” The charges against Winters were dismissed, but the Loudoun school board still fired her.
“After the arrest,” Plofchan said, “they did everything they should have done before the arrest,” such as the searches of the home and phones. Plofchan said Roque “admitted to bringing the charge without doing any investigation.”
The accuser’s mother said the system let her family down. “Nobody stood up for my son,” the mother said. In an interview, she denied telling Roque she had been bluffing about having phone records. She said there were no phone records when her son was 17 because he only communicated with Winters in person at school.
The mother and her son were subpoenaed to the trial but did not testify. Plofchan said this was because the trial was focused on Roque’s knowledge at the time he obtained charges — the suit alleged malicious prosecution — and not the full circumstances of the case.
The mother pointed to the Loudoun school board’s actions in firing Winters as the appropriate response. Plofchan said an internal trial before an administrative judge cleared Winters of any wrongdoing, found the accuser not credible, and that the district wrongly appealed to the school board and used possibly fake phone records to conclude that Winters had an inappropriate relationship with the student. Nothing about the school district’s handling of the case was presented to the jury.
“The moment that I was arrested,” Winters said, “I got basically blacklisted from everyone at school, all of my friends, all of my group chats with teachers. I didn’t feel safe in my community. I couldn’t go outside, or go to church. They all thought I was guilty. No one gave me the benefit of the doubt. It was horrible.”
So Winters filed suit, and Chapman and Roque did not try to argue that the charges against Winters had been approved by a prosecutor, which might have been an affirmative defense, Plofchan said. Chapman did not attend the trial. The settlement will be paid by a state fund in which many municipalities pool their moneys to pay for verdicts such as this, and a secondary insurance policy taken out by Loudoun, Plofchan said.
The trial began Feb. 6. “It was absolutely the worst week of my life,” Winters said. She had to watch more than three hours of video of Roque interviewing her accuser and his mother, and “the wildly ridiculous accusations they made of me.” Winters said when she testified, the jury could see her obvious tremors.
The jury got the case at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, and when Circuit Court Judge Margaret P. Spencer inquired an hour later if the jury wanted to go home for the weekend, they said no, Plofchan said. At 5:30 p.m., Spencer asked the jury if they wanted dinner, and they declined, saying they were nearly done. By 6 p.m., the verdict was in.
“It took me time to process it,” Winters said. “I definitely remember hearing a number and not knowing what it meant.” She said her second-chair attorney, Jacqueline A. Kramer, “wrote the number down. I turned and looked at her and she said, ‘This is real.’ Then we all just hugged.”
Winters said she didn’t think she would return to teaching. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back into the classroom,” she said, where Plofchan said she had great success with many students in Sterling. “I couldn’t trust that another person isn’t going to do this again. The scariest part is this could happen to anyone.”