He was one of the most beloved teachers in the world of international schools that serve the children of diplomats, well-off Americans and local elites. He was often the first to arrive in the morning, and last to leave. He led student trips to exotic places and gave out cookies and milk at bedtime.
That was the public persona of William Vahey until a maid stole a memory drive from him in November. On it was evidence that Vahey had molested scores of adolescent boys, possibly more.
The discovery of a man the FBI regards as one of the most prolific pedophiles in memory has set off a crisis in the community of international schools, where parents are being told their children may have been victims, and administrators are scurrying to close loopholes exposed by Vahey’s abuses.
Apparently, not even Vahey’s victims knew they had been molested. The double-cream Oreos that he handed out were laced with sleeping pills — enough to leave the boys unconscious as he touched them and posed them for nude photographs.
Vahey attempted suicide in Nicaragua after his maid stole the drive. He survived but killed himself on a second try, stabbing himself to death at age 64 and leaving hundreds of former students wondering if they had been abused.
There were decades of missed opportunities to expose Vahey. An early California sex-abuse conviction didn’t prevent him taking a series of jobs exposing him to children. Colleagues and supervisors failed to question why he was so often with boys overnight. And at least twice, boys fell mysteriously ill while under his care, and there was no investigation of Vahey’s role.
In 1969, Vahey was arrested on child sexual abuse charges after police said he pinched the penises of eight boys, ages 7 to 9, at an Orange County, California, high school where he taught swimming. Vahey, then 20, told authorities he had started touching boys without their consent at age 14.
He pleaded guilty to a single charge of lewd and lascivious behavior. He received a 90-day jail sentence and five years’ probation. After two, he was allowed to leave the country unsupervised in January 1972.
Vahey was required to register as a sex offender and update his address whenever he moved, but he never updated his information after the first time he registered and authorities didn’t pursue the matter. When the state registry was put online in 2004, his name wasn’t included because authorities discovered he was no longer living in California.
Vahey began his international teaching career with a year at the American School in Tehran in the run-up to Iran’s oil boom, the first in a series of stays around the Middle East and Europe. He taught history, social studies and related subjects in Lebanon, Spain, Iran again, Greece and then Saudi Arabia, almost always to middle school students.
By the time he arrived in Saudi Arabia, Vahey was married and had two sons with Jean Vahey, a woman who became a widely respected administrator in international education. He taught eighth- and ninth-grade social studies, coached boys’ basketball and led school trips to Bahrain, Turkey and Africa.
By 1992, Vahey and his wife moved to the prestigious Jakarta International School in Indonesia.
After 10 years the Vaheys moved to Escuela Campo Alegre in Venezuela, where Jean became superintendent and the man known to all as Bill took a teaching job at the sprawling hillside campus overlooking the capital, Caracas.
All new hires were required to provide a police record from either their home of record or their last country of assignment, if they had been there for more than five years. Vahey presented one from Indonesia with no history of problems.
Again in Venezuela, the popular teacher and family man took students on trips
Authorities may have missed a warning sign when two students under Vahey’s care were rushed to a hospital after falling unconscious in their hotel room during a trip for a basketball game, parents and staff said. Officials were unable to determine why and chalked it up to a possible failing air conditioner.
Seven years later, the Vaheys went to work at the Westminster campus of London’s Southbank International School, with about 350 pupils from 70 countries.
Bill Vahey founded a “travel club” and led a 13-day trip to Nepal in 2012.
Southbank’s chair of governors, Chris Woodhead, told Britain’s Press Association there had been one complaint against Vahey. A boy on a trip felt sick, Woodhead said, and Vahey took the child into his room, apparently “to look after him.”
“The boy’s parents agreed that there was nothing untoward and the matter shouldn’t be pursued,” Woodhead said.
When Vahey went on to the American Nicaraguan School with glowing references, his wife stayed in London.
In early March, the maid handed the USB drive to school director Gloria Doll. On it, she found photos of unconscious boys, many blonde or red-headed and between the ages of 12 and 14, often being touched by Vahey.
Doll confronted Vahey, who told her, according to an FBI affidavit, that he had given the boys sleeping pills, adding: “I was molested as a boy, that is why I do this. I have been doing this my whole life.”
Vahey said he had swallowed more than 100 sleeping pills in November after discovering the USB drive had been taken.
Doll demanded Vahey’s resignation, according to the affidavit.
Vahey flew to Atlanta the next day. It was only after he boarded the flight that Doll notified authorities at the U.S. Embassy in Managua, U.S. officials said. U.S. officials immediately notified Nicaraguan police, but he had left the country.
Vahey traveled to Luverne, Minnesota, where his brother, sister-in-law and mother live, the latter in a nursing home. He checked into a hotel and stabbed himself in the chest with a knife, leaving a note apologizing to his family.
“He’s one of the most prolific pedophiles that we’ve seen here due to the sheer numbers,” FBI Special Agent Sharon Dunlap said.
At least 60 of the 90 or so children in the images were from the Southbank school, according to police, and a significant number of parents said they did not want to know if their children were abused. Woodhead, the governor, has blamed the U.S. system.
“How did he qualify as a teacher in the United States, how is it this information was never available to any of the schools across the world who employed him over the next 40 years?” he asked in an interview with the Press Association.
Meanwhile, schools where Vahey taught are reviewing their background check policies and security procedures. A coalition of six organizations of international schools has formed a task force to review recruitment and child abuse. Teacher recruiting firms are conducting a similar joint review.
In the meantime, one of the men molested by Vahey in the Westminster, California, swimming pool as a 9-year-old boy says terrible memories have revived.
“It certainly bothers me that a person like that would be left unsupervised and obviously not tracked over the last 45 years now,” the man said, his voice growing unsteady. “I find it troubling. I guess the question is: How can the system allow that to happen?”
Weissenstein reported this story from Mexico City and Abdollah reported from Los Angeles. AP writers Luis Manuel Galeano in Managua, Nicaragua; Adam Schreck in Dubai; Niniek Karmini and Margie Mason in Jakarta; Joshua Goodman in Caracas, Venezuela; Jill Lawless and Sylvia Hui in London; and Carson Walker in Luverne, Minnesota, contributed to this report.
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein
Tami Abdollah on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/latams
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