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Warning Signs Didn't Save Teen

The killing of a Long Beach student by her teacher-turned-lover leaves some wondering why a high school hired a confessed batterer.

March 21, 2004|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

Years before he would kill student Mayra Mora-Lopez, he described beating another young woman when he applied to be a teacher's aide for the Long Beach Unified School District.

"I had an argument with my ex-girlfriend.... I hit her, causing her injuries. I was arrested and convicted to a city jail for 90 days," Pedro Tepoz-Leon wrote on a 1992 form the district requires of applicants with criminal records.

It was the first of two written admissions about the beating that Tepoz-Leon made while asking to be hired by the state's third-largest school district.

Four years later, as a teacher's aide applying to become a teacher, he again detailed the incident, for which he had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges. "I reacted violently and stroke her.... I had beaten up my girlfriend.... I had inflicted some serious injuries."

Why the school district hired him is among many disturbing questions in the tragedy of an immigrant beauty and the popular Woodrow Wilson High teacher-coach who was recently convicted of killing her.

After less than an hour of jury deliberations late last year, Tepoz-Leon was convicted of first-degree murder. On Jan. 29, hours after a judge sentenced him to 26 years to life in prison, Tepoz-Leon cut his own throat and arm and bled to death on a county jail bunk.

The parents of Mora-Lopez have sued the district. Long Beach school officials, while calling the case heartbreaking, have broadly defended the hiring of Tepoz-Leon. The officials said applicants convicted of misdemeanors could be hired if the crimes had no bearing on their fitness to teach, and especially if rejecting them might have constituted discrimination against a minority.

"When the court examines the facts," district spokesman Dick Van Der Laan said, "it will be clear that an outstanding principal and school district acted appropriately.... Both followed reasonable and prudent steps mandated by law during the hiring and employment of Pedro Tepoz-Leon."

Other troubling questions linger.

Why was he charged with misdemeanors when he admitted beating his then-girlfriend so badly he broke her jaw and eye socket and detached her retina? How does a person get a state teaching credential with such a record?

"You hear him describe in his own words what he did and still put him in school with students?" said Michele Patterson, attorney for Mora-Lopez's parents. "That is absolutely a foreseeable danger. And Mora-Lopez is dead today as a result. They took a huge risk in hiring him."

There were pivotal points on the path to Mayra Mora-Lopez's death where the tragedy might have been prevented, but wasn't. The district notes, for example, that had Tepoz-Leon been charged with a felony, he would never have become a teacher. And when Mora-Lopez, caught in a troubled relationship, finally did reach for a lifeline, it was too little, too late.

Perhaps most painful for her family, why was she living not with them but a roommate and, in the end, a teacher-turned-lover?

"It's so tempting to lay this at the schoolhouse door," said Van Der Laan, "when there is plenty of blame to go around, and it starts a long way back."

Mora-Lopez was 16 and Tepoz-Leon 31 when both arrived at the Wilson campus in September 1999.

She had been born in Tijuana and, until coming to California, had lived with her mother, Marcela Lopez, a teacher who understood the value of an American education. It was sometime after her quinceanera, a coming-out party on her 15th birthday, when Mayra got her mother's blessing to live with her father, Martin Mora, a cabdriver in Long Beach.

Mora-Lopez was just 7 years old when Tepoz-Leon beat up his first girlfriend, Laura Hoffenberg, on June 15, 1990, in their Long Beach apartment. He described the beating in his application to become a teacher:

"I was intoxicated. Next thing I remember, my girlfriend and I were engaged in an argument I reacted ... violently I don't remember anything else."

Police, court records and testimony show that he squeezed her throat until, she said, she thought she was dying and lost consciousness. Tepoz-Leon called police before climbing into their bathtub and cutting one wrist superficially.

"I woke up in a hospital bed where I was informed that I had beaten up my girlfriend. I had inflicted some serious wounds.... I had tried to commit suicide," he wrote to the district.

What came next was the first in a series of crucial judgment calls that define this case.

He was charged with misdemeanor battery, corporal infliction of injury on a domestic partner and assault with a deadly weapon. In return for a guilty plea, the last charge was dropped. He was convicted of the first two and got a 90-day jail sentence and three years' probation. He also was ordered to complete psychological counseling and quit drinking.

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