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Ojai School Is Divided Over a Teacher's Past

Some staff and parents don't welcome the hiring of someone who helped his father kill himself in 1996.

January 28, 2006|Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writer

A bizarre murder in the Midwest a decade ago reverberated through the elite boarding schools of Ojai this week, sparking a debate in the small mountain town over whether offering a convicted man a second chance as a teacher necessarily compromises student safety.

Shannon McCreery, 32, was hired this fall at Villanova Preparatory School. But the school's headmaster told teachers and parents only this week that the polite, soft-spoken man assigned to teach Virgil to teenagers was also a convicted murderer who had killed his father in an Illinois motel.

News that McCreery had stabbed his father in the chest and throat as part of a family suicide pact fast made its way off the lush campus of Spanish-style buildings with red-tile roofs, where annual tuition for boarders nears $30,000.

As outraged parents planned a weekend meeting, headmaster Anthony J. Sabatino spoke of the school's religious tradition -- and of second chances. He said McCreery had been upfront about his crime, which he and others, including McCreery's former prosecutors, have described as an assisted suicide. He also said the new Latin and public-speaking teacher had worked hard to overcome his past. "We are a Catholic school seeking redemption through faith in God, offering mercy to all who seek forgiveness," Sabatino said.

Many teachers and parents, however, said that while they believe in forgiveness, they are loath to have students share their eucalyptus-shaded campus with a murderer.

"Could this guy have been a victim of circumstances? Sure," said Ron Polito, father of two Villanova students, who also serves on the school's finance committee. "But for me, a school is not the correct venue or forum to offer redemption. There are other places where these opportunities can take place."

McCreery, who is on a leave of absence from the school, served four years' probation after pleading guilty in 1997 to second-degree murder. He was in jail for eight months before his conviction. The circumstances of his case are unusual.

The second of three sons, McCreery was born in Springfield, Ill., but grew up mostly in Bethesda, Md., where his father, John McCreery, was a successful attorney and law school professor. By the mid-1990s, however, the family fell on hard times as the elder McCreery, a deeply religious man, began to suffer from delusions, lawyers involved in the case said.

Increasingly isolated, the family moved repeatedly -- at one point living in Santa Barbara -- as John McCreery came to believe that the devil was responsible for his problems.

In the spring of 1996, they headed from California to John McCreery's home state of Illinois. It was then that he raised the possibility of committing suicide. Family members decided to die together.

On Mother's Day that year, after the family went out for dinner, they returned to the motel where they were living, intending to commit suicide together. John McCreery went first. He asked for his son's help in plunging a knife into his stomach. Once stabbed, he fell onto a bed in pain, his internal organs exposed. Shannon McCreery, unable to watch his father suffer, stabbed his father twice in the neck. Then he called police.

McCreery, his mother and two brothers backed out of the suicide pact.

Jay Magnuson, who prosecuted McCreery, said in a phone interview that McCreery was charged because "legally, he took a life." But he said both sides agreed to sentence him to probation based on psychiatric testimony that the whole family was suffering from a shared psychosis at the time of the fatal stabbing.

McCreery was 22 at the time of his arrest. After his conviction, he completed his college education, graduating with honors from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where he studied classics. He held teaching jobs at two private schools in Northern California before coming to Villanova. He recently married.

Sabatino told teachers about McCreery's past in an emergency faculty meeting Thursday afternoon. On Friday, he sent out a letter to parents, officially informing them. "I made a conscious decision to hire Mr. McCreery after discussion, reflection, and prayer, recognizing an opportunity for a young man to have a chance to build up his life in a Christian community," he wrote to the parents. "Based on Christian compassion, I believe that I made the right decision."

As a new teacher, McCreery was required to be fingerprinted, Sabatino said. The federal report that came back, however, stated that, because of his violent felony conviction, he could not teach in a California classroom. At that point, even though McCreery had been at Villanova for only a little more than a month, Sabatino granted him a leave of absence to try to expunge his criminal record by seeking a pardon from Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

McCreery attended his first hearing on his "petition for executive clemency" in Springfield on Monday.

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