Just before eight o'clock on his first day at Mingus Springs Charter School in Chino Valley, Arizona, last January, Casey Price stood on the asphalt around the flagpole, lined up with the rest of the 180 students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and paused for a moment of silence. The school sits on a high vista surrounded by sprawl metastasizing over ranch land. He took in the panoramic alpine view, from the San Francisco Peaks to Mingus Mountain. It would be Casey's last tranquil moment. By the time he filed into his homeroom to sit with four other seventh-graders at a metal table in front of Ms. Morgan's half-moon desk, the school was already erupting with chatter. Something about that new kid was a little . . . off.
Casey seemed eerily reticent. He kept his head low, hidden behind oval glasses and a baseball cap. Later that morning, staffers pulled him out of class for the standard hearing and vision tests. Stephanie Nichols, a school aide, held a string against Casey's chin to gauge his distance from the eye chart. When she took her hand back, she noticed a smudge of makeup on her fingers.
Across campus, school counselor Julie Bradshaw was in the front office, sifting through Casey's paperwork. Things weren't making sense there either. She'd found two birth dates, a German birth certificate that listed the boy's weight in pounds, and custody papers from Riverside, California, assigning guardianship to Casey's grandfather and listing the attorney general of Oklahoma as attorney.
Bradshaw phoned Sacramento and Oklahoma City. "My mind went to, maybe his parents got killed in Iraq, and there was something special going on, and that was why the attorney general was involved," she says. "I expected them to say this is very hush-hush, and to just take care of him and go on." But after she faxed the documents, the Oklahoma attorney general's office called: They were forgeries. Bradshaw called the police.
At lunchtime, Casey met a lanky 12-year-old named Tiresha at the end of their lunch table. "We were just staying away from him because we were all suspicious," she says. "He looked older than the others. He was talking about coke."
By the time someone in a silver Dodge Neon picked Casey up that afternoon, the Mingus Springs staff were convinced they had an abduction victim on their hands and that Casey was a teenager in trouble. Casey didn't show up for class the next morning. Instead, a detective from the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office ambled into the school's front office, shaking his head, to face the edgy faculty. As the principal, Dawn Gonzales, remembers it: "He walked in, introduced himself, and said, 'You are not going to believe the story I have to tell you.'"
When the patrol cars rolled into the gravel driveway of Casey's little blue-and-white prefabricated home in Chino Valley the previous evening, officials were so certain of a kidnapping that they'd already notified Child Protection Services. Their priorities were to put the boy in protective custody, arrest his abductors, and investigate the fraudulent paperwork.
Detectives knocked on the front door at 8:26 p.m., carrying a search warrant signed an hour earlier. Inside the house, they encountered Casey and three men: a greasy-haired guest in his mid-thirties, who answered the door; a man in his mid-forties, cooking dinner; and a leather-skinned man in his early sixties, sitting on the couch, who said he was the boy's grandfather. Casey's red bike was out in the shed. His room had the typical 12-year-old's flourishes, with Yu-Gi-Oh! and Legend of Zelda posters and a computer desk strewn with Pokémon video-game boxes and Star Wars and SpongeBob SquarePants figurines. An overturned skateboard and two lightsaber toys lay on the floor.
After the detectives escorted the four into separate areas and started asking about the phony papers, they learned that none of them were Casey's blood relatives. One of the men told the cops they'd rescued Casey from sexual predators: "He is avoiding a special group of people that he had encounters with whenever he was very, very young."
Detective Mark Boan turned on the microcassette recorder in his shirt pocket. "Casey," he said, his voice soothing, "I can tell that there's something you want to tell me. But you're afraid. You know that I'm here, and I'll make sure that nothing else happens to you. Ever again."
Casey asked to go outside. His responses to Boan were meek—high-pitched and barely audible. "I'm happy being here. I've got a lot of things. I'm happy here," he says. "I just want to be with my family." But Casey started changing the story: that his uncle would "act gay" around him and liked to sit Casey on his lap—and that twice he woke up with his underwear down. He thought maybe he'd been sodomized while sedated with allergy pills.
Having already identified the man who'd been cooking dinner as an unregistered sex offender, detectives discovered that the youngest of the three men had also failed to register as a sex offender. Detectives questioned him further, and that's when he revealed something that turned the investigation on its head.
"If you want the truth," he says on the tape, "that young man that just walked out the door ain't 12 years old. He's 29. He was born November 22, 1977. And if you want his real name, it's Neil Havens Rodreick." What's more, he said, Rodreick had been in prison with him in Taft, Oklahoma. "Casey" was a convicted sex offender.
The officials emerged from the house to confront Boan's reedy-voiced interviewee and tell him the game was up—that they'd just learned his real identity and were about to get his photo from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Rodreick was silent, his head hung low under his baseball cap, when Boan handcuffed him.
"Neil, you got to give it up, man," one of the detectives said. "I know you can talk. I know you're an extremely intelligent person. I know you made those papers." That's when he shined his flashlight into Rodreick's face and noticed the makeup.
By the time an official from Child Protection Services arrived to whisk the boy to safety, little Casey no longer existed. In his place was the weirdest case the detectives had ever handled.
"So the scam," she asked the police, "is that this dude and somebody else is scamming these two old guys? For what—money?" She pressed them: "You guys are positive he's not underage?"
"Positive," a detective replied.
Among the Digimon cards and robot toys the detectives uncovered in Rodreick's room that night was a dopp kit full of razors and jars of makeup. Searching the computer in Casey's—Rodreick's—room, they found its hard drive loaded with child pornography. The home was a nest of pedophilia: thousands of images and videos on computers, CDs, and 8mm tapes stashed in shoeboxes. One item, according to a police report, appeared to be an old motel-room video of Rodreick—his face clearly visible—and a young blond male, somewhere between 10 and 13, engaging in mutual masturbation and anal and oral sex.
Detectives had seen such horrendous images before, but the final twist was still to come. The two older men had already confessed to having sexual relations with Rodreick. But when the detectives asked the boy's "grandpa" why they'd bought so many nice things for a 29-year-old, they found themselves in utter disbelief again: The older men said they were just as shocked to learn that Rodreick wasn't 12. In fact, they were furious.
Neil Havens Rodreick II was born in Los Angeles County. When he was 3, his family moved to Hobart, a shrinking farm town in southwestern Oklahoma where his mother, Joann, was born. His father, an affable guy, was a deputy in the sheriff's department. Joann, a cute woman with short almond-colored hair and a contagious smile, cleaned houses. She'd once wallpapered the dome of the family's church. Several kids from Joann's previous marriage also lived in their old antique-filled 13-room house near Main Street.
But Jan Bautista, Rodreick's aunt, had always felt that "there's something really wrong upstairs" with her nephew. "When he was 3, all he could say was mama, dada, and bye-bye," she says. At age 11, Bautista says, the boy collapsed in his mother's lap in tears after his father told him to do a chore. "He was a real mama's boy, a crybaby," she says.
Tragedy shattered the family when Rodreick was 15. One morning, as he and his mother prepared for school and work, they had a bad argument. The two would never reconcile: Later that day, she died of a brain aneurysm. "I don't think he's ever gotten over it," Bautista says. The local police and fire departments attended the funeral, sending off a beloved member of their community. Bautista says she'll never forget what she saw later that day. Opening the door to the parents' bedroom, she found her nephew alone. "He was going through all of her jewelry, piece by piece," Bautista says. "Just reminiscing. He'd hold one up and just kind of look at it for a while, put it back in the drawer, and pick up another."
Bautista thinks her nephew may have been sexually abused by neighbors, but she says she doesn't know when things started going really wrong. In 1994, when Rodreick was 16, a judge barred him from attending public schools in a "normal" setting. Two years later, accused of molesting two boys and making lewd proposals to two others, according to court records, he admitted he'd molested a girl.
One day when he was 18, Rodreick led a 6-year-old boy from a school-bus stop to a field. According to court records, Rodreick told the boy he'd have to pass a test to be a "warrior" in his clubhouse—a test that required the boy to pull down his pants and lie on his stomach so Rodreick could "teach him about sex." The boy refused, and Rodreick was arrested. In October 1996, a judge sentenced Rodreick to 10 years in prison for making a lewd and indecent proposal to a minor. That November, a few days before his 19th birthday, he checked into the Jess Dunn Correctional Facility in Taft, Oklahoma.
Word spreads fast in a town of 3,800. Around the time of Neil Rodreick II's arrest, his father quit the sheriff's department. In January 2002, after a little more than five years in prison (including 20 extra days for possession of a manufactured controlled substance and 30 more days for "lying to staff"), Rodreick was out, and his father took him in. When the elder Rodreick discussed moving in with his girlfriend, she said she wanted no part in welcoming a recovering pedophile into her home. Rodreick's father faced another dilemma: Leave her or abandon his son. After calling Bautista, who agreed to take them in, the elder Rodreick loaded up the car and, with his son in the passenger seat, set a course for her desert home in San Bernardino, California. It would prove a terrible decision.
Rodreick, who was now in his mid-twenties, was more recalcitrant and withdrawn than ever. He shunned his dad, kept his head low, and would throw acidic glances at his aunt's husband at the dinner table. Later, after he'd moved out, Bautista discovered Wiccan and Christian literature in her nephew's room. "Multiple copies, like he was handing them out," she said. "He must have gotten into it when he was in jail."
Then came a breaking point. Hearing yelling one day, Bautista's husband found Rodreick trying to push her 5-year-old great-grandson into the bathroom and coerce him into the bath as the boy desperately gripped the door's edges. The boy's father told Bautista he wanted Rodreick out of the house by nine o'clock in the morning, or he'd kill him.
The following morning, just a couple months after Bautista had taken them in, Rodreick and his father were gone. Rodreick's father dropped off his son at a friend's home near Phoenix, then made the five-hour drive back to California, alone again.
Sitting at home that morning, Bautista switched on her PC and found a picture of a man engaged in a sex act with a minor. She winced, flicked it off, and called the sheriff's department to come and confiscate the computer.
Eventually Neil Rodreick II made his way back to Oklahoma, where he found his old prison buddy Brian Nellis, who'd served three years on a 1997 lewd-molestation conviction. The two bunked in a secluded mobile home in Kingfisher County, worked at fast-food restaurants, and, a local sheriff told the New York Times, were seen at the local library, parks, and a school playground.
By 2003, they were living in El Reno, a small outpost off Route 66, where Rodreick, posing as a 13-year-old named Casey, began endearing himself to families at the local church. He spent the night with at least one boy, according to police—and, with Nellis posing as his uncle, brought another boy to the Grand Canyon.
In February 2005, when a computer-rental company repossessed Nellis' rented computer, the company discovered, according to police, 715 photos and 46 videos of child pornography. In May, Nellis was arrested, and, police say, he admitted that he and Rodreick had a sexual relationship. But by then Rodreick was gone—and he'd taken his new identity as young Casey into cyberspace. Masquerading online, according to police, he lured two Arizona men, Lonnie Stiffler and Robert Snow, into a relationship. The men, police say, were trolling for boys, and they may have thought they'd struck gold. They traded explicit photos with Casey, police say, and Stiffler wired him thousands of dollars. Soon they came to Oklahoma to pick up the "boy" and bring him back to Arizona to live. Rodreick apparently posed online as his own mother to give Snow and Stiffler the thumbs-up to take custody of Casey.
The trio met at a hotel, where Rodreick followed Stiffler and Snow to their car. Then he left with them to start a new life—to give adolescence a second chance.
The ruse worked for nearly two years. And when Yavapai County detectives caught up with Rodreick's "family" in Chino Valley—Stiffler, 61; Snow, 43; and their house guest, Nellis, 34—they learned some disturbing news from colleagues in nearby Arizona counties. Mingus Springs, it turned out, wasn't the first school Rodreick had infiltrated since he'd returned to Arizona. It was the fourth.
Tonto Village, 16 miles east of Payson, Arizona, is little more than a remote labyrinth of red dirt roads. There are lot numbers in lieu of house numbers. Shelby Charter School sits on Lot 23: a cluster of little gray buildings, where about 80 kids attend kindergarten through 10th grade. On August 4, 2005, Rodreick's "Uncle Robert" Snow enrolled him as a seventh-grader at Shelby, a school run by the Church of Immortal Consciousness. Since it arrived there, in the 1980s, the church has been fending off accusations that it's a cultÿperhaps not surprising given that it's a community run by "mediums" who channel the spirit of a 14th-century Englishman named Dr. Pahlvon Duran.
Rodreick's "family" rented a trailer in a park across from the Elk's Lodge in Payson. They kept mostly to themselves, the park's manager recalls. They bought puppies; Rodreick named his Wishbone. Over the next month, he showed up for only seven days of school, but detectives found out later that he'd been keeping himself busy, hanging out at a skate park behind the local library, where kids in oversize T-shirts drink red Mountain Dew and ride a few battered half-pipes and spine ramps.
On a Wednesday afternoon last May, the boys at the park recalled Casey, their strange old skating pal who tried recruiting members for a skateboard sponsorship team he said he was starting called Plan Z. "He wanted to take me to Phoenix," says one boy, Trey, 14. "He wanted to see how good I was in a bigger skate park than this, and then he said his dad was going to take us all over, to take us to competitions and stuff. And I was like, 'No, that kind of seems weird.' He's the one that taught me how to go over the spine. And he taught me how to drop in. And then he was like, 'Do you want to be on my team?'"
One 16-year-old says his little brother visited Rodreick's trailer one day. "They never did anything," he says. But one of the boys saw nude pictures of kids on the computer screen, the teenager says.
In September 2005, Snow withdrew his "nephew" from Shelby. When Rodreick was arrested a year and a half later, none of the Shelby students reported having had any extended contact with him. But the school hired a lawyer, Michael Harper, to take the brunt of the media frenzy.
"There were satellite-TV vans all over the place," Harper says, sitting behind a cherry-wood desk in his office on the outskirts of Payson. "People were chasing kids around and putting them on camera right there. A lot of it was handled very poorly."
Nobody in the skate park claimed to have been molested by Casey either. "As far as I know, nothing happened," says Sergeant Tom Tieman, a Payson detective who interviewed 14 kids from the park. "There was no case here."
But one of Rodreick's old skateboarding pals presents a more chilling, equally plausible theory. A boy named Brandon was 16 when, one day, he saw another kid slap Casey's arm—and the kid said he felt stubble against his palm. "If you've been touched by some dude," Brandon says, "would you come forward?"
After a six-to-eight-month run in Payson, Rodreick and his guardians split for the stucco sprawl of El Mirage, just outside Phoenix. Snow enrolled Rodreick as a seventh-grader in nearby Surprise, at the Imagine Charter Elementary-Middle School in Rosefield. Astonishingly, Rodreick managed to stay enrolled at the charter school from August 16 to November 27, 2006, until poor attendance—not suspicious faculty—got him expelled. As Casey, he was shy, planting himself in the back of the class and not saying much. (He did turn in his homework, however.) Rodreick was five feet six and 120 pounds—not uncommon dimensions for a seventh-grader—and nobody at Imagine had batted an eyelash. When the case broke last January a teacher recognized Rodreick's photo in news reports—and then, as its administrators realized their oversight, Imagine crouched into defense mode. The school hired counselors and a spokesperson. The Surprise Police Department interviewed every student who had had contact with Rodreick—nearly 10 of them—but nobody reported any abuse or showed any signs of it. And nobody claimed to have socialized with Rodreick outside of class.
It wasn't until police retraced Rodreick's steps to the YCFA Achieve Academy, a fourth-to-twelfth-grade charter school in Prescott Valley, 90 miles north of Phoenix, that they found their first victim. Rodreick was at Achieve for only one day—the day before his first and only day at the Mingus Springs school that did him in. At Achieve, a girl came forward, saying Rodreick had grabbed her buttocks. She'd figured he was just another horny teen.
But in a recorded interview, when two Yavapai County detectives inform the girl of Rodreick's real age, she bursts into tears. "I feel stupid," she says. "I knew he was older. I could tell he was older. But I don't know."
"We felt stupid too, thinking he was 12 years old," one detective assures her. "And even then, don't beat yourself up. You've never dealt with anything like this before. Have you ever heard of anything like this before? Somebody posing as a kid to be in school? Well, we do this for a living. I've never heard of it."
A second detective says, "We had detectives help me out on this case that have been detectives for 30 years and they've never heard of anything like this."
"So this is a learning experience for all of us," the first detective says.
By the time the "family" landed in Chino Valley and took up residence in the little home where they would be arrested, Rodreick was concluding what was, by any measure, a terrifying run on the Arizona school system—one that has led community members to question the relatively lax admissions policies of the state's more than 450 charter schools (some of which are for-profit institutions that receive funding on a per-student basis). How could he have gotten away with it for so long? "I can sit here and tell you all about how he pulled it off—how he kept the hat low over his head, how he used makeup, how he didn't say much," says Scott Reed, spokesman for the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office. "But it still doesn't make any sense to me."
Yet for all the elaborate deception, outraged parents, and humiliated school administrators, other than a slap on the buttocks, police had no victims—not in Arizona, anyway. Either nobody was coming forward or nobody had been victimized. Why would Rodreick take such big risks for such little apparent payoff?
No one doubts that Rodreick was a sexual predator. But given his artificial family of older men—men who say they believed they'd been having sex with him as a 12-year-old—it seems Rodreick was more preoccupied with becoming the prey. It's as though he'd found the right fantasy, but realized he'd been playing the wrong role.
"These guys were using him for sex," says Rodreick's court- appointed lawyer, Steve August, whose office is in Flagstaff. "In his head he was probably thinking he was 12. Who's taking advantage of whom here?" All four are scheduled to stand trial on multiple counts of fraud, forgery, and child pornography on October 16.
At Mingus Springs Charter School, things are getting back to normal. Dawn Gonzales, the school's tan, charismatic principal, survived one hell of a first year on the job. (Rodreick's infiltration occurred soon after a passenger died in a collision with a Mingus Springs school bus in October.) After a tense emergency meeting with parents—"Some of them were pretty aggressive," she recalls—she's got the kind of confidence that stems from knowing it was her staff that took just one day to halt Rodreick's long, meandering deception.
Julie Bradshaw, the counselor who called the police, thinks it was divine providence. "So many things had to fall into place," she says. Rodreick's homeroom teacher, Lori Morgan, a sharp-witted mom with long brown hair, even got a bouquet of daisies from one of the parents, thanking her for keeping her daughter safe.
But Morgan has found it difficult to erase the memory of the day she spent with Neil Havens Rodreick II. The day after detectives put Rodreick in handcuffs, a fellow teacher found Morgan alone in her classroom. "I'm just standing there," Morgan says. "I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to touch anything. I feel like we were invaded." So the two of them quietly slipped on long rubber gloves, mixed up some bleach with water, and began swabbing everything down. They threw away the tray where his papers had been. They scrubbed the blue cubby where he'd kept his backpack. Then Morgan plucked the assignment folder where she'd written casey price out of the wire mesh file and let it fall into the garbage bin.
By the time the students arrived for class that morning, the smell was so bad that they had to keep the windows open all day. "If I could burn it all down and rebuild the room," Morgan says, "I would."