Copyright 2017 The Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
Palm Beach Post (Florida)
Elizabeth's gut kicked in shortly after basketball season began. Coach Corey Perry was on the phone with her son constantly. Her eighth-grader would walk around the house doing his chores, even the laundry, with coach on speaker phone. Daily. Mom could hear the chatter, and that gave her some comfort -- the conversation sounded all sports, nothing salacious, nothing inappropriate. And yet.
Coach Perry, or CP, as they sometimes called him, seemed to be a local celebrity.
Perry coached her son's team at Howell L. Watkins Middle School in Palm Beach Gardens. He led the school robotics team, too. He was involved in his church and a local travel basketball team.
"He was just really involved in school and extracurricular activities. Kids congregated around him. They were drawn to him."
But Elizabeth's gut didn't like this magnetism either.
What specifically troubled her? "His availability all the time. Need a ride somewhere? He could take you. 'Can I hang out with Coach Perry after school? I'm doing my homework in Coach Perry's room.' Everybody has to have a personal life. Where was his?"
At a basketball game in October 2015, the woman said she attempted a gut check, approaching Watkins Principal Donald Hoffman.
"I had my suspicions. (Perry) had kids spending the night at his house. It was well known. He had access to the school at all hours. He would do clinics with the kids early Sunday mornings," said Elizabeth, who spoke to The Palm Beach Post on condition that her real name not be used to protect the identity of her son.
'This guy seems too good to be true'
But when she had the principal's attention, what she said was much less detailed.
"It was not a formal complaint. I said, 'This guy seems too good to be true,'" Elizabeth recalled.
Nearly two years later, she's not sure why she didn't draw the principal's attention to the specifics. "I guess I assumed he knew."
And, frankly, Elizabeth was conflicted.
She had no proof that Perry had crossed any line. Could she be ruining a man's career -- a man from the projects in Nashville who was legendary for helping poor families and their kids here? Or, as her husband worried, was she setting up their child for retaliation?
Standing in the school gym, Principal Hoffman didn't skip a beat, she said. He assured her Perry was a good guy -- a teacher the school relied upon, the one they would turn to when a troubled teen needed a mentor. He had worked with Perry for years, Elizabeth recalled him saying. Hoffman declined to comment for this story.
Now, Perry is dead.
On the run from federal child pornography charges, Perry shot himself in April when confronted by authorities in his home state of Tennessee.
Elizabeth's son is in counseling for victims of violent crime.
Don't want to bother police
Today, as the hunt for all of Perry's victims continues, Elizabeth wonders whether she could've ended it sooner -- if authorities could have acted on what her gut was telling her in the fall of 2015. Instead, action didn't come until she had laid hands on real evidence more than a year later.
"I give her credit for having the instincts and not letting it go," said Nancy McBride, executive director of Florida outreach for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"Your gut is the best indicator that something is up," McBride said.
"A lot of times parents will think, 'I don't want to call law enforcement. I don't want to bother them,'" McBride said. "But this is the call (authorities) need. There's a way to do this, to let us decide."
The center has a national tip line. And a gut feeling is reason enough for them to start asking questions, McBride said. The center has contacts with law enforcement in Palm Beach County and across the country and works closely with them so parents don't have to be the investigators, she said.
In 2016, the center fielded more than 8 million reports of sex crimes against children.
But Elizabeth was unaware of the tip line. It's not something the school district advertises. Indeed, the school system does not conduct any district-wide outreach to parents on what to do if they have suspicions like Elizabeth's, said spokeswoman Amity Chandler.
Elizabeth's one conversation with the principal appears to have gone nowhere. She said Principal Hoffman didn't ask her any questions. There's no record that he sought police or human resources. By her own admission, the conversation was "informal" and not really a complaint.
Elizabeth did know a cop, a friend of hers, but it would be months before an unexpected discovery compelled her to seek his advice.
No policy on sleepovers
The district doesn't have a policy specifically about students sleeping over at teachers' homes, or phone calls with students, texting with students or interaction with students on social media, Superintendent Robert Avossa confirmed.
He said he has asked his staff to look at other districts to see whether they have policies that may be more explicit, but he is cautious.
"I go back to my gut on all of these issues. When you see something that doesn't feel right, you have to say something right away and be specific. Can we have a policy for every situation? No. And I don't have to tell you, if you are a criminal and you want to do something illegal or immoral, a policy is not going to stop you from doing it."
Avossa, of course, is speaking after the fact.
Perry was a lauded teacher. He was his school's nominee this year for the Dwyer Award in science. He had taught at Watkins since 2010, and in the district since 2005.
But the knot in Elizabeth's stomach didn't go away. Neither did Perry.
Elizabeth, an energetic, college-educated mom, had imparted to her son parental wisdom about bad touches since the time he was old enough to tie his shoes.
But now she thought she needed to expand that conversation. Grownups should have their own lives outside of work, she told him. Students and teachers, even mentors, need to set boundaries.
Still, her son was eager to hang with his coach and the crew of boys that circled him.
Eventually, Elizabeth's son wore her down and she reluctantly agreed to let him sleep over -- with the other boys -- at coach's home in West Palm Beach. She spoke to coach about the sleeping arrangements and activities. It was to be a night of video games and basketball. She had her son send pictures from his phone of where they would be sleeping. Those suspicions were on a back burner, but still there.
Her son later told the FBI he spent four nights at coach's home in the course of his eighth-grade year. And the evenings he described to investigators weren't quite as G-rated as he had let Elizabeth believe -- but she wouldn't learn that until after coach was dead.
Talking, texting with coach
When they weren't with coach, they were talking to him.
Elizabeth's son went camping out of town with a friend, and the friend's mom reported the boys were on the phone with Perry at 1 a.m. Both moms thought it was weird.
When they weren't talking with him, they were texting with him.
More than once Elizabeth said she demanded her son hand over the phone on the spot so she could read the text messages. She found nothing out of line. (Later, a search by a pro turned up messages Elizabeth missed, texts that made an investigator's eyes go wide and broke Elizabeth's heart. "I love you" Perry wrote -- a lot.)
While her son finished the year as one of the many kids in coach's clique, Elizabeth and her husband had turned Perry's Pied Piper-like appeal into a sadly prescient adult joke: When Perry would show up at a game with a new kid in tow, her husband would lock eyes with her and say, "another victim."
When eighth-grade ended and their son headed to high school, Coach Perry had trouble letting go. They would cross paths at basketball games.
Elizabeth saw her son backing away from his ties with coach. "But Coach Perry was reaching, almost like he was getting desperate." After one run-in, her son told her that Perry was mad he didn't call Perry after he had a really good game.
"I'm not even in his life. Why does he care?" Elizabeth recalled her son asking.
The teen lost his cellphone and asked mom not to tell Coach Perry when he got a replacement.
"I thought he was trying to avoid the pressure," Elizabeth said. All that basketball strategy was too much.
It wasn't until after Christmas that her son relayed a conversation that truly startled Elizabeth:
"He told me Coach Perry said, 'You're going to leave me before I leave you.'
"That was the first time I heard the red flag. It was very needy, very desperate. (My son) said, 'What does that mean?' And I said, 'To me it sounds like he wants to be more than friends with you.'"
With coach's veneer tarnishing, Elizabeth says her son reconnected with another boy who once was part of coach's circle but who had been ostracized on Perry's order. According to Elizabeth's son, Perry told the boys this young man had "disrespected" coach.
Coach: Girls are 'disgusting'
That disrespect? Connecting with a girl on Facebook, said Elizabeth. Perry told this other boy that girls are, among other things, "disgusting." The shunned boy's mom told Elizabeth she complained to administrators at Watkins about Perry trolling her son's Facebook. The district reports it has no record of any complaints of this nature against Perry.
Once the two teenage boys reconnected, the friend shared a screen shot on his phone that would unravel Perry's career and turn him into a national fugitive wanted by the FBI.
The image comes from a social media app and is a thumbnail photo of a young black woman with the screen name Princess Lala -- her full handle was PrincessLala561. Here, technology made a connection many boys who had befriended "Princess Lala" had not:
Above her coy grin and flirty eyes, the phone pinned an alert from Snapchat identifying Lala as a familiar contact already in the phone: Coach Perry.
The boy showed the screenshot to Elizabeth's son. Her son showed the screenshot to her.
And the now-high school freshman relayed what investigators would later discover: Princess Lala had a habit of friending the boys who knew coach. "She" would send naked pictures and videos of herself and ask the boys to reciprocate. Plenty did.
Elizabeth's son had not accepted Lala's friend request because, he told his mom, he didn't know her.
Princess LaLa comes along
Screenshot in hand, Elizabeth talked to a cop friend who directed her to the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. Which directed her to the school district. Which pointed her to Human Resources. Which, after two stops, connected her with school police.
The last person she spoke to in HR told her this was clearly a police matter and he was going to have police call her within a day. If you don't hear from someone, call me back, he said.
In one day, Elizabeth had spoken to four people and -- here's the level to which she second-guessed herself -- she thought when they didn't call her back in a day, they were blowing her off because the screen grab wasn't enough.
But on Day 2, an officer called. And that same day, Elizabeth was pulling her son off the baseball field to speak to investigators.
The school district acknowledges that Elizabeth's path wasn't "ideal," said spokeswoman Chandler, who spoke to the mom directly while the investigation was underway.
"Ideally, the sheriff's office would have picked up the phone and called school police. One law enforcement agency to another would be the most direct," Chandler said.
As for the lag from the school board's front desk at its headquarters on Forest Hill Boulevard to an investigating officer, Chandler said, "We're looking at that process because 48 hours seems like a long time when you're trying to report something as a parent."
The full scope of Perry's crimes has yet to be revealed. Perry is dead, but the investigation remains open.
On the strength of their interview with Elizabeth's son and two other teens, now 15 or 16 years old, a judge signed a warrant to search Perry's home and rifle through his electronics.
All three, now in high school, had known Perry when they were in middle school and had spent the night at Perry's home. The two had friended Princess Lala and received photos of her naked, video of her masturbating and requests for them to respond in kind.
Several students ID'd
The search turned up hundreds of photos and videos of naked teenage boys and evidence that Perry was indeed the person behind Princess Lala, according to the criminal complaint unsealed this month.
Among those photos, staff at Watkins Middle identified two of their current students and several others who had moved into Palm Beach County high schools.
Investigators used interviews with five students to persuade a judge to issue a warrant for Perry's arrest on charges of producing and receiving child pornography and enticing the boys to send pornographic images to him.
Even then, Perry had built such a reputation that when authorities gathered the basketball parents to tell them about the charges and Perry's fugitive status, there was disbelief.
"They felt very betrayed, they felt they knew his character," Chandler recalled.
One parent told Elizabeth that her son and family may want to lay low for a while, for fear they might become targets of Perry's supporters, she said.
Even after his death, Perry is delivering punches.
Only when the details of the criminal complaint were released did Elizabeth learn that at a sleepover, Perry handed her son lotion and told him he could use it to masturbate in the restroom. He also told the teen he could watch porn on his computers and issued an open invitation to sleep in Perry's bed, the complaint said.
There's no indication Perry performed sex acts with Elizabeth's son or any of the five victims interviewed in pursuit of an arrest warrant.
When he bolted, Elizabeth braced herself. "I told (my son), he's going to run to a hotel room and kill himself. I was hoping they'd get to him first."
On April 14, they got to him, but they failed to stop him before he pulled the trigger.
When he died, Elizabeth's anguish didn't end. She cried.
"I had so much guilt when he killed himself. I was going to visit him in prison. Maybe it's the Catholic in me, this isn't what I wanted. I knew in my heart he was ashamed, the he didn't want to be this person. That he was going to go there (to prison) and make a difference there."
"That's not how the story ends," she railed one day this month as her son listened in. "I talked to other parents who were mad he didn't pay. But he killed himself. That's not a better ending. I don't hate him."
Then her son spoke. "I do."
email@example.com Twitter: @sonjaisger
BE ENGAGED, BE EDUCATED
Get more news every day about Palm Beach County schools at the Extra Credit blog. extracredit.blog.PalmBeachPost.com.
Got a nagging feeling?
Here's a place to turn to
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has a tip line. Nancy McBride says parents like Elizabeth, with a nagging gut or suspicions, can call.
Operators would have tried to get as much information as she had. The incessant talking and texting between her son and Coach Perry -- all that would've been a red flag. "Our analysts will look at all of that," she said. "They should not be afraid to talk."
Or make a report online: www.missingkids.org/cybertipline
Read More of Today's AB Headlines
Subscribe to Our Daily E-Newsletter