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Crossing the line

A beautiful blonde 23-year-old, Debra Lafave seduced a 14-year-old boy. On Dateline the former teacher is telling her story for the first time on television: how it happened, why it happened, and whether she's paid the price.

What’s the reaction you get in the street from people who recognize you?Debra Lafave: Snickers and stares.  Mothers would hold their children tightly when they saw me.Lauer: Obviously?  Do it in front of you?Lafave: Obviously.Lauer: Did they say bad things to you?Lafave: [They'd say] “That’s Debra Lafave!”

She’s a top contender for the title of “America’s most notorious schoolteacher.”  In 2004, Debra Beasley Lafave was arrested at the home of a middle school student, accused of having sex with him at her apartment, in her car, in her classroom.  She was 23.  He was 14.

She wasn’t the first teacher—or the last—to be busted for a liaison with an underage student, but her case created an international sensation.

Lafave: It was just the intensity of it.  My goodness.  There was a teacher arrested two days after me, and I saw her on TV once.Lauer: So why do you think you got all the attention?Lafave: I don’t know.Lauer: I’ll say it: Do you think it’s because you’re pretty?Lafave: I think so.  And sex sells.

In her first-ever television interview, Debra Lafave will take us step by step through the whole affair.  But she also says there’s much more to the story.  Behind the pretty face and the hourglass figure, Behind the lurid details of the case, she says there was a deeply troubled young woman with a lifetime of problems that finally led to a terrible crack-up— and a crime tailor-made for the tabloids.

Lauer: 14-year-old boy, very attractive 23-year-old teacher.  He’s had sex with you.  Weren’t you scared to death he would tell someone?Lafave: Obviously not ‘cause I did it again.Lauer: And again.Lafave: And again.

She says to fully understand her, you have to go back years to her childhood in a small town near Tampa, Fla. Her dad worked for the power company.  Her mom was a cosmetologist.  Debra adored her older sister, Angie.

Lafave: I loved my big sister.  I couldn’t go anywhere without her. I loved playing Barbies.  I would play school with all my dolls and teach ‘em how to read.

But it soon became apparent that Debbie was a very complicated little girl.

Her mother would later write a long account of Debra's childhood—a litany of phobias, panic attacks and obsessions.

And, Debra says, there’s a trauma buried in her past.

Lauer: When you were 13 years old, 8th grade, you were raped by someone you knew.  Tell me about that.

Lafave: The first time that it happened was in school.  He forced me into a bathroom and—began to rape me.  And a teacher walked in.  And she let us off the hook.Lauer: Well you say, “She let us off the hook.”  I mean what did you do wrong?  Why did she have to let you off the hook?Lafave: Well, she had no clue that I was being raped.  I’m assuming she just thought we were messing around.Lauer: Why didn’t you say, “This boy’s raping me”?

Lafave: It just doesn’t happen like that.  I had a lot of fear.  You know when somebody has that kind of control over you, especially at 13. I didn’t tell anybody.

Lauer: Who was this young man in your life?  I mean was he someone you were close with?Lafave: Yeah, he was actually one of my boyfriends.

Debra says that early, abusive relationship with an older boy forever shaped her view of sex. 

Lafave: I kind of developed this idea that it was my role.  In order to make a man, guy, boy happy—I had to do my part, which was pleasing him in that way.Lauer: But you felt it was your duty.  You didn’t really feel as if you had a choice.Lafave: Exactly.

By age 15 she was drinking heavily.  She developed an eating disorder.

Lauer: So I mean as an outsider looking in, life was a bit of a mess.Lafave: At that point, I had already tried to commit suicide twice, too.Lauer: How did you try to commit suicide?Lafave: One time was taking a lot of pills. The second time was slitting my wrists.

But as troubled as she was, most people noticed something else: Debra was a knockout.

Lauer: Were you one of these girls that people would walked up on to the street and say, “You should model.  You’re—you’re very pretty.  You should model.”  Things like that?Lafave: Yeah. I thought it would be a great way to make extra cash.

Her first big job at age 18 was for a magazine called “Makes and Models.”

Lauer: Which you smile at now.  Which was basically, they would have beautiful women and cars—Lafave: Right.Lauer: —and motorcycles and things like that.  How did you feel about it when you were doing it?Lafave: So ridiculous. Lauer: Did you ever think, “These pictures could come back and haunt me in some way”?Lafave: No.Lauer: Never gave it a thought?Lafave: Never.

She wouldn’t be a model for long. Debra majored in English at the university of South Florida, with the goal of becoming a teacher.  She stopped her heavy drinking, got into a stable relationship, maintained a high B average.  But she still found herself crying sometimes for no apparent reason.  A friend finally told her she needed to see a psychiatrist. 

Lafave: They thought that it was just depression and they put me on Zoloft at that time.Lauer: How did that work for you? Lafave: At first I can remember saying, “I’m not crying any more.  You know?  I’m actually  happy.”  And after that it kind of just like my body became immune to it and it didn’t work any more.Lauer: So the depression came back.Lafave:     Um-hm (affirms).

Then, perhaps the hardest blow of all.  In 2001, Debra’s beloved older sister, Angie, was killed by a drunk driver. Debra was devastated.  And today she wonders... could her sister have saved her from herself?

Lafave: I think about if she was here, would I have done what I did?Lauer: Why would it have been different? Lafave: Because she just knew me well.  And she always could tell if I was doing something that I shouldn’t be doing.

In 2002, despite all her troubles, Debra graduated from college and took job as an eighth grade reading teacher at Greco Middle School in temple terrace, a suburb of Tampa. By all accounts, her first year went well.

Lafave: I always wanted to be a teacher. Like I said I used to play school with my dolls.  And after I got raped , I wanted to be able to educate kids on issues like rape and all the things that I never learned about.  And—Lauer: You have to know it sounds ironic when you say, “I wanted to educate children on issues like rape.”Lafave: Oh yeah.  But—Lauer: And how things turned out.

Even as she was establishing a teaching career in a suburb of Tampa, Debra Beasley was also starting a family with a man she’d dated for five years.

Debra Lafave: He had a great sense of humor and he was charming.  He took me on trips—flowers all the time, romantic dates.  It was just like my dream come true.

She married Owen Lafave in 2003, just after her first year of teaching. They made a great-looking couple. The wedding photographer used them in his advertising.  But, as at so many other times in Debra’s life, things were not what they appeared to be.

Matt Lauer, NBC News: Let me talk and it’s obviously a little delicate. Let me talk about sex in your relationship with Owen, your husband.  He said that it was volatile.  That it began very good and that basically soon after that it ceased.  Is that how you remember it?Lafave: The "very good" part was probably a stretch.  I still had issues with even having sex period because of my rape.  Flashbacks.  And I just associated sex with—with sin and—and filth.  So we really didn’t have that much sex.  Lauer: So as you started your second year of teaching at Greco Middle School was your marriage in good shape?  Or was it on the rocks?Lafave: It was great.  We had a great friendship. We did everything together and sex really wasn’t a big issue  ironically.

Sex wasn’t a big issue—yet.  But depression was.  Although Debra was on medication, she still had major bouts of depression.

Lafave: Sometimes it would be one day.  Sometimes it would be two days.  Other times it would be a week of the deep depression.Lauer: And what were they like? Lafave: They consisted of laying on the couch, not wanting to get up or go shower, brush my teeth.  I didn’t feel like doing anything at all, including cleaning, cooking.  I would drink.  I would drink a lot.

She had her “up” days too—really up.  Her husband and colleagues later described to investigators how at times Debra talked a mile a minute.  She wore revealing clothing. Her energy and her looks drew students to her like a magnet.

Lauer: There were a lot of the kids calling you the "hot teacher" and some people were starting to kinda look at you out of the side of their eye a little bit and wonder what was goin’ on with Debbie Beasley.Lafave: I have definitely found that out.Lauer: Yeah.  And you weren’t aware of that? Lafave: At the time I was so oblivious to everything.  I was in a completely different world.Lauer: Clearly popular with the boys. Is that the way you remember it?

Lafave: I always felt that my little girl students just adore me.

Meeting the boy
Whether or not she was really oblivious to her own charms, Debra had caught the eye of many an adolescent boy at school. One boy in particular... Even though he was not in her class.

Lauer: How did you first meet him?Lafave:  One of my good friends coached the football team.  And I would come out to support him. At that point the student—became aware of my presence, telling me hello—just being you know waving, being silly.

He was a big kid, tall and athletic.

Lauer: At this point you were 23  and he would have been 14.Lafave: Um-hm (affirms).Lauer: And when he would come up and say, “Hi,” was as there anything in you that said—“He seems nice,” or "he’s kinda cute"? Was there an attraction?Lafave:     Well, more or less from an afar like him and his teammates were on the field.  And they would scream, “Hey Miss Beasley!”  And no at that time it didn’t even occur to me that, “Hey, he’s cool" or "Hey he’s a nice guy.”Lauer:   How did the friendship develop then?Lafave: I chaperoned a field trip and he happened to be in my group. 

It was a class trip to Sea World, near the end of the school year in 2004, a time when Debra says her mood swings had become intense.  She and the student talked and got to know each other.  But she says it didn’t amount to much—after all, her husband Owen also went on the trip.

Lauer:  So how did we go from this kind of innocent Sea World trip, field trip with your husband right there and the student there to something more?      Connect the dots for me.Lafave: That’s what I want to know.  That’s why things are so bizarre in my mind because it did go from something so innocent to "bam."Lauer: Well let me stop you for a second.  You should know more than he would know, I imagine, how these dots got connected.  So what was it?  I mean what created this bond between the two of you?Lafave: I think he just became very flirtatious and you gotta remember that at that period in my time—or in my life I didn’t feel like an adult.  I was crashing fast.  Lauer: I would imagine there are parents watching right now Debbie and—Lafave: Yeah.Lauer:  They’re saying, “Wait a minute.  She just said that he became very flirtatious.”Lafave:     Um-hm (affirms).Lauer:   You know (a) Is she blaming him for how this started?  So the answer to that is?Lafave:     No.Lauer: And (b) She was the older one.Lafave:  Absolutely.Lauer: She was the teacher.  She was the role model.Lafave: I did.  I crossed the line that never should’ve been crossed.

In the spring of 2004, near the end of her second year of teaching, the woman her middle-school students knew as Ms. Beasley began to lose control.  Her family and friends say she seemed to morph from a professional 23-year old, into a renegade teenager.

Matt Lauer, NBC: You started smoking, listening to rap music, teachers and other people have said you started to dress extremely provocatively at school, perhaps inappropriately.  Did anyone talk to you?Debra Lafave:  I just shrugged it off.Lauer:  You said—Lafave: You know I felt like the first time I was confident and you know I was beautiful and I was gonna wear nice clothes and do my makeup and do my hair.Lauer: That’s interesting because at the very moment you were standing on the edge of a cliff basically.  Debra, age 23, was spending more and more time with a student, age 14.  She claims he became flirtatious.  As a teacher, she should have known just what to do.  But she did the opposite. Lauer:  As the flirtation continued and I would imagine at some point here, you had to return the flirtation.Lafave: Of course.Lauer: Did the name Mary Kay Letourneau mean anything to you?  You had never heard of her at that point?Lafave: I was pretty young when that happened.

But the rest of the nation knew all about teacher Mary Kay Letourneau. How, in 1996, at age 34, she started an affair with a 13-year-old student.  How she ended up serving seven years in prison. 

Lauer: Did alarms go off in your head that said, “Wait a second.  We’re on a very slippery slope here.  And if I’m not really careful I could get in big trouble.  Not only I could get in trouble I could get him in trouble too.”  Never happened?Lafave: Um-um (negative).  You know, I didn’t think in terms like that.  I didn’t think I was gonna get in trouble. 

Instead, she and the boy drew ever closer.  Without his parents’ knowledge, Debra started driving him to and from his basketball games at a rec center near the school. He later told investigators that on one of these rides Debra revealed, she couldn’t stop thinking about him.

Lauer: Were you aware of anyone talking, raising an eyebrow, anything like that?Lafave: People didn’t approach me with that.  And like I said, I just didn’t care about anybody else.  You know?  I didn’t care I was in a world of my own.

Looking back, Debra now says her mental state was deteriorating... as  her attraction to the boy was growing.

Lauer: Did you and this student have open conversations about the fact that you two might be getting into very dangerous territory?  Lafave: You know there was very little conversation to be honest with you.  You know looking back he was 14, you know what is there really to say to a 23-year-old.Lauer:  What’d you have in common? Lafave:     Nothing.

And yet she was about to take another, much more dangerous step.

Lauer: At one point you invited him to your classroom.Lafave: Um-hm (affirms).Lauer: And you kissed him.Lafave: Yes.Lauer: What did you guys say after you kissed?Lafave: Wasn’t anything to say.  It was, at that point, I just turned into—a little school girl crush. 

But she was no schoolgirl.  She was an adult, a married woman—and he was a child.  Yet she claims that just days after that kiss, on the last day of school, the boy brought a friend to her classroom and took advantage of her.

Lafave: He held me against the wall and proceeded to stick his hand up my shirt to expose my breasts to his friend. Lauer: Did he do this forcefully or did you let him do it?

Lafave: No I didn’t let him do it.Lauer: You’re older than he is. You’re 5’7” as you mentioned.  You’re not slight.Lafave:  Right.  But he was six foot and you know when somebody of that stature holds you against the wall I mean—Lauer: Well what’d you say to him when he did that?  Lafave: If you know I was like, “Stop!  Stop!”  You know.  I was trying to cover up myself.  I felt violated.

The boy later told investigators a completely different story.  That he jokingly asked Debra to flash him.  That she raised her shirt.  That he was never aggressive with her, then or later.  And there’s something else that makes Debra’s story hard to believe.

Lauer: How long after that was it that you actually then had sex with him?Lafave: About a week.Lauer: So that’s a strange leap for a lot of people to understand.  You know here’s a young man who’s done something that you say was completely wrong.  And a week later—Lafave: Well you gotta understand you’ve never been raped. You get caught up in a lot of emotions that are confusing and you don’t understand.  You don’t understand why when somebody does something negative that you like it.  Lauer: Why not say, “Okay, this is not a guy I care about anymore?”Lafave: You know, I love my father.  But for the majority of my childhood into my teenage years, he was emotionally absent.  And the only interaction that—that we really had together was when he scolded me, or if I did something wrong he would get mad at me.  And so at a very early age, I learned to associate—negativity or—lack of emotion with—love.Lauer: Let me play devil’s advocate for a second.  And—and maybe speak for some people who may be screaming at their television sets right now who say—“there are a lot of us who didn’t get the attention we would have liked from our father or our mother.  Who had parent absent or partially absent, who didn’t go out and have sex with a 14-year-old.”Lafave: Right.Lauer: And so this sounds like a pretty good excuse.Lafave: No.  You know, I’m not trying to give excuses.  I came on this show to tell my side of the story.  And all I’m being is truthful.  I’m gonna be the first person to say, yes, it’s my fault, and I’m dealing with that. 

A week or so after the classroom kiss, as summer vacation started, the boy was staying at the home of his cousin in Ocala-- 100 miles north of Tampa.  On June 3rd, while her husband was at work, Debra drove up there.  She picked up the boy and his cousin and took them back to her apartment.  They ordered pizza, and a movie on pay per view.  The title: “Stuck on you.”  Then,  while the cousin watched TV, Debra took the boy upstairs to the bedroom.

Lauer: And what happened there?Lafave: Pretty much it was—oral sex.  Yeah, he wanted it.  And, yeah, I gave it to him.  Because at that point in time, I was already in the mode of wanting to please him.

She wanted to please him... and before it was over, she’d do much more.

They’d been married less than a year... But in June of 2004, Owen Lafave began to have a terrible suspicion about his lovely wife, Debra.

Debra Lafave: He said something along the lines of “I think Debbie’s having an affair,” to my mom.  And he thought it was with one of my fellow teachers.Matt Lauer: He never dreamed it was with one of your students?

Lafave: Never.

But that’s exactly what was happening.  Debra Lafave, a 23 year old reading teacher, was having an affair with a 14-year-old student at her middle school in a suburb of Tampa.  She’d already performed oral sex on him.  Now, ten days later, June 14th, she invited him to help her clean her classroom and crossed yet another line.

Lafave: And that was the first time.Lauer: You had intercourse with him at school?Lafave: Yes.

School was out and Debra grew ever more reckless.  The next day, she drove the student to Ocala, 100 miles north, to visit his 15-year old cousin.  They picked up the cousin at his home.  Debra gave him the car keys.  Then she climbed in back and had sex with the 14-year-old.

Lauer: You had sex with this student while his cousin drove the car.Lafave: Uh-huh (affirms).Lauer: You know—even if he’s not 14 and you’re 23, even if he’s not your student and you’re a married woman, it’s a pretty brazen thing to do.  Were you scared?Lafave: It didn’t even bother me.  And like I said, I am the most modest person even today.  Like if I’m in my bathing suit, I want a cover-up.  Lauer: It seems like there are a lot of contradictions here.  Because—Lafave: Oh, there is.Lauer: —on the one hand you’re saying you’re a modest person, yet you’ve had sex in a car while some—with a 14-year-old while his cousin’s driving. You don’t let your midriff show but there are these photos of you on a motorcycle—you know, posing—Lafave: I think that’s different and I was 18, you know. 

Two days later, June 17th, she and the boy again drove to Ocala and picked up the cousin.  They all went to a park.  While the cousin made a phone call, Debra and the boy again had sex in the back of Debra’s SUV.

Lauer: How did you  explain yourself when you would show up in Ocala?  Here’s a place 100 miles from where you live. How would you explain why you were there?Lafave: Nobody really. I mean, all of his friends that were out there were, you know, high fivin’ him and sayin’, “Oh yeah, she is hot,” blah, blah, blah.  You know, so there was really no one that I saw.  I didn’t know anybody.Lauer: But those friends are going home and telling their friends, "Hey, this young man in question is being visited by his, in your word, 'hot teacher'."  You have to know this story’s gonna get around sooner or later.Lafave: Well, like I said, that’s a fog that I was in.  And the only way that I can describe that is I felt that I was a peer of theirs.

After sex, she took the boys out for smoothies, or shopping.  She was even captured on a store security camera in the briefest of sun dresses, buying a present for her husband with her underage lover and his cousin standing nearby.

Lauer: So it really does sound as if you were very blasé about it.Lafave: I was.  It was like a relationship.Lauer: At any point during sex with this student or after sex with this student did you say, “In the eyes of the law, I just committed rape.”Lafave: No.  I never said that.

But very soon, she’d be hearing it.  Debra had been spotted by the mother of one of the cousin’s friends. She in turn told the cousin’s mom.

Lauer: The cousin’s mom calls the student’s mom and says, “This teacher, this beautiful teacher is hanging out with your son.” Lafave: Uh-huh (affirms).Lauer: When did you find out that you’d been spotted up there and that these phone calls had occurred?Lafave: That day.Lauer: And what’d you do about it?Lafave: Nuthin’.  I met my husband at a bar and we sang karaoke and we had an awesome night.

She also called the boy’s mother to smooth things over. 

Lafave: I was more thinking of it as being a young girl who just got caught with her boyfriend.  And we shouldn’t piss our parents.

But Debra didn’t know that the boy’s mother had already confronted him.  He’d told her about the sex.  She’d called the police.  Soon detectives questioned the boy, confirmed his story, and had him call Debra while they listened in. 

Boy: you enjoyed yourself yesterday, right? (Phone call transcript)Debra: I did.  did you?Boy: yeah.Debra: so it’s not over, over?Boy: nope, not yet.Debra: [name!]  why couldn’t you have just said “no”?  Not yet!  Debra: that kind of sucked. Lafave: You know—clearly to me that sounds very childish.  “It’s not over, over?”  I mean, that’s not something that an adult would say. Lauer: Do you remember making those calls?Lafave: Yeah. 

The detectives had the boy call Debra again, this time to invite her to his house.  She made him promise his mom wasn’t home.

(Phone call excerpt transcript) Lafave: positive?boy: yeah.Debra: Promise?Boy: Yes.Debra: Pinky promise?Debra: Say pinky promise.Boy: Pinky promise.Debra: All right.

When Debra arrived at the appointed time, on June 21, 2004, the police were waiting.  She claims that even then, she was still oblivious to the idea she’d committed a crime.

Lafave: It took about maybe five seconds and my car was surrounded.  And at first, my immediate thought was, “Did I just run a stop sign?”

Debra Lafave, under arrest in Temple Terrace, Fla. for lewd and lascivious battery—legalese that translates this way:  a 23-year-old teacher having sex with a 14-year-old student— a felony with a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

Matt Lauer: Did the world crumble at that moment?  No?  You’re still in this state of—Debra Lafave: I was mad at the fact (laughs) that they wouldn’t let me get my purse out of the car.  In fact, I—I was just so arrogant, just so, “God, I shouldn’t be back here.”Lauer: “I didn’t do anything wrong?”Lafave: Exactly. 

But Debra soon began to grasp the trouble she was in.  During their investigation, police had asked the boy questions to prove that Debra was his sex partner.  He described her tattoos, her tan lines. And another, even more intimate detail.  Now, the police needed photos to verify his descriptions.    

Lafave: They put me in stirrups like you would for—Lauer: A gynecological exam.Lafave: Exactly.  And I can remember just shaking.  And trying as hard as I could to clench my legs together to keep ‘em shut—And in fact, the nurse said, ‘cause I was crying. She said, “Honey, were you raped?”  And I wanted to look at her and say, “Yeah.  I’ve been raped.  I was raped when I was 13, I’m being raped right now.”  Forcing my legs apart and doing that.  It was complete violation.  They could have had—Lauer: It was evidence.Lafave: But you do you understand that they could have had me standing up against a wall, okay?  My legs did not have to be spread wide open like that. 

Those pictures never reached the public domain, but her old modeling shots did.  Within days of her arrest Debra Lafave became one of the most Googled people on the planet—and not everybody thought she was a criminal.

Lauer: There are some people out there who say this is every 14-year-old boy’s fantasy.  Did you hear that?Lafave: Yeah.   I just think it’s stupid.  I can’t even think of any other word to describe it.  I think it’s ridiculous.

Soon authorities in Ocala, where the boy’s cousin lived, filed another set of charges for the sex acts that took place there.  If convicted, Debra now faced up to 30 years in prison.  And she faced the destruction of her marriage.

Lafave:  I spent the night in jail.  And then the next day is when I actually saw him.  So he knew—Lauer: What did he say to you? Lafave: Right away he was just very angry.  I can remember bawling my eyes out. When he was walking out the door, I think I literally grabbed onto his leg and squeezed and he was dragging me on the floor because I just didn’t want him to leave.Lauer: You knew at that moment your marriage was over?Lafave: I knew it by the way that he reacted to it.Lauer: Did you know your career was over?Lafave: Well, they—they told me.  So, yeah.

Debra, the English major wrote a poem about her predicament:

Her restless heart beats abstractly in circles/her wandering mind prays endlessly for miracles...

And it seemed like it would take a miracle to keep her out of prison.  The facts in the case were overwhelmingly against her.  Debra’s attorney, John Fitzgibbons, planned a novel defense.

John Fitzgibbons: Here we have a woman that, by every societal standard, can get a date.  Can get a man.  Yet, she destroyed her career, destroyed her marriage. I believe the only logical reason why Deborah Lafave did what she did was because of her mental illness.

According to three psychiatrists hired by the defense, Debra has bipolar disorder.  Dr. Eric Hollander—who is not associated with the case—is chair of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York City. 

Dr. Eric Hollander, psychiatrist: When women become hypersexual, the number one disorder that seems to drive that hypersexuality in women, is bipolar disorder.

And, Hollander says, if a person with bipolar disorder is mistakenly treated for depression—as Debra says she was—the symptoms can actually get worse.

Hollander: They’ll have more frequent manic episodes, the manic episodes will be more severe, and the impulsive behavior, like the impulsive sexual behavior, can get worse.

It would seem to explain a lot about Debra...  sometimes so depressed she could barely speak and sometimes talking a blue streak.  She was sometimes unable to dress herself, sometimes dressing provocatively.  Sometimes barely able to leave the house, sometimes driving a hundred miles to have sex in the back seat. 

But is bipolar disorder an explanation... or an excuse?

Lafave: You know what, I don’t want to blur the lines between doing something as heinous as what I did, and being bipolar.  But, yes, symptoms of bipolar definitely contributed to my mind frame.Lauer: Did you know what you were doing was wrong? Lafave: At the time, I don’t think I did.  Obviously not because I wouldn’t have done it.

But in his sworn statement to investigators, the 14-year-old said she told him something quite different.

Lauer: Didn’t you say that, “One of the things that turns me on is knowing that I’m not supposed to be having sex with you?”Lafave: You know what, there’s a few comments that I have heard, and this is the first time that I’m speaking out—that are not true, period.Lauer: Okay, so you never said to him, “It’s a turn-on to me because I know we are not supposed to be having sex?”Lafave: Absolutely—no way. I never, ever, ever said that.

Debra Lafave:  blonde, beautiful, bipolar.   Would her explanation be enough to keep her out of prison?

Debra Lafave: It was nerve-wracking still.  Because I really, honest to God I battled with—should I go?  Matt Lauer: So you actually thought, “Should I go to prison?"Lafave: Yeah, pay a debt.  I mean, look, I did this. 

If convicted, schoolteacher Debra Lafave faced up to 30 years in prison for having sex with a 14- year-old student.  Her lawyer planned an insanity defense—but he knew a trial would be risky.

John Fitzgibbons, Lafave's lawyer: It was clear that there were a lot of people that felt there was no crime here.  And, conversely, there were some people that felt it was a horrific crime.

The case ground through the courts for nearly two years.  Debra’s husband Owen divorced her. 

She got engaged to a childhood sweetheart named Andrew Beck. 

Finally, in November, 2005, her lawyer cut a deal with prosecutors in Tampa.  Debra would plead guilty to lewd and lascivious battery, but be sentenced to house arrest.  No jail time.

There were still charges pending in Ocala—and the judge there rejected a plea deal—saying her crime demanded she do time.  He scheduled a trial.

But then—a big surprise.

Lafave: My lawyer, John, called me.  And he said, “They dropped the charges.”  I was like, “What?”  “They dropped the charges, the state dropped the charges.”

The victim’s mother had told prosecutors she did not want her son to have to testify—did not want to put a teenage boy under the hot lights that followed Debra Lafave everywhere.

Fitzgibbons: I think, ultimately, the media intensity was a benefit to us. 

Infamy has its privileges.

Lafave:  I called my fiancé and I was crying and ecstatic.  First I called him crying because they rejected the deal.  And then I called him crying because I was so happy.  It was just like two extremes.(At a news conference)

Lauer: You’ve talked with me at length about the experience you had with rape in middle school. And the impact that has had on your life and your relationships.  So how is what happened to you different than what you did to this 14-year-old boy?Lafave: I think first my rape was a violent rape.Lauer: So because yours was not a violent rape of this student, you think that’s a big difference?Lafave: Well, it’s a difference.  I don’t know if it’s a big difference.  You know, a 14-year-old ten years ago is different than a 14-year-old today.Lauer: Not in the eyes of the law.Lafave: Right.  Not in the eyes of the law. He consented, but I should have been the one to say, “Look.  You are a kid. And this is not a good idea, whether you want it or not.”Lauer: You should have said it on a number of occasions.Lafave: Oh yeah.Lauer: You should have said it when you first started flirting with him.Lafave: Yeah.Lauer: And you clearly should have said it before you had sex with this young man.Lafave: Clearly.Lauer: How do you think this is gonna impact his life? Lafave: I think he’s gonna have a hard time trusting women one day.  I’m sure he has to be living with the guilt of “ratting me out.”  Lauer: By court order, you cannot have any contact with him?Lafave: No.Lauer: What would you say to him if you could see him?Lafave: Oh, God.  I don’t—I don’t even think about him.  And  I definitely would apologize.  I mean, I don’t have anything to say to him.  I don’t have any harsh words or even good words.

Debra’s now on medication to treat bipolar illness.  Under the terms of her plea agreement, she’ll be under house arrest for the next three years on intensive probation for another seven.  She’s not allowed to leave home except for work and essential errands.  She’s a registered sex offender, who’s not allowed to work with children or live within a thousand feet of a school.  She wears an electronic ankle bracelet—her every movement tracked.

Lauer: How long do you have to wear it? Lafave: My probation officer foresees it being the whole 10 years. I’ve kind of gotten used to it.

But house arrest also includes a fenced yard and a swimming pool. 

Lafave: You know I just find a lot of comfort, I’ve planted flowers, and butterflies come to my garden.

It sure beats the alternative of 30 years in jail.

Lauer: You know, you hear some people say, “She should be in prison.”  That if the roles were reversed, and if you were a man who was 24 and had sex with a 13- or 14-year-old girl, you’d be in prison.  How do you feel about that?Lafave: I think I should be in jail.Lauer: You think you should be? Lafave: Yeah.  By the standards, you know, what I did, that’s the law, I should have got jail time.

In the end, even the notorious teacher herself does not know if justice was served.

Lauer: So what is the one thing you want people to know about you?Lafave: That I committed a sex offense.  But I’m not a sex offender, even though I’m labeled as that.   I made a really, really, really bad choice.  Lauer: You don’t see yourself as a predator?

Lafave: It’s hard.  It is so hard because I lived 23 years of my life, knowing who I was.  I was a kindhearted person who loved children, who would never, you know, do anything to break the law.  I was a good person.  And then now everything has just changed.  So it’s just really hard for me to accept that.

By law, Debra Lafave can't profit from her crime, so she can't sell the rights to her story, and has no plans to write a book about the case. She's currently working as a waitress.