Web Unveils Teacher's Lies about Past As Pedophile

By Dan Moffett and Jennifer Peltz
Palm Beach Post
January 10, 1999

The secrets of Walter Weerts' past flashed onto a computer screen with a click, confirming the fears of two of his students.

At the Illinois prison system's Internet Web site, designed to resemble a cell door lock, they had selected the "Find an Inmate" box, typed in his name and learned the truth.

Weerts, the 63-year-old award-winning horticulture teacher at Palm Beach Community College, was also a convicted child molester, a pedophile Catholic priest who had gone to prison for assaulting three boys.

"I almost fell off my chair," said one of the students, who requested anonymity. "I typed the name again to make sure. But his record popped up again. There was no mistake."

In a matter of minutes, the two students had discovered what Weerts had hidden for most of the past decade by passing off his prison term on his resume as a "career transition."

The priest who once supervised him didn't tell all he knew either, giving Weerts a glowing reference. The college accepted what it was told without checking further.

On Dec. 19, within three weeks of the Internet discovery, Weerts resigned, citing "reasons of health," as the college mobilized to fire him for lying.

The man who was about to receive the campus Teacher of Excellence award had fallen fast and hard into disgrace.

In five years, Weerts had tripled the number of horticulture students to 120 and made his department a model for others around the state, educators said. He had launched new courses and specialty programs, and he had made it possible for students to earn a four-year degree through a partnership with the University of Florida's Davie branch.

Weerts had left his mark along every sidewalk and driveway at the Palm Beach Gardens campus, lining them with blooming plants. And he had also made inroads at the county's public schools, teaching at Jupiter High School and giving talks to middle-school classes.

Iron fist in 'Wally's World'

His college students said Weerts ruled "Wally's World," as they called the horticulture program, with a green thumb and an iron fist.

As the fall term progressed, some students and associates began to question Weerts' behavior, and became especially troubled as they watched him with the 8-year-old "adopted grandchild" he called Manny.

The students, some of whom Weerts used as baby sitters, asked that their identities be withheld because they feared reprisals from Weerts, the college or students loyal to their former instructor.

Weerts had met the boy in Las Cruces, N.M., while attending graduate school. Manny had been a regular visitor to Weerts' home on Birmingham Drive in Palm Beach Gardens, spending the summer and holidays there, police authorities said.

The two students who would later track him through the Internet, both of whom are mature and married, said they found it unsettling to see the boy follow Weerts through the campus nursery - and to hear Weerts and the child say they shared the same bed.

Police would later find no evidence Weerts abused Manny.

Nevertheless, one of the students said, "The more we saw of them together, the more uncomfortable it became. But we never had anything concrete to think something could be wrong."

In the classroom, Weerts, known among his students for a quick temper and overbearing manner, grew more explosive. He seemed detached and confused, students said, and once repeated the beginning of his lecture four times during the same class, apparently oblivious to the repetition.

"He just said the same words as if he hadn't been there to hear what had come out of his mouth," one student said. "We thought his health might be declining." Weerts had had a heart attack three years ago.

Weerts would detour into non sequiturs and sexually suggestive remarks, students said. His ramblings held clues to his past.

He often told his classes that he had studied Latin for 10 years and that, while at university in Rome, he had loved going to the soccer fields and watching young boys play. He often used biblical references, students added.

"One day it just hit me all at once," said the student who initiated the Internet search. "The whole picture just flashed together - the Latin, Rome, the playgrounds. This was a pedophile priest."

With that, the students took to the Internet, searching for lists of sexual offenders.

They first tried the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's site but found nothing. Then they moved to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children site. Knowing he was from Illinois, they followed a link to the Illinois Department of Corrections' site, where they quickly found his record.

A few days after their Dec. 4 Internet find, the students took their evidence to college officials and then to the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. PBCC personnel director Ellen Grace said the authorities then asked the college to postpone action until they finished investigating.

The sheriff's office would find "no evidence whatsoever that anything happened to this kid," said Sgt. Jim Stormes.

Repeated attempts to contact Weerts by phone and mail have been unsuccessful. He has moved out of his Palm Beach Gardens home; authorities say he may have left the state.

In the 1980s, Weerts was the priest of two small-town churches in western Illinois and the head of religious education at a Catholic high school. His crime rent the communities, said lawyers who pursued criminal and civil cases against him. Weerts' own lawyer from that time said he didn't remember the details.

Weerts pleaded guilty to sexual abuse, and the victims' lawsuit, which blamed the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., for not preventing the abuse, was settled for an undisclosed amount.

Priest wishes Weerts well

But when Palm Beach Community College contacted Weerts' superior in the diocese, the Rev. Kevin Laughery said Weerts had left because he "changed career," college records show.

Laughery acknowledged he did not disclose Weerts' crimes, though he knew about them. Nor did he mention that the diocese had sent Weerts to the church's rehabilitation center for pedophile priests in Jemez Springs, N.M.

"I answered the questions I was asked," Laughery said last week. "At that point, I was wishing what was best for him."

Weerts' other references came from places he worked after his prison term. Neither reference mentioned his criminal record - and at least one of them didn't know about it. The other did not return phone calls.

For his part, Weerts gave PBCC a resume listing his years in prison as a "period of career transition." Where his 1993 application asked whether he had ever been convicted of a crime, he wrote "No."

Until now, the college has not conducted its own criminal history searches, relying instead on the honesty of applicants and their references. But it now plans to do those searches, Grace said.

The Palm Beach County School District also plans to do its own research on the instructors, such as Weerts, who teach college-credit classes in the public schools, spokesman Nat Harrington said.Until now, it has "relied on the (colleges) to provide people who were quality, qualified people," he said.

After authorities concluded their investigation, PBCC officials confronted Weerts with his deception and said they would fire him, said Grace, PBCC's personnel director. Weerts decided to resign first, Grace said.

It was the end of a remarkable turnaround.

Little more than a decade earlier, prosecutors had asked a judge to sentence Weerts to 30 years. He was sentenced to six and served three, nearly all in Illinois' showcase prison.

A product of the 1960s, the Vienna Correctional Center put rehabilitation ahead of punishment. It didn't have fences, watchtowers or inmate uniforms. But it had courses in topics from surveying to cosmetology, a policy of giving prisoners keys to their own individual rooms and a 72-acre lake where inmates could angle for contributions to a monthly fish fry, said Larry Mizell, the warden when Weerts was there.

"Back then, Vienna was Fantasy Island," Mizell said. "Every opportunity in the world was there for them."

Weerts took advantage of classes in journalism and horticulture, Illinois prison system spokesman Nic Howell said.

The former priest found a new career.

Less than two years after his release, Weerts was working on a master's degree at New Mexico State University, helping research water-conserving methods of landscaping in the desert.

Months after graduation, Weerts won his job at PBCC by giving a panel of professors a sample lesson on maintaining turf. His competition for the job had a doctorate, but Weerts' "teaching skills were most impressive," said committee head Betty Woolfe.

When Weerts took the job and moved to Florida in 1993, he had no legal obligation to inform authorities here that he was a convicted child molester. The state's Sexual Predators Act, which requires the worst offenders to register with the FDLE, does not apply to those convicted before 1993.

Worked 105 hours a week

Weerts was automatically tenured in his fourth year of teaching, Grace said. By the time he left, college records show, he was making $ 38,100 a year as the horticulture program leader - a first-rung administrative post.

Records show he was also paid $ 600 a term to supervise the school's Horticulture Forum, a student club that held immensely popular public plant sales and contracted for projects on and off campus. As the adviser, Weerts oversaw both the projects and the club's finances, reporting periodically to administrators, college spokeswoman Ann Chronic said.

"Nobody would pull a weed in that club until Wally told them how to do it and when to do it," said one club officer who asked not to be identified.

Nurseries and landscapers worked with the Horticulture Forum in joint ventures, donating plants and services. Professionals in the field formed an advisory board to shape the horticulture department's future. Students built a footbridge over a wetlands area Weerts cultivated on campus. He routinely worked 105 hours a week in the greenhouse and nursery, associates said.

"I have to work this hard if I want this program to succeed," he was fond of saying.

"He was very domineering, even with the advisory board," said MarthAnne Mitchell, a master gardener for Palm Beach County and an advisory board member. "He brought in the top people in the county to give him advice, and then he wouldn't listen to them. He always did what he wanted to do. Some of the board members got frustrated. Why waste your time if nobody's going to listen to you?"

Temporary replacements

Weerts' exit makes the club's future uncertain, though the college has found temporary replacements to teach his classes this term, Chronic said. The college expects to have a full-time replacement by fall.

In the aftermath of Weerts' exposure, college and law enforcement officials are assessing what went wrong.

Manny, the 8-year-old boy, has returned to family in Las Cruces, where social workers have interviewed him, according to the New Mexico State Police. The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office asked them for help.

Sgt. Jose Ramirez, the state police investigation supervisor in Las Cruces, said social workers interviewed the child and are continuing to monitor him.

At PBCC, administrators have asked other institutions for advice about doing criminal background checks and how to handle the results.

Under college rules, Weerts could have been fired just for lying about his criminal past. But the nature of his offense made it all the more unacceptable, Grace said.

"I can't say categorically, 'We would never hire anyone who'd been convicted of a felony,' " Grace said, though she couldn't specify an offense the college would be willing to overlook. But, she said, "No one with a background of sexual offenses would be hired, period."


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