x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

How educator's secret went undetected

American drama instructor had plenty to hide from the staff of the American Community School in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // The 25-year-old teacher from the US was an instant hit when he joined the staff of the American Community School in August 2006, teaching drama to children aged 11 to 17. "He was an excellent teacher and had good rapport with the students," said Dr George Robinson, superintendent at the school.

But Richard Neal Willetts had a dark secret. On the web site RateMyTeacher.com, Willetts' former pupils described him as "very affectionate and passionate". The school followed up on his references, and they all checked out. An Interpol check the only external security query faced by someone seeking to live in the UAE turned up nothing. So Willetts was granted residency in Abu Dhabi and began enjoying his new life. He shared details on a blog under the name Bratprince1981.

He posted photographs of himself and stories of his life as a teacher at the American Community School, along with accounts of his travels to Egypt for shopping, Germany for a cultural holiday, Paris for New Year's Eve and Jordan for sightseeing. His colleagues, friends and pupils knew very little of his past, though he hosted an occasional party for his new friends in his one-bedroom flat in Abu Dhabi.

According to his blog, which can still be seen on the internet, Willetts taught 132 pupils which, he said, was the largest number assigned to any teacher at the school. Some of them travelled overseas with him on a school trip. "I'm REALLY looking forward to the trip to Turkey," he wrote in one posting. "I can't quite fathom what it'll be like though [to] have 47 eleven year olds away from their parents for 8 days."

But using the same alias, he is believed to have used the internet to look for homosexual relationships with minors, after bypassing Etisalat's site-blocking security by making his computer appear to be in another country. Back in America, he was under investigation by the FBI after some of his former pupils in Virginia and Hawaii accused him of having sexual relations with them. As the FBI collected evidence, the net he had slipped through to come to the UAE was closing.

When agents were ready to arrest their man, Willetts was lured back to the US on a pretext, as there is no extradition between the US and the UAE. "There was a plot to send him back home," Dr Robinson said. "The FBI could not arrest him here because they do not have that right." Whatever the plot was, it worked. According to his blog, Willetts had planned a return to the US on June 17, 2007, but he brought the trip forward to March.

When he arrived at JFK airport, expecting to be met by friends and family, he was instead greeted by FBI agents, who arrested him and charged him with coercion and enticement of minors. At first, Willetts denied charges that for the previous two years he had tried to coerce eight children online into having sex and posing for photographs. All the children were in the US, although some of his online activities had taken place while he was in the UAE.

In November 2007, in exchange for a lesser sentence, Willetts pleaded guilty to writing sexually explicit e-mails to a 15-year-old pupil at a high school in Hawaii, where he had taught in 2005 and 2006. On December 4, 2007, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. According to a spokesman from the US Department of Justice, Willetts's sentence was reduced in March of this year, and he will be freed in August 2014. After his release, he will be registered as a sexual offender and will not be able to work with children.

At the American Community School in Abu Dhabi, concerned administrators quietly investigated to find out if Willetts had made any advances to pupils here. "As far as we are concerned there was nothing," Dr Robinson said. "His past had simply caught up with him." myoussef@thenational.ae