Saturday, February 24, 2018
News Roundup

Debra LaFave the subject of new biography written by friend and Latin entertainer Zuniga

RIVERVIEW — Joe Zuniga figures he was the right person to tell the story of an attempt at a new life by Debra Jean Beasley Lafave — the blonde, blue-eyed, middle-school teacher who had sex with a 14-year-old student in 2004.

Zuniga, 41, runs a marketing and a fashion company and has achieved success as a writer and performer of Latin music. He is scheduled to appear at 7 p.m. Sunday during the Florida State Fair in Tampa.

But he started out working with his Mexican family on Florida's farms and fields and spent five years in prison for drug trafficking.

He believes in second chances.

Debra Lafave: A Crown of Beauty for Ashes is Zuniga's first book, born of the acquaintance he struck up with Lafave a decade ago through his sister, Cris, 45, when the two worked at a local clinic. Zuniga also attended Ruskin Elementary School with Lafave's older sister, who later died in a crash caused by a drunk driver.

Zuniga, who lives in Riverview, said he got Lafave's okay to write the book and she provided him information for it. But she does not want to read it or do media interviews, he said, because she wishes to maintain her privacy.

His intention in writing the book was not to subject Lafave to more attention and criticism but to expand his audience's knowledge about the rest of her life now that she has grown emotionally and spiritually.

"She is very good-hearted, and she does a lot for other people," Zuniga said.

He said a portion of the proceeds from book sales will go to the nonprofit Ruskin Community Development Foundation.

The 112-page book is at least the third arising from Lafave's tawdry tale. One was Gorgeous Disaster: The Tragic Story of Debra Lafave, written by ex-husband Owen Lafave and published in 2006. The other, published in 2014, was Tampa, the first novel by Alissa Nutting of Ohio, who attended Bloomingdale High School in Valrico with Lafave.

The title of Zuniga's book was inspired by Isaiah 61:3 in the Bible, which encourages comforting others. The whole passage reads, "and provide for those who grieve in Zion — to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair."

The cover of the new book features an image of Lafave, now 36, and a butterfly, symbolizing the transformation toward happiness she has undergone since she remarried and had twins. She lives in Ruskin, helping out her parents at a small business — and breeding butterflies.

Lafave was timid in childhood, according to the book. Throughout her later childhood and adolescence, she experienced trauma including phobias, alimentary disorder and depression. She was raped at 13 and has been treated for bipolar disorder, according to the book.

She always wanted to be a teacher. She taught reading to her Barbie dolls. She graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in English literature and went into teaching.

She met her 14-year-old victim at Greco Middle School.

The boy later told investigators he had sex with Lafave on a number of occasions in June 2004, according to court documents. One time, they were in a car as his cousin drove them around, he told investigators.

After her arrest, Lafave lost her teaching certification and her marriage to Owen Lafave. She could have gone to prison for 30 years but the victim's mother did not want to subject the boy to the national news coverage a trial promised to generate.

Lafave entered a plea deal and was sentenced to house arrest, probation and treatment as a sex offender. A judge ended her probation four years early, in 2014.

"She clearly is sorry for what happened," Zuniga said. "She has remorse for the damage she did to the young man, his family and her family as well, because they also suffered."

Zuniga divides his time between Tampa and Monterrey, Mexico. He grew up listening to music genres such as Tejano, country, R&B, hip hop, merengue, salsa and bachata. Now, he is focused on creating a new grupero style.

He has performed with several Florida bands as a keyboard player and back-up vocalist, and recently recorded his first single, Atado A Tu Amor — Tied to Your Love. He received a Tejano Globe Award for the song.

Zuniga's success traces to turning his life around after prison.

"I was a little boy and I had no experience, especially in the courts, and I was very ignorant of the law and my rights," he recalled.

He apologized at the time to his mother, Maria, and promised her that when he finally was free he would work to become the son she deserved.

"My mom told me that I did not have to apologize for anything — that I have always been a good son to her, that I had made a mistake and nobody is perfect. She was proud of me."

His mother died in January 2015. He graduated in May from the University of South Florida with degrees in economics and political science.

Zuniga identifies with Lafave, he said, because he also made wrong decisions in life. In her case, though, she must continue living with them — checking in with authorities every month as a sex offender and enduring scorn in public from people who still recognize her.

"A lot of people think that they are already free of everything, but to her everything that happened still affects her," he said. "There are always people who make ugly faces."

"For me," he added, "judging is for God."

Contact Daysi Amaya-Danker at [email protected]

Comments
Live blog: 2018 Gasparilla Distance Classic

Live blog: 2018 Gasparilla Distance Classic

The Tampa Bay Times will be there for every step of this year's Gasparilla Distance Classic. Whether you'll be walking, skipping, jogging or sprinting across the 5K, 8K, 15K or half-marathon finish, join us by using #gasparillarun.(function(d, s, id)...
Published: 02/24/18

High school scoreboard for Feb. 23

Friday’s scoreboardSoftballSpringstead 2, Crystal River 0BaseballCalvary Christian 9, Countryside 2Northeast 15, Tarpon Springs 1
Updated: 7 hours ago
Florida Capitol Republicans promise ‘complete investigation’ of what went wrong

Florida Capitol Republicans promise ‘complete investigation’ of what went wrong

TALLAHASSEE — A bombshell that South Florida police ignored tips that a teenager was planning an assault on a school and then failed to stop him when he attacked seems destined to complicate the election-year discussion around mass shootings.Even in ...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Top Justice official alerted White House 2 weeks ago to ongoing issues in Kushner’s security clearance

Top Justice official alerted White House 2 weeks ago to ongoing issues in Kushner’s security clearance

WASHINGTON — A top Justice Department official alerted the White House two weeks ago that significant information requiring additional investigation would further delay the security clearance process of senior adviser Jared Kushner, three people fami...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Indiana man killed, two hurt as boats collide on Little Manatee River

Indiana man killed, two hurt as boats collide on Little Manatee River

RUSKIN — Arthur D. Showley, 75, went fishing early Friday morning, something he did two or three times a week, friends said. When they saw his car and trailer still parked near a community boat ramp at 2 p.m., they thought that was strange."He never ...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Here are the GOP’s responses to the Parkland massacre. Would any have worked?

Here are the GOP’s responses to the Parkland massacre. Would any have worked?

Gov. Rick Scott and Republican leadership in the Florida Legislature have rolled out their ideas for change in response to the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. But would these measures have made a difference in the worst mass...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Former Florida congressmen say gun control measures need to go much further

Former Florida congressmen say gun control measures need to go much further

TAMPA — A bipartisan pair of former congressmen spoke Friday about gun safety measures that are more drastic than those being considered following the Parkland school shootings, and about hopes for a national youth movement comparable to the 1960s an...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Restricting bullets rather than guns might cut toll of school shootings, some experts say

Restricting bullets rather than guns might cut toll of school shootings, some experts say

This is the sad new math in the age of school slaughter.If one student comes to school with a firearm and 10 ammunition magazines filled with 30 bullets each, and another comes with a firearm and 30 magazines filled with 10 bullets each, who can crea...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Epilogue: Lee Davis, businessman and adventurer, survived many a scrape

Epilogue: Lee Davis, businessman and adventurer, survived many a scrape

TAMPA — Friends and family have a saying about Lee Thornton Davis Jr. Once you met him, even for just a moment, you knew him forever."He was the most outgoing person I’d ever met," Dick Greco said, which is something coming from Tampa’s gregarious, 8...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Edward Peachey demands severance from CareerSource before stepping down

Edward Peachey demands severance from CareerSource before stepping down

The head of the Pinellas and Hillsborough career centers under multiple investigations into the way they report job placement figures says he has no intention of stepping down.That’s unless he is paid five months severance.In a letter from his attorn...
Published: 02/23/18