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Ex-teacher Ragusa admits to sex with students

TAMPA — She told one teen she could break his shyness. She bought another teen a key chain bearing his and her initials.

On Monday, former teacher Stephanie Ragusa pleaded guilty to having sex with both young men.

The woman known for smiling in her mug shots cried after admitting her crimes in court.

Ragusa's plea came as the first of her trials on multiple sex charges was about to begin. It will now be up to Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe to decide her sentence on June 15.

Prosecutors agreed to seek no more than 10 years in prison and 10 years of probation, or 15 years combined.

Ragusa, who has already spent nearly two years in jail, faced 22 to 45 years in prison if convicted of all charges at trial.

Asked by Tharpe how she pleaded, Ragusa replied: "Guilty in my best interest."

Her attorney, Robert Herce, said the move allows Ragusa to avoid the uncertainty of a jury trial.

"You want to try to mitigate your exposure,'' he said.

Assistant State Attorney Rita Peters said the plea offer "was what justice demanded."

Ragusa's victims, now 17 and 18, were not present. Court documents identified them by only their initials. Peters said they had been ready to testify at trial but supported this resolution.

"They are relieved that this is behind them," she said.

Ragusa, 31, grinned and waved at her father after spotting him in the back of the courtroom Monday morning. But her mood turned somber as Peters rattled off the intimate details of the former teacher's sexual liaisons with two middle school students.

The teens attended Davidsen Middle School, where Ragusa taught special education.

One young man, then 14 years old, had been assigned to push Ragusa's wheelchair around school after she broke her foot. She told him he seemed shy and that she could help him overcome that, authorities said.

That afternoon, she brought him to her apartment. They had sex, the first of three encounters that authorities said took place between October 2006 and May 2007. The teen turned 15 during that time.

Ragusa faced three counts of lewd or lascivious battery in connection with that case. If she had been tried on those charges this week, jurors would have heard a phone call set up by detectives during which Ragusa said her involvement with the teen had been "fun" but "illegal."

They would not have seen steamy text messages exchanged between Ragusa and a second student. Herce successfully argued that the messages were obtained without a search warrant and should not be used at trial.

The plea allows Ragusa to avoid future trials over her relationship with that student, then 16.

Deputies said they had sex about 20 times — encounters that continued even after she had been arrested and told to stay away from him.

Peters said Ragusa bought the teen clothes, named him the executor of her will and professed her love in a letter that the state obtained.

As part of plea negotiations, prosecutors dropped seven counts against her in that case. She pleaded guilty to two counts of unlawful sexual activity with a minor.

Through jail officials, Ragusa declined an interview request Monday. Her father left the courtroom quickly and would not speak with reporters.

"That's his daughter, his only daughter," Herce said later. "He loves her very much . . . just very much wants to have her home."

Attorneys expect a lengthy sentencing hearing. The state is likely to push for prison time.

Herce would no doubt prefer a sentence more in line with the one dealt to former teacher Debra Lafave, who received a combination of house arrest and probation after pleading guilty in 2005 to having sex with a 14-year-old middle school student.

Noting Ragusa's almost two years behind bars, Herce said, "I think comparatively speaking she has served a lot more time than most."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Ex-teacher Ragusa admits to sex with students 04/12/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 12, 2010 10:33pm]
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